Death + the Law Grief + Mourning

Disenfranchised Grief

‘An Invisible Loss’: Gays and Lesbians Find Comfort Hard to Come by after Partner’s Death
The New Mexican (August 28, 2010)

The Santa Fe New Mexican published a feature story last week about the often difficult and uneasy situations created when gays and lesbians are faced with the death of their partner. In so many cases, the surviving partner is not considered part of the family and is intentionally or unintentionally branded with outsider status. He or she is left out of decision-making and grieving rituals before, during and after the death of a life partner. Grief over the loss of a loved one is often compounded by a lack of understanding and/or compassion on the part of the partner’s family, which then may extend to an oblivious or even hostile larger community.

John wrote this past May about the extra end-of-life legal hoops for same-sex partners in Minnesota. Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have given same-sex partners in long term relationships the legal right to the other partner’s dead body for funeral arrangements and final disposition of the remains.

Several couples are profiled in the New Mexican article. Take the instance of Tom Rotella’s partner:

When Tom Rotella’s partner died in California in 1998, his family recognized Rotella as the decision-maker. But after Rotella’s employer, the Los Angeles Public Library, announced the death in a newsletter, someone started subscribing to pornographic magazines in Rotella’s name, and there was a “mass exodus” of friends, Rotella said. “I was alone.” A contingent of colleagues did come to the funeral to support Rotella, he said, but his own parents declined, ostensibly to spare his father from learning that his son was gay. “That killed me,” he said.

Or take the case of Lynne Roberts:

Lynne Roberts’ partner fell seriously ill in 1988 after they had been together about eight years in New York City. The hospital waited for the woman’s ex-husband to sign papers allowing treatment, although Roberts was the one who brought her partner to the emergency room. While Roberts had been invited to all the family gatherings, “I was put on the periphery,” Roberts said. The family never called her with reports on her partner’s condition, and when the woman eventually died (the two were separated at the time) the family didn’t call Roberts or invite her to the cremation or burial.

These cases are disturbing and unfortunate. Of course, it’s not like this for every gay or lesbian couple dealing with the death of their partner. There are many compassionate and understanding family members, hospitals and funeral homes out there that do not discriminate or create difficult situations for same-sex partners. However, there is still a long way to go—legal and cultural—in allowing all those in the LGBT community the same rights and dignity as heterosexuals when it comes to issues of human compassion in the face of death, dying, grief and mourning. Last year’s Academy Award winning movie, A Single Man, based on the novel of same name by Chris Isherwood, dealt with one man’s grief after losing his partner in a car accident. The film is set in the early 1960s, a time when being closeted was much more a fact of life for so may gay men and women, especially since the 1969 Stonewall riots had not even yet occurred. And while much progress has been made in the intervening years, there is still a long way to go.

There are books that deal specifically with the legal, familial and cultural hurdles of same-sex partners dealing with the loss of a loved one. I’ve listed a few here.

A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples. Denis Clifford, Frederick Hertz, Emily Doskow. 2010

Partnered Grief: When Gay and Lesbian Partners Grieve. Harold Ivan Smith, Joy Johnson. 2008

Loss of a Life Partner. Carolyn Ambler Walter. 2003

Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner. Michael Shernoff. 1997

5 replies on “Disenfranchised Grief”

Thank you so much for your article. I’m attaching an essay I wrote last year and hope it interests you. I’m a simple person, and the information I tracked down for the essay made the issue of gay marriage simple for me. Reading your article brought it home further that legitimizing gay marriage would avoid at least some of the painful experiences these folks have had.

Let’s Talk About Civil Rights

In 1776, the founders of this nation wrote a unique document. The Declaration of Independence stated in part: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Because of our human shortcomings and prejudices, for approximately 110 years “all men” was assumed to mean “all white males”. It was not until 1870 with the approval of the Fifteenth Amendment that non-white men were granted the equal citizenship rights of suffrage, meaning the right to vote. It was many decades in some regions before men of color finally did freely get access to voting without trickery and unfair local laws intended to keep them from voting. Two hundred thirty three years after the writing of the Declaration of Independence there are still some hate groups that would be willing to attack and injure non-whites to keep them from having access to their full rights as citizens of this republic.

Although the Fifteenth Amendment codified the equality of races to rights of citizenship, certain laws continued to exist that were intended to keep races separate, and in reality, unequal. Until 1967 it was still against the law in Virginia for two people of different races to marry. (Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia 1967). It was also against the law for two people of different races to have children together. Up to 1948 some 30 states had laws against “miscegenation”, or interbreeding between races. I know a mixed race woman who is younger than I am (I’m 56) who was born in a mid-Western state, to a young mother who intended to release her for adoption. Because of anti-miscegenation laws, this biracial friend of mine was considered “unadoptable” and would have been placed as an infant in an orphanage. Fortunately she was wanted by a loving family member.

Until recent times, prejudice has kept all women from having full access to citizenship rights in this country as well. It has not been very long that women have had the right to vote. My father was born in 1919. When he was born, his mother did not have the right to suffrage, and the Nineteenth Amendment was not passed until my father was approaching his second birthday. I find it hard to imagine that my grandmother did not have the right to vote at the time that she became a mother.

Why do we continue to listen to majority groups who want to deny citizenship rights to some minority? One of the purposes of a democratic form of government is to preserve and protect the rights of minorities; many religious groups and people of varied ethnicities came here for the safeguards of our Constitution. In 2010, Americans as a nation realize civil rights cannot be denied to persons because of their skin color. Americans cannot imagine the time when women did not have the right to vote, or own property, or make decisions without their husbands’ permission. These are considered Civil Rights, the rights, privileges and protection given to all citizens of this country. All citizens. Not just white ones, not just males, not just heterosexuals.

The right to marry a person of one’s own choosing is also a Civil Right. Miscegenation laws were struck down, the last finally removed from the books in 1967. Since the Constitution of the United States is explicit about the separation of church and state, who can marry whom in the eyes of the STATE is not decided by any church. Churches and other religious groups have every right to decide who THEY will perform marriages for; they have always made this decision, usually based on who is a member of their congregation. Religious groups do not have the right to make demands about what marriages the STATE will recognize. Some European countries require that everyone go to city hall to get married to meet the requirements of the government; then it is an individual decision to continue on to the church for a church wedding, to satisfy religious requirements if this is important to the couple. Churches may think they have a dog in this fight, but because of the separation of Church and State in the U.S., they do not. Being able to marry the person of one’s own choosing is a Civil Right in this country. I think it is an outrage that in 2010, the 21st century, some of our citizens are being denied one of their civil rights based on a personal characteristic, whether it is race, gender or sexual orientation.

Amy Shea

Charlotte, NC

Thanks for your reply and your excellent essay Amy. The simplicity of it (as you say) is what is brilliant. I agree that marrying a person of one’s own choosing is a civil right. But if we just look at the separation of church and state, then our laws should logically follow. Of course they don’t and so the fight continues.

Why is there no support group for parents who do not believe in same sex marriage?

Why do we never hear…and there are many…who leave the gay life style?

Parents grief and they are given the PFLAG one sided literature.
This is discrimination! Bigoted!

Parents have a right to their belief system without being labeled bigots and homophobes.

Why is there no support group for parents who do not believe in same sex marriage?

Why do we never hear…and there are many…who leave the gay life style?

Parents grief and they are given the PFLAG one sided literature.
This is discrimination! Bigoted!

Parents have a right to their belief system without being labeled bigots and homophobes.

My remarks were dismissed from this website with “You’ve already said that.” True discrimination when a voice cannot be heard because it is not politically correct.

Hello Hester,

I imagine there are at least a few support group out there for parents and others who don’t support gay marriage–Parents and Friends of Ex Gays (PFOX) for example. You can explore further at if you are so inclined.

In my work as a public librarian, I make no judgements about the information people come in looking for. This is not a personal choice–this is an ethical standard to which most librarians hold themselves–and which the American Library Association advocates for in its Library Bill of Rights.

However, in my personal endeavors such as this blog, I DO make judgements and express personal beliefs. My belief is that gays and lesbians don’t deserve to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. This belief extends to their right to marry whom they choose and my conviction that they be allowed legal rights in situations concerning their dead or dying partners. So, as a professional, I respect your right to believe what you want, even though I disagree. But in this blog I will express my personal beliefs and my right to advocate for issues I believe in.

To address the second part of your comment, the reason it said “You’ve already said that” is because you tried to post the same thing twice. It’s an automated response from this blog software.

Thanks for your comments.

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