I recently read something on Original Mohomie's blog about an experience he had attending an AIDS benefit in Salt Lake, and it just got me to thinking.
I've been around and out of the closet and involved in the gay community long enough to have had a number of good friends who have died of AIDS. I had a friend in our UCC congregation, a much loved, much respected leader of our church community who died of AIDS. Both he and his partner had had AIDS, and his partner died first, which was an incredible loss for him and left him feeling very lonely. He survived his partner by many years, and he lived long enough to see some of the new treatments come available, but by the time they came along, he was too advanced with various AIDS-related illnesses to benefit much from them. With the availability of the new treatments developed in the early 1990s, the mortality rate has dropped quite dramatically. It was over a decade ago when this friend from church died, and we thought maybe we had seen the last of AIDS-related deaths among close friends of ours.
But Göran and I attended an AIDS funeral again early this year. This friend's name was Michael, but he was known to all his friends as "Muffy." He was Göran's best friend for many years, the person who had most consistently been there for Göran from when he first moved to Minneapolis. When Göran and I had a wedding ceremony in 1995, Muffy was Göran's best man. Like almost all of Göran's closest friends back in those days, Muffy was a drag queen. He was sweet, considerate, and quiet (which you wouldn't expect from a drag queen!), but he also had a really sharp sense of humor. He was charismatic, and just naturally drew people around him. Everybody who knew him loved Muffy. Göran and Muffy were both founding members of the local chapter of the gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, and for many years, Muffy was the heart of that organization.
When Muffy got sick, I think he felt deeply ashamed at some level. He tried to hide it for a long time. When it was no longer hide-able, he left the Twin Cities and retreated to the trailer home his mom lived in in rural Minnesota. Muffy's fraternity brothers continued to visit him and comfort him, but it was extremely difficult for him. He didn't want people to make a fuss about him, and he didn't want to be seen "that way."
Muffy's mom loved him very much, but unfortunately she was also deeply homophobic. After Muffy died, she tried to plan the funeral without telling any of his friends. Göran and others found out about the funeral, and even though we had been uninvited, Göran insisted that he could not let Muffy's funeral pass without at least trying to go. They found out where it was taking place. Göran and I put on our Sunday best, and showed up at the funeral home, not knowing what would happen.
Muffy's mom intercepted us in the foyer and told us that we could go view the casket but that we had to leave before the funeral started. This was extremely painful to Göran, but we felt that if that was all the family would allow us to do, that was what we would have to do. But then Muffy's aunt intervened. She told her sister, "These were Michael's friends. They loved Michael. They have a right to be here. You can't tell them to leave." There was some discussion, and in the end, Muffy's mom grudgingly agreed to let his friends stay for the funeral.
There were more gay people in the sanctuary than straight family members. Muffy was much loved by the many people in the GLBT community who had come to know him over the years. But we all sat in silence at the back of the sanctuary. The funeral itself was depressing, not necessarily because it was a funeral, but because it was a funeral that had nothing to do with Muffy. Of course, none of the people who had really known and loved Muffy for the last twenty years of his life were allowed to speak. A Catholic priest got up and uttered some generalities about the love of God and the resurrection. One of Muffy's sisters-in-law took the stand, and talked about how her faith in Jesus helped her face adversity. Not a single story was told about Muffy. Who he was. What he'd done. The people he'd loved and helped. Nothing.
After the funeral, once again the mother came and told us that now the funeral was over, it was time to leave. We were uninvited from attending the graveside ceremony. Once again, the sister intervened and convinced the mother to let those of us who wished attend.
A few stalwarts attended the graveside ceremony (it was cold out and there was snow on the ground). After the ceremony was finished and the family had dispersed, a number of us were still hanging around, talking about Muffy, telling stories about him, things that we all remembered that felt important to share. The priest actually came up to us and apologized to us. He said he wished he had had a chance to talk to some of us before the funeral so he could have said something more meaningful about Muffy's life. Unfortunately, Muffy's mother had refused to give the names of any of his friends to the priest when she asked him to perform the funeral. He said he was very sorry. He stayed and listened to us talk for a while as we shared some of our stories. We thanked him for doing the best he could, and for saying at least some generous words of comfort during the ceremony, reminding us that Muffy was loved by God and that he would be welcomed in God's kingdom.
Afterwards, a number of Muffy's friends went to a restaurant together and reminisced. That was the real funeral for us. It was when Muffy could be remembered the way he deserved to be remembered.
One of the things that was hardest for Göran was seeing Muffy in the open casket. Muffy was in his early forties when he died, but he looked like he was eighty. AIDS had really ravaged his body. It was almost unbearable to Göran to think that he had died the way he had, so full of shame, and away from all his friends. As unkind as his mother was to us, we were at least grateful that she had taken care of him in the final months. I guess she had a certain image of him, and wanted to keep that image for herself, and didn't want to be reminded of his life as a gay man. All the pictures that were on display in the funeral home were pictures from more than twenty years ago, pictures of what Muffy had been in high school. There were actually pictures of him with a prom date. If you didn't know better, you'd think a heterosexual teenager had died, not a gay man in his early forties.
Apart from the personal loss for Göran, the funeral was a reminder to us that the AIDS epidemic is not over, even though there are incredible new treatments available. Somehow it felt to us like something had gone terribly wrong. Muffy shouldn't be dead. He should still be here. And then there was the anguish of the disconnect between Muffy's friends and his family. It was also a reminder to us of how important family is, and how painful it is for those of us who are gay when our families can't seem to reconcile themselves to this fundamental aspect of who we are.
We miss him, and we still love him, and we wish things had somehow gone better. But we are grateful too for the friendship we were blessed to have with him. Gratitude will just have to get us by until we meet again.