interior banner image

Obituary as History: The Lost Lives of the Queer Dead

Obituary as History: The Lost Lives of the Queer Dead

Author: Victoria Brownworth

May 29, 2013

Memorial Day always makes me sad. So many losses to remember.

I take my copy of the war poems of Wilfred Owen from its shelf. World War I–the first “modern” war–seems ineffably tragic as an entire generation of young English men perished in ways ever-more-ghastly than in previous wars, thanks to the advent of bombs, aerial attacks and mustard gas.

Owen was killed just one week before the end of the war–November 4, 1918. He was 25.

I love Owen’s poetry. It’s maddening that there’s not more of it. I am compelled by the horrifying intensity of the war imagery, the undertone of homoeroticism, the harsh hint of looming tragedy, the knowledge of encroaching death.

There is this:

[I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell],
Like a Sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendor burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies.

–”I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson Deepen As It Fell”

It’s a poem that could–almost–as easily be about a lost lover, as of a soldier lost to war. But Owen began the war with this opening salvo in his poem “1914”: “War broke: and now the Winter of the world/With perishing great darkness closes in”.

And at war’s end, just before Owen’s own death, He wrote a grim poem “Disabled,” of a soldier still in his teens, a rugby star who “sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark/And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey/Legless, sewn short at elbow.”

The soldier’s literal youth remains, but not really, because now he’s something else, and people turn away. They don’t want to see what’s left of him, because, as Owen writes elsewhere, “We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.”

It’s painful, reading these poems that just get better and better as Owen nears his death. Because he does die, in what fellow war poet Rupert Brooke might call “the full flower of his youth.” And so we never get to see what comes next.

What would have come next, could have been the poetry of another W.H.Auden–a vibrantly strong gay voice still speaking out against war (as Auden did in the 1930s and Owen himself did from the very trenches of that earlier war) in a series of brilliant poems, but with the experience of war behind him as well as the experience of the rush of queer youth in war-time. Owen would have been a majestic poet. If this was his work at 25, imagine his work at 40 and 50 and beyond.

But we’ll never know any of that, because Owen is lost to us.

And Owen is not just lost to us due to his tragically youthful dying, but because his family, intent on protecting his reputation and their own, burned and destroyed his papers, his letters, his journals after he was killed in the war.

I want to know what was written there–what more there was that told us of a young gay life driven by the perils of wartime. I want to know if he did indeed have an affair with the older poet Siegfried Sassoon when he met him as they both recuperated from the war between shellings. I want to know if he was involved with Oscar Wilde’s “friend” Robbie Ross, to whom he’d been introduced by Sassoon, or if he’d dallied with Edith Sitwell’s brother Osbert whom he also met through Sassoon. Or if that Scottish writer and Proust translator C.K.Scott-Moncrieff was in fact his lover just before he went back to the front.

All of this is lost to us.

In the April 15 issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi wrote a much-criticized piece on New York Radical Feminists co-founder and lesbian/feminist activist, Shulamith Firestone, who died recently under extreme circumstances in her Manhattan apartment. She was 67 at her death.

A life-long schizophrenic, Firestone, author of one of the most important books of modern Second-Wave feminism (in fact it was she who coined that term, “Second Wave”), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, had apparently been dead for upwards of a week before she was found. She had suffered from severe mental illness for years, as Faludi details.

I was deeply moved by Faludi’s piece, which depicted Firestone’s flaring intellect, ferocious activism and long, reclusive decline. Firestone was a radical feminist activist of the sort we can barely imagine in 2013, feminism has become such a degraded concept. But she was to feminist theory as Wilfred Owen was to the grim poetics of war.

Firestone was unequivocal in her scathing deconstruction of the role of women in patriarchal society. She wrote, “(Male) culture was (and is) parasitical, feeding on the emotional strength of women without reciprocity.”

Compare that statement to the self-reflective apologetic parsing of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, where women’s inculcated behavior is commented upon as if it has no context of oppression.

Firestone was writing out oppression and it was vivid and uncompromising–just as Owen’s stark imagery brought us right up into the trenches and also into the legless post-war misery.

Owen and Firestone were both 25 when they wrote their critically important work. Their visceral, fever-pitch writing can be categorized as genius. But their ends were very different.

Faludi was criticized for saying too much about Firestone, but is that not the role of the obituary writer? Susan Brownmiller, feminist author and co-founder of New York Radical Feminists (which went on after Firestone left), accused Faludi of mining the tragic circumstances of Firestone’s death to gain personal attention. But what I read in Faludi’s piece was a history of a woman who led and also symbolized a movement. There was also the delineating of all the ways a life can go awry when activism is the locus of one’s life and exterior pressures are such that one has to either withdraw or crack. Alas, Firestone did both.

I’ve written tributes and obituaries for numerous writers over the years. Some I have known well, others I have only known through their work. Like almost everyone who didn’t know her well (and few did, in the last 30 years of her life), I hadn’t known Firestone had died until I read Faludi’s piece. I was shocked by both her death and the manner of it. The last five or six obituaries I have written were of men and women who had died in their 80s–full lives lived. As Faludi details it, that’s not what happened to Firestone. Her life stopped, rather than ended.

Not all of us get that full life we all hope for. Owen certainly didn’t. The constraints of mental illness kept Firestone from pursuing the life of an intellectual and activist theorist that she was–but Faludi’s re-telling of her story reminds us of her importance. I still remember reading Firestone’s treatise as a teenager and then later, in a college course. I have never read a more revolutionary book. Faludi’s obituary made me take it out again and re-read it, made me re-visit the radical feminism of the 1970s.

Firestone wrote, “A revolutionary in every bedroom cannot fail to shake up the status quo. Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society.”

She also noted that “In the radical feminist view, the new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality. It is the second wave of the most important revolution in history.”

But perhaps most radical of all, Firestone wrote, “The end goal of the feminist revolution is the elimination of the sex distinction itself.”

The impact of obituaries for those relegated to the margins of mainstream society cannot be overstated because they are histories. Faludi’s obituary of Firestone is also an obituary of radical New York feminism, if not Second-Wave feminism itself. It’s phenomenally compelling history.

But not all obituaries are written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. And some are not written at all.

May 11 marked the tenth anniversary of Sakia Gunn’s death.

Gunn’s name remains largely unknown, in part because we pick and choose who we memorialize and in doing so, the more marginalized one is in life, the less likely one is to be remembered in death.

I remember Sakia Gunn because I wrote about her when she died.

Sakia Gunn was a young butch African-American lesbian from Newark, New Jersey. I don’t know if she wrote poetry about the war she fought daily as a young black lesbian. I don’t know if she hoped feminism would eradicate gender difference. Her life was her poem and her death was her queer feminist manifesto.

Gunn was a casualty of war: the war against women and the war against lesbians. She was street harassed to death for proclaiming her lesbianism to a man who propositioned her and her girlfriend when they were waiting for a bus to go home after a night with friends in Greenwich Village.

The man, Richard McCullough, kept harassing Gunn until she told him to leave her alone, she was a lesbian and wasn’t interested. McCullough then stabbed her in the chest.

Gunn was murdered two weeks before her sixteenth birthday.

Gunn didn’t get much memorializing. Gunn was killed five years after Matthew Shepard’s grisly hate crime murder. There were close to 700 articles about Shepard’s death as well as nationwide candle-light vigils.

There were 21 articles about Gunn’s murder. No vigils.

Obituaries are histories. They memorialize our dead and bring them back to life. I had forgotten Firestone over the years. But reading Faludi’s long tribute to her reminded me of what that time was like, the fervid nature of early Second-Wave feminism and how it changed my own life and the lives of so many women around me.

Re-reading Owen’s poetry reminds me of how much we lose without concomitant histories; Faludi interviewed dozens of people who had known Firestone. But Owen’s family destroyed every detail of his life that wasn’t a poem. And so we will never know, for sure.

Just like we will never know for sure about Sakia Gunn. Because she was only 15, because she was black, because she was a lesbian, because she was just starting to live her real life, heading to the queer hangouts in Greenwich Village, feeling her strong butch self, details were scant about her. Unlike Shepard, her father wasn’t a diplomat, her mother wasn’t an activist. Keeping her legacy alive has been left to those of us who consider her female, of color life of equal importance.

Sakia Gunn’s murder told me a lot about her life. It tells me she fought. It tells me she made her voice heard. It tells me she wasn’t about pretense. It tells me she was brave. It tells me she died telling the truth about her life.

These three lives–and sadly violent deaths–remind us of why we need to take note of our dead, pay tribute to their lives, leave a lasting memorial. In many respects, obituaries are our only histories. In small-town newspaper where we read of someone survived by their longtime companion, this is the only notation of a queer life and death. For centuries that was the only thin marker of our queer lives.

Obituaries tell the story of a life, elucidating what we did and did not know. I knew about Firestone’s fierce intellect. I didn’t know about her shattered psyche. Brownmiller, in response to Faludi, noted, “You need nerves of steel to stay in for the long haul in a radical political movement.”

Firestone didn’t have those nerves. Gunn seemed to–but they killed her. Owen would have been 75 at Stonewall. Would he have been a revered poet, or a recluse like Taylor Mead, who died May 9 in Manhattan, his celebrated youth long-past?

Queer history is still nascent–there is so much still to record and report, so much that we have yet to discover and detail. I understand that Brownmiller thought it was too soon to memorialize Firestone. But I disagree. It’s never too soon, because details get forgotten, or worse, burned in the fireplace of someone else’s fear and shame.

Our lives are our story. Once we are gone, someone else must carrying on our legacy. Obituaries may read as mere notation or as thorough tribute. But without them and all they detail, we have no memory of our dead, and nothing upon which to build our history.


[Photo: Sakia Gunn via Feminist Wire]


Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

Subscribe to our newsletter