Writing LGBTQ Obits

Jason A. Michael has been writing for Michigan’s statewide newspaper Between The Lines since 1999 and over his eighteen years with the paper has written nearly fifty obituaries.  I met with Jason on June 21st for lunch at the Traffic Jam in Detroit to discuss writing LGBTQ obits.  The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity.

TR: I thought I’s start by asking if you remember the first obit that you did.

Jason A. Michael: It was probably in my early days at Between The Lines and it was probably for someone that I did not know.  But that was how the early obits were.  As time went on, I was frequently doing obituaries for people that I knew, that I either knew or knew of.  And I sort of felt it my responsibility when someone I knew passed to write their obituary, because they used to say you’re guaranteed to make it in the paper twice, when you’re born and when you die.

TR: Right.

JAM: And, of course, now that no longer applies.  You can certainly live your life and not make the paper at all.  So, I felt that the lives of the people that I knew, I wanted them to be remembered and documented.  So oftentimes I would approach the paper and ask to do an obituary when someone that I knew passed.  But in the earliest years they were probably people that I didn’t necessarily know.  I also did two types of obituaries.  I did the regular, straight-up obituaries that had had “obituary” at the top, and then there were also instances where maybe it was someone who was well-known or known to a certain degree, and I would do commentaries that were slash commentary/obituaries and that contained the information of their life, but at the same time my recollections and experiences of them.

TR: Kind of a personal remembrance.

JAM: Right.  Such was the case with E. Lynn Harris, the author.

TR: Okay.

JAM: Willi Jinja, who was known as the father of Vogue.  And Yolanda King, who I met when she came to speak at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner.  She appreciated the article that I wrote about her because I referred to her mother as an activist of sort of equal stature as Martin Luther King Jr.  And she was so impressed that she arranged for me to meet her mother when I took a trip to Atlanta.  So if it was someone of note and I had a personal connection to, I would do a commentary to maybe humanize them even more.

TR: Okay.

JAM: But I’ve done probably forty to fifty, closer to fifty obituaries over the past eighteen years.  I’d say probably half or a little more than half have been for people that I either knew or knew of.  And then there are occasions where the paper will just assign me an obituary and I’ll end up having to research someone that I didn’t know.  The other issue is that there are a lot more obituaries that I would have done but I couldn’t find people to speak to me because they weren’t necessarily interested in having their family member’s obituary in the gay newspaper.  So, I could not find a family member or close friend to provide me with enough information to write a decent obituary.  That’s happened often over the past eighteen years.

TR: And how recent is that still?

JAM: Probably last year or the year before there was a young man who was from Detroit, had returned to Detroit to live in Detroit.  He had performed in Detroit many times.  He was actually a well-known porn star.  And I couldn’t find anyone, even friends, even though he had been in the papers and in the OutPost and everything else, for performing at the Woodward and different bars here in Detroit.  No one would share any information whatsoever about his passing.  And, I tried hard because he was well known and I’d known of him for some years.  To get enough information, I tried every source I had, people that I knew who may have known him, and I could not dig up enough basic information to write even the most basic of obituary.

TR: One of the things I’m fascinated with as a historian and as a writer and as someone who’s engaged in queer remembering, is kind of this erasure, some of which is self-imposed, but much of which is imposed by others.

JAM: Sure.

TR: And some of that is a hesitancy to kind of break a code.  But some of it is because of stigma.  And it sounds like you were encountering both of those.

JAM: I was encountering both.  Oftentimes I think a lot of people in the gay community—maybe this is more so in the past, pre-social media—but they knew other people in the community sort of superficially.  They knew them but didn’t necessarily know about their families or their histories or where they had gone to school or those basic elements to a good obituary.  So you would have to rely on actual family members of the deceased to get this information.  And these family members may have not been comfortable with their loved one’s sexuality.  And so, when I identified who I’m writing for, as the gay and lesbian newspaper, they just would rather their loved one not be remembered at all than be remembered in a gay and lesbian newspaper.  That happens less frequently, but it still happens.

TR: So how is writing an obituary about someone who is LGBTQ different?

JAM: Well, I think you have to get to the heart of who the person was.  It seems that for a while all of my obituaries would start, “Community activist such and such…”

[We both laugh.]

JAM: A very broad sort of summation of the person’s life.  Sometimes I end up writing about people who are very well known.  Mark Bidwell, talking about MCC, and his death had come right after a great scandal in his life.

TR: Right.

JAM: So, you have to handle the material sensitively.  And then there are lesser known people that I knew well, that I just wanted to remember.  And thankfully, in those cases, I knew enough information if I couldn’t get enough from a family member that I could adequately write about them.

TR: Was there one that actually saw print that was particularly hard to write for some reason?

JAM: Well, there were a few.  Because I’ve lost many friends over the past eighteen years.  Edward Johnson, who worked for Men of Color and Horizons Project.  He was also known as a female impersonator by the name of Tokyo Reign.  I knew Edward since before I started writing for the paper.  I’m born and raised in Detroit, I lived in Miami from ’90 to ’97, I came back in ’97, and right after I came back I met Edward Johnson.  And he died in 2013 at the age of, what?  He was born in ’76, he died in 2013, so short life.  And I was very close to Edward.  I went to his funeral.  My friend Billy Herrod who died in 2003, his funeral was in Joliet, Illinois and I saw him in his last days when he was very sick.  He’d been out of work and he was in bad shape.  His phone had been cut off and I actually paid his phone bill for him so he could have a working phone.  His passing was very difficult.  My friend Ken Christopher was another close friend, died of AIDS-related causes.  He laid on his bathroom floor for three days before his body was discovered.  Again, gay and lesbian people who live alone, we don’t have people we’re necessarily in contact with every day, so three days he laid on his bathroom floor before he was discovered.  I can remember when he came out to me about being HIV-positive and how devastated he was.  I think he sort of gave up his will to live and it was only a few years later that he succumbed.  Gordon Barnard, who was Charles Alexander’s best friend.

TR: Oh!

JAM: Such a character.  Went by the name of Rita Hayworth, you know.

TR: So had you met Gordon then?

JAM: Many, many times.

TR: Okay.  Okay.

JAM: We went to the Apple Orchard together, me, Charles, and Gordon.  Went out to eat many times.  Gordon’s family was very helpful.  He had no siblings.  His parents, of course, were deceased.  His cousin came out to retrieve his body and take it back home for burial.  And all the artwork of Charles Alexander’s that Gordon had collected, his family, they gave it to Charles and Charles gave it to me.  So I got Gordon’s collection of Charles Alexander art.  Plus, he had this fabulous beaver coat and I remember we went out to lunch one day, it was some coney island, and he was wearing this beaver coat, and I said, “Gordon, is that a beaver?”  And he said, “It’s a Canadian beaver.”

[We both laugh.]

JAM: And I actually got his coat when he passed.  I’ve actually worn it a few times.  Reggie Thompson, owned of Regine’s on the Park, later the Palladium on Six Mile.  He was someone who was very good to me in my early years at the paper, treated me very well.  And he was an interesting situation because he was sort of a controversial figure.  He could be very abrasive to people and he wasn’t well liked necessarily within the Black LGBT community.  But he always treated me very, very well.  And you can only really go by how a person treats you, and I never had a negative experience with him.  So, I remember he passed in 2005 and it was right before the Community Pride Banquet Awards, and that year I won the Media Award from the Banquet.  And I spoke about Reggie because, as I said, he was controversial and people were sort of dismissive of his passing.  I wanted to recognize him because he had one of the nicest Black gay clubs in the city.  People in the obituary talked about the fact that so many of our gay bars, particularly at that time, were holes in the wall, and he had this club that he was always reinvesting in and updating the light show or adding video screens.  He was always putting his money back into his club to make it better for the community.  And I appreciated him for that.  And there’ve also been people, like I said, more well-known people.  Henry Messer.  David Adamany, the former president at Wayne State University, who was president of the college when I went to Wayne State.

TR: Right.

JAM: So, there were people I knew of but never knew necessarily personally.

TR: What is the challenge when someone dies in— Every death is tragic, but there’s some circumstances are more tragic than others.  What do you feel you need to bring to the table to write about those situations?

JAM: Again, that’s the issue.  Sometimes family members will speak to me, but they won’t be honest about the cause of death, because it may be HIV/AIDS related and that’s not something they want in print or to discuss.  The first concern is to be accurate and not list a cause of death which is actually untrue.  I’ve had that happen several times where someone has claimed to me that a death was related to some cause that I knew enough about the person that I knew that was not the case.  The second thing is to really try to humanize them and try to find people who can talk about them and sort of bring them back to life for a few words in the obituary.  Recently a well-known activist passed and I was asked to do his obituary.  We had met a few times.  I didn’t know him well but I certainly knew who he was.  And I called the person who I thought was the most logical person to speak to about him.  And she was dodging my emails.  And finally I confronted her, I called her on the phone, and she said, “I know he’s done great things but we’ve never gotten along.  I’ve never cared for him…”

[We both laugh.]

JAM: “…in thirty years.  And I don’t think I can be of any great assistance to you in writing the obituary.”

[We both laugh.]

JAM: So, you’ve got to find those right people to speak to.  And oftentimes that’s the person’s partner, their husband or their wife or their significant other.  And that’s difficult, too, because you want the obituary to be timely, particularly if there’s an upcoming memorial service or funeral, but at the same time those closest loved ones may not be up to speaking to a member of the press.

TR: Right.

JAM: So it’s really trying to get to that person, which is very difficult.  In the midst of their loss you’re trying to convince them that it’s important that their loved one be recognized and that now is to do it.  Because they’ll certainly say, “Well, I’m not up to speaking right now.”  And you’re not trying to be crass, but you have to explain, “Now is the time.  I have to do this obituary now.  You know, there’s a relevance of time.  If you’re ever going to speak, as difficult as it might be, now is the time to do it.”  I go to great lengths to be compassionate when it comes to speaking to the significant others by whatever means necessary.  Sometimes [they’re] not up to speaking to a stranger on the phone, but they can email me several thoughts.  I find a third party, a friend who knows this person, who is maybe a little bit more detached from the situation that I can convince “I want to do this person justice, I want to represent them well.  It would be very helpful if his partner could speak to me.”  And they sort of pave the way a little bit and facilitate that meeting so that significant other can speak to me.

TR: Any final thoughts?  I think we’ve covered some good ground.  Really interesting.

JAM: As difficult as it to do obituaries, particularly about people that I know, I never shy away from it.  Because I sort of feel, as I said, that it’s my duty to sort of chronicle these lives and make sure that somewhere there’s some documentation that this person lived and contributed to the world.  It’s conceivable that even after I stop writing for the paper on a regular basis—like I said, eighteen years of writing—as people that I know do pass, I will probably still approach the paper and ask to write an obituary because in the case of the people that I know, I feel it’s sort of the last thing that I can do for them is to write them a final obituary.

My thanks to Jason for sharing such an thoughtful and engaging conversation!

Tim Retzloff

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