“We…will not endure these waves of dying friends, without a cry,” Canadian AIDS activist Michael Lynch wrote in his 1989 poem “Cry.” And the late poet and professor certainly did not.
Though he died at just 46 years old, Lynch made a lasting impact with his work kick-starting AIDS education and support and leaving a legacy of hope that carries on today — 25 years after he succumbed to the disease that he fought until the end.
“Michael played a pivotal role organizing in the gay community when the AIDS crisis first hit in the early 1980s,” journalist Ann Silversides writes in her memoir of her cousin Lynch, “AIDS Activist: Michael Lynch and the Politics of Community.”
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“He had already played a leadership role in the movement for gay liberation in 1970s, so he was well known and politically experienced. When the epidemic hit, he helped set up important organizations — the AIDS Committee of Toronto and, a few years later, AIDS Action Now! He was also the driving force behind the AIDS Memorial in Toronto.”
The disease, after all, was a personal one for Lynch long before he battled it himself. Lynch came out after he and his former wife Gail moved to Toronto from Iowa, along with their son Stefan, in 1971. He moved for his job as an English lecturer at the University of Toronto.
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And he lived in fear of AIDS as he lost friend after friend to it.
“My poems,” the North Carolina native told one interviewer, “deal with loss and the kind of anger that comes out of losing so many people where there’s still a sense that we just don’t need to, or that this is a period in history where we should be able to stop this.”
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Lynch was the first professor in Canada to teach a gay studies course, and he founded the Toronto Gay Academic Union, the Gay Fathers of Toronto, and the Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Lynch was also “one of the first to write critically about AIDS,” according to the “Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).
“Under Lynch's guidance, the gay community clearly took a leadership role in the early part of the emerging epidemic. Ultimately, it was not the health authorities but the gay community, through [the AIDS Committee of Toronto], that undertook the first education and safer sex campaigns,” according to the CMAJ, noting the academic’s frequent articles in the Toronto gay liberation journal “The Body Politic.”
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Lynch recognized, after all, the importance of coming together in crisis. “We are hardly the first community to face suffering and death on a large scale,” he wrote of the “battered, embattled, beleaguered, fearful, mourning, longing, and tired” urban gay community. “But we are having to learn a lot about terminal illness, unspeakability and death awfully fast.”
His HIV diagnosis only added fuel to that fire. Lynch’s son Stefan told NPR in 2010 that the activist and his pals “modeled for me how to survive an epidemic, even if you were dying while doing it.”
This model behavior wasn’t just for show either. When Lynch came out as HIV positive during a CBC-Radio documentary on “AIDS and the Arts,” he said, “I am HIV-positive, and a lot of people I know have tested that way and we know very well that tomorrow we could wake up and there’s a lesion or something.”
That mortality as a reality, Lynch continued, “adds, as one might expect, a little urgency. It also, though, invigorates. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so invigorated in just day to day life, and the writing comes into that…You want what few words that you leave there to matter.”
And clearly, they have.
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