Gay Funerals

So far as I can remember, the first gay funeral I ever attended was for Ralph Wilson.

I knew dear Ralph from the University of Michigan-Flint, where he was one of the few semi-out gay students on campus in the early 1990s.  He got a job with the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale after he graduated and was killed in a freeway accident driving home from the Timesquare nightclub.

I recall going to his viewing at a local funeral home and noticing his eyelashes, thinking how I’d never see his lovely eyelashes again.  Such curious thoughts go through the mind at such moments.

A memorial for Ralph was held at Full Truth Fellowship Church in Detroit.  The Reverend Renee McCoy conducted the service.  Her words were rousing and celebratory.  It was the first time I heard her preach and the first time I experienced our community coming together in shared loss.

For as long as we have been recognizably human, people have honored the deceased with ritual and ceremony.  In the Greek tragedy Antigone, written nearly 2,500 years ago, a sister defies the king to honor her slain brother with burial rites.

When I was a teenager, I hated funerals.  I thought of them as creepy and macabre.  Over the years, I have come to appreciate the important role they play.

Over the years, I have also come to see the special importance of gay funerals.

I attended the memorial for Billie Edwards as a writer for Between The Lines.  She had been co-director of the LGB Program Office (as it was then known) at the University of Michigan and died from cancer in 1995.  What I remember most about the gathering for Edwards is the gusto of longtime activist Jim Toy in rejoicing in her lesbian life.

Contrast this with the very traditional funeral for Cy Toporek, a Flint friend involved in the local Dignity chapter who came out as gay in middle age.  Cy had style, and thrilled at his newfound gay freedom.  He died from a heart attack in 1992 at age fifty-four.

His service was planned by, and for, his family from his former, heterosexual life.  Not a peep was made about him being gay.  This was anything but a gay funeral.

Several of us who knew Cy from the gay community went out to dinner afterwards and shared stories, in part to combat the erasure we experienced at the funeral itself.  Only then did I begin to feel any sense of true farewell.

I never met Connie McConnohie yet felt it important to attend her memorial.  McConnohie was a key and controversial local activist in the Gay Liberation era of the early 1970s.  She appeared on the Lou Gordon TV program, founded a group called the Motor City Alliance of Gays, and edited the short-lived newspaper Gayzette.

In 1973, McConnohie became the first openly lesbian candidate for Detroit City Council, but lost in the primary.  She blamed the gay community for not supporting her.  In later life, she became involved in local GOP politics even as she struggled with economic hardship.

In February 2005, police found McConnohie’s body frozen on the street and her remains laid unclaimed in the city morgue for more than a year.  In a generous show of humanity, the chaplain at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Detroit’s Corktown held a memorial service for her in April 2006.

I believed someone from the LGBTQ community should be there.  The attendees were mostly parishioners, although I spotted four or five men in suits who I suspected were from the Republican Party.  So far as I know, no one else from our community showed up to pay respects.

In other instances, the LGBTQ community has been known to pay its respects in droves.  The dominant recollections I have of the memorials for George Fadiga, Anne Tracy, Henry Messer, and Bill Beachler is that they were all packed with people.

In December 2015, I drove to Waterford for the funeral of Father Rod Reinhart, an openly-gay Episcopal priest who had been active in Detroit’s LGBTQ community since the 1970s.  Reinhart began an annual ecumenical service called People Who Care About People with AIDS.

Phil O’Jibway, Tom Zerafa, and Faith Robinson were also in attendance, a reunion of sorts of an earlier generation of activists there to honor and remember.

The story of AIDS in gay America is also the story of funeral directors who refused service, of ACT UP staging political funerals, and of friends so bombarded with loss that they could no longer bear the ritualized good-byes.

I met David Sefernick when I was in elementary school.  He was a childhood friend of my cousin Katrina; his mom Bea worked with my Aunt Melita.  David and I both liked to draw, and I remember sitting at the dining room table with him sketching different characters, mine influenced by Looney Tunes, his by comic books.  His drew his female heroines with big busts.

In the early 1990s, I became reacquainted with David when he returned to Flint after living in New York.  I ran into him downtown at the Torch Bar wearing a black “Silence = Death” t-shirt with the pink triangle, something I thought at the time was incredibly daring for Flint.

I last saw David at the final full display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Mall in Washington in October 1996.  David died of complications from AIDS on January 11, 1997.

David’s funeral remains etched in my mind because of its amazing convergences.  Teachers from Carmen Schools sat on one side of the chapel and familiar faces from Flint’s queer and punk nightlife on the other side.

The memorial last September for Triangle Foundation founder Jeffrey Montgomery was a major public event.  I was invited to make some remarks.  I’m no Renee McCoy or Jim Toy, but did my best to capture Jeff’s activism and sense of mischief.

Funerals are times of intense loss and grieving, and gay funerals are no different.  There is a concentration of queer remembering that happens at gay funerals, however, that is unique and vital to our community.

Ashes to ashes, pixy dust to pixy dust.

Tim Retzloff

 

2 thoughts on “Gay Funerals”

  1. A very touching and accurate article. My 1st gay funeral was for one of my fellow volunteers at Wellness Networks, Inc. I don’t remember the year, but it must have been in the mid-eighties. As a straight woman, I didn’t know what to expect. The farewell service was held at MCC and was a beautiful celebration of his life and touched me deeply. Since then, I have participated in many gay funeral and memorial services. Most were beautiful, even when the person’s identity was not acknowledged. But, it would have been much more appropriate if their gay lives were also celebrated. And, sadly, some were just plain mean and cruel, and condemning. Those displays left the gay & lesbian attendees and their allies in floods of tears and anger. Hatred rears it’s ugly head in so many ways! I hope what I see in the hetero community is for real! An ever so slight change in attitude is beginning to take place. Granted, it is not enough, and is long overdue, but I have seen it. Let’s hope it continues and the future will hold the promise of a truly open society!

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  2. Interesting article. As more and more people come out and more families accept their LGBT family members, I find funeral and memorial services acknowledging and embracing all areas of the deceased’s past. When I made the video for a lesbian memorial service last year, I included photos from many different sources to reflect all the people who loved and missed her, including her grown children and grandchildren, current and former lovers and partners, LGBT friends, political activists, lesbian social groups, etc. Many of us only knew parts of her life, and this was one way for all of us to come together to honor her whole life. Hopefully, such integration will continue in other services in the future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0txQ6_ZRTjc

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