Death and Marriage: A Gay Perspective
In the past year, death has taken a number of individuals from me, and very few of them were old. My grandmother did exit my world at the age of 99, and two days later I lost my beloved and faithful dog, who was decidedly senior at 16. But all of the others left well "before their time."All of Buffalo, Florida, Chicago, New York, and Dublin seemed to mourn the death of actor Chris O'Neill, who was in his early 50s when he died of a mysterious infection this year. Others have had to come to terms with the death of Amanda Occhino, whom I remember so vividly from Buffalo's lesbian theater troupe, HAG theater. She died a few weeks ago after a rolling log in the woods hit her, a freak accident, a sad example of that bus, that stray bullet, that flight 800 that could take you any day. She was only 22.And there have been others. Last month I attended the funeral of my friend Howard Berman, who died, too young, with a brain tumor.My lover and I attended the funeral. We have often been "the gay friends" at ceremonial occasions. Thankfully, at this one I felt invisible. Death is so sobering, and regardless of the life we lead, unlike weddings, baptisms, engagement parties and such, hetero and homosexual people have death in common.Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that mourning one's young friends is not a uniquely gay experience, that dying young is not the exclusive privilege of those with AIDS, and that living carefully is no guarantee of anything.We met Howard through his partner, Cheryl, who was a grad school friend of ours. They were a brilliant couple, taking vacations to see the prehistoric cave paintings of France, or ancient burial sites of Scandinavia. Howard was a global authority on laws related to indigenous peoples. The two of them embraced the here and now with a passion that was inspiring.For me, there was an unreality about Howard's death. A brain tumor is Bette Davis in Dark Victory, not anyone you know. I would telephone, and Cheryl and Howard would tell me what was going on. I would think, "Yes, yes, but next is a cure, next is remission."Just as homosexuality doesn't care if you approve of or want it, death does not care if you don't believe in it. As Emily Dickinson observed, even if you cannot stop for death, it will kindly come for you.Cheryl and Howard also had in common with us the fact that they were not legally married. One time when we visited them in San Diego, long before he was ill, they were having a battle with the law school where he worked. The school had extended benefits to same sex partners of employees, but not to heterosexual partners. The logic was that heterosexual couples could marry if they wanted to. Even among the liberal, the norms of our culture are both straight and narrow.I know a woman who was thrown out of her home when her partner died and his ex-wife took possession of the house. Death being far from his mind, after his divorce, he had never bothered to change his will, leaving his new partner with no rights.Although we have fewer legal protections, I think gay people are mentally better prepared for this kind of thing than straight people. Our expectations are lower. We have seen people behave badly toward us in times of stress. We have seen otherwise decent people abuse our vulnerabilities to secure selfish advantage, justifying themselves by reasoning that their lives and values are superior to ours. Too often, straight people who have strayed from society's established norms, even slightly, are taken by surprise when society slaps them back in line or excludes them.When Howard became ill, realizing the obstacles that they faced, Cheryl and he married. Cheryl didn't mention it to me, at least that I recall, until after the funeral.She lived with the day to day trials of Howard's illness. She battled the health care industry beside him. Not knowing her newly acquired legal status, I was impressed with the way the funeral director deferred to her, and that Howard's family acquiesced to her desires. I sensed that there may have been some friction over the absence of clergy. Howard had told me that his parents were not thrilled with that. Cheryl had told me that she'd had to instruct the funeral director to remove a star of David from the casket.At times of great sadness, we do not want to have to fight battles. That, I think, is why others intuitively choose such times to try to impose their wills upon us. At life's momentous events, there are those who seem to want to impose the truth of their world view by force.Experience has taught gay people to see that one coming. We have seen gay people buried and eulogized as if huge elements of their lives never existed. We have seen our very existence denied. We know that we must guard against that, or go along.Not to bend even when others tell us to be "reasonable," which is their way of saying "give in," is a kind of fortitude born of experience. I think that is why AIDS, which arrived on the heels of the gay liberation movement as "our" disease, helped instill a resiliency, a sense of willful self assertion in young gay people. We claimed our AIDS deaths, and we invented ways to ritualize them. We also saw an urgency about claiming rights to our relationships with each other.Nonetheless, too often we think that living carefully will give us a kind of immortality, and that these issues belong to other gay people.Since AIDS, the straight press has imposed a kind of equivalency between being gay and death. Even the recent murder of Gianni Versace has been reported with an emphasis on the homosexuality of the victim, rather than the brutality of the murder. And in the gay community, many of us were well aware of this particular serial killer long before he killed a celebrity - there is a general impression that society at large has difficulty seeing crimes against gay people as crimes.It is a pall that we seem to have internalized. The cover of a recent issue of The Advocate, a national gay news magazine, features a picture of Brad Davis, the hunky movie star who committed suicide before AIDS could kill him. Not merely gay, Davis was a sort of universal sex tool. His face accompanies three kindred stories: "Drugs: a new generation of gay men is learning how to party with drugs - and doing more than the usual damage"; "Sex: Drug abuse, fatalism, the yearning for intimacy - all could be contributing to a resurgence in unsafe sex"; and "Tragic glamour: his recklessness with sex and drugs led to his AIDS-related death. Why do gay men still idolize Brad Davis?"This issue left me nonplused. Gay people have a contradictory reputation for seizing the day with Ovidian zeal, and for living with the mindless abandon of the immortal. The gay party circuit is very far from my reality, and when Eleanor Roosevelt advised us to live each day as if it were our last, I don't think that's what she had in mind. I do not idolize Brad Davis, though I admired his performance in Querelle. And with heterosexual club culture all around me, I find it hard to believe that gay men have cornered the market on sex, drugs, and tragic glamour.I think, actually, because of AIDS, that gay people have become remarkably, or at least relatively well sensitized to issues of health, mortality, and legal rights. The realities of AIDS are so powerful to us that many of us, myself included, forget from time to time, that anybody ever dies of anything else. When I read in my alumni newsletter that a classmate has died, I'm always suspicious. When the time comes to make charitable contributions, I have to remind myself that my friends and family are not immune to things like breast cancer and heart disease.I always recall a scene from Hope and Glory, a film I have otherwise forgotten, in which a woman in London during World War II arrives at the burning rubble of what was her home and exclaims, "I didn't hear the air raid sirens!" A fireman answers, "There was no air raid. We still have house fires, even in war time."My friend Howard's death had been looming for the past year and a half, and in recent weeks we knew that its approach was accelerating. The progress of a brain tumor is not subtle. Seizures, paralysis, a gradual but intractable slide first into a wheel chair and then, thrashing, into a bed.He had a Native American funeral. The Onandoga faith keeper reminded us that every morning when we awaken, death sits on our left shoulder, and that there is no guarantee that we will live to see the sun set.I listened intently to that, and I know it's true. None of us can afford to squander the days, or to neglect the future. You would think that AIDS might have taught us to take that seriously. Perhaps we learn only through experience, and not through example.The faith keeper told us that Howard's spirit would linger in this place for a few days, staying near his body, and would then be gone.When the time came to go, we began to walk from the grave with Cheryl. "We just walk away," she said with a sad voice tinged with a wistful irony.We just walked away.If there is such a thing as a spirit, I think that Howard's must have gone on to another place by now. I'm sure, as well, that it has gone in peace. His surviving partner saw to that. The only way we can strike a bargain with death, is through the way we live. Cheryl negotiated for that privilege, and prevailed.