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.

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Our Queer Sites

Commemoration is an act of deliberate remembering.  We place markers, we assign designations, we erect statues (and sometimes take them down) to show what we find important to collectively remember.

This week, Americans of every gender and sexuality head to visit National Parks and National Monuments for the Fourth of July.  The famed Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 uprising that helped spark a new wave of mass activism known as Gay Liberation, became one such National Monument in 2014.

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Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives

The title of Howard Brown’s posthumously published 1976 autobiography captures the prevailing experience of LGBTQ people born to a certain era: Familiar Faces., Hidden Lives.

In early 1991, in the early stages of researching the gay past of my hometown of Flint, I met Al Kerr, an 86-year-old local travel agent who had, in the late 1950s, lent his mimeograph machine for the Detroit chapter of the Mattachine Society to print its newsletter.

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The Silences of Leo Janas

The first issue of the pioneering magazine ONE hit newsstands in January 1953.

Begun by an offshoot group of the Mattachine Society, ONE bravely offered “the homosexual viewpoint” to its readers, addressing such topics as gay bars, blackmail, and same-sex marriage during the conformist and repressive McCarthy Era.  In 1958, the Supreme Court upheld the right under the First Amendment for ONE to publish and to be distributed through the mails.  Thereafter, mere discussion of homosexuality in the U.S. could no longer be deemed obscene.

Among those on the staff of ONE were former Michiganders W. Dorr Legg and Irma Wolf.

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Why Obituaries?

My focus on obituaries as the basis of a website that aims to remember LGBTQ Michiganders might seem a bit macabre.  This is certainly not the intention.  While death and loss may be one undeniable undertone, the growing popularity of sites such as legacy.com and tributes.com suggests a strong interest in the obituary as a means of remembrance.

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My Path to Queer Remembering (3 of 3)

The most recent leg of my path to queer remembering involved my training as a professional historian.  Age 42, fresh from finishing my B.A. at the University of Michigan, I landed at Yale to pursue a Ph.D.

My leap of faith into grad school was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition, swim or sink and all that.

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My Path to Queer Remembering (2 of 3)

In beginning to research the gay history of my hometown of Flint back in the late 1980s, I realized I needed a grasp of the queer past of Michigan and the United States.

For the U.S., I devoured whatever books I could find, which then consisted of Gay American History and the Gay/Lesbian Almanac by Jonathan Katz, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D’Emilio, and Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman.  A bibliography by Jennifer Terry, “Locating Ourselves in the History of Sexuality,” in a new quarterly called Out/Look, suggested more books to read and provided another beacon of encouragement.

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My Path to Queer Remembering (1 of 3)

My path to queer remembering started with simple curiosity.

From ninth grade through the early years of my first stab at college, I worked at the Flint Public Library.  In one of my jobs there, I staffed the Clerk’s Desk, which involved retrieving bound magazines from basement storage, helping people with microfilm readers, and sometimes taking ID for certain publications that might be stolen.  One such publication was Continue reading “My Path to Queer Remembering (1 of 3)”

We Were Everywhere

“We are everywhere!”

The banner, carried by participants in the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, conveyed a claim of ubiquity that has been a recurrent message among LGBTQ people and our allies in the decades since.

Yes, we can be found in every walk of life, from doctors and lawyers and teachers and artistes to sales clerks and mechanics and fast food workers.  Some live open lives of wild flamboyance, others remain deeply closeted about their sexuality.

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Inspired to Queerly Remember

My friend Julie came to visit me in Lansing last summer.  She was in the midst of nine months “on the lam” to rescue their dog Tiberius from hateful neighbors in suburban Maryland.  She was living in Saginaw for the time being, in the house where she grew up, and was nearer than she’d been in a couple decades.  I relished getting to see her more often, Continue reading “Inspired to Queerly Remember”