UPDATE – Nov 28: Twenty years ago Gerald Hannon described himself as a satisfier of human need, whatever that need may be, in a poetic love letter to sex work.
He read the essay on stage at his retirement party Bone Weary: A Fond Farewell to the Sex Trade at Goodhandy’s Nov 25.
“Prostitution has been the splendid discovery of my middle years,” he says.
Nov 27: As Gerald Hannon cheerily welcomed friends to his retirement party at Goodhandy’s Nov 25, video of a younger Hannon, wearing only a balaclava while masturbating, appeared on a screen behind him.
The backdrop to Hannon’s party, Bone Weary: A Fond Farewell to the Sex Trade, included a video montage of images from Hannon’s life during his years as a sex worker, put together by friend and video artist Peter Kingstone.
“They’re not all of me jerking off,” Hannon grinned. “There’s soft-core videos, art films, gay wrestling. There’s another of me on a pogo stick. I’m fully clothed in that one.”
The party was also a fundraiser for Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Hannon says supporting sex worker rights is urgently important because Canadian courts will soon discuss decriminalization.
Last year, Ontario Justice Susan Himel struck down three key anti-prostitution laws — communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdyhouse and living on the avails of the trade. The judge ruled that the laws made prostitution more dangerous.
The federal and Ontario governments are now appealing that landmark ruling, arguing there is no obligation to maximize the safety of sex workers because it is not a constitutionally protected right to engage in the sex trade.
Hannon says women and trans sex workers are most at risk, especially those on the street. He says it’s important to support Maggie’s as the fight heads to the Supreme Court. “The ridiculous laws around sex work make it really dangerous,” he says.
“I’m having this party because sex work is associated with shame. I wanted to have a party that was about celebration . . . 15 years ago I lost a teaching job for honesty and a complete lack of shame.”
In 1995, Hannon, an award-winning writer and Ryerson University professor, found himself at the centre of a media circus after the Toronto Sun revealed that he worked in the sex trade. “Ryerson Prof: I’m a Hooker,” screamed the Sun cover at the time.
A media-generated panic erupted around him just as another controversy was winding down, he says. Hannon’s 1977 Body Politicarticle “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” led to a prolonged legal battle that ended in victory for the paper in 1983. “Ryerson had completed an investigation and determined I was not teaching pedophilia. I was teaching journalism.”
The 1995 art film Symposium, by Toronto director Nik Sheehan — in which Hannon autobiographically plays a sex worker and is featured in a sex scene with a young client — landed on the desk of a Toronto Sun reporter.
“[The reporter] knew the film is based on people’s real-life stories, so he called me up and asked if I was a prostitute,” Hannon says. “I did agonize for a second. I remember the hell I went through before. I had to go to the doctor and get sleeping pills. It was awful. So I wondered if I should tell the truth.
“I’m not ashamed of this. Close friends at Ryerson knew. My boss didn’t know.”
Everything changed the next day when the Sun hit newsstands.
“There were death threats. That was the worst. I had to be escorted to the class by security. Curtains had to be pulled in case there was a sniper. Students had to be allowed in one by one. Once inside, the door had to be locked to the classroom with a security guard standing outside. Then they expected me to teach.
“People accosted me on the street. Other people hugged me on the street, which is almost scarier . . . I had a lot of support from students and friends.” A group of supporters assembled to form the Committee to Defend Gerald Hannon.
Hannon regrets not using the media frenzy as a teaching moment to discuss the larger issues with his students, like sex worker rights and sensational journalism.
“It was all happening in black and white terms, in a moralistic context,” he says. “It was all ‘whores are bad.’ I’m a teacher. And I was corrupting young minds. I felt like Socrates at the end . . . These were not kids; they were teens and 20s.”
On stage at his party, Hannon spoke affectionately about his time as a sex worker. Over the years, he says, he brought men out of the closet, saved marriages and met remarkably interesting people, some of whom fell in love and showered him with gifts. “Whores always have a million stories,” he says. “I will always be a prostitute at heart.”
The black and white clip of Hannon masturbating was shot for an evening with Canadian pop band The Hidden Cameras in 2001, Kingstone says. “No one has actually ever seen it before.”
In the video, Hannon and five others masturbate while wearing balaclavas over their faces. It was shot to play behind the band as they performed, but at the last moment one of the masturbating band members changed his mind because his mom showed up at the performance. “He didn’t want his mom to see him masturbating on video,” says Kingstone.
Read Hannon’s advice for young journalists: “Sex work can be a smart money-making option.”