Denis LeBlanc, who was my friend as well as a pioneer in the struggle for gay rights, died Jan. 16 after a lifetime of achievements in making the world a less treacherous place for HIV+ and LGBTI people.
Denis worked as a contributor and editor for the Erasing 76 Crimes blog soon after it began in 2012, writing and editing both in English and French. He was instrumental in the launch of the affiliated 76 Crimes en français blog in 2014, which extended the blogs’ LGBTI rights advocacy to Francophone readers.
Denis also was the editor for the blogs’ in-depth English-language compilation of information about HIV and the French-language “Resources and networks dealing with LGBTI rights and AIDS / HIV.”
On the blogs and elsewhere, he worked as an investigator rooting out homophobia-induced neglect of sexual minorities and other at-risk populations in the African fight against HIV and AIDS.
In 2013, Denis campaigned through e-mails to anti-AIDS officials and through articles on his own blog, exposing the fact that NGOs targeting high-risk communities in Cameroon were allocated an average of barely $400 each for six months of AIDS-fighting work. In response, Cameroon changed its approach and allocated $6.8 million for AIDS prevention among at-risk communities.
Denis remained a contributor to the blogs in recent years even as his emphysema slowed him down and he assumed the role of editor emeritus.
His work with the French- and English-language blogs came toward the end of a lifetime of activism, which included roles as:
Co-author of “Gays and the Law” (1973)
Founding member of the Coalition for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Ontario (1975) and the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Rights Coalition.
Worker adviser in the Office of the Worker Adviser at the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
Constituency assistant at the Canadian Parliament and in Ontario’s provincial parliament.
Editor and contributor, GO INFO (1982-1988), a monthly newspaper for the LGBT community in Ottawa.
President of Egale (1992-1994), Canada’s national LGBTQ rights organization.
Grand marshal for Ottawa Pride (1994).
Global liaison and coordinating committee member for the U=U project of the Prevention Access Campaign. The focus of the Undetectable = Untransmittable campaign is to “clarify and disseminate the revolutionary but largely unknown fact that people living with HIV on effective treatment do not sexually transmit HIV.”
In 2003, Denis was inducted into the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive’s National Portrait Gallery, where he was honored as one of the most respected gay activists in Canada.
In an article about that honor, Marie Robertson, member of the National Portrait Committee and coordinator of the 2003 induction ceremony, called Denis “one of the most amazing gay men in the country.” She said, “He was there from the beginning. Denis was basically a born an activist. The whole country owes him an incredible debt.” That article in Xtra described Denis’ background and some of his achievements as of 16 years ago:
He became the first openly gay candidate for Ottawa City Council in 1985, defeated by only 36 votes, and helped steer Egale Canada through a difficult transition, establishing a formal mandate and structure, as president from 1992 to 1994. Out since 1971 and HIV-positive since at least 1988, LeBlanc has also been an important example for others.
“I was very lucky in the sense that I grew up in a minority community,” says LeBlanc, an Acadian who grew up in Moncton.
“I knew what it was to be in a minority community, to have to struggle for one’s rights.”
Although he recognized his homosexuality at a young age, LeBlanc couldn’t come out until he “escaped” to the University of Waterloo. There he found a supportive lesbian and gay community and a new focus for his activism.
“Once I came out I didn’t pay much attention to school,” LeBlanc explains. “I really needed to catch up on lost time and I basically just focussed on gay stuff. I just did everything.”
In 1972, LeBlanc brought this energy and activism to Ottawa. Gays of Ottawa became his main focus. He was active on virtually every committee, served on the Board of Directors for 10 years, as vice-president in 1973 and president in 1975.
A 2014 article in Xtra about the Canadian law that decriminalized homosexuality noted:
“Denis LeBlanc was just 18 years old in 1969, the year then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau finally succeeded, at least on paper, in removing the state from the bedrooms of the nation with the passing of Bill C-150. Leblanc was living in Moncton in a strict Catholic family at the time; it would be another three years before he reached the age of 21. Until then, as he puts it, he was jailbait….
“I think what was really important about decriminalization was that it gave us freedom. We didn’t have to be afraid of getting arrested for being who we are,” Denis LeBlanc says. “I mean, it sounds so basic, doesn’t it?”
Emboldened by the new law, LeBlanc dedicated much of his life to activist work — he was involved with Gays of Ottawa (GO), the city’s first organized gay movement, as well as EGALE and the Aids Committee of Ottawa. As part of GO LeBlanc’s focus was on breaking isolation and bringing people together. “We had these wonderful monthly dances that were bigger than any of the clubs, and that went on for 10, 15, 20 years, I think, in Ottawa. It funded the movement.”
He recalls going out with glue buckets and plastering construction boards with dance posters, hitting neighbourhoods where he knew other LGBT people lived in an effort to make Ottawa’s gays more visible to each other. “It was also getting the word gay out,” he says. “We were wanting the people of this city, at least, to know what the word gay meant.”
Jamaican-Canadian LGBT rights activist Maurice Tomlinson, who himself sometimes seems to be in perpetual motion as an advocate for the rights of sexual minorities, considered Denis a mentor as well as a friend.
In Belize, LGBT rights activist Caleb Orozco, whose lawsuit overturned that country’s anti-gay law, described Denis as a man with “crazy heart and strength.”
As for me, I am in awe of his achievements, proud to count him as a friend and sad that I can no longer reach out to him for his wise advice and resolute encouragement.