David Shannon '79: Champion of HIV Activism and Community Voice

An article in The Gazette (March 18, 2024) "Why HIV cases — and syphilis — have risen sharply in Montreal" references the late journalist David Shannon '79, a pioneer and spokesperson for the gay-rights movement. Brothers Craig Shannon '71, Chris Shannon '75 and sister-in-law Kristin Shannon also talk about the role David played and his leadership. David died in 2018. Members of the Selwyn House community will attend David's Disco, a fundraiser in Toronto on March 22.
The excerpt below is from The Gazette article written by Susan Schwartz. Read the full story here. Photo courtesy of Chris Shannon.
"The death toll from AIDS was mounting in 1989 when Montreal hosted the fifth international Global AIDS Conference and protesters from local activist groups and the New York City-based organization ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — disrupted the opening ceremony. Their action was considered by many a watershed for HIV activism and research — a signal that scientists could no longer ignore patients’ voices.
"Among those storming the stage that June day was 27-year-old Montrealer David Shannon, a journalist and political activist who had become a leader, if a reluctant one, in Montreal’s gay-rights movement at a crucial time in its history.
“In Montreal the crucible years of queer activism were 1989 to 1994 and, during that time, David was one of the important central figures in the trenches. We all owe him a lot,” said Burnett.
"Recalled Chris Shannon, one of David’s four brothers: “When AIDS was a scourge for people who were marginalized and pushed aside by their families, government and health care, David was one of the primary spokespeople in the country. I look at him as being almost a historical figure now.”
"David died in 2018 of liver cancer in Toronto. Casey House, where he died, had been founded in 1988 as an AIDS hospice by journalist and social activist June Callwood and other volunteers. As HIV evolved, its role expanded: In 2016 Casey House established a 14-bed hospital and today an outpatient clinic offers a wide range of services to hundreds of clients living with HIV or at risk for HIV.
"The inaugural edition of a fundraiser to support the compassionate and judgment-free health care Casey House provides was inspired by David and dreamed up by his eldest brother, Craig Shannon, and Kristin Shannon, Craig’s wife. David’s Disco, to take place March 22 in Toronto, is billed as a night of dancing and drag.
"The goal, said Kristin, is “to honour a man we should have honoured more when he was alive and to acknowledge a problem that has, sadly, not gone away.”
"David became known in Montreal’s LGBTQ community for the Homo Show, the radio program he hosted on CKUT, McGill University’s campus community radio station, and his column for the Montreal Mirror newsweekly, Out in the City. He co-founded AIDS Community Care Montreal and the Montreal chapter of ACT UP.
"In his column, “David took on politicians and doctors who were marginalizing people and he became very much their voice,” said Chris Shannon, the head of school at Lower Canada College.
"The column, recalled Montrealer Earl Pinchuk, who met David in 1990 through ACT UP, “gave people a sense of community.
“David was eloquent and smart and I looked up to him as a leader. I was in awe of him.”
“One message David kept trying to drive home was the need to protect oneself,” said Burnett. “In those days HIV was still a death sentence and he and I knew a lot of people who had HIV/AIDS and we saw a lot of them die over the years.”
"In the west at the height of the HIV/AIDS global epidemic, gay men were the most affected: By 1995, 10 per cent of the 1.6 million men aged 25 to 44 in the U.S. who identified as gay had died.
“I think David would be heartbroken today to see the numbers rising when they should not be,” said Burnett. “He would be angry that people are still dying from HIV/AIDS and he would be horrified. It is completely unnecessary.”