It was about 6:00 AM, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when I heard the phone ring. My partner, Amy, answered the phone, and although I couldn’t hear the conversation, I knew this wasn’t an ordinary, lighthearted call. A few minutes later, Amy came into the bedroom, tears welling up in her eyes. “He’s gone,” she said, blinking the tears back. Her father, who had been ill for many years, had died that morning.
Grief is normal. It’s what we typically experience when a significant loss occurs in our lives. And grief has many faces – sometimes, for example, when someone has been suffering from a long-term illness, we may experience what’s called anticipatory grief. (Given the length of her father’s illness, I think Amy and her family have been experiencing this for a while.) Sometimes we walk seamlessly through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance); often, our grief snubs its nose at those stages and instead takes a more complicated trajectory. We might even experience what’s called shadow grief, which is a response caused by reminders – a smell, a sound, a memory – that trigger feelings related to a more distant loss. (I might have a little of that going on, given that my own father died 15 years ago.) And yet, even knowing all of this information about grief, my own emotional reactions have caught me off-guard – especially given the fact that I’ve never had much of a relationship with my partner’s family. Although I don’t intend for my blog to be my personal journal, I’m going to reveal some more personal feelings – because I sense that, for several reasons, the homophobia and heteronormativity of our culture might provide some context for them.
For one thing, people in the LGBTQ community often experience family discord and disownment (either active or passive disownment) due to homophobia – and my partner and I aren’t immune to this. My partner’s family lives in rural North Carolina. They are regular churchgoers. They practice “Southern hospitality” – if you drop in unexpectedly, you will undoubtedly leave well-fed. They are cordial, polite, sociable – all those qualities that good Southern girls (and boys) learn early in life. And, like good churchgoers, they believe that homosexuality is a sin. They are friendly to me, but they do not acknowledge my relationship with Amy. As an example, in the obituary, the names all of the surviving siblings, children, and grandchildren were included, along with their wives or husbands. Except for mine – including my name would have revealed too much, most likely. When I first learned that my name wasn’t included, I shook it off. “It doesn’t surprise me,” I said nonchalantly after reading it. “That’s the way it’s always been.”
My response might have sounded slick, but the nonchalance was a front – a cover-up for much more complicated feelings. The reality is that I felt hurt, sad, and angry. VERY angry. Then I felt guilty for feeling so angry, and shallow for grinding my axe and making this all about me. And making someone else’s death all about you is not appropriate.
But then, grief takes on many forms, some of which look really ugly and inappropriate. In fact, it’s common enough that there’s a word for it – grief that’s “inappropriate,” or isn’t publicly recognized, is called disenfranchised grief. Losing a pet can involve disenfranchised grief (“Oh, come on! It’s just a cat!”) Ending an affair suddenly after it’s been discovered can cause disenfranchised grief – the parties involved in the affair probably aren’t going to receive much social support for their sorrow. And disenfranchised grief, sadly, is not unfamiliar to LGBTQ people – the loss of a same-sex partner may not be treated the same way as the death of an opposite-sex spouse (as an example, the first segment of the 2000 HBO film If These Walls Could Talk 2 is one of the most gut-wrenching cinematic portrayals of disenfranchised grief I’ve ever seen). The more culturally inappropriate the grief (or the source of the grief) is, the more likely the grief process will be disenfranchised.
Disenfranchised grief probably explains a fraction of the messy feelings both of us have been experiencing. I’m not a blood relative, and I’m not accepted as a family member through marriage, so my grief process is disenfranchised, in the sense that my feelings exist in isolation, on the edges of the normative grief rituals (such as funerals, viewings, and memorial services). But Amy’s grief process is likely even more disenfranchised. Attending her father’s funeral meant missing a once-a-year visit from my mother – who is unconditionally accepting of our relationship. I imagine that, while Amy feels incredibly sad about her father’s death, those feelings are complicated by that dilemma in allegiances. Eva Reimers of Linkoping University (Sweden) addresses this issue in her 2011 article, “Primary mourners and next-of-kin – How grief practices reiterate and subvert heterosexual norms,” noting that, for many LGBTQ people, non-biological ties can be much stronger than the relationships we have with our families of origin – and those non-biological “chosen families” don’t fit very neatly into our death rituals and grief paradigms.
And yet, I think disenfranchised grief only offers a partial explanation for all these complex feelings. When I’m truly honest with myself about what my own feelings involve, I see that I’m probably not just grieving the actual loss of her father. Instead, I’m grieving a much deeper sense of loss – mostly involving the fantasies of what could have been. In his article, “Gay men: Grieving the losses of homophobia,” John Hart addresses the fact that the long-term effects of homophobia, for many of us, cause significant losses – and in our culture, there’s not a lot of open space in which to experience and grieve those losses. The losses due to homophobia are extensive – a list compiled by Warren Blumenfeld and published in his classic book Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price has been cited hundreds of times and used by numerous anti-homophobia educators. But sadly, many of us probably haven’t had the space to grieve these losses, even though we’re well aware of the toll homophobia has taken on individuals, families, and on the LGBTQ community.
Amy left on November 20 to go to her father’s funeral – ironically, the same day as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an observance that memorializes the victims of transphobic hate crimes. We have so few rituals in the LGBTQ community that gives us the space to mourn the losses of oppression, and the Day of Remembrance is one of them. And we need more of those kinds of rituals, for the only way out of grief is through the grief.