Why it Matters
When a LGBTIQ Person Plans and Prepares for departure from this world – as an LGBTIQ “Who am I to Judge Gay People” – Pope Francis.
No one, likes to think that life, as we go about, will end. And so, end-of-life situations, are hard to look forward to with any great enthusiasm. Yet, there is no escaping, that one day it must end. Consequently, issues of how one transitions from this world to the next, inevitably wriggles its way into conversations – and yes, it ought to – that is, if it hasn’t already.
These thought, had occupied me, when I learnt of the curtains coming down on renowned writer, publisher and battle hardened activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, intersex and queer/ questioning community [LGBTIQ], Binyavanga Wainaina. At just 48 years of age, he had moved on.
I recalled, what didn’t seem long ago, then, when we had sat at the terrace in the slightly crumbling old-colonial bungalow in the Nairobi suburb of Karen. And we had exchanged views, and he listened keenly, when I, almost prophetically, said.
“When you reach a certain age ~ say 40Something, if not earlier ~ as a sort of responsible adult, it is expected that you will be prepared,” He’d looked at me almost sagely, as I elaborated, “I mean things like a will, health care proxy and so on need to occupy ones’ attention.”
Ken ~ his given name ~ and I, discussed well into the evening.
That was way back, around 2014, not long after which he’d made headlines around the world. In response to a wave of anti-gay laws around Africa, by publicly outing himself in a short essay, published to mark his 43rd birthday. Tough-as-nails, if you knew him, it didn’t surprise me that he kicked up a storm with the divisive debate over a subject long regarded a taboo in African.
I paced the room, in a desperate attempt to shrug off the sad news of his demise. Memories of his stubborn spirit, the refusal to give in; I could also sense the directness, warmth, and intelligence he exuded during our last encounter. Memory is a funny thing. When we last spoke, I’d not thought of the occasion as something which would give me an everlasting impression. The way he’d look through things, and came off the other side, was phenomenal – it was unforgettable, of that I was certain.
LBTIQ Preparedness for After-life
On the face of it, this was a polite question to ask, right? And its’ a safe assumption, that it’s asked out of concern, motivated by care and desire to do the right thing.
Well, this, among others, was the subjects of our conversation with this wordsmith, who had connected small, personal dots, to larger ones and revealed a lost chapter from his 2011 memoir, and unpeeled “I am a homosexual, Mum.” Which not only caused a stir in Africa, but sent ripples right round the world.
While he concurred that the preparedness for “after-life” is important for everyone, he also saw the unique twist, it bore for the LGBTIQ community. He maintained that initiating such a conversation, completely and without judging or insisting, signaled a welcome processing of reality that ensures ones’ wishes are met, and supports survivors clean-up when one’s gone.
Sensing an opportunity for a good conversation, I delved further, and voiced my innermost morbid thoughts. …….
Our discussions ranged from the deep, and somewhat ethereal, like what life after death is like, to the more practical, whether or not people should tag dead friends on social media as though they are still living. We did not always share the same thoughts and ideology about death; my earthy spirituality did not align with his Christian-Judeo faith. But despite the different perspectives, we kept the conversation going.
We shared some deep feelings about traditional burial. He /echoed my concerns, over the inherently problematic exercise, more so, as we were fast running out of land, especially in the growing urban centres. And more specifically, it being remarkably bad for the environment. Cremation: which burns fossil fuels, and releases carbon dioxide, wasn’t any better. He listened calmly, almost anticipating an answer when I asked: “Surely, there must be a better ~ perhaps even more poetic ~ way to dispose of our bodies when we die?”
KWANI? [so what?] he’d asked, as the non-conformist surged.
From the glow in his eyes, our hearts spoke and we kissed by fluke. I could tell, he caught on. While that is a story for another day, It NOW hurts, …it hurts ….that we never broached the topic again. It pains, that we never had another bite at the apple.
Preparedness for “after-life” is important for everyone, and this bears a unique twist, for the LGBTIQ community.
We discussed the LGBTIQ folks in Kenya. How in many instances, they settle into loving communities of friends, and partners, that are not their blood relatives. What they may be unaware of, is that upon their death, all power over their body is turned over to their legal next of kin, possibly an unsympathetic parent or sibling. The exposure and tragedies of mis gendering can then occur postmortem compounding the tragedy of death.
As the evening wore off, our discussion drifted, over various issues. We explored what it looked like to consider one’s departure from this world, as a LGBTIQ person, while still near the next world . And how it opens up to new ways of living.
During the course of the evening, it dawned on us, that we shared a mutual friend.
Our Mutual Friend
During the conversation, Banyavanga had recollections of the mutual, very close friend, who’ had big plans for her funeral. The paid-up plans included; selection of funeral home, along Mbagathi Road, Nairobi, the color casket [white], sassy clothing to match her hair, the flowers, the music, – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, 1993, “Over The Rainbow’, themed on rainbows, yet so many heterosexuals were into it? ….AND MORE…
Her reputation for being meticulous, was not lost in the plan. She had actually shared the plan with both of us. As indeed she had with her sisters. But in the end when she died, the family swooped in and decided how they wanted the person they thought of as their brother / son taken care of, ignoring not only what, presumably, would have been her choice, but also her life, and who she was.
They gave her a funeral that was nothing like what she wanted. This and all, while the gay friends were made to feel decidedly unwelcome. A scene, and circumstances, that bore eerie resemblance to a character in a novel I was writing.
The recollection had nudged something, in him, initially only subtly, yet as he continued, it became bold. The ingredient of an nonconformist, who faced utter hatred, vitriol and cruelty for what he was.
“At times of crisis, or moments in life where a person is not able to speak for themselves,” he started quietly, and continued a little more boldly. “The ability to retain that freedom and maintain their identity can be greatly compromised.”
“You couldn’t be more right.” I agreed with him. “I believe that those who love us in life, should be the ones who take care of us in death, however, the unfortunate truth is that, unless one makes the legal decisions in life, the chosen family may be silenced when it comes to after-life decisions.” As I recalled our friends situation.
It wasn’t uncommon that the death of a person inspires an ‘ownership’ battle over the deceased. If the person who died does not have express written instruction designating an agent, the decisions for planning their after-death care fall to their legal partner, if they have none, control falls to their parents who must make the decisions. If the parents are dead, their siblings. If they have no siblings, an aunt or uncle or the clan; and so on. This can become particularly problematic within the queer community, where being estranged from one’s family is not uncommon.
“Well, in my case,” he said bringing me to the present with wide sweeping gestures of both hands, “I’d imagine, during my funeral some people may decide on lots of color, a parade, some may even carrying portraits.” he fell silent, then nodding as if answering a silent question, he said.
“I wish, to have my funeral tailored to have a less sorrowful traditional feel, with more focus on celebration music and laughter.”
TRANS And GAY PERSPECTIVE
I later asked a transgender acquaintance if they were aware of what they can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to them.
Sam [name changed], a trans woman in Nairobi, said she’s not aware of anything she could do to ensure her gender is honored after her death other than rely on her wife to make respectful arrangements.
Sam’s partner is Sasha, an author and project manager with a social justice / gender focus Non-Governmental Organization [NGO]. When asked if they’d taken any steps to ensure that Sasha would have the appropriate death certificate and funeral someday, Sam replied, “We’re unaware there are any, apart from getting wills, which we are yet to have.” Sam suggested he relied on the goodwill of his brother and partner to carry out his last wishes
From the conversations, it was evident, the LGBTIQ community might benefit these examples.
It was crucial to clear a common misconception that any wishes about a funeral should go only in a will. WRONG! Since A wills is often not read or accessible until after the burial this is not prudent. It is good practice to mention the final wishes in the will, But Never rely only on the will for issuing instruction to do with body disposition.”
……. Read on ……
Appoint An Agent
Explore the appointment of an agent as the best choice. Speak to someone in your family as well. Though as a trans person [or gay] if you don’t trust your family and friends to honor your identity, then you should find someone you do trust and appoint them as ‘funeral agent.”
Its’ crucial you appoint someone other than a spouse or the next-of-kin who will make decisions [should you be sick and unable] and for body disposition and funeral arrangements. The rights of such a funeral agent supersede the rights of all others, including ones’ spouse and other relatives such as children and parents.
In addition, consider putting all this in writing including. where specific instructions about viewing, makeup and dress preferences, and specific funeral home and cemetery [or manner of disposition] could be added.
Here’s where the irony of life usually kicks in. After fighting for the recognition of their authentic gender in life, a trans persons’ identity could be denied in death.
A funeral should be an emphatic punctuation mark for a life authentically lived, a way for the community to celebrate and honor someone – not an erasure of what was fought for.
If this final indignity can be avoided, then everyone should do this to help ensure that your body disposition and funeral is handled properly, and that your loved ones and chosen community can honor your passing in a way that’s appropriate and respectful of the life lived.
Whatever Binyavangas’ final wishes, one can now only trust, that they will be a testament of how the fallen wordsmith and activist left people – with a desire to express themselves as freely as they could.
It adds a dramatic and crucial extra chapter to his remarkable story, and will ensure regardless of his personal flaws [or perhaps even because of them] Binyavanga will always be remembered for what he is; a great writer.
Fare thee well .. in your crossing ………“Over The Rainbow’…….