The LGBTQ Legacy of Former Columbia Chaplain John Dyson Cannon

Gary Shapiro
June 20, 2019

More than 50 years ago, the first gay student organization in U.S. history was formed on Columbia’s campus. Known as the Student Homophile League, now the Columbia Queer Alliance, it owes its genesis to the progressive work of John Dyson Cannon (1934-2014).

A chaplain at Columbia, Cannon was a pivotal figure for LGBTQ student life and spent his years in Earl Hall quietly championing gay rights, racial equality and a peaceful exit from the Vietnam War.

“Cannon was a pioneer and that’s a great thing to celebrate,” said Andrew Dolkart, a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and an expert in historic preservation who has written extensively about New York City.

In October 1966, under Cannon’s auspices, two Columbia students held an historic meeting in the Dodge Room on the second floor of Earl Hall. It included representatives of the Columbia College dean’s office, the College’s counseling service, the Barnard residence halls, and the University Health Service, as well as campus religious advisors. Two gay and lesbian national leaders also were present.

The Student Homophile League would mark that meeting as its birth at the University. Less than a year later, in April 1967, Columbia granted the organization its charter. A successor group in 1970 began to hold dances on Friday nights in Earl Hall, serving as a much needed place for LGBT gatherings.

When the League made Cannon its first honorary member in 1968, it issued a resolution praising his “inestimable” role in establishing the organization. The resolution described how he “repeatedly and selflessly demonstrated a profound Christian devotion to the cause of attaining human dignity and rights for all men, including homosexuals.”

“Cannon was definitely courageous,” said Dolkart. “He was very public in his support.”

One of the two student founders of the League, a bisexual named Robert A. Martin Jr., wrote in a retrospective on the Homophile League (under the pseudonym Stephen Donaldson) that Cannon, “Put his neck on the chopping block for us… He was our formal sponsor, he brought us into Earl Hall, letting us use his office as our mailing address, his phone as our phone, and the rooms in Earl Hall for our meetings.”

A British-born Episcopalian, Cannon graduated from Harvard in 1956 and Union Theological Seminary in 1959, later becoming assistant to the Rector at St. Thomas Church, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. In 1963, he began a chaplain ministry at Columbia and went on to become University Chaplain in 1965.

Cannon’s activist approach contributed to tensions with the administration, leading to his resignation in 1968. By 1975, he was rector of St. John’s Church in the West Village. His last position was as chaplain at St. Paul’s School, the New Hampshire boarding school. He died in 2014.

“Cannon was a pioneer and that’s a great thing to celebrate,” said Dolkart.