Unequal, Even in Death

11/15/2011 03:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a Queens neighborhood, it took away the breath of the nation; it was one month after the 9/11 attacks. For William Valentine, it took away more than that -- it took his partner of 20 years, Joe Lopes.

An Associated Press article on the anniversary of the crash begins with reference to Valentine and Lopes. Not that long ago it would have been unheard of to acknowledge that someone could love another person of the same sex, let alone do so for 20 years, or that they would actually grieve over their loss.

The "love that dare not speak its name" also dared not grieve in public over the losses suffered.

Consider how playwright Harvey Fierstein portrayed gay grieving in his wonderful Torch Song Trilogy (1988). Firestein plays the main character, Arnold Beckoff, whose lover Alan Simon (Matthew Broderick) is murdered across from their home when he tries to rescue someone being assaulted. Arnold's mother, whom he calls Ma, played brilliantly by Anne Bancroft, comes to visit shortly afterward.

Alan is buried in a cemetery plot given to Arnold by his father, who is buried nearby. Arnold and Ma go the cemetery, where she begins to say Kaddish over her husband. Arnold begins to do the same thing and Ma is furious, demanding to know what he is doing. She screams, "Your father left these plots to you. This is what you want to do with them? Fine! That's your business. But I will not stand here and watch you spit on your father's grave!"

Arnold tells her he is only doing what she is doing, praying for a loved one who was lost to death. Ma says, "You're blaspheming your religion. ... You're going to compare my marriage to you and Alan?" Arnold says, "I'm talking about the loss." Ma then does what many have done for centuries: she dismisses the love her gay son felt for his partner.

Ma: What loss did you have? You fooled around with some boy. Where do you come to compare that with a marriage of 35 years? Come on, Arnold. This isn't one of your pals you're talking to.

Arnold: Ma, I lost someone I loved very much.

Ma: So you felt bad. Maybe you even cried a little. What would you know about what I felt? Thirty-five years I lived with this man.

Even though it is clear that she loves her son, she can not accept that the love her son felt for his partner was anything like the love she felt for her husband.

What Fierstein depicts, however is a vast improvement to the situation depicted by Christopher Isherwood in his 1964 novel A Single Man. Isherwood depicts the last day in the life of George Falconer, a middle-aged English professor still living with the grief of losing his partner, Jim. George can only share his grief with his friend, Charlotte. Not only can he not tell anyone at the university about the loss, but his partner's family makes it clear that he is not welcome at the funeral.

The English poet Philip James Bailey (1816-1902) wrote, "The sole equality on earth is death." Apparently he did not consider the inequality of death when it comes to gay people, especially to same-sex couples. It is not unheard of for relatives to come barreling in and push aside the grieving partner, who is often reinterpreted as just a friend.

Wills can be invalidated if the family, recognized by law, claims that a partner was just a friend who "exerted undue influence" over the deceased -- something that is very, very unlikely to happen if the couple had been married. The surviving spouse in a same-sex relationship is taxed at levels that would not apply to the married, heterosexual spouse. And, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even a legally married surviving spouse in a same-sex relationship is taxed differently.

Mark Goldberg, of Rhode Island, was with his partner for 17 years. When his beloved killed himself, Goldberg found the funeral home refusing to release the body to him. They said that he was not a relative by any legal definition. They only agreed to release the body after a full month of waiting, and after their advertising for relatives in newspapers. When none came forward, they finally allowed Goldberg to bury his partner.

No, not even in death is there equality, just inequality created by the law, and enshrined in it.