For More Than Half a Century, Dr. Lorne Warneke was Alberta’s Foremost Trans Rights Advocate and Trailblazer

03 September 2020

He was many things: a dedicated clinician, mentor and educator, whose career spanned more than five decades. But above all, Dr. Lorne Warneke was a fearless fighter and tireless advocate for the rights of Alberta’s transgender community.

Dr. Warneke became the trans population’s foremost flag-bearer in the late 1960s, decades before transgender issues rose to prominence in mainstream medical circles and in popular culture.

As a practicing Physician, Psychiatrist, Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Medical Director of the Gender Clinic at Grey Nuns Hospital until his retirement in 2017, Dr. Warneke fought relentlessly for increased awareness, education and support for sexual diversity and the affirmation of gender identity.

By mentoring multiple generations of Psychiatry Residents, Dr. Warneke played a vital role in increasing the number of trans medical specialists in the province, and helped set the stage for the creation of the Department of Psychiatry’s Gender Program.

His dogged advocacy resulted in improved access and government financial support for Albertans seeking gender reassignment surgery; key revisions to Alberta’s Human Rights Legislation; and changes to the Alberta Motor Vehicle Act to permit trans individuals to change their gender designation on driver’s licences.

His patients were effusive in their praise. “I would not be alive today if it was not for Dr. Warneke,” said one ex-patient, in a post on the RateMDs.com website. “The most wonderful doctor you could wish for. He is the leader in his field and has been my saviour for 14 years,” said another.

After such an accomplished career, dedicated to improving and enriching the lives of so many others, Dr. Warneke deserved a long, rewarding retirement. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.

Dr. Warneke died suddenly early this week, triggering an outpouring of praise, respect and gratitude from former colleagues and friends.

“I had the good fortune to interact with Lorne on multiple occasions,” says Dr. Peter Silverstone, Interim Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. “His long-term advocacy, insight, compassion, and treatment for individuals with severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as well as for those with gender identity issues, will be sorely missed by many colleagues and patients."

Other ex-colleagues expressed similar sentiments. Here’s a round-up of some of their comments:

“Dr. Warneke was an inspirational trailblazer for the LGBT community far before it was seen as politically correct or the politically wise thing to do. He was willing to put himself out there as a spokesperson for a very marginalized population. I’d say his work in patient advocacy was inspirational,” says Dr. Tania Oommen, Director of the Resident Program, Department of Psychiatry.

“I got to know Dr. Warneke as a medical student, through a short elective in transgender psychiatry, throughout my years as a Resident and briefly as a colleague. I would say it really shaped my view of the transgender population and the struggles they deal with. His kindness and advocacy work really shone through.”

Dr. Jan Banasch, a staff Psychiatrist and former Site Chief, Mental Health Program at Grey Nuns Hospital – where Dr. Warneke previously served as Site Chief between 1984 and 2004 – says he made lasting contributions that changed the lives of many Albertans.

“Lorne was a committed clinician and advocate for his patients. In 1984 he convinced Alberta Health to pay for gender reassignment surgery for the underserviced transgender population. He also lobbied to change Alberta Human Rights Legislation to include sexual orientation as a protected area, and in 1996 he opened a transgender clinic at Grey Nuns, changing the lives of many,” she says.

“In addition to this tireless crusade, he was internationally recognized for his work on the treatment of OCD. He was a dedicated educator at the medical school and in the Department of Psychiatry, and he mentored many Physicians. In 2017 he became a University of Alberta Alumni Distinguished Award recipient (see accompanying story and video) in recognition of his career championing the cause of so many patients. Lorne was kind, thoughtful and generous in his understanding and compassion.”

Dr. Michael Marshall, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, President of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health, and Medical Director of the 2SLGBTQ + Wellness Centre in Edmonton, says Dr. Warneke played a big role in helping him to establish his practice in Alberta.

“Lorne certainly paved the way for the work I do serving the transgender community here. When I moved to Alberta I very quickly saw my trans caseload start to grow, and I didn’t really know where to turn for help,” he recalls. “So I called Lorne, since he was the person who had really led the charge in this field in Alberta over so many years, and he was very open and willing to help, and he gave me all the resources that he had, which was very generous of him.”

Even as Dr. Warneke neared retirement he remained passionate about his clinical and advocacy work on behalf of the trans community, he notes.

“I think that is the biggest legacy that he leaves behind – his unending advocacy for the people he served. Lorne was from Ponoka, in rural Alberta, and he started seeing trans people in the 1960s. You hear people talk about San Francisco being a leader in trans care in the 1970s, but Lorne was ahead of even that. He wanted to see positive things happen for this very underserved population, and he’d stop at nothing to make it happen.”

Karen Dawson, a psychiatric nurse at Grey Nuns who worked closely with Dr. Warneke, echoes those comments.

“Lorne was very dedicated, very caring, very compassionate, very open, and always pushing boundaries. He changed a lot of legislation for transgender health throughout his career, and any challenge that came his way he’d be there to face it and find solutions,” she says.

“On a personal level he had a very quirky sense of humour. He’d always stay late working, and he didn’t care about lunch, so I’d often buy him little sandwiches. He worked constantly, and he used to bring his laptop with him on vacation so he could communicate back and forth. Lorne was a family man with lots of friends. He was very well loved.”

Dr. Gord Kelly, the current Site Chief and Chief Psychiatrist at Grey Nuns, says Dr. Warneke was also a savvy administrator who wasn’t afraid to play hardball with politicians when budget cuts threatened key programs or services.

“I knew Lorne primarily from working with him at Grey Nuns. He was the Site Chief when I was a student here so he was not only my teacher back then but he also did a lot in terms of developing the way inpatients were cared for,” he recalls.

“He was in charge during the Klein years, when there was a lot of restructuring going on and a lot of hospital cutbacks, and he helped to preserve and expand many of the services provided at Grey Nuns. So there was a strong administrative side to his career as well, and he really pushed for a lot of the programs we still have here.”

Dr. Justin Petryk, a Clinical Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and
Emergency Room Consultation Liaison Psychiatrist at Misericordia Community Hospital, serves many transgender patients in his private practice. He says Dr. Warneke had a major influence on his chosen career path.

“I spent a lot of time with Lorne when I was a Resident about a decade ago. At the beginning I didn’t know a whole lot about the trans population. But I ended up being paired with Lorne as my preceptor and saw the advocacy role he played, and how much the individuals he served appreciated the work he did for them. That’s what prompted me to pursue this area as an outpatient Psychiatrist,” he says.

“He was a tireless advocate and he had a tremendous impact on transgender rights in general, at a time when inclusivity wasn’t as much at the forefront. He got a lot of pushback but he was able to be an effective advocate even in that environment, so he really was a pioneer for inclusivity and transgender rights in this province.”

Dr. Warneke was honoured by the University of Alberta in 2017 with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Below are links to a story and a video produced at that time, profiling Dr. Warneke and his long, impressive career.

Link to story: https://www.ualberta.ca/medicine/news/2017/september/trans-rights-trailblazer-reflects-on-50-years-of-social-change.html

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR4TB90X8u8