Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Duchess reflects (rants) on death, ritual, identity, and pink carnations

[LifeLube is bloody thrilled to present Duchess a new, semi-irregular column featuring the ramblings of an English Duchess. This is the second - more to come. Click here for the first.]

Unfortunately we all die, it's a sad reality that comes as part of humanity.

As I don my black twin set and antique pearls to bid another close friend goodbye, I started to reflect on the rituals and language around death and bereavement in our own lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities.

Most of the ritual around death is based in religion and it is ironic that many of us return to these faith based rituals to mark the end of life when for the majority of our lives organised religions often isolate and marginalise us because of our relationships and life partners. Although there are smaller groups within these faiths who acknowledge our lives and value us, they are splinters from the main religious tenement and few have structured ceremonies for the bereaved.

As a community we have gone through an almost genocidal onslaught on gay and bisexual men through the HIV epidemic, and many of our trans and lesbian and bisexual sisters and brothers were not left untouched. There were periods in the 80's and 90's where the funerals came so thick and fast it was worse than the new season on Broadway and we ran out of small talk and chit chat as we bumped into each other again and again, laughing, crying, remembering and rejoicing the lives of those we had lost.

But despite all of this death, we are drawn back to the hetero-norms of religion to mark the passing of our lives, we have no language for death and bereavement in our community and hence struggle to find a community paradigm to mark the passing of loved ones.

I was most struck as I tried to simultaneously swallow a dry and tepid cucumber sandwich and shake hands with the bereaved partner that there is no language in our community for the bereaved.

The heterosexual terms of widow and widower are based on the concept of marriage, a luxury of language denied to the vast majority of our community across the world. We have fought long and hard to argue that our relationships have validity and have them recognised in law, but as a community we have yet to develop the language that goes with these life-long partnerships. When a gay man looses his partner of five, ten, twenty years, we just re-classify him as single and expect him to find someone else. There isn't a tick box on the form for 'civil partner bereaved' and yet widower doesn't quite fit - despite the drama queens running for the veil and gin gimlets!

The advent of anti-retrovirals has changed the nature of HIV and AIDS in the western world, yet infection rates continue to rise amongst gay men and as people live longer we are seeing the returns of lives of hedonism full of smoking, drugs and alcohol coming home to roost with strokes, heart attacks and early onset dementia, and frankly there are enough dizzy queens in the world without adding hoards of demented queers to their numbers! As we live into old age and some of us who have been fortunate to find life partners, will find ourselves loosing them, being the one left behind, and we need a new language to describe that state.

At one funeral the pastor stumbled over the re-written core text, where 'he' and 'she' had to be switched to recognise that this was the funeral of one part of a same-sex partnership and despite the best  intentions the wording didn't fit and it all felt a little forced in. Of course the awful choice of floristry didn't help, bright pink carnations are never a good funeral flower, I don't care how camp you are!

Almost every tribal community has a special place for the bereaved, especially the widows, from the dowager empresses of the forbidden city to the white widows of India, these communities recognise the special and unique space occupied by the bereaved.

So what space do we create in our diverse, migrating, fluid and fluctuating community?

How many LGBT community services and organisations run bereavement services?, how many of us have asked about how the local funeral home will recognise and accommodate queer identities?

How often do you see bereavement materials which are LGB and T inclusive in language and imagery?

Now this might just be a personal rant as I am not as young as I used to be and despite surgical interventions and the wonder of botox, I know that unlike Cher, I will not live forever, none of us will (okay I'll give you Joan Rivers and Cher might), so why don't we get the discussion going and find a language, rituals and identity which values our lives and our loves in death as well as in life.

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