I have been an ally and advocate to the LGBTQ+ community for my entire adult life. Professionally, academically, and personally, I consistently work to educate myself and others on the history and issues pertinent to this community while seeking always to support the many queer-identified persons in my life, from my students and colleagues to my friends and chosen family. Unsurprisingly, much of this support has centered on grief – both the grief experienced after the loss of a loved one and the complex grief felt by so many LGBTQ+ persons due to ambiguous, non-death losses. Frequently, the convergence of these categories of loss experiences leads to a unique type of disenfranchised grief for queer-identified individuals, perpetuated by others’ lack of understanding of the complications and contexts of their grief experiences.
For members of the queer community and their allies, it is my hope that this piece will assist you in validating and communicating the complications and contexts of grieving death losses alongside non-death losses and in seeking and providing the support and love most needed in times of grief.
As we know, although members of the LGBTQ+ community may share common experiences that can complicate grief, grief itself – our emotional response to loss – is always unique from person to person and from loss to loss. This community itself is richly diverse – as one of my dear former students, Aaron Pelchat, recently observed to me, “cisgender white gays and black trans teens aren’t going to grieve the same… they all have such varied experiences being ‘othered’ as queer.”
While queer-identified persons share many legal and social inequalities in a culture that has not yet eradicated homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, the weight and shape of those inequalities will bear down in differing ways on individuals within the community who also contend with racism, class bias, and ethnocentrism. Recognizing and bearing witness to the intersecting stressors of types of inequality on a bereaved member of the community is an important first step in understanding their unique grief.
Grieving Death Losses Alongside Non-Death Losses
While anyone can experience disenfranchised grief – grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly observed – specific types of death and membership in already-disenfranchised populations can significantly heighten one’s risk of experiencing it. In this way, LGBTQ+ individuals may be doubly at risk for disenfranchised grief. First, as I have discussed in previous blog posts, homicide, suicide, and HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately cause loss of life in the LGBTQ+ community, can lead to blame, stigma, and judgment that disenfranchise survivors. Second, if you have already experienced unique and harmful incidences of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination over the course of your life, it is both deeply tragic and cruelly unsurprising that your personal death losses may be overlooked and undervalued within families of origin, communities, and religious organizations.
To support one another in our grief, we must actively and publicly recognize, understand, and validate our unique losses due to discrimination and their impact on death losses. These losses can be numerous and will be different for everyone who lives under the umbrella of the LGBTQ+ community, but might well include:
- Losses of relationships within a family of origin
- Loss of membership within a religious community
- Discriminatory job loss and housing loss
- Loss of safety and security due to threats or experiences of interpersonal violence and hate crimes
- Loss of mental health and emotional wellbeing secondary to social and institutional messaging of hate and unacceptance
Supporting with Love
The challenge of navigating non-death losses due to ignorance and hate, whether historically experienced or ongoing, while responding to the death of a loved one is tremendous, but the additional impact of being unsupported in grief is immeasurable. Because prejudice and discrimination continue to challenge and threaten queer lives, as well as undermine the unique grieving experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, it is more important than ever that we recognize these losses and respond with empathy and care.
I have been an activist long enough not to take lightly the challenges we face in the long, rocky road toward equality. I’ve resisted falling into a space of cynicism, largely because my faith in humanity is bolstered by queer activists, young and old, inhabiting and working in all walks of life, who remind me of these truths:
Love is more powerful than hate.
And love is more powerful than loss.
Perhaps most especially in times of grieving, we have a basic human need for others to bear witness to our pain and to offer support, compassion, and love. I have been privileged to work with such incredible LGBTQ+ undergraduate students who also come to me with their stories of death and non-death losses. They are rarely seeking advice. They are testifying their grief, and my role is to bear witness to it.
These students tell me stories of being ejected from funerals for not dressing “appropriately,” i.e. in conformity to their gender assignment; of having their dead name published in the obituary of a loved one; of being instructed not to invite their partner to the memorial service of their parent. These stories lead to longer stories of the losses that accumulated throughout their lives, from being spat on at a Pride parade, to being beaten, to being threatened with rape, to being raped, to being disowned.
“Have you found your people yet?” I ask them. Sometimes they say yes, and smile through tears, and tell me about the friend or the partner or the teammate who not only validates their losses but in doing so, validates their very existence. And sometimes they say no, and I promise them that they will find these people, and to keep their eyes and their hearts open. “Know that you are loved,” I tell them. “Know that you are worthy of being loved for the unique and amazing person you are.”
From Grief to Pride
To end disenfranchised grief in the LGBTQ+ community, we must by necessity claim a united stake in ending the disenfranchisement of all LGBTQ+ lives.
At the time of this writing, it is late June, which means we are nearing the end of LGBTQ+ Pride Month. This is the 50th anniversary of Pride, and June 28 marks the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Pride evokes different feelings and values to different people – it is both a way of affirming community bonds and celebrating long-fought legal victories as well as a means of recommitting to advocacy and change, while demanding visibility and representation. This year, we may be feeling palpably the loss of public celebrations and demonstrations for Pride. However, my own pride in working with and for the LGBTQ+ community is marked this year with an even deeper respect for the strength, unity, and resilience of queer individuals and organizations that continue to grieve together in their losses and celebrate together in their victories.
Know always that your losses and your grief matter.
Know always that your lives and your work matter.
Know always that your voices and your experiences matter.
We all deserve to “love the life we live, and live the life we love,” and writing as a fierce ally, we will not stop fighting for and with you until each of you can live, love, grieve, and work with full equality and support.