As usual I will quote the text and then comment on it after the cut.
I remember thinking that I would not lose too many papers, that the world would be ready for, that is was time for a story about a gay teenager, and I did the story about Lawrence coming out because a friend of mine had been murdered. He was a writer for the CBC in Toronto and he was murdered, and the attitude seemed to be, “Well, there’s another one off the street.” And I wanted to tell people, “He was a kid next door. He was one of my best friends in high school and he was a wonderful comedian and writer and he was gone.” And because he was gay, his death didn’t seem to matter as much as it should have. And so I did the story and the backlash was unbelievable. My. You know. Michael’s best friend tells him he’s gay and it was a story that ran for about 4 or 5 weeks and phone didn’t stop ringing from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. Mostly editors. Mostly editors from small towns in the United States who’d say, “I want to run your story but I can’t. My dog was spray painted. My kids are being …you know… hit at school for…because I’m running this story. I can’t go into the corner store for a cup of coffee because my neighbours will accuse me of running something that I shouldn’t run. So the editors were open-minded and ready for something that would cause some conversation, but their readers wouldn’t let them produce the story. We offered a second storyline in its stead, but many of the editors didn’t bother reading that. They would get a package and they’d say, “Oh well, it’s just a comics page” and they would put it to one side. So, it was a story that I worked hard on. I worked with my editors. I worked with my brother-in-law, who is gay. I wanted to say in his voice what it was like to come out and his word was, “It’s a relief. It’s a relief because then you can be yourself.” And it was a story that I was really proud of, but by golly it was not the time. Now would be better. Now would be easier. And I did wonder, “Why did I do that?” Because I got death threats and I realized, “No wonder people don’t change. No wonder it’s so difficult to convince the world that this is something normal.” I mean it’s normal for whatever normal is.
My comment: Lynn has told this story many times before. It’s interesting that she does not name brother-in-law Ralph Johnston or the murdered Michael VadeBoncoeur specifically as she has done before. You can tell where Lynn goes off the rails with the spray-painted dog or the children of editors being beaten up. She’s never told those stories before and so they are obvious improvisations because she pauses in the middle of them as if she is thinking them up on the spot. Likewise, the quote from the unnamed Ralph Johnston as “It’s a relief” is a new story too. It just doesn’t seem possible for her to tell a story straight without that little extra something to make it seem like she is lying.
Going back through all the times Lynn has told this story before, the most thorough coverage of it by far was in her interview with Tom Heintjes in Hogan’s Alley magazine back in 1994, while the controversy was still going on. The part where they talk about Lawrence goes on for pages and pages. That interview matches most everything Lynn talks about here (except the dog painting and editor child abuse). Oddly enough, she did not say one word about Michael VadeBoncoeur as the inspiration with Tom Heintjes, but she does mention Ralph Johnston. In contrast, the story in The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston goes on at length about Michael VadeBoncouer and Lynn’s premonition that something had happened to him and does not say one word about Ralph Johnston. I guess in the brief time since Lynn did The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, she has decided she likes Ralph Johnston again.
As for the location, we see Lynn sitting in a striped chair with a matching couch. On the wall is a painting (not hers). There are also decorative boots hanging on the wall. Behind her is a cabinet filled with what appear to be First Nations pieces – a doll, a small drum, a small chest tied up with rope, and many other things I can’t identify. To the left of the cabinet is a small cabinet with a doll dressed in what appears to be 1920s flapper clothing. To Lynn’s right is a coffee table with a paperback book on it and what appears to be a small video projector. Lynn is wearing the same pants she wore one of the days at the Reuben awards. While this is listed as Lynn’s new home in Vancouver, the decoration is clearly not Lynn’s. Lynn calls the place Kate and Lane’s and judging from the decorations, that seems to be an accurate description.
In The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston this is the version of the story she tells. I am really glad she chose not to repeat this version of the story with Maclean's.
From 1987 onward, lighter moments in the lives of the characters were balanced by more serious things. The strip dealt with real-world issues including political activism, alcoholism and child abuse, physical handicaps, the ego-crushing experience of being laid off, ethics in the press and – most controversial—the comic out of a gay teenager. The story of Michael Patterson’s friend Lawrence coming out has been one of Lynn’s most poignant storyline. She was moved to do this story after the news that her high school friend Michael VadeBoncoeur had died.
I was walking into my studio when the strangest sensation occurred. I suddenly thought about my friend Michael. I called him, but there was no answer at his apartment. I then called our friend Paul. He told me that Michael had been murdered by a young man he had befriended. The intruder took Michael’s bicycle and his stereo after having slit his throat. I was devastated. The news reported a brief story about a Canadian comedy writer being killed. The feeling I had from the way his death was reported was that this was just another gay man who got what he deserved.
As was everyone who knew this kind, talented, funny man, I was in shock. I wanted, in some way, to say out loud that this wasn’t the death of a gay man; it was the death of my childhood friend. Someone I knew and had worked with and cared about. I called Lee at the syndicate and asked if I could do a story about a gay teenager coming out. He thought it would be provocative and that I might lose a few papers, but if I did it well, now was a good time for a story like this.
Lynn received thousands of handwritten letters – so many that she had boxes (separated into two piles: positive responses and negative responses) lining the walls of her studio. The positive responses heavily outweighed the negative. Even today, twelve years later, she has a fairly regular stream of comments about the “Lawrence story” and requests to reprint the saga, at least in part.
In Suddenly Silver, we have the Ralph Johnston version of the story, and it is always good to get a different perspective than Lynn's:
Just as once she realized that Lawrence the neighbor boy in the strip was gay, nothing was going to distract her from having him come out in her family-based strip when the time was right. And she did.
Lawrence’s coming out in 1993 was actually a few years in the planning. As her gay brother-in-law, I was the one consulted during the early planning stages, and then my partner, Chuck, and I got to watch events unfold. In the days before the story ran, the media got wind of it, and a barrage of negative outrage began. It shook Lynn badly. Anything gay-positive receives a rough reception in some quarters, and we were expecting some reaction – the force of the onslaught still came as a surprise.. There were literally nonstop calls requesting interviews, and complaints and concerns from papers across the continent – and this before anything had appeared in print!
Then the episode began running, and the positive calls and letters started coming in to balance the negative, but polite, while the others were incredibly vitriolic, like the ones that started, “Dear Madam Pervert.” Others were incredible, heartwarming personal stories of struggle and triumph and courage.
It was a tumultuous time for all of us, but I was proud of Lynn for pushing the boundaries, and glad to have been part of it.
In Lives Behind the Lines the story has a long list of credits:
It was written for my friend Michael VadeBoncoeur, a comedy writer, performer, and childhood friend for whom my son and the character in the strip were named. It was written under the guidance of my husband’s brother, Ralph Johnston, a talented composer, lyricist, and textile designer who, when he came out, gave me the honor of trusting me first. It was written for Douglas Brown, Dennis Weir, Rick Denney, Mary Stuart, and Bob McKinley, who will always be a part of my heart. It was written because people are different. We’re as different from each other as our fingerprints. In our lives, in our beliefs, and in the way we are drawn to one another for companionship, for love, for security – we are different. And some of these difference we may never understand.
But the best coverage it overall comes from the Tom Heintjes interview back in 1994, conducted as Lynn was going through all this. It is very long, so I am not putting it up. If you want to read it, here is the link: