Earlier this month, Pastor Ray Chavez of Lakewood, Colorado’s New Hope Ministries was performing a funeral service for Vanessa Collier when he abruptly stopped. All photographs of Collier with her wife, Christina—with whom she shared two children—must be immediately removed, Chavez insisted, along with any other indications of her sexual orientation. If the photographs remained, Chavez declared he would be forced to cancel Collier’s funeral.
Outraged, Collier’s friends and family promptly took the photographs—along with Collier’s open casket—to a funeral home across the street, where the service continued. Chavez has yet to refund the cost of the service, or to apologize for his unexpected cancelation. The deceased’s loved ones describe Chavez’s move as “humiliating” and “devastating.”
Humiliating and devastating, yes—but not particularly surprising. This is not the first time a church denied a funeral service to a gay person on account of their sexuality. LGBTQ people, so often denied legal rights and human dignity in life, often face even worse humiliations in death. We’ll never know how many gay people in lifelong relationships were marked as “single” on their death certificates, or how many surviving spouses were barred from their partner’s hospital beds or funeral services. We’ll never know how many transgender people were, like Leelah Alcorn, misgendered at their funerals by their ignorant families. At one time, these indignities were too common to be noted; perhaps we should take a small measure of pride in the fact that, thanks to the LGBTQ rights movement, they are now considered atrocious enough to make the news.
But still they go on, and will continue to go on—long after marriage equality is secured in every state, long after LGBTQ people secure non-discrimination protections across the country. The hate and fear that people like Chavez hold in their hearts cannot be banished by legal equality.
We can, and should, have an immense amount of sympathy for Collier and her family, who were subject to this horrific disgrace on the most difficult day of their lives. But we should also reserve a small bit of sympathy for Chavez. On the day of Collier’s funeral, he had one primary duty: to comfort Collier’s friends and family during their time of need. Instead, he forced them to endure ignominy. Collier’s friends and family could quickly escape Chavez’s cruelty—but Chavez must live with his bleak, bitter heart every day. I cannot imagine a more punishing penance.
Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Feb. 3, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guest Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the New Black fame!—for a queer kiki at the first ever Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.