Danny Cockerline

By Chris Bearchell

Brilliant and reckless. Beautiful but insecure. Destined to provoke.

Queer. But a queer queer; an outsider among outsiders. Danny was always ahead of his time in fashion, decor and politics.

He was over-the-top "in-your-face" -- long before queer nation was even conceived. He went through a period (the "cockerline pink" period ) when he suffered regular bashings -- some might say sought them -- from the late-night rowdies on Yonge Street. He was in party-till-you-drop mode and dressed to stop traffic in blinding, fluorescent "outfits." No wonder he identified so strongly with misfits, outcasts and underdogs.

He found gay activism while sitting in a Yonge Street bar one cold February night. A crowd of furious, noisy demonstrators poured down the street protesting mass raids at a series of gay bathhouses the night before. He went outside to investigate the commotion and joined on the spot.

I met him a little later when, as a student at Ryerson (before it began the pretense of calling itself a university), he invited a representative of The Body Politic (TBP) to address the gay student group he was organizing. A son of the blue-collar working class, he said that he had never felt comfortable in his year at uppercrust U of T. And soon he jettisoned school altogether. He was still happily involved in his first relationship at the time, with a sweet, beautiful and talented artist named David Chang (who liked to ply him with delightful evils like Nanaimo bars).

Both he had David became volunteers for TBP; Danny as a news reporter, David in production. They lived, for a short time, with a small flock of sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (including Billy Sutherland and Dan Healy) in a huge, rickety old apartment on Parliament Street which was nicknamed "The Vatican." He ended up working in the micrographics department in the basement of City Hall with a bunch of other TBPers who'd been hired by archivist James Fraser. Among them were people with whom he stayed close, off and on, over the years, including Victor Bardawill, and Stephen Stuckey's old friend, Irit Shimrat (who he introduced to me and the rest of the BP gang).

Working with him at TBP was a challenge and a treat. He had a knack for grasping complex issues quickly and getting to their essence. He was, for instance, able to put together a practical approach to the AIDS epidemic before anyone else I knew. While lots of other heads were planted firmly in the sand, he spent a couple of months being celibate, thinking and talking about it incessantly, and then embraced safe sex with missionary zeal. (His year as a student in epidemiology at Ryerson no doubt helped.) And a piece we co-wrote, on the social roots of violence, was one of the most satisfactory pieces I produced in my tenure with the magazine. It wasn't always easy, though. He could be stubborn, determined -- relentless, even. Great qualities in lots of political contexts, but hell when you're the person trying to edit him.

Shortly after he was laid off from his job at City Hall and David went off to pursue adventure and a career in London, Danny and I bought the house at 97 Walnut Avenue. I had money from my mother's inheritance. He still had money that he'd saved while working as a busboy at the Ramada Inn in North Bay a couple of years before. (He was nothing if not frugal, that boy.) It was while living at Walnut that he began his career as a prostitute.

Prostitution had been one of Danny's beats in the news department at TBP, where it was of particular interest because queers and hookers were often hit with the same laws by the same cops. Since he had absorbed the essential politics quickly and took the issue very seriously, I asked him to attend a strategy meeting of The Right To Privacy Committee (RTPC) with me. RTPC was a group formed to defend men who were charged with violating the bawdy house laws while they were staff or customers in gay bathhouses. At the meeting we met Peggie Miller who had come looking for ideas and support for her own challenge to the bawdy house laws; she'd been charged with keeping a common bawdy house after taking tricks, and an undercover cop, back to her apartment. Soon the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes would have its founding meeting in our livingroom. And Danny's "academic" interest in the profession turned practical.

Luckily, thoroughout his career, he managed to never get busted. Life as a wild, young thing in North Bay had already given Danny plenty of reasons to hate cops. And I will never forget the alarming sight of him (in a turquoise sequinned mini-dress, an extravagant creation of Jamie Hart's) being bounced off the BP's stairwell walls -- all five flights of them -- by a couple of burly cops. He'd been hit with a liquor infraction for being behind the bar at an unlicenced party. And there was just no way that he could go quietly; he didn't have it in him.

By then he also had almost as much contempt for the social controllers disguised as helpers and researchers, the real pimps, as he did for the cops.

When he founded the Prostitutes' Safe Sex Project and then became the first co-ordinator of Maggie's (the Toronto Prositutes' Community Service Project), Danny was a seasoned political analyst and community organizer. But sometimes he just couldn't help pushing people's buttons. Like the night the board hired him for the job. He couldn't stand the formalities, the fact that, technically, a bunch of non-whores had to hire him for the position he had created and funded; he practially dared us not to hire him. Arrogant barely begins to describe it.

Danny was never the easiest person to work with. The next person to be hired by Maggie's was Gwendolyn, who did a fabulous job of outreach for the organization and in the process produced wonderful events. She loved Danny dearly but practically had to force him to acknowlege the work she was doing sometimes. He needed approval badly himself but admitted that he was terrible about being able to express it. Even while he was under the mistaken belief that he was HIV-negative (having tested negative once), Danny was constantly struggling to control his pessimism. His legendary self-assurance would disappear in private discussions when he would wrestle with the high standards that made him so hard on himself and everyone else.

Finally, he decided that he needed a break. He'd saved a lot of money and he was going to travel around the world before he turned 30. He'd already sold his share in Walnut Avenue sometime before. He talked Maggie's into subletting his funky pad on Church Street and me into taking over his job as co-ordinator. And went off seeking adventure.

He wasn't gone long before disaster struck. The first part of his journey took him on an extensive tour of the states. While in New York, he developed allergies for the first time in his life. He was a confirmed hypocondriac and knew that allergies were immune-related. So when he swung through Toronto for a brief visit mainly to see Leonard and Charlie who were sick, en route to the far east via Vancouver and the 1990 Gay Games, he had another HIV test. It wasn't until he was about to leave the country that he called from Vancouver and coerced his doctor into giving him the test result over the phone.

It was typical of Danny that he didn't tell any of his Toronto friends that he'd tested positive -- he didn't want to do that over the phone -- until he got back, more than a year later. He partied harder than ever while he was away. And came back convinced that he had to give up politics: that an HIV-positive whore couldn't afford to be "out" and working (true) and could not be an effective advocate for safe sex or prostitutes rights (not necessarily true). At first he was convinced that he couldn't not be "out" about it, either. Eventually he did return, briefly, to the staff of Maggie's but he was not in a position to return to co-ordinating the group and didn't stay long.

His post-diagnosis plummet (before experiencing any of the physical conditions associated with AIDS) convinced at least some of his friends to reconsider the value of HIV testing. He was wasted, a lot of the time, at the end. Although, also in fine Danny form, he became a virtual walking encyclopedia of information about mind and mood altering pharmaceuticals. And he'd fallen in love again, with another sweet and attractive young man named David.

He'd been upfront with many of his friends about his unwillingness to die in pain or in a state of helplessness. And it was painfully obvious to many of us who shared them, that Danny's accumulated losses to AIDS were really taking their toll. Leonard, Victor, Jamie and David Chang all died in a short span of time.

I think he felt the world slipping away from him, one friend, one line, at a time. No matter how much he'd tried to prepare us, it sure wasn't easy to see him go. Or to say good bye.

More memories of Danny... [the Walnuts] [Whore Heroes]

Created: May 7, 1996
Last modified: February 15, 1999

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