Erasures

On social media this past week, my friend Bob posted an announcement that a friend of his from high school had taken his own life.

Within 48 hours, at the behest of the friend’s family, he took the posting down.

The erasure nagged at Bob to the point that he sent a message to me, my husband Rick, and our friend Pete:

He was a veteran. We kill ourselves at an alarming rate.

He was over 50. We kill ourselves more than any other statistically significant group.

He was gay. I didn’t mention this on FB because he was a private guy and didn’t really share his sexuality with people. I didn’t want to out him in an obituary. But yeah, gay males kill themselves.

His parents, perhaps in their grief, are trying to rewrite his history into “war hero … [and] good Catholic boy.”  It bums me out.

It feels bewildering, in some ways, that such erasures with regard to suicide and sexuality persist in 2018, especially given the consequences of persistent secrecy.  Yet, as attested by Bob’s respect for family wishes, people and their secrets are always more complicated than any purist belief in disclosure might suggest.

Bob said it would be okay to write about his high school friend to explore some issues surrounding erasures.  I won’t use his name or disclose identifiable details.  In this blog post, I’ll look at erasures of sexuality and gender identity.  I’ll continue the discussion in my next post with a closer look at stigmas and erasures related to suicide.

Though Bob’s high school friend had never married, Bob isn’t sure whether he was ever out to his parents.  Even if he were, shame often persists, along with potential penalties.

Given the family’s faith and given recent developments within the Catholic Church, their wish for secrecy is understandable.  Last year, Bishop Thomas Paprocki ordered priests in the Central Illinois Diocese to deny funeral rites to parishioners in same-sex marriages.

Months later, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin instructed priests in his jurisdiction to refrain from conducting funeral masses for same-sex spouses to preclude any “public scandal of the faithful.”

The possible denial to funeral rites is a deeply powerful concern for Catholics who wish to see lesbian and gay loved ones buried within the Church.

Genuine spiritual concerns notwithstanding, LGBTQ erasures at the time of death often have more to do with saving face than adhering to church doctrine.  As I touched on last year when I wrote about Gay Funerals, some survivors expunge any acknowledgement of a family member’s LGBTQ life, out of shame, out of denial, or out of spite.

For many of us, such erasures are painful and all too familiar.

Last month I moderated a panel discussion at Menjo’s of Detroit-area Queens, all past winners of the Miss Gigi’s contest.  I mentioned obtaining the death certificate of Robert Brunner, famed as local female impersonator Melba Moore.  The document, I said, listed “Never worked” under occupation.  Whoever provided the information apparently did not see the toil Melba Moore put into 25 years of performing to be work.

In response, Fantasya Dior, Miss Gigi’s 1988, shared how Moore’s family had rejected her.  They’d been happy to have Moore babysit or lend them money, but they excluded her from holiday parties and other family gatherings.  When Moore died in 1999, the LGBTQ bar community came together to raise money for her services.  Still, the family made the arrangements, including the decision to have Moore laid out in male attire.

Dior told the audience that she could not bear to attend the visitation.  In all the years she knew Moore, she had never seen her friend and mentor dressed as a man.

Erasures are a continuous reality faced by those of us who research the LGBTQ past.

We know little about the gay life of noted playwright and University of Michigan graduate Avery Hopwood, whose estate funded the namesake Hopwood Awards.  We get hints of his homosexual antics from Carl Van Vechten’s The Splendid Drunken Twenties.  But further details and Hopwood’s own perspective vanished when, in the 1970s, his diaries were inexplicably destroyed.  Erased.

Acts of deliberate erasure continue on to this day, sometimes whopping, sometimes in the form of tiny elisions.  The obituary this year for Shirley Schick identified Margret Kellogg as her “life partner.”  Kellogg’s obit from 2015 mentions Schick as her “close friend.”

The website Find-A-Grave relies on volunteers to enter tombstone and obituary information for cemeteries across the country.

For reasons unknown but suspicious, the person who typed in Patricia Wootton’s obit on Find-A-Grave, a Richard S., excised the opening detail from her obit as published and presented by the L.J. Griffin Funeral Home: “Beloved life partner of Patricia Fair.”

Mr. S. states in his online bio for the Find-A-Grave site, “Entering memorials is a hobby for me. I enjoy it very much. I hope the families appreciate seeing their loved ones when they look them up.”

Apparently so long as they are not LGBTQ families.

Imposing a closet on the dead is a matter of disrespect, especially when someone was out and proud in life.

To borrow a lyric from the band Erasure: “Do you remember once upon a time when there were open doors?”

As someone who recently attended my birth father’s memorial, I understand the delicate dance that occurs in times of grieving, the polite tongue-biting we do to navigate the varied sensibilities of those who come to pay their respects.

Still, when does politeness and the decorum of privacy extend too far?  When do erasures become betrayals?

Maybe there is shame in reality.  Yet glossing, distorting, denying, and erasing the truth carries its own shame.

Tim Retzloff

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