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The Press: Averting Our Gays

Do all gays and lesbians really live alone and unloved? Do they really die young of "long illness"? Isn't it time for the obit writers to end their lies?

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I've gotten into the worst habit. Every morning, I pluck both dailies from my doorstep and pore over them over a cup of coffee. I scour the headlines, take a few mental notes, shake my head a little, chuckle sometimes. Then I find that one page in both papers, the one between the stock pages and the new car buys, and I read it from top to bottom.

It's the obituaries, and I read them every day now--I don't know exactly when it began. What I do is look for dead men who were gay, anonymously gay because neither daily ordinarily offers any hint of their real lives.

The biggest part of the exercise is finding the clues. Pick a dead man, any dead man--How old was he? Did he die of pneumonia or some heretofore rare or unknown cancer? Who are his "survivors"?

If he was between 22 and 50, if his only survivors are Mom and Pop in Pudunk, Indiana, I know I'm onto something. If he was an artist or lawyer or carpenter or small businessperson on Broadway or Halsted, I know I've hit pay dirt.

They almost always sound like fine young men, men so involved in social and civic activities that the absence of loved ones, a wife or offspring, could almost be excused, if not explained. But only almost.

When a photo accompanies the pair of paragraphs into which obituary writers compress whole lives, it often raises doubts about the bachelorhood of the deceased: these are attractive men, men whose spark shines through the mud of a newspaper photo--men with radiant smiles or good-natured grins.

How could these fine young men have lived unloved, if not unattached? How could these deaths have been so solitary that only parents and siblings survived, often from the safe distance of another state?

The truth is that these men were often as much a part of a domestic partnership as the heterosexual dead whose published family head counts speak to their human potential. Surely, the value of love is worth telling the world, otherwise why announce that there are wives, husbands, and children that loved and survived?

There's always something missing in the dailies; their bits are clumsy attempts at discretion about something that is rarely a secret. The published facts of dead gay men's existences portray revised lives. They read like resumes, with no hint of personality. Even a gay man as open about his sexual and romantic life as writer Christopher Isherwood gets the treatment; when Isherwood passed away, his lover of more than 30 years, painter Don Bachardy, was described as his "longtime roommate." The description was patently transparent: not only did it hint broadly to nongays, but it also belied the truth of Isherwood and Bachardy's off-and-on living situation.

When Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the 1964 March on Washington, died, both of the city's dailies carried long obituaries. Both focused on his civil rights work, but neither one mentioned his gay civil rights involvement. And of course neither paper mentioned the "survival" of his longtime lover.

The sign of change came recently with the Sun-Times's review of writer James Baldwin's life. After his death, the obituary acknowledged that Baldwin's novel, Giovanni's Room, the tale of a young gay man's coming of age, was autobiographical. The Sun-Times piece treated Baldwin's homosexuality as a matter of course, making it a part of his life in the same way as the fact that he was black. It was refreshing.

But it was also atypical. Witness the Tribune's obituary, in which literary editor John Blades treated Baldwin's writings as if they were divorced totally from his life. Blades completely avoided the implications of Giovanni's Room and Baldwin's other gay-themed novel, Another Country. (In all fairness, Tribune columnist Clarence Page, in a tribute to Baldwin about a week after his passing, did acknowledge Baldwin's real life.)

But if this kind of whitewashing can happen to such well-known gay men as uninhibited about their life-style as Isherwood, Rustin, and Baldwin, imagine what is said about ordinary gay men and lesbians and their common, if not common-law, companions. If you're just an average gay joe and you die, the dailies will turn your lover into Plato's disciple.

The way obituaries work at the dailies is simple enough. When somebody dies, information about the life of the deceased is gleaned from one or two sources: the family and/or the funeral director.

"The policy on survivors is to list immediate family," explained the Trib's obituary editor, Kenan Heise. "We list the married spouse, not divorced spouses. With gays and lesbians, how I try to handle that is to get a quote from the person they were living with. It's the best way I can cover the situation. After the quotes, I refer to them as a friend, or close friend, something I can prove."

The Sun-Times essentially follows the same policy but does not employ an obituaries editor. Instead, death notices get farmed out to different writers. "It keeps you humble," said a veteran reporter. It also means the obits are erratic, one minute expressing great sensitivity, another great indifference.

Most Sun-Times staffers consider Suzy Schultz, once the unofficial obits editor and now on general assignment, the writer they'd choose to write their notices. "Nobody wants to do an obituary," said Jim Ritter, a Sun-Times science writer. "Your natural tendency is to get it over with and go on. But Suzy did it for almost a whole year, and she was very conscientious. She'd treat each one as a story, called people, looked up clips. You got the feeling it mattered to her."

"An obituary may be the only time a person gets in the paper," Schultz said. "Of course it's important. But there's a style for listing survivors," she continued, echoing Heise. "It's the same style for everybody. Unmarried heterosexuals don't get listed. There's no listing of fiances or live-in lovers. In cases like that, as with gays, I try to get a quote from [the lover]."

The problem with that policy is twofold: First, it negates the gay person's adult decisions by handing the postscript of his or her life to parents ("family"), who often refuse to recognize their offspring's same-sex companion. (It also perpetuates the narrow definition of "family" as related by blood or marriage.) Secondly, while the policy may apply in the same way to all unmarried couples, heterosexual and otherwise, it is not equal. Its inherent bias is that members of unmarried heterosexual couples choose to remain single. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, can't solve the problem with a quick trip to the justice of the peace. They must remain forever unmarried, even if clearly not single.

"I do think the policy should be changed," Schultz said, "although I'm not sure how. It's frustrating that we haven't dealt with it, but it really hasn't been brought to our attention as much as it should have been."

Everyone protests that "lover" is too strong (and too sexual) a word to describe an unmarried survivor, and even the gay weeklies have shied away from it, often promoting the term "partner-in-life." Of course, many gays and lesbians prefer to be listed as surviving lovers and the gay papers' editors honor that request. At Gay Chicago, Windy City Times, and Chicago Outlines, the editors run obituaries only when they're brought in, so for the most part, they defer to the judgment of the individuals that bring them.

"If there's a conflict between the surviving lover and the deceased's parents, we'll tend to side with the lover," said Tracy Baim, publisher of Outlines.

Jeff McCourt, who publishes Windy City, said there has never been a conflict between the surviving lover and parents or other family at his paper, but if one came up he might press for some legal bond between the deceased and the survivor, such as a power of attorney. "In my case, when my lover died, I was his heir, so there was no question that we had a close, intimate relationship," he explained.

But all of this has gone unnoticed downtown. And with the advent of AIDS, and the parade of gay deaths this relentless disease has provided, the denial in the dailies becomes even more complex, if not just more everyday. Now not only is personal life stripped from the mainstream records, but the cause of death is often disguised.

This deception represents a horrible homophobia, and not one in which the papers alone are guilty, but one in which they conspire with "survivors." No matter how often health officials pronounce it a public health problem for everyone, AIDS is indelibly inscribed in the public mind as a gay disease. Moms and Pops don't want the world to know Junior may have loved a man.

The Sun-Times's Schultz explained that, again, family members and/or funeral directors are responsible for giving out the information. "If there is any question, then I'll try to find out," she said. "But it's a difficult call; some people still won't list cancer as a cause of death either."

"It's not our policy to put [the cause of death] in--from any illness--unless somebody provides us with that information," said Heise. "A death isn't a news story in the same sense as other stories. If there's a news angle, if it's somebody well-known, that's different. We treated Liberace's death from AIDS as a news story, even though his family tried to cover it up."

Occasionally, even the gay papers have problems with the AIDS issue. A recent obituary caused suspicion by stating, "The family said the cause of death was cancer of the liver." Outlines's Baim said her paper doesn't push the issue. "If people don't want it in, fine," she said. "I'm not convinced the public has a right to know if somebody died from AIDS." Windy City Times and Gay Chicago follow a similar policy. All three papers publish cause of death if the deceased is well-known and it's already been reported elsewhere.

"We're going to review the policies [on obituaries]," Heise said of the Tribune. "It's not just AIDS and the problems that has created, but in general. Times change. We have to see changes in society and adjust. There's got to be a way to address the issue of live-in people in the near future, gay and otherwise."

But in the meantime, the list of dead gay men grows longer, and as the real survivors--the lovers and romantic partners--anguish in need of comfort, whatever love they shared with the deceased remains cloaked in, to borrow from Oliver North, plausible deniability.

It's impossible not to ask what the purpose is of all this. Especially in the case of men who are open about their love lives, there exists no logic in pretending they were someone else. To protect the families of gay men by denying the truth of these lives is to perpetuate the attitude that homosexuality and, when applicable, AIDS, is shameful. Ultimately, the people who are hurt the most are the ones the dead men probably loved the most. In the end, no one is protected from anything; we're just all pretending.

Take, for example, the death of Joseph Holmes, a prominent local choreographer who was not only openly gay but clearly a person who died of AIDS. In both dailies, both facts were obliterated. The cause of death was listed as spinal meningitis. His parents and siblings--no one else--"survived."

It made me think about a conversation I had once with my mother about AIDS. She was convinced the disease couldn't be terribly widespread. I told her plainly that there were thousands upon thousands of these deaths and that 93 percent of the victims are men. "They are overwhelmingly gay men," I said. She looked at me askance. "There can't be that many," she said. "I never hear about them."

These are lies, big lies. But how would my mother know? When Tribune reporter Mark Zambrano, very gay and very much riddled with AIDS, died, no one would admit the truth. Although the obituary writer at the Sun-Times--aware that many people already knew--tried to get a confirmation of his diagnosis, the family insisted he had had cancer. The obit finally read "death after a long illness."

This causes unnecessary mystery and so much confusion that when a gay man really does die of something other than AIDS, as in the case of Tom Norton, the popular coowner of Unabridged Books, festering doubt will plague his memory. No one ever knows anything for sure anymore. It's an anxious guessing game, troubling and unfair.

Come Wednesday of every week, in my morbid guessing game about the dead boys in the Sun-Times and Tribune, I check my scorecard with the gay and lesbian periodicals. So far, I'm batting a thousand, but it's a loser's game.

With the gay papers, I reaffirm what I already know--not merely that these men were gay, but that they were more than just active in this or that organization, charity, or chorus: they loved and were loved!

In these sad pages (which readily include surviving moms, pops, and siblings, too), we know Robert is mourning Craig, and Bill misses Jim, sometimes Bobby is survived by Tom and Mark and Pedro--and that's fine too. What's important is that Robert, Bill, Tom, Mark, and Pedro see their love acknowledged (reflected, if you will). Sometimes it's necessary evidence of what existed against all odds.

There is, after all, a moment of limbo after every death, made up not just of the refusal to believe in the death itself, but sometimes of a disbelief about the life and events within it. With the gay weeklies, the people left standing--the survivors--can see the proof in black and white of what they know was true. Particularly in these days of AIDS, that is a powerful thing.

The bottom line, however, isn't just the politics of AIDS; that's the current manifestation of an age-old problem. The real bottom line is the perpetuation of the image of gays and lesbians as single individuals, people who sprout from couples in Indiana and never fulfill any emotional promises.

In the condensed lives offered in the mainstream press, gay and lesbian people are friendly puppies, but they do not love and are not loved in any meaningful way; there is no evidence that gays and lesbians experience the day-to-day joy and pain of sharing life with another human being. We are indeed an aberration, for no one "survives."

In mainstream obituaries, we--gay men and lesbians--are all careerists. If we're famous enough, we get a eulogy from a "friend," "personal secretary," or, like Isherwood, "roommate." Everyone in our lives is functional. Frankly, I am tired of the hokum of "lifelong roommates." Aren't newspapers supposed to be in the business of telling the truth?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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