“Beloved Life Partner”

LGBTQ Michiganders are coming out, hidden in plain sight.

They’re coming out in obits, as the deceased and as survivors.

We can discover them on newspaper obituary pages or, more likely today, find them via an obituary link on a local media outlet’s website.

We’re likely used to seeing “beloved wife of Arnold” and “beloved husband of Ella for 54 years” and “beloved wife of the late Ivan.”  In death notices, long-term heterosexual unions have long been celebrated aplenty.

Phrases in obits like “life partner” or “beloved companion” or, more recently “her wife” and “his husband,” still stand out as unusual.  Yet they are becoming more and more common, and are giving us a new glimpse at long-term same-sex couples who have lived discreetly in our midst for decades.

A sampling shows how daily newspapers from throughout Michigan have embraced the trend.

The 2009 death notice for Denor Hey in the Lansing State Journal noted that she was survived by “her life partner Beverly Bristol.”

Marcia Elise Baker’s obituary in the Grosse Pointe News in 2010 mentioned “Claudia Osborn, her life partner of 25 years.”

The Lapeer County Press obit for Naomi Hall in 2013 listed “her life partner of 25 years, Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Neal” as a survivor.

The Detroit News death notice for Lino Vincent Lopez Jr. from 2014 identified him as “Beloved life partner of Todd Patrick Kananen for over 23 years.”

According to the 2015 Adrian Daily Telegram obit for Bonnie Miller, she was “survived by her life partner, Esther Stoker.”

In the Mining Journal, Judy Eisenberg’s 2015 death notice reported that she left behind “her life companion of 24 years, Diane Jarvi.”

Further west in the Upper Peninsula, the Ironwood Daily Globe obit in 2016 for Scott Warren noted that he and “lifelong partner, George J. Henkel” had been together more than 36 years.  Ironwood!

Last year, the Iosco County News-Herald obituary for Duane Froelich gave Greg Ries as his “life partner of 20 years.”

Also last year, the Kalamazoo Gazette death notice for Kristin Cookson stated, “She is survived by her wife of 49 years, Suzanne Marie Lohrberg.”

And the Holland Sentinel obit for Ronald DeJonge earlier this year noted that was survived by “his partner, Daris Cichock.”

I have more than 150 others on hand to draw from for future additions to Michigan LGBTQ Remember.

These were not major activists or names we’ll often read in Between The Lines or other LGBTQ publications.  They were simply people who lived ordinary lives with someone special, someone special of the same sex, to accompany them on their journey.

Emily Dievendorf is president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights and former executive director of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Michigan.  During one of her visits to my LGBTQ studies class, she told my students about witnessing an exhilarating progression of same-sex couples who flocked to the Ingham County Court House to apply for marriage licenses the first moment that they could.

The day was March 22, 2014, the morning after Judge Bernard Friedman declared Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  County Clerk Barb Byrum and three other county clerks in the state opened their offices to grant licenses for several hours until the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals halted the licenses that afternoon, pending repeal.

More than 300 same-sex couples received licenses that day, including 57 couples in Ingham County.

Dievendorf didn’t recognize them.

Here were female couples and male couples, some together more than ten, twenty, and thirty years, stepping forward to legally and publicly affirm their relationships.  The head of the largest LGBTQ activist organizations in Michigan, who had been involved our community for years, had never seen them before.  Yet they’d been there, part of our community, all along.

Recent obits and Dievendorf’s story show change underway.

Not so long ago, life partners would be called “friend” or perhaps “close friend” in obituaries, if they were mentioned at all.  Such secrecy and euphemism reflected the social conditioning of the closet, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell social contract that earlier generations adhered to in order to exist in society.

Such secrecy and euphemism also reflected family displeasure and their power to plans funerals, dispense estates, and write death notices.  As legal strangers, life partners had no say.  When they did have a say, they often remained mute.

The silence began to be lifted during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic as mentions of a “longtime companion” started appearing in some obituaries for famous and not-so-famous gay and bisexual men lost to the disease.  The phrase inspired the name of the 1989 film Longtime Companion.

Such mentions signaled the profound scale of loss and intensity of grief that had long gone unspoken.

In the years since, more and more LGBTQ people are coming out with their deaths.  In their passing they refuse to conceal their lives or to deny their loves.

Their role as a “beloved life partner” can be finally disclosed, finally honored.

Tim Retzloff

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