Death is a Drag
I picked up Tiffani today. A man with kind eyes brought her to me in a black plastic box. He asked me to confirm that the name, date of birth, and other details on the death certificate were right. Technically, legally, all was correct. But none of this was right.
How could over 70 years of fierceness, of battles for equality, of drag pageants and parties, complex choreography, and passionate living come down to this?
Tiffani used both her birth name and her chosen name, depending on the day, the circumstances, her mood. Tiffani didn’t need me to turn this into a teachable moment for the employees of the crematorium. She never cared what pronouns or what name people used for her. She liked occupying multiple spaces in multiple ways.
Just days before, I received a call and raced to the home of this retired drag queen and beloved church member. That day, I was hopeful that the rumor mill had spun a story that was untrue. As I drove, a fantasy played in my head, in which I would show up and she would be fine. My mind worked overtime as I sped to her house. I imagined she would think it was hilarious that I’d rushed over there. We would laugh and hug, and she would tease me for being so worried. I bargained with God, don’t let it be true, and then I remembered that’s not how this works.
My journey with Tiffani as part of my queer chosen family started long before I was her pastor, back when I was just a 20-something queer trans boy in seminary. It feels like it was not that long ago. Then somehow, no time passed at all and suddenly I was in my 40s and I was hurriedly driving down the freeway, and bargaining with God.
Tiffani is a well-known drag queen in our community and a vivid presence in our church. But to the young police officer at the scene, she was just an elderly Black man who died alone. I told the officer that I needed to bless the deceased. In this scene of strangers, Tiffani needed someone who knew her truth.
The name Tiffani was the name from her heart. I spoke her heart name, again and again, sweetly, softly. I spoke to her lifeless body. I filled her tiny apartment with all the queerly empowered love I could muster up. I asked the officer for permission to touch her. He nodded and he left the room. I touched her face and blessed her. After a lifetime defined by queerness, I was not going to let Tiffani leave her home without queer blessings. I looked at her and I saw her, the real Tiffani. After all these years, all the love she has experienced, I had the honor of being the last person to look at her with love.
Tiffani’s life experiences and identity are very different from my own, but we shared bond that few others can understand. We shared the knowledge of what it is like to walk in the world in bodies that are misunderstood. We know what it is like to embody gender identities that people claim are not rightfully ours. We shared the understanding of queer joy, of knowing what it is like to fight for and to earn validity and respect.
I could feel her presence there. I could feel the grace, elegance, and fierceness of a drag queen who fought so many difficult battles since entering this world in the late 1940s. A lifetime of discovery, of challenges, of hope. Tiffani lived with HIV for decades and was an incredible advocate for people living with HIV. She overcame addiction and fought many battles. Tiffani was a force to be reckoned with and she had left this life naturally and peacefully.
I held vigil outside her home for the next four hours, alongside of a small group of beloved friends, until someone arrived to take her away. The man who came to transport her body said to me, “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.” For the rest of my life, I will remember that moment with relief and gratitude. I got one final reminder that the world doesn’t always get it right, but we can trust that Tiffani was safe and treated with care. It would not have mattered to her that they believed they were taking care of “him” because she was protected by queer blessings from someone who spoke her true name and honored her in the wholeness of her truest self, Tiffani Middlesexx.
My prayer is this, may all of us—who live in bodies that are misunderstood—be seen, and blessed, and loved, as our truest selves, all the way to the very end.
Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw | Coordinator of the CLGS Transgender Roundtable | Senior Pastor, The Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa (MCC Tampa)