Obituary: Jonathan Cooper OBE – defender of human dignity and generosity of spirit personified

Photo by Georgina Allen

I first met Jonathan Cooper when I was prompted by a mutual friend, Georgina Allen, to cover the Totnes Passport story, which she felt was due a fresh look six months into Brexit. I had already heard about Jonathan – a passionate and highly-effective campaigner for LGBTQI rights, a champion of European values and a source of (free) expert advice for people battling injustice or corruption at a local, national or international level, so I felt very privileged to be able to meet him.

I was struck immediately by his energy and his lack of ego. Here was a man who had already done so much to help others but who remained only too aware of how much was still to be done and how much could be done by creating openings and hooking up kindred spirits to help make change happen. He exuded positivity and channelled it for the good of others and that made him genuinely inspirational.

I was instantly included in his circle of friends and through him met a group of thoughtful, engaged people who clearly loved him to bits. You can tell a lot about people from their friends, can’t you? And you can tell a lot about someone from the tributes paid when they are gone.

I had known Jonathan for all too short a time and I will forever regret that I had saved his wonderful passport story for a ‘rainy day’. If the news of his untimely death hit me like a hammer blow, I can only begin to imagine the intolerable void he has left in the lives of Kevin and the established circle of friends and colleagues. I defer to them, now, to make their tributes to a truly extraordinarily special man.

“What I would like to say about Jonathan is about how unbelievably generous with his time he was. I was endlessly coming to him with issues from the various campaign groups I’ve been involved in and he never said no.

I’ve just been thinking about this, not only did he never say no, he always went above and beyond anything that I’d been hoping for. He patiently, sweetly, humorously steered us in the right direction, not only by finding people who might be able to help us, but also by going through papers, taking on causes and helping out people who were feeling distressed.

Looking back it was quite incredible and pretty humbling. He was also always positive, which again is amazing, as it’s been a pretty rough few years, but he didn’t shy away from finding the best in things and in people.

Maybe he had an ego, I never saw it – I think the truest thing I can say about him, is that I always went away uplifted and cheered. He had an uncanny knack of the quiet, supportive comment, the right nudge at the right time, making you laugh when you needed it most.

It takes a very special person to do that and he was definitely that. He and Kevin were doing these incredible things, helping out so many people, yet he made you feel that your case was important, that you were important.

Lovely Jonathan, I just wish I’d said all this to him when I could.”

Georgina Allen

“The last time I saw my friend Jonny was at a picnic with his husband Kevin by the river Dart on his beloved Dartington estate, where he was at school many years ago. I was alone on Dartmoor for a month and with typical generosity and thoughtfulness, they had swept me up into their plans. After a glorious afternoon, I left them both swimming happily in the river in the evening light. That vision will be my abiding memory.

Earlier in the summer, I went to lunch at their house, only to discover it was a sit-down, three-course meal in the garden for twenty two people. Again, exactly what Jonny was best at: bringing people together, filling them with joy and plying them with food, drink and fascinating conversations. Conversations always threaded with impish merriment, camaraderie and laughter and underscored by his deep political commitment and his lifelong passion for liberty and equality.

Jonny was a universe in one human and we orbited gladly around him.”

Jill Meager

Just some of the twitter tributes from groups for whom he did ground-breaking, life-changing work:

The Haemophilia Society Public Inquiry Team@HaemoSocUK_PI: We’re deeply saddened to learn of the death of Jonathan Cooper OBE. His work for The Haemophilia Society in the 1980s was an early step in understanding what it means to be diagnosed with HIV at a time of great stigma, fear and secrecy in our community.

AIDS Memory UK@AIDSMemoryUK: His fellow trustees,our patrons and the #AIDSMemoryUK campaign team are saddened by the death of our sui generis & dear friend @JonathanCoopr, a giant in human rights esp. universal LGBTQ rights. His advocacy for people living with HIV made lives better. He will be mightily missed.

UkLetBiafraGO!@Ozor11159550: Biafrans have lost a dearly friend @JonathanCoopr , an international human rights lawyer. He has been a VOICE for Biafrans. Biafrans will miss you Sir Jonathan Cooper . Rest in power .

I leave the last word to his husband, Kevin:

“There isn’t a rock or bush or tree or bend in the river in our bit of South Devon that doesn’t remind me of him. When you see the sun burst over the moors or the autumn leaves on trees glitter in a gust of wind, or you turn a bend and the old castle at Totnes seems to float above the town in an early morning mist, that will be him.

Everything he did was done with love and kindness. Jonny will always be with us, inspiring us and encouraging us to do better, be kinder, reach out to help the persecuted and marginalised. That was who he was and the best way of remembering him is by thinking first, ‘what would Jonny do?’.

There was a quote from an important human rights case in the South African Constitutional Court which Jonny really liked. I can’t remember the case now, or who made the quote, but it goes something like this:

‘The level of civilisation in a country can be judged by the way it treats its most marginalised and despised people.’

In a way, Jonny would go further, I suppose: a country’s civilisation can be judged by the absence of marginalised and despised people.

Kevin Childs