The pain that comes with grief is not necessarily one which will leave, or even ease, but people’s deaths hold power, which we ought to channel in our lives.
TW/CW: discussions and mentions of trauma, death, homophobic slurs, queerphobia, transphobia, and death by suicide.
By Jon Bellebono
On an individual level and a societal one, the joy that has come from passionately embracing my queerness has been paired with perpetual mourning of queer loved ones I/We have lost.
Everyone has a different path when it comes to exploring/welcoming/accepting/understanding our queerness: books, chats, sex, friends, media, parties, dreams, etc. Personally, it took my brother dying for me to live my truth.
I’ve had people tell me they see him reincarnated within me; I’ve had people tell me I look, speak, dress, act like him; I’ve had people tell me I’m a completely different person from who I used to be. And whilst this is definitely a common experience for many queer people when they start embracing their gender and sexuality, the caveat of seeing this personally tied to his death while grieving our shared queerness is something I’m still processing — and will probably never stop trying to.
“Oh my God sometimes you’re even more of a faggot than I am.” I remember him telling me this as he watched me strut outside our front door whilst singing a song—badly, might I add—in a rare moment where I chose to not hide the femininity that feels so natural to me. My awkward “straight (and cis)” 17-year-old self shrugged whilst my heart sank a little. Apart from an awkward smile, I couldn’t deliver any comebacks. I’ve thought about that moment thousands of times since, and have come up with a number of comebacks that would bring his jaw to the floor.
It has also made me realise that I don’t necessarily regret not coming out earlier, or to him. The coming-out experience is one I’ve never claimed, wanted, or needed. In some ways, “queerness” was forced upon me way before I recognised it myself, with my femininity always being paired with it. Growing up an Asian boy in an extremely white area of Italy, plagued with machoism, I was automatically too feminine, desexualised and othered without having to do anything, and that—perhaps unintentionally or unknowingly—queered their understanding of gender. In some ways, I’m sure my brother knew of my queerness but loved me enough to allow me to discover it for myself.
And while I don’t feel regret, I can’t stop feeling grief.
I grieve for my brother. I grieve for the future he was robbed of. I grieve for the way he’ll never know what queer means today or tomorrow. I grieve for the fact he’ll never know of Rosa from TikTok, or of Drag Race Thailand, or of Pose. I grieve that he’ll never know his funeral was probably the gayest funeral to ever be, and even in his death, he challenged the local homophobes he had been fighting for years.
I also grieve for the relationship we could have had. I grieve him not knowing not only my queerness but also my transness. I grieve that I resented his femininity and faggotry as much as I resented mine and that I now see the power, strength, and subversiveness it carries. I grieve for us never doing our makeup together, never painting each other’s nails, not sharing stories about our terrible hook-ups, not meeting each other’s partners, not bitching, not dancing, not getting drunk together. I grieve for us not hugging. I grieve for us not talking about gender together, not questioning gender together. I grieve us not talking about desire together, not questioning desire together. I grieve that I’ll never know what shape my queerness would have taken had he lived, and all I can do with that is be grateful to carry on his legacy.
And in the same way that I’m grateful for the treasure that my/his/our queerness is, I’ve also learned how grief and death can play major roles in some people’s queer experiences.
From the thousands of gay and bisexual men and trans women who died in the AIDS crisis, to the hundreds of young queer kids who take their lives every year. From the Black and Latinx trans women who are murdered every year, to the ones who die because their healthcare is disregarded. From the queer sex workers who die on the job because their profession is not valued, to the queer couples killed on the streets for holding their hands. Whilst queerness is so much more than our pain and trauma, with our identities, we often carry death.
And I grieve for the fact that even in our death we are policed. I grieve for all my trans siblings who are misgendered and deadnamed. I grieve for all the boyfriends and girlfriends who become “friends’ ‘ after their loved one’s death. I grieve for having to hide our gender-nonconformity to respect other’s grievances because theirs matters more than ours. I grieve for white supremacy being present even in our most vulnerable state when people of colour’s ways of celebrating death are delegitimized, devalued, and disrespected.
I see queerness as a legacy. My legacy carries my brother; it carries all my queer and trans siblings in Burma whose identities are still illegal; it carries all the incredible queer people who paved the way for my existence today. And that legacy is what I channel when I bring myself to leave the house in a mini skirt, or when I stare back at someone laughing at me in the streets, or when I kiss my partner at the bus stop.
Death is a topic that is still surrounded by an aura of fear and awkwardness, which makes the grieving process an incredibly hard one to navigate. Many queer people are either disconnected from their biological families or have to self-censor themselves around them—often making grieving even harder.
We need to hold space for each other to talk about death, and discuss things like the afterlife, or funeral arrangements, or death rituals; we also need to hold space for each other to grieve, and listen, and yearn, and reflect, and feel.
The pain that comes with grieving is not necessarily one which will leave, or even ease, but people’s deaths hold power, which we ought to channel in our lives; the pain we feel doesn’t have to be for pain’s sake, and people’s deaths don’t have to be the end of their existence.
Jon Bellebono is a London-based writer, community organiser, and fashion-forward receptionist. They’re interested in queer theory and history, with a focus on queer and trans Southeast Asian identities. They have written for gal-dem, daikon* and several DIY zines and online publications.