Pioneering LGBT activist Dr. Walter Lear, 87

Dr. Walter Lear, one of Philadelphia’s most renowned LGBT leaders and the region’s first out public official, died May 29. He was 87.

Lear had been in Keystone Hospice and died from kidney failure stemming from multiple myeloma, a bone cancer he was diagnosed with four years ago.

The cancer had gone into remission but returned last year and, shortly after beginning treatments, Lear suffered a stroke that affected his vision and mobility and left him unable to continue with his cancer treatments.

For decades, Lear was at the forefront of civil-rights, health and LGBT activism, both nationally and locally, and was influential in the founding of many current Philadelphia LGBT community agencies.

Lear was born in 1923 in New York City and grew up in Miami before heading north to earn his bachelor of science degree in 1943 from Harvard University. Three years later, he attained his medical degree from the Long Island College of Medicine and a master’s degree in health administration from Columbia University’s School of Public Health in 1948.

Lear began his relationship with partner James Payne in 1953, and the two were still together at the time of his death.

Lear worked for several years at the U.S. Public Health Service, then moved to Philadelphia in 1964 to become the city’s first deputy health commissioner, a position he held until 1971.

Lear was appointed as the commissioner of health services for the Philadelphia metropolitan region for the Pennsylvania Department of Health during Gov. Milton Shapp’s administration throughout the 1970s. In 1984, Mayor Wilson Goode named Lear to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, the first openly gay member to join the agency.

Lear came out publicly in 1975 after participating in a forum at the University of Pennsylvania run by Gays at Penn to commemorate the life of LGBT activist Howard Brown.

“We organized a memorial event at Penn and Walter was then the commissioner of health for Southeastern Pennsylvania, and we knew he knew Howard and that he was known to be gay but he wasn’t out publicly at the time,” said longtime friend John Mosteller. “Walter agreed to speak and what happened as a result was that he went through a real kind of trial internally and emotionally about whether he should come out, and ultimately he did. And that’s when his gay-activist career started and he founded the Gay Caucus of the American Public Health Association and then it was just kind of onward from there.”

Lear helped launch such agencies as the Penguin Place and Lavender Health Project — the predecessors of the William Way LGBT Community Center and Mazzoni Center — as well as the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force and the local chapter of the Radical Faeries. He was also an active member of ACT UP and fought for the successful passage of the LGBT-rights bill in Philadelphia City Council, which was approved in 1982.

Chris Bartlett, a friend and associate of Lear since the 1970s, said that while Lear’s tangible actions for the LGBT community were significant to its growth, his decision to work as an out physician was equally important.

“He was an openly gay doctor before that was done,” Bartlett said. “That must have been a very scary thing for him to do in the ’70s, but he did it. I’ve spoken to a number of other doctors who were so encouraged by his example.”

Lear’s community organizing traces back to the 1950s, when he began advocating for health care and patients’ rights, as well as working against racism.

“He was very, very motivated to address injustices he saw in the world,” Mosteller said. “He was focused, which helped to make it possible for him to stay on a project even in the midst of political wrangling. He had a great deal of patience for the bureaucratic process because he was so driven and cared so much about the downtrodden.”

As a founding member and officer of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Lear was one of 30 doctors who picketed the 1963 conference of the American Medical Association in Atlantic City because of the agency’s segregation policies, and a photo of Lear taken at the event garnered national media attention.

His health activism also led him to become a founding member of such agencies as the Maternity Care Coalition and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Lear founded the Institute for Community Health and Social Medicine from his Powelton home, an agency that worked to document the progress of health activism and provide guidance to community organizers.

“He wanted to integrate the work that was being done by social historians and community activists and kind of create a living history, and also have the people who were doing health-care activism today have lessons from the past to learn from,” said Joanne Fischer, a founding board member of the institute and executive director of Maternity Care Coalition. “He saw it as a developmental process. People took action, made changes and there was a social movement that had a historical dimension. He was aware that this was something that was happening over time.”

The archival collection Lear compiled of books, pamphlets, photos, interviews and other historical recordings of health activism is now housed at the University of Pennsylvania Library.

Lear’s voluminous collection will keep his memory — and his work — alive said, Janet Golden, Rutgers University historian and founding board member of the institute. Lear was also a founding member of medical historian group The Siegrist Circle.

“The best, and I guess probably the worst, thing about him was that he never threw anything away, so he had such a huge and important collection of papers,” Golden said. “And he took such joy in it. Whenever I saw him, he’d be suggesting projects for me to write, for young scholars to work on, and he was always so engaged. He helped make possible a lot of the research that scholars are engaging in now.”

Bartlett noted that in addition to documenting the health movement for future leaders, Lear also worked one-on-one with the new generation of activists to guide them.

“He took the time to work with the younger community organizers and to give them support in a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian way,” he said. “He was a great ally to many younger organizers, including me, in helping them to see the value of doing the work they were doing in the community. He had a real ability to hear what you were trying to say, and then help you to try to get to where you needed to be.”

Fischer, who nominated Lear for the 2006 Helen Rodriguez-Trias Social Justice Award from the American Public Health Association, which he won, said that while he took his work seriously, Lear also lived by Emma Goldman’s mantra of “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

“He worked so hard, but he also played,” Fischer said, noting Lear was an avid dancer and swimmer who won a gold medal for swimming at the Gay Games in 1998. “Often activists or revolutionaries are grim and humorless, but Walter wasn’t like that at all. He made work in a social movement be fun and expected people to be kind and decent.”

Lear is survived by his partner Payne, his former wife Evelyn Lear and two children, Bonni Stewart and Jan L. Stewart.

A memorial service celebrating Lear’s life will be held at 2 p.m. June 19 in the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection on the sixth floor of University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, 34th and Walnut streets.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts can be made to the Walter Lear U.S. Health Activism History Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, the Ida R. Lear and Edward G. Lear Scholarship Fund at the Philadelphia Foundation, the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund or any other agency with which he was involved.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].