Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two Obituaries, Two Very Different Stories of What Family Is About: Who Counts, Who Doesn't, and the Role Churches Play

Two obituaries, two very different stories about what family is about — who counts, who doesn't, who is included, who may be excluded, looked down on, denigrated, told that he/she is worthless when family gathers:

The first obituary is the one I wrote when my aunt Katherine Simpson died in December 2001. The second is the one my cousin has just written and published for his mother Billie, Kat's sister.
Notice anything different as you glance at the names of survivors — family members who are remembered as important, as those who loved the deceased and helped and supported her? I don't have a digital copy of the obituary I wrote in September 2001 for my mother, who was also a sister of Kat and Billie, but it had the same names of survivors as the obituary for my aunt Kat has. Both named nieces and nephews as survivors. My mother's obituary also included, of course, the names of her grandchildren as survivors.

Because that's what family is all about. That's what family is.

Or, perhaps, it's what family is in the minds of some people. Several years ago, after I sent my cousin a card expressing my condolences that one of his cousins had died, he sent me an email ordering me never to contact him again. I had signed the card wrong in some way.

It was no secret to me that he had chosen to view Steve and me in this way, as enemies, as non-family — though we had done much to support and assist his mother, since he lived out of state. We had gotten a cell phone for her and paid for it for many years, told her please to call us anytime she needed anything. We checked on her constantly, kept in touch with her.

Then my brother's marriage ended, and some kind of bizarre split occurred in my family, with folks taking sides and, for reasons never explained to Steve and me, giving us strong signals that we did not count as family and were not wanted as family. When it was clear to me that my cousin and his mother, whom I loved, had decided to view us that way, I sent an email to my cousin saying I was sorry that they had chosen to think about and treat Steve and me this way, but since it was clear that there was only one family member in Little Rock (he names that family member in the obituary) with whom they wanted to keep up, and to rely on, we'd bow out of the picture and not bother them.

That family member's son, my nephew, posted statements on Facebook several times after this, wanting me to see them, that Billie was hosting dinners for "all the family."

Dinners to which we were not invited.

We are not family. As I say, my cousin told me quite explicitly in an email several years ago never to contact him again. Family is . . . someone else. It is mother, father, children, and grandchildren.

Family is normal family. It is not people like Bill and Steve. They might as well be dead as far as "real family" — the kind who gather at churches and have faith — are concerned.

I have remembered my aunt with love in several tributes on Facebook. I've sent a memorial contribution in her memory to a church I value. I do not think I will go to her funeral at the end of this week.

Why would I, when I have been told quite decisively — and this obituary is designed to deliver a decisive slap in that regard — that I am not family? Not wanted. Nothing Steve and I did over many years to support this aunt is valued or counts or is appreciated.

Funerals, and church gatherings, and faith communities: they are for "real" family.

Not for the likes of Steve and me.

(Why do I tell this painful story? Some people may think my motivation is pique, to return hurt for hurt.

That's not what moves me. What moves me is that so many people who are LGBTQ have experiences like this on a constant basis, and never get a hearing for their painful stories. And everywhere you turn in these stories, there's the church to deal with.

Propping up the hurt. Helping the knife to be driven deeper. Aiding and abetting in the sending of the message that LGBTQ people do not count, cannot claim church as home. Do not have faith. 

Faith belongs to heterosexual people who bear children. All of these messages are very powerfully present in the obituary my cousin has just written for his mother, and they are messages that he intends Steve and me to hear loudly and clearly.

They are messages he and the family member he celebrates exclusively in this obituary as special to him and his mother — and that family member's children, my niece and nephews — have long given Steve and me, for many years. It's a message my own brother, who long played the game of pretending to be heterosexual because he got many perks and privileges for doing so, has long given Steve and me and reinforced in his children.

Church should not be participating in this kind of abusive treatment of human beings, it seems to me. I tell this story to communicate that message one more time, if anyone is listening.)

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