Passages of Artists and Activists in 2008

Published in: January-February 2009 issue.


As is our annual tradition, we remember the lives and accomplishments of some notable members of the GLBT community and allies who died during the past year.

Paula Gunn Allen, a prolific poet, novelist, and literary scholar, died after a long illness on May 29, 2008, at age 68, in Ft. Bragg, California. Born in New Mexico and originally named Paula Marie Francis, her mother was Native American and her father, who had served as New Mexico’s lieutenant-governor, was Lebanese-American. She received her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly work included studies in the area of two-spirit Native Americans. Her anthology Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983) helped lay the foundation for the study of Native American literature. While in a heterosexual marriage at one time, she was active in the gay and lesbian communities in California and taught at UCLA during the 1990’s.

Allan Bérubé, notable gay historian and author of Coming Out under Fire (1990), died on December 11, 2007, at age 61, in Liberty, New York. The May-June, 2008 issue of this magazine carries an essay in tribute by John D’Emilio.

LeClair Bissell, a physician known for her work on addiction, died on August 20, 2008, at age 80, in Connecticut. Born in Virginia, she graduated from Columbia and started her career as a librarian at New York Public but continued on to medical school. She was open about being a recovered alcoholic. An internationally known pioneer in addiction research, she was a prolific writer of scientific journal articles and textbooks on the topic, especially the field of the impaired healthcare provider. Among her accomplishments was creating the first university hospital-based alcohol rehab unit in the U.S. A philanthropist, she was active in a number of progressive and GLBT organizations and received numerous honors for her life’s work. She was predeceased by her partner of 48 years, Nancy Palmer.

John Burnside, a scientist and gay activist who partnered with the late Harry Hay, died of cancer on September 14, 2008, at age 91, in San Francisco. Born in Seattle and a graduate of UCLA, he invented the teleidoscope, a variation on the kaleidoscope, during his tenure as a scientist at Lockheed. In 1963, at a gay community center in LA, he met Harry Hay, one of the major figures in the early gay rights movement and founder of the Mattachine Society. Married at the time, Burnside got divorced and moved in with Hay. Two years later the two men helped form the Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile. Always active in gay rights as well as peace and justice organizations, he and Hay, who died in 2002, were featured in the films Word Is Out (1977) and Hope Along the Wind (2002).

Joseph H. Fields, a musician and conductor, died after a brief illness on July 4, 2008, at age 53, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Born in Oklahoma, he received a doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, and later became executive director of the Brooklyn Music School and a music teacher at Marywood University. As music director and principal conductor of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which toured around the world, one of his great successes was the orchestration and arrangement of the Lincoln Center Festival premier of the ballet St. Louis Woman in 2003. He is survived by his partner Ron Melichar.

Del Martin, cofounder of the Daughters of Bilitis (with her life partner Phyllis Lyon) died in San Francisco at age 87. An homage by Martha E. Stone appears in the November-December, 2008, issue of this magazine.

John Buscemi Montana, a pioneering AIDS doctor, died of cancer on September 29, 2008, at age 61, in New York. A graduate of New York Medical College, he was one of the first physicians to treat AIDS patients, beginning in 1981. As an advisor to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, he generously donated both time and money to GLBT and AIDS-related organizations in New York, where he maintained a practice in Greenwich Village until a year before his death. He co-authored a number of articles in major medical journals on AIDS-related topics. The death of his lover Jimmie Jackson in the early days of the epidemic inspired him to devote his life to fighting AIDS.

Thomas Morgan III, prize-winning journalist and gay activist, died of complications from AIDS on December 24, 2007, at age 56, in Southampton, Mass. Born in St. Louis, he received a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and worked as a reporter at The Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, where he was also an editor. He was the first openly gay president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and later assisted in the founding of its GLBT Task Force in 2005. The recipient of numerous national honors for his work in journalism, he retired from the Times in 1994 to devote himself to AIDS advocacy. He is survived by Tom Ciano, his partner of 23 years.

Liam O’Gallagher, prominent avant-garde artist, died on December 4, 2007, at age 90, in Santa Barbara. He was born in Oakland, California as William Gallagher but changed after visiting relatives in Ireland. An art teacher who had studied with the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, he was an avant-garde multi-media artist who hosted Beat writers at his San Francisco studio and was heavily involved with hippies and psychedelia in the subsequent decade. He was also active in theatre and dance and wrote several books, including The Blue Planet Notebook (1972) and Planet Noise (1969). Described by one art critic as a “visual poet,” he is survived by his partner of 58 years, Robert S. Rheem.

Reginald Shepherd, a prominent poet and essayist, died of cancer on September 10, 2008, at age 45, in Pensacola, Florida. Rising from a culturally rich but poverty-stricken childhood in New York, he received degrees from Bennington, Brown, and the University of Iowa. He taught at a variety of colleges, received a Guggenheim fellowship, and was a widely published poet (his poem “Pleasure” appeared in The January-February 2003 issue of this magazine). His essay “On Not Being White” was included in the ground-breaking anthology In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986). A volume of poetry and an essay collection will be published posthumously. He is survived by his partner Robert Philen.

Michael Shernoff, a psychologist and advocate for gay mental health, died of cancer on June 17, at age 57, in New York. He received his social work degree from SUNY-Stony Brook and taught social work at Columbia. A psychotherapist who organized safe-sex workshops in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he wrote about the emotional toll that AIDS takes on gay men. Having lost his brother to AIDS early on, he lived with the disease since 1982. A prolific writer of books and essays for both professional and lay audiences (including this magazine), he wrote on such topics as losing one’s partner, Internet cruising, crystal meth, steroids, and unsafe sex. He is survived by his partner of nine years, John Goodman.

Jason Shinder, poet and anthologist, died of cancer on April 25, 2005, at age 52, in New York. A graduate of Skidmore College and UC–Davis, he founded several important literary centers. His most recent critical anthology was 2006’s The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later. He taught at a variety of graduate writing programs, was a fellow at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC), and was named the poet laureate of Provincetown in 2006. A posthumous collection of his work is forthcoming from Greywolf Press.

Larry Townsend died on July 29, 2008, at age 77, in L.A. The prolific novelist of gay leather fantasias was remembered by Alistair Williamson in the November-December 2008 issue of this magazine.

Jonathan Williams died on March 16, 2008 at age 78, in Highlands, North Carolina. The photographer, poet, and essayist was memorialized by Jim Cory in the May-June issue.

Sources: The Boston Globe, Contemporary Gay American Poets and Playwrights (2003); Gay and Lesbian Biography (1997); Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1995): Greywolf Press online; LA Times online; Lesbian Connection; News-Press (Ft. Myers, FL) online; New York Times online; Pensacola (FL) News Journal online; Provincetown Banner;; UCLA Newsroom online;