Reading the obituaries, I discovered a story of social progress.
[Editor's note: A recent Tyee article about an attempt to create Dignity House, a senior home for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, prompted the writer of this piece to send it our way.]
It's a public document, so I can talk about it.
I was looking at the obituaries. I hear that goes with aging, so I must be fitting the pattern. What I like about the way the paper does it these days is that they often have pictures of the person when they were young and then in their latter days. It is fascinating and somehow comforting to see how people change. From blurrily handsome fellow in his awkwardly fitting Second World War uniform, to a rather jowly face and a Legion pin on his lapel. Or sharp studio pictures of lovely girls just before their marriage, and at their passing thin and wispy-haired.
Then the messages -- the lives seemingly full of children and events and activities. Though sometimes it's clear that the survivors are struggling to find something to say.
This time it was a beautiful Chinese girl, aging to a plump woman nearing 80. The text was what struck me, though, because it said, "Sadly missed by her partner of 51 years, Mary." Not the real name here, even if it is a public document, but still -- another woman.
'It's fine with me'
I'm gay, and old enough to know the fear of being public. The sleazy basement clubs that could stay that way because no one was going to raise a fuss about poor service, unsafe surroundings, having to check the streets both ways as you came out of it to see that there were no local thugs waiting to pound the lezzies. And for women there were only two places for every 10 for guys, even in huge cities, because women didn't have decent incomes, didn't have a husband with a good job, and didn't drink the nights away. Guys could be single, but they had the money and the "lifestyle" and there would be many and various clubs for them. So "grunge" was our club style, before the word even came out.
I also know too well the fear of friends finding out, of the painful revelations and welcome relief when a friend says, "So this is news? I've known all along -- it's fine with me." So one-to-one, with friends, it was OK to be out, and to refer to whom you loved by their gender, by their name. But overall? Any time, any place, any person? Simply could not be done.
Now it's different, at least once the trauma is over of realizing you're one of "them" and weird and bad and… I still swear that no matter how young or old, no matter when it comes to you that you're gay, it is hell at first. But now there is somewhere to go that isn't a dump. There are people like you to read about, to listen to, to talk with at some drop-in centre, even to have a high school social group! Though I wonder how kids get the nerve to go to one of those.
Questions left unanswered
So it may be different now, but I wondered, looking at that picture, reading that text, if the woman who was still here went though that, or even more. I may be making some gross assumption here, but I rather think that the chances for acceptance in the Chinese world would be even less likely than in mine, and 51 years ago when they became lovers? And for that matter, was this living partner Chinese? Would that have made it easier, or even harder, made them even more estranged from each of their worlds?
But here and now I think of the kinds of changes that have happened and I wonder if it was these changes that let the partner at least now be open? How had it come about that the partner could not only say in a public document this is who she is, that is what the relationship was, but she could name every relative, every child for generations? She also thanked the hospital staff profusely and in detail. It was almost too much, but then I thought that the undercurrent of those effusions probably was, "Thank you for letting us be partners in my beloved's last days. Thank you for letting us be ourselves, for me being able to hold her even if you were in the room, to cry openly, to tell stories now and then as she slipped away."
I will not intrude on that sorrow by looking up the name and asking. This isn't some research report. And I'm trusting that her openness means that the woman writing has the friends and family she needs. She doesn't need to be connected to some support circle I might know about, she doesn't need a total stranger to call and ask her about her life and to offer condolences and thanks for her courage.
Besides, she has said that she will not be here long, for her last words in the paper were, "Rest well, my angel, and may God reunite us very soon."
I don't believe in heaven, but when I was a child they painted us pictures of the joy of walking down those golden streets and seeing family and friends long gone. Rushing to each other, embracing, crying with joy -- maybe even kissing? For her sake, I hope that what they said is true.