Walter Jay Lear
04 May 1923 - 29 May 2010
In Their Own Words
Health Offical 'Comes Out of Closet'
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — State Health Department physician Dr. Walter, J. Lear, an admitted homosexual, says he is willing to publicize his gayness to focus attention on what he calls inadequate medical care afforded homosexuals.
Dr. Lear is 52 years old and the father of two grown children. He was married once, for seven years; but he says, "I have had a male lover for the past 23 years, a homosexual."
In an interview TUesday, Dr. Lear explained why he was featured on the inaugural editon of the Philadelphia Gay News, a monthly publication for homosexuals that went on sale this week.
"I'm coming out of the closet because physicians and people in the health industry need to be educated," he said. "Homosexuals can have different medical problems from heterosexuals."
Dr. Lear, Health Department commissioner for the five-county Philadelphia area, said, "A health professional has to know about the sexual practices of his patients if it's going to an impact on their health."
Of gays and their physicians, Dr. Lear said, "There's a whole range of problems. They fall generally into two types. One is the lack of full scientific and clinical information. The second is the attitude of the doctors ... They can get uptight about about some sexual practices ... They'll start to lectur etheir patients when they learn they're gay."
Dr. Lear said he informed the governor's office several months ago about his sexual preference. "The reaction that I got," he said, "was what I expected ... Governor Shapp supports the rights of gay people and that follows his humanitarian concern for human liberties."
Dr. Lear has been with the state for four years.
Pioneering LGBT activist Dr. Walter Lear, 87
By Jen Colletta
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@example.com.
WALTER J. LEAR, 1923-2010
Gay official who opened a door in Phila. in 1976
By Walter F. Naedele
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
In January 1976, Philadelphia Daily News staffer Pete Dexter reported that the Philadelphia Gay News had just published its first edition, with a "lavender-colored front-page story about Dr. Walter J. Lear."
The headline: "Philadelphia health official comes out."
The new monthly newspaper reported that Dr. Lear, who was 52, only recently "came out of the closet . . . to emphasize the need for better medical treatment for gays."
Dr. Lear, living in Powelton Village with his partner of 22 years, was the regional health commissioner for the Pennsylvania Health Department.
"While he doubtless is not the only homosexual holding high appointive office," The Inquirer later reported, "he is the first in Pennsylvania to come out of the closet and become a gay rights activist."
On Saturday, May 29, Dr. Lear, 87, died of multiple myeloma at Keystone Hospice in Wyndmoor.
In 2006, the American Public Health Association presented him with its Helen Rodriguez-Trias Social Justice Award, given for "working toward social justice for underserved and disadvantaged populations."
In 1964, Dr. Lear had moved from New York City to become deputy health commissioner for Philadelphia Mayor James H.J. Tate, who later appointed him acting executive director of Philadelphia General Hospital.
Gov. Milton J. Shapp's administration in 1971 named him health commissioner for the Philadelphia region, the job he held when he went public.
After that 1976 Gay News revelation, Dr. Lear told The Inquirer, "I have no doubt" that Tate would have had no job for him in 1964 "if I had been publicly gay."
"Twelve years ago that would have been totally unacceptable."
Several months earlier, Dr. Lear had made his first public move, presenting a gay rights resolution at the Chicago convention of the American Public Health Association. The convention endorsed the resolution and elected Dr. Lear general coordinator of the association's gay caucus, an event reported only in medical publications.
John Mosteller, a Haverford College administrator who is executor of the Lear estate, said last week that there was "a lighthearted, playful side to Walter."
Dr. Lear took part in some of the first national gatherings in the 1980s of the Radical Faeries, a gay social group, which he then introduced to Philadelphia.
The first EuroFaeries gathered on a Dutch island in 1995, and Dr. Lear visited their annual events there from 2000 to 2007.
Mosteller also said Dr. Lear "attended the 1998 Amsterdam Gay Games and won a swimming gold medal . . . for the 200-meter freestyle" for those older than 70.
Living on a small inheritance after leaving state government, Dr. Lear focused on social activism. Among other accomplishments, in 1979 he helped found the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, which its website says is the oldest AIDS service organization in the state. And in 1980, he was one of four founders of the Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia.
In 1984, Mayor W. Wilson Goode appointed him the first openly gay member of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission.
In 1993, he was a founding board member of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which "promotes philanthropy to benefit the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities," according to its website.
On the day before his 75th birthday in 1998, the Bread and Roses Community Fund, which identifies itself as a "gathering of activists committed to pursuing social justice," gave him its Paul Robeson Social Justice Award.
"Walter understood from the time he started his work that medicine was a social phenomenon," presenter Bob Brand said at the 1998 award ceremony. "He knew that equality makes people healthy, that changing policy brings solutions."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Dr. Lear earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard University in 1943, his medical degree from the Long Island College of Medicine in 1946, and his master's in hospital administration at Columbia University in 1948.
He is survived by his partner, James Payne; his former wife, Evelyn Lear; and their children, son Jon Stewart and daughter Bonnie Stewart.
A memorial was set for 2 p.m. Saturday, June 19, in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Walter J. Lear U.S. Health Activism History Collection, University of Pennsylvania
- Walter J. Lear Papers, William Way LGBT Community Center
- The Daily American (Somerset, PA) Wednesday, 07 Jan 1976, p.1
- Philadelphia Gay News (Philadelphia, PA) Thursday, 03 Jun 2010
- The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Sunday, 06 Jun 2010, p.B10