On Navigating the Unexpected Death of a Queer Friend

At 22, this is a situation I’ve had to encounter a couple of times, which is already a couple of times too many — the sudden loss of a queer friend. It can be especially difficult when you’re talking about someone who was young, died unexpectedly, and who you met entirely because of your shared queerness. When this has happened in my life, as it did again recently, I’ve watched as with the person’s death their whole social world is thrown abruptly into connection. Friends, family, coworkers, exes, etc. suddenly all congregate, whether online or in person, to talk about what’s happened and to share their own personal version of the person they’ve all just lost.

So what do you do when your versions are 1. really different. and 2. really different in a way that might make their loved ones upset?

When you lose a queer friend unexpectedly, obviously you find yourself first dealing with the knowledge that they’ve died but then you’re tasked with figuring out how to talk to people about them. You could be faced with a situation that I’ve found myself in before, where you might have no idea who knows what and more importantly, who would be hurt by knowing what. You’re suddenly on the phone with a mutual friend not only talking about the news that this person you both know has just died but also trying to sort through the jumble of who knew which parts of their life because it suddenly matters more now than ever that you get this person exactly right in your mind before you talk about them to anyone else. You’re saying things like, “Okay, so they knew she was queer but did they know she was genderqueer?”

Or you’re faced with the situation in which people know things and try to pretend that they don’t know them. If you went immediately in your mind to Alice Pieszecki standing up and shouting “This is bullshit,” at Dana’s funeral, then I’m with you.

alice dana's funeral

But that’s the thing: when someone dies, we kind of expect funerals and the customs surrounding them to be poignant little summations of all that they were. Perhaps it’s an unrealistic expectation that a ceremony can sum up a human life, but nonetheless it can be painful when things get omitted. It can feel jarring, awkward and simply disrespectful. The really difficult questions come when we feel the urge to honor the memory of the person the way we knew them. There’s an awkward and confusing etiquette to respecting friends and family who might not be real comfortable talking about what a huge queer their relative was while at the same time not lying about how you know them, what you did with them, and what you loved about them. When I’ve found myself in this situation, I end up spiraling down a rabbit hole of questions not only concerning the people who’ve passed but also anyone I might lose in the future and have to wonder how to talk about.

Is it ok to share loudly that my favorite memory of you is the time you pranced around to the queer music playlist we were listening to?

I want to tell your family how great you were to everyone but would it be upsetting to your parents to know that I looked up to you specifically as a queer activist? What if at your funeral someone asks how I met you? Do I lie? Do I dodge? Or do I go ahead and tell them we met at the super duper lesbigaytrans*queerhomorific function?

Would you hate how straight you look in this obituary photo? Is that ok to laugh about?

Does your extended family know that you used gender neutral pronouns? Would it upset them to know? Would it upset you if you could know that they knew? Do I disrespect you by changing your pronouns to reduce the potential of loved ones having the additional pain of learning that there was a part of you they never knew? Or that they wouldn’t agree with?

If we bring a visibly queer contingent to your funeral, will your great-aunt squirm and give us weird looks? Will it be our fault for causing a distraction at an otherwise solemn goodbye? Should we try to look less queer? Would you be laughing at us if you knew we were even considering trying to look less queer?

Can I post my favorite photo us us, you know, the one from Pride with the giant lube ad in the background or would that make your mom hate me? Is it naive to imagine that anything could make her more upset than the simple fact that you’re gone?

It’s confusing when someone passes and each of these questions feel highly important and highly superficial all at the same time.

I wish that I had solid advice on how to go about it, but I think the fact of the matter is that situations like this are so unique and odd and awkward and terrible that they all sort of take their own in the moment strategies.

Because I can be obsessive about death, and I worry about these kinds of questions, I personally have given my friends extremely detailed instructions and permissions in the event that I die anytime soon. (We’ve had multiple conversations about it. It’s kind of my 3 a.m. go-to topic of conversation. I’m not proud.) They all have my explicit permission to not mind my extended family’s discomfort with queer stuff, to wear whatever they want and to laugh. They also have been made mighty aware that I want someone to hold up a speaker and play Funkytown by Lipps. Inc at the beginning of my funeral and “Call It Off” by Tegan and Sara as my coffin is being lowered because I just think that will be the funniest, yet somehow touching and poignant thing (but mainly funniest).

I think that’s the thing that I’ve learned the most in the shitty moments, that of course your own intimate knowledge of your personal connections mean the most. That you may have lost someone who may have meant different things to you than they did to other people, but at the end of the day you know who they were to you, and perhaps what they meant to your community of queers. Even if you have a giant stack of unanswerable questions, you can still honor them however you can, even if you decide to straighten-it-up for a moment, you can still have your Dana in the waterfall moment no matter what form it takes.


Lauren is proud Alabamian aspiring filmmaker who is learning to stop saying “aspiring” and just say “filmmaker.” A recent graduate with a degrees in film, Tegan and Sara, and t-shirt collecting, she spent all of her college time organizing the queers down at the University of Alabama and turning every class assignment into a chance to talk about southern queer black woman identity. She likes football more now that she’s graduated.

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Lauren is proud Alabamian aspiring filmmaker who is learning to stop saying “aspiring” and just say “filmmaker.” A recent graduate with a degrees in film, Tegan and Sara, and t-shirt collecting, she spent all of her college time organizing the queers down at the University of Alabama and turning every class assignment into a chance to talk about southern queer black woman identity. She likes football more now that she’s graduated.

Lauren has written 9 articles for us.

15 Comments

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    Thank you for sharing your own questions and concerns… you’re written a very moving piece. This is an issue the trans and gender variant community frequently encounters. Most recently, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who was murdered in NYC had a community memorial service in which she was frequently misgendered and it basically ignored her entire female identity much to the consternation of many trans women friends of hers in attendance. Another example is Letitia “Lawrence” King, the teen who was murdered by a fellow classmate and who is misgendered in perpetuity by the media, her memorial grave marker and even in the HBO documentary discussing the case. I’ve dealt with this a number of times when dealing with families of murdered trans people who knew the trans status of their dead trans woman child but swear “he didn’t mind if we called him a man.”

    While I completely understanding supporting the personal loss of those families (and it gets even more complex when you find out the trans person wasn’t really ever accepted by that family) it’s also true that they don’t own the person who’s passed. Yes, I think people should be appropriately respectful during the memorial service, but they also have a right to memorialize their friend/lover as they experienced them. We aren’t property of our families (nor the family’s religious community) and they don’t get to package us however they want.

    No matter what their age, I strongly encourage all trans and gender variant persons, if they’re concerned about these issues, to create a durable medical power of attorney and funeral directive (examples are available on the Transgender Law Center site) to make their needs explicit. To make it legal, you usually only need to have it signed in front of a notary (around $15). I have a brother who’s an Orthodox Jew and, much as I love him (and he’s pretty accepting) I know he would try to apply Jewish law to my funeral arrangements which I’m totally not cool with. I know it’s hard for younger people to think about these issues but, unfortunately, as a trans person living in an oppressive cis world, you kind of need to.

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      “We aren’t property of our families (nor the family’s religious community) and they don’t get to package us however they want.” – That is such a hugely important point you make. Thanks for saying that loud and clear. I wonder if we as a community talk about that idea enough as it pertains to the way we’re represented after we die. Or if unfortunately we’re sometimes so used to being expected to conform, even in the finality of death. Thanks for that needed reminder and all of your perspective!

      Speaking of being appropriately respectful but simultaneously memorializing our queer and trans* friends the way we knew them, I just found out a little while ago that my friends who made it to the funeral of my friend who just passed glitterbombed their casket. Apparently they meant to just do a little but a hand twitch – which they have interpreted as divine intervention- made them spill half the bottle.

      And that is how we as queer folk take care of each other in the most badass, sweet, radical, and poignant ways. That’s it right there.

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    Thank you so much for this. I have lost two of my best friends over the past two years – they were both queer atheists/agnostics, and having to sit through those funerals was an added hell on top of my devastating grief. Both funerals were embarrassing and filled me with so much anger. At one, they read my best friend’s name wrong and talked too much about Catholicism, something that my best friend was vehemently against. At the other, an old bible thumping stranger actually crashed the funeral, telling us that he used to be depressed and found salvation through God rather than suicide (this taking place at the funeral of a young queer teenager who had killed himself). My friend’s grieving mother actually had to stand up and ask him to leave. I have never witnessed anything so disrespectful in my life.

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      That’s another hugely important thing! It’s like not only is there the grief of losing someone but the anger of all the terrible misrepresentations, disrespect, and sometimes even hate that you have to deal with as well. That’s awful. I hate that you had to go through that. I hate that I know too many people who’ve had to go through it too.

      It’s especially odd when the person who has passed is someone who took such huge strides to make their own distinct, intentional and prideful identity and had such a strong sense of self only to be forced back into such narrow parameters. It’s mindboggling to observe, to say the least.

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    going out with all my queer people friday night and now the subject will be only death.

    thank you so much for writing this article. i now realise how lucky i am that these thoughts have only just entered my mind, thank you for opening my eyes.

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    Thank you. This is why I try to explain the ignorant friends that homophobia and heterosexism and cissexism are about so much more than whether someone beats you up on the street.

    These are the questions we are forced to ask, in these situations where we should have the right and possibility to simply grieve. And that is wrong, so wrong.

    Thank you.

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    I’m sorry for the loss of your friends. Thank you for writing this – it was eye-opening. So many things seem, as you say, simultaneously “highly important and highly superficial” after someone dies, so it makes sense that these questions would too.

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    Given that I attend The University of Alabama, this piece elicits a huge roll tide. I’ve honestly never considered this issue in relation to my queer friends (or even really myself). I’m going to think about this one for a while.

    Also, if you haven’t seen Bridegroom, you should check it out. It illustrates this really well.

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    I recently lost a queer friend, and fortunately (it sounds horrible to say that word), she was out and proud and an activist and married. All her and her wife’s children (and ex-husband) welcomed (even invited) their union. “Fortunately”, because there is no hesitation, or censoring about our grief. Everyone in her life is grieving for the same person.

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