Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 6. Howland House: A Christian socialist community


Howland House marks the watershed between my orphan childhood and the family of choice which would endure into my old age. My new “mother” – barely a decade older than me – became Muriel Anderson. My new “father” was Bob Miller. Both are still alive as I write.

The other residents of the House were Bob’s mother, who became a “grandmother” to me; John Anderson, husband of Muriel; Sheila, Dick, Fred, Margaret, Imogene, Dot, Helen, Bob Van A, and the Anderson’s infant daughter Betsy.

Howland House began in 1953, when some SCM work campers decided not to return to university, and instead pooled their funds to purchase a large, century-old house in the central Annex area of Toronto. It was held in trust by Bob Miller. A year later, Bob’s mother sold her home, and bought the mortgage of the House. She made a room on the second floor her new home.

My journal for September, 1955, shows plans of my new home, including the third-floor room I shared with Bob Van A. I noted that the original lighting was gas, and the electric wiring installed later was dangerously obsolete. Next day I installed a new lamp and a receptacle in our room. I installed some of my art, hanging my Pogo and Camp Three Arrows mobiles in the stairwell to the third floor.

September 2: My bedroom was stuffy last night, with only one window and no cross-draft.  Today I hacked through the frame gable to construct a small window. At dinner I was firmly chastised for failing to consult other members of the House before making changes. With the Shinamans I survived by the adage “Better to ask forgiveness than permission” but here I’ll have to learn to consult.

September 7: In a strange vote of confidence if not affection, I have been elected House Treasurer. This is a responsible job, involving rents, bills, banking, keeping accounts and reporting regularly on our financial condition.

On campus, dear old Professor McAndrew, who has already arranged a bursary to supplement my scholarship, found me another $100 to compensate for money I left in the work camp wage pool. I owe this good man a great deal!

September 14: Muriel is a determined woman who makes her will felt in the house, even though she arrived only a few weeks ago, and must accept Bob’s leadership. Sometimes I can hear Muriel and her husband, John, arguing loudly in their bedroom just below mine. Muriel is a plainspoken woman and I already feel I can talk to her about anything. She’s advised me to see a psychologist about my vicious cycle of guilt over masturbating.

Muriel does all the cooking – and very well too. She makes the sandwich filling for next day’s lunches, but residents take turns preparing lunches from an elaborate list of everyone’s preferences and no-nos. Muriel always serves dinner at six o'clock, and sends Betsy with a handbell to rally the house. She shows her annoyance with anyone who is late.

September 25. Dutch theologian Ellen Flesserman is visiting, to lead our bible study. I wonder how long I can follow the House’s essentially Christian rules, without admitting the authority for these rules: Jesus?

I’m getting more involved with the SCM on campus, and I’m dating an SCMer, Marg, who lives in Rosedale. A psychologist at the health centre is really helping me to dump my sexual guilt.

October 9. A maple leaf is pasted here to commemorate half an hour of contemplation in a field at Caledon. How I love nature!

October 27. Dating with Marg is going well – we are now kissing and petting. I've got a book on dancing from the library, and must master some steps for our date tomorrow. Tonight I enjoyed a socialist “bull session” at C. H. Millard's home. I admire this man– he has a stern moral drive.

November 15. The house has a worship service every morning; I attend but do not pray. In the evening, after twelve of us dine around a great table, we often have a meeting to seek solutions for the inevitable frictions between disparate people living two or three to a room.

December 10. End of term. My final year is boring me silly. Senior sociology is down to six students, none of them friends or even stimulating classmates. Recently the controversial sociologist C. Wright Mills visited Toronto, and Bob Miller persuaded him that a visit to Howland community was worth a whole evening of his time. What a privilege to meet this man of enormous intellectual energy and integrity. I’ve long admired his work, but his astute insights delivered here in person made the stuff I’m learning in soc classes appear facile and irrelevant to the real world. We have no soc prof at U of T with anything approaching Mills’ abilities.

I’m restless to try new experiences. For one thing, I’m trying new religions. The Unitarians are suitably atheist-humanist, but too programmed for me. I think I like Quakers more.

December 12. I was asked to take a turn at leading morning worship. For the hymn I selected “To be a pilgrim” and I gave a brief homily on the grim future awaiting a nuclear society. As we went to breakfast, John Anderson sang his version of my homily: "To-be-a-grim-pill." He loves to tease me.

December 17: As the holiday spirit takes over, my heart is filled with thanksgiving; I feel radiant with joy. I have some matchless friends. Out of the darkness of childhood melancholy, I have been lifted up.

December 20. At my Xmas job in the post office, I saw some odd little parcels that looked expensive. No one was near. I could have stolen them with negligible risk. Why should I not take them? Social conformity? That would not stop me, for I’m irreverent at heart.

Human goodness? Humanist considerations did not seem enough to stop me. I felt the need for more, the need for a God who watches us. How weird. Do we need a Big Daddy to make us “good?”

Over dinner Dick suggested: “Maybe there’s a god inside you, who wouldn’t let you steal the parcels.” That’s oddly akin to Quaker belief in “the Inner Light.” After dinner I felt drawn to the Quaker Meeting House, where I sat alone in a dark room and tried to pray for the first time in many years.

I came out of the Meeting House convinced that I need a Friend. Could Jesus be that Friend? Each of us seeks to imitate qualities we admire in our friends. Jesus’ qualities give us a criterion to judge which qualities are good in our friends. I’ve probably been using his image unconsciously as my standard for a long time. So why not admit it?

December 23. At today’s Quaker meeting, the members who spoke inspired me with their quiet conviction. I think I could become a Quaker. It’s a sort of Christianity – I’d have to believe in God, but as Inner Light rather than some Big Daddy in the sky. Quakers do not practice some of the things I find repugnant about Christianity – especially “holy communion,” a throwback to ancient tribalists eating their gods.

December 24. Tonight Marg and I attended a carol service at Woodgreen United, her church. On the way, Marg told me of a woman she worked with, whose husband is blind, and operates a newspaper stand. They are dismally poor. Suddenly I thought it would be good to do something for them. We bought a card and left it with $5, at his stand.

After the service I took Marg home and gave her my present. Marg said: “I want to give both of us this – a recording of 13th century love songs.” How cheered I was by that “both of us.” I came home to learn that Muriel has just given birth to a boy! This whole day has been filled with wonder.

Christmas Night. This morning I visited the Shinamans, and even took Joe a present. David promised to see more of me before he sails for Europe.

Back here for Christmas dinner, we began beside the tree, opening our presents. Betsy was delighted by my gift, a windup toy train on tracks. After dinner I announced that I’m going to become a Quaker.

December 27. I became acutely aware today that I cannot love a person until I am physically attracted. Like the ancient Greeks. I’m fond of Gord, a fellow worker at the post office who is a kindly Christian man, and goodlooking. I have chastely loved Bob Van A since work camp. Before I committed myself to God, I was in great danger of loving Bob too much – of wanting him always near me. Now I can love him more purely for he is no longer my greatest love. God is.

[With the hindsight of a lifetime, I think I became a Quaker for two reasons: to bridge the religious gap between myself and my housemates, and to divert myself from recognizing my sexual attraction to men. I already had an emotional attraction to men, which I sublimated by teasing men in the house into “wrestling” with me. Bob Van A and I wrestled in pyjamas, and once I got an erection. I think he was aware of my arousal because he discouraged further wrestling. Bob Miller resisted my teasing for months. Years later I learned why: he suspected I was gay].

John at Howland House, Christmas 1955.

December 29. Photographs were taken here on Christmas day. Now I’m looking at one of myself. I’ve just realized for the first time: I’m really goodlooking! I’m wearing a wide-lapeled jacket, white shirt, and my new glasses. My hair is perfectly groomed. I look resolute and businesslike. So serious! Yet my body is relaxed: my arm rests on an upraised knee. I lean forward, looking directly at the camera, but it is impossible to tell what thought or emotion I am feeling.

[ This photo at age 22 still staggers me. I’m no movie star, but my face is well shaped, with finely-proportioned features. I want to reach out and hug this young man, and tell him he has a wildly exciting life ahead. The photo’s first effect was to encourage me to seek out a little spare-time work as a fashion model. I still modelled occasionally for the Globe and Mail in my forties, and for City TV in my sixties!].

December 30. New York City. Several friends – Bob Van A, Ron Burns (of the CCF Youth), Wilf Horowich, Mel Copely and I left Toronto in Ron's car. We travelled the NY Thruway. The others drove and slept in turns while I stayed awake to keep the driver alert. I am not licensed.

Robert Wright, a former Howland House member now studying at Union Theological, arranged rooms for us at his residence (most students are home for the holidays). Today we toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

December 31: This afternoon I played hookey from the dull conference we came for, and instead returned to the Met museum. Yesterday I was enthralled by the Assyrian exhibits, but today I was captivated by two works of art: Salvador Dali's Crucifixion and Auguste Rodin's Hand of God. The Dali shows Christ as a nude, virile young man. I bought a poster copy for my room. I also toured the Museum of Modern Art, and the United Nations building.

Supper was funny and annoying: we ordered the $1.60 steak but were mistakenly brought $3.95 steaks which were very good, but more than I can afford. I’ll have to skip lunch tomorrow. Then we took in a party at a posh penthouse with a butler. Finally we welcomed the New Year at Times Square, which was chock full of people. Six of us joined hands and marched down 42nd Street singing O Canada.

Back in my Seminary room, I’ve been reading a book I found on the shelf: The Bedroom Philosophers by the Marquis de Sade. I’m shocked at such filth. The sex includes every imaginable combination. The characters experience pleasure from beastly acts. The greatest horror is when a mother is seized and fouled by her own daughter, violated by the others, and finally by a servant with syphilis. The whole story is larded with a justifying philosophy that “anything goes in Nature.” There is no God of goodness, just the pursuit of gratification, and especially pleasure taken from the pain of others. I can read no more.


January 3. Home again. Today I announced to the House that I am going to quit "useless academe" and take a job full-time like the other residents. I've already gone jobseeking, but with no luck. This seems a bad time to be looking for work.

January 5. The SCM national work camp committee meets here at the House. I’ve designed the cover of this year's booklet describing the camps. It shows a cross, and inside the vertical arm, a smokestack, and superimposed, a mortarboard resting not on a head, but a brain. My copy is signed by the other members of the committee.

January 10. Some members of the House are trying to persuade me to stay in school but I don't see any point in preparing for post-graduate work. Why bother finishing this year? I prefer to work for a while, go to Montreal Work Camp, then off to Europe.

January 11. When Marg turned out to be rather conservative about sex I began dating Nancy. I met her first at the SCM work camp, when she was going with Bob Van A. After he lost interest, Robert Wright started dating her, but now he’s in New York. I thought I’d have a try. Robert claims not to mind.

January 15. Tonight I must make a crucial decision – whether to finish my classes, or get a job from now until Work Camp. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each:

Getting my BA
-The high social status of a BA in our society.
-Christian teaching requires a BA
-I have already invested 3 years to get a BA

Going to work
-I’d have more money to travel.
-I’d shake off the boredom of classes
-I haven't invested invested much time and money this year.

If I get a degree I may never use it, and it won't do my intellect any good. But I do have a moral obligation to those at U of T who have helped me.

My emotions say “get a job.” Logic and my friends say “finish what you started.” I’ll go for a walk and think it over.

January 21. I went out looking for work again today, just to see what’s available. No luck. Bob Miller is away, but he has been informed of my desire to work, and has sent an ultimatum. He writes: “What you do is your business, but if you quit school, you will have to move out of Howland.” He claims I’m quitting when the going gets tough in final year, not for some grand ideological quest to join the working class.

I don't know whether he could make his threat stick – the Andersons might oppose him on this–but I don't have the heart to cause a fight between members of the House. Probably he's right – there are only five months left of my four-year programme.

February 1. Some members of the House are heartily annoyed by my ideological antics, switching from nonbeliever to convert, from student to worker, all with much drama, wreaking emotional havoc on others. Tonight at dinner complaints surfaced: “John Lee is always trying to grab our attention. He takes too many initiatives without consulting us. It’s time to rein him in. Let’s have a Hate John Lee week.” Everyone agreed, while I sat in humbled silence.

Notes for leading Howland House weekly “house period” of worship, 1955. Theme: Why should anyone want to be good?

February 8. On the first day of “Hate JL Week” Fred reminded me of a bet I brashly made last fall, while comparing appetites. I claimed I could eat two whole pies after an ordinary meal. Was I still game? “Sure.”

Tonight Muriel served us a tasty dinner. Everyone had seconds but there was still food on the table, and leftovers were passed my way. Dessert was served, and we all enjoyed a slice of pie. I was encouraged to have an extra slice. The table was cleared, and Fred headed for the kitchen. He returned triumphant, a whole raisin pie in each hand. I must eat them to win my bet.

I managed to get one pie down, and dug into the other, then quit in protest: “This is not fair, everyone was in on this. You all passed me the leftovers.” They laughed. Clearly they see me as too self-assured, if not arrogant. It’s not hate, but they do want to tame me. I paid Fred his $5.

[Decades later a reunion of Howland House was held at my home. I was still concerned enough about Hate John Lee Week to ask what others remembered of it. Most recalled that it did happen, but not why, and assured me that the strongest impressions I left with them were positive, of an energetic person eager to please others and be accepted].

February 14. Bob Miller asks why I’m always worried that good times will cease. “Well, they did for Job, despite his devotion.” I dread that this new family might also “send me away.”

February 20. I see that I’ve neglected to comment on Wilky Horowich {one of the New Year trekkers to New York). Bob Wright introduced him last September while working at Woodgreen Community Centre. He is the leader of a teenage street gang the Centre is trying to absorb into its activities.

Tonight Wilky came over to Howland and we had a long talk. He’s working now, and seeing less of his delinquent peers. I loaned him a winter coat to go home because he was wearing only a light jacket, all he owns. This woeful young man received even less childhood love than I.

February 24. My brother David visited Howland tonight. He’s setting out to hitchhike around Europe. By a happy coincidence Bob Miller was on dishes with me and greatly enriched our conversation. I worked hard to encourage David to pursue his dreams, and also felt the courage to apologize: “David, I have not always been good to you. I’m ashamed of some of our childhood bickering. I’m ashamed of the way I took control of the rec room, and the times I beat you up.” David is bigger than me now, but he never realized his ambition of whipping me.

“I don’t feel like beating you up any more,” he smiled. “I’m glad you’ve finally found your family here. I hope I might have my own family someday, with Helen.” Helen is an SCMer. Tonight was a wonderful encounter and I finally feel close to David.

March 22. Bob Miller and I had a very long talk this evening. It started when I asked for his copy of Kafka's The Trial . It was in the women’s bedroom. They were willing to let us look for the book but Bob was reluctant. I teased: “Bob, I think you’re afraid of the girls.”

He instantly withdrew into himself. I was afraid I'd offended. When he left the house I asked to walk with him. He said he was not angry but sometimes lost patience and simply withdrew. “Dealing with students all the time really gets to me. That’s why I’m going to stop being Study Secretary and open a book store.”

I offered: “I’d like to be an SCM staffer myself some day. What should I be doing in the meantime to prepare myself?”

“Just get started on anything, and see it through. The rest will follow.”

“But can’t you suggest some specific project?”

“John, wherever you are in life, you will always have a project.”

We got talking about prayer. As a scientist I can't think of God interfering in the natural order of things, but I got tangled in my own theological notions, and suddenly found myself “crying on his shoulder” about the confusion I feel over becoming a (sort of) Christian.

Bob laughed: “I sometimes wonder if you like playing games with yourself and other people. Do you think it’s possible that your recent conversion is just a game?”

“I do like to manipulate myself and other people,” I admitted. “In fact, I often have the feeling that I’m playing at life, instead of being in it. Sometimes I wonder if everything in life is a game. I’m even aware that I may be playing at being serious with you at this very moment. It’s difficult for me to be sincere because part of my mind is always analysing.”

"Is this what psychology does to students these days?"

“Perhaps I’m exaggerating, because there are times when I lose myself in activity. But that makes me anxious; I lose control of myself, and afterward I look back and worry that I’ve made a fool of myself."

Somehow we got onto the problem of predestination. Bob said the idea is that God, not man, takes the initiative. I argued man is free to reject God.

“Yes,” Bob agreed, “but so what?”

“Well,” I countered, “man is free to do evil and suffer the consequences.”

“Which means that in the end man is not free, but has merely suffered.”

We arrived at the home of the professor where Bob is sleeping (because Howland is overflowing with visitors) and got some wine. Our conversation turned to pacifism. I asserted: “If I am going to be a Christian I have to be a pacifist.”

Bob warned: “Aren’t you laying down a law for yourself? It might lead you to reject the forms of worship others rely on. You’ll end up having no compassion for them.”

Bob hesitated. I urged “Go on, there’s something more you’re thinking.”

“Are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes, please, I can take it.”

“I think you are sometimes so sure of yourself that you lack compassion.”

I fell into a long silence. Finally Bob changed the subject. “I’ve often wondered if Quakers are really Christians. I wonder what attracted you to them? Was it something positive, or just the negative advantage of a minimal grating on your secular attitudes, thanks to so much silence in worship?”

I conceded: “Part of me knows that my conversion is another attempt to control things. I haven’t figured out how to relax and let things happen. I don’t know how to have faith.”

“But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?” Bob grinned: “Man cannot by his own efforts know God. He has to wait until God finds him.”

It was 2 AM and I said goodnight, and rushed home to record the longest conversation I’ve ever had with Bob Miller.

May 9. I stuck it out, and to my great pleasure, I have finished university with Firsts in all courses, and a gold medal. I owe Bob for all this. On the other hand, I'm showing my disdain for the formal education system by refusing to go to Convocation.

May 10. Today I picked up my gold medal and certificate from Simcoe Hall, and immediately pawned my medal for $20. In a few days I’m off to SCM work camp in Montreal. The screening committee asked why I wanted to go, instead of staying in Toronto to find a job. I explained: "I haven't suffered enough yet."

The SCM Summer Work Camp at Montreal, 1956.


We arranged the dinner table many ways, searching for the “communal ideal.” Rev. Vince Goring, upper left corner: John, upper right.

May 17. The work camp is in St. Columba House, a community centre in Pointe St. Charles. It has become the summer home of twenty-five students and our camp directors, Kathleen and Vince Goring. We have quickly organized ourselves into three groups, each to be camp executive for one month. Along with the usual executive roles we have "fag master" (in charge of distributing and supervising chores) and log keeper. The camp treasurer will be the same for the whole summer. The other chores are divided so that each camper has a weekday fag (such as snacks or lunches) and a weekend fag (such as bathrooms or laundry).

May 21. Our program keeps us busy. There’s Bible Study on Monday evenings; Work study (discussions of our work experiences and issues such as industrial conflict) on Tuesday evenings; and a variety of speakers and topics on Thursday evenings. We have camp worship every weekday morning from 6.45 to 7, and evening from 10 to 10.15. There is a reading meal twice a week (no talking at table) with serious reading on Tuesdays and light reading on Fridays. Saturday nights the whole camp engages in some kind of planned recreation. Free nights are Wednesday and Friday.

May 22. I'm already notorious for unorthodox statements in Bible Study. Sheila (also here from Howland) usually leads a merry chorus of "heresy, rank heresy!" I’m still doing my best to be liked. When I can afford it, I conclude snacks at 10 PM by announcing “I'll buy drinks for the first five who'll go with me to the tavern." (I’ve already found a well-paid job in a union-shop paper mill).

June 15. I wrote a letter to Nancy a few days ago, sort of casual but leaving open the possibility that we might still be interested in each other. To my astonishment she sent me a twenty-five-page response. It arrived today, Sunday, special delivery, while we were all sitting at lunch. Amid much laughter I excused myself and took it to the park to read.

June 22. Nancy is here for a few days’ visit. We walked round the Pointe, while I sung her some of my favourite psalms. We held hands while seeing the movie Oklahoma . I love the romantic song – People will say we’re in love.

July 5. Working as unskilled labour in a paper mill has put some muscle on me! Never been in better physical shape. I’ve also acquired fluency in French swearing; my fellow workers (except the foreman and manager) are all Canadiens.

August 19. Once again, wage pool is the concrete "sacrament" of camp life, and twenty campers are engaged in it. Our struggle sessions managed to get our total needs to within $198 of our assets, and this gap was closed by each camper taking $11 less than needed.

When Bob Miller visited this week to hold study sessions, we all dragged mattresses up to the flat roof. Bob and I were the last ones talking after everyone returned to the dorms. I finally teased Bob into wrestling. We gave up before one of us "won" but visions of Jacob wrestling with the angel filled my head.

[ Bob suspected what was going on, but said nothing. As he explained years later: "If I told you I thought you might be gay, you would have said I was crazy." Yes, I would, because I was still entirely heterosexual in both fantasy and dating. I masturbated with pictures of females I kept hidden in my suitcase, and wrote love letters to Nancy].

August 31. Toronto. I’m back at Howland and preparing to leave for Europe. Today I invited Nancy to tour the Royal Ontario Museum. Then we sat in the museum park, and I asked her to marry me. “I can’t decide between you and Robert” she answered. “I’m going to travel Europe this fall while I make up my mind.” We arranged to cross paths in London, late in September.


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