Gerald Hannon, the media, and moral panic: 1977-1995

by Rick Bébout, Toronto, November 1995

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This is a chronicle of non-events.

In the late '70s and then nearly two decades later in the mid-1990s, stories essentially the same and involving some of the same key players gripped the local media and made national headlines. For all the wash of "news," in neither case did anything truly new actually happen. The subject both times was timeless: sex and power as we live it from day to day - good, bad, ambiguous; but mostly unspoken.

This everyday reality becomes news only when, in the interest of some power of the moment, it is useful as a source of shame or uncertainty or fear, and - in response to any of those emotions - righteous vengeance or cringing retreat. This is what some of us, if not yet enough of us, have come to recognize as a moral panic.

Something challenging is said, usually in a marginal venue and for a time not much noticed. Then, when its notice might serve other agendas, the mass media pick it up. Any nuance in what was actually said is lost in sound bites and headline-ese: "sex mag," "kiddie porn" - in this latest case, even "prof." Hot-button words are repeated again and again and again, beating down thought, until even those who know better fall into the jargon of panic and scandal. Attempts at reason become further evidence of depravity: an intellectual con game, an affront to "common sense."

If that original venue was graced by even a dollar of public funding, we soon see incite ment of wrathful "taxpayers." Official action is urged and officials, citing the grave burdens of public duty, rattle their various chains. Journalists, administrators, politicians and police say they are simply doing their jobs and have, of course, no other agenda.

Everyone says they defend the right of free speech - careful to distance themselves from its disgusting exercise - and then tries to make sure there's no place left to speak anything disturbing or dangerous or true.

Both times, in these particular cases, one of the speakers was Gerald Hannon. I have to tell you I know him. I've known him for more than twenty years. I served with him from 1977 as a member of the collective that produced a paper called The Body Politic, which you'll find as a player below; serve with him still at Pink Triangle Press, publisher of that paper until 1987 and now of other papers, Toronto's Xtra among them. Gerald is on the Press's board of directors and I, as of this writing, am a member of its staff. All the events chronicled below are ones we went through together.

I tell you this not to cover my ass by declaring bias in the face of media objectivity - but to assert that such objectivity does not exist. It never has, never will and never can. Fairness and accuracy are legitimate journalistic goals - if, as we know and will see here, most often honoured in the breach. But "objectivity" is never more than a fraud, a lie denying the particular places of our lives in the world, a cover for biases so complete that they become completely invisible - except to those who stand outside them. All of us at our best can stand apart from prevailing myths, can see them as things made, not things inescapably "real." Some of [us -- RB / 17/5/97] are specially privileged: our lives force on us - even if in fear we force them aside - truths that others can decide not to see; truths that they can in fact insist no one see.

In both 1977 and 1995, the truth so frantically suppressed - so frantically because it's so frighteningly obvious - is that feelings emotional, physical, sensual and even sexual do not usually hold off their arrival until the moment of some legally defined age of consent. Everyone - absolutely everyone - knows this: one cannot be human and not know it. We all know and remember but can choose to forget: because sensuality explored may have been abused; because sexuality may have been imposed, not sought; because, even when freely chosen and expressed, desires may have had unimagined consequences on our lives in a censorious world. And even if that's not what happened, even if we have seen or found love, care, health or strength in relationships publicly reviled and hysterically suppressed - well, we must not say.

In the late '70s we mostly did not say. In sensible defence, we turned the issue into freedom of the press, freedom of speech - and then, to be politic, mostly stopped speaking. The "kid-sex" card stayed in our opponents' hand, to be played at their convenience. Now nearly two decades later they have played it again - and we talk about academic freedom. That's a vital cause, one that many are ready and willing to fight for. But Heather Bird is right: that's not the issue, or not the only one. Certainly not the toughest one.

Look now for nervous people to say, as they said in 1977: Do we really have to talk about that? Look for them to say: Why is that damned Gerald Hannon causing us all this grief again? - as if Judy Steed and The Toronto Sun had been mere reporters of his antics. Can't we just put unpleasant realities aside and get on with gay rights? This will set back the cause - and everyone knows (even Gerald Hannon, so Bronwyn Drainie implies in her November 30 Globe column) that that cause is the "achievement of a certain middle-class respectability," the messier truths we know about sexuality a thorn in our sides, tough issues, embarrassing questions - and real lives- to be plucked out and thrown away.

We may yet try to throw them away, put out with the rest of the trash. We may hope it will all end up buried in some landfill. But, believe me, the garbage-pickers will get to it first.