My mother was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and so end-of-life issues are much on my mind. When she passes—a straight, cisgender woman—she will be buried next to my father under a common gravestone, with the name she prefers. Our family will honor both her individual identity and the life she and my father created together. Not all LGBT people can expect the same, however, as several recent incidents have reminded us.
In early January, the New Hope Ministries Church in Lakewood, Colorado, cancelled the funeral of Vanessa Collier, a lesbian mother, 15 minutes before it was due to start, because church Pastor Ray Chavez would not allow her spouse, Christina Higley, to show a video that included scenes of their engagement and other affectionate moments between the women. He would only permit it if Higley edited out those images. Ultimately, the funeral was moved to a mortuary across the street, where Higley’s own chaplain, Gary Rolando, presided over the service.
I cannot imagine what Collier and Higley’s two daughters, ages 7 and 11, must have thought. It is awful enough to lose a mother, without being told that the love and affection between one’s parents is so worthless it must be excised from remembrance.
Some transgender people have faced a somewhat different but no less tragic erasing of their selves upon death. When transgender teen Leelah Alcorn died by suicide in December, her mother refused to use her preferred gender pronouns when talking with the media. They put Leelah’s legal name, Joshua, on her gravestone, and banned her best friend, Abby Jones, from the funeral, reported the U.K.’s Daily Mail. After Leelah’s death, Abby had posted online a photo that Leelah had taken of herself wearing a dress and it quickly went viral, which apparently angered Leelah’s parents.
Her mother told CNN that she and her husband "don't support that [Leelah’s transgender identity], religiously," although she added, "But we told him that we loved him unconditionally." Hmm. Refusing to acknowledge a child’s gender identity isn’t quite what I think of as “unconditional.”
One might imagine an adult would escape the same treatment. Not always. In November, a 32-year-old transgender woman in Idaho, Jennifer Gable, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. After her death, her parents referred to her exclusively by her birth name, Geoffrey, and with male pronouns. The memorial Web page they established at the funeral home website uses a photo of Gable pre-transition. Even worse, she was presented in the open casket at the funeral dressed in a man’s suit and with her hair in a man’s cut, reported the Miami Herald.
The family is not always at fault. In another incident last August, the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Florida cancelled the funeral of Julion Evans with less than a day’s notice after learning he was gay. His extended family members belong to that church, so his husband Kendall Capers had wanted the funeral held there. There was no discord between Capers and Evans’ family, according to NBC affiliate WFLA. Their relationship was known to the family, and Evans’ mother was “devastated” when she heard of the cancellation.
These are only a few examples of times LGBT people have been misgendered or their partners and family ignored upon their deaths. All four individuals above ran up against religious intolerance that prevented them from having their lives honored in the ways that they would wish. This seems one of the worst and most cowardly kinds of discrimination—discriminating when the targets can’t fight back.
The fact that these stories are in the news, however, means that someone is fighting back on their behalf, that at least some friends and family of those above are stepping up and speaking out to ensure that LGBT people are remembered with authenticity and dignity.
Not every denomination or ministry is intolerant, of course. And organizations like the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging (lgbtagingcenter.org) have resources to guide individuals in end-of-life planning so their wishes are more likely to be respected. These are useful, but I fear they may be overlooked by younger LGBTQ people and their families. We shouldn't wait until old age to think about these things or talk about them with our loved ones, however, especially if we have children for whom our funerals would be an important part of the mourning process.
And when we hear in the media of incidents like the ones above, we can continue, as many have done, to reinforce the true lives of the individuals by passing on their stories (to the extent that we know them) and calling out those who deny them their selves.
The way a community treats its members upon their deaths sets a tone that will resonate long after they are gone. Denominations, ministries, and individuals of faith that discriminate are undermining their own cause as they alienate those family and friends of LGBTQ individuals who accepted them for who they were. Shame on those who profess to help people with their grief and instead add to it.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.