The monument pictured below was once found in The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and stood as a beautiful testament to love that in many place is still forbidden. Artist Patricia Cronin created this beautiful marble grave marker for her and her partner and fellow artist Deborah Kass before gay marriage had been legalized. They wanted in death what they, at the time, were not permitted to have in life.
As I listened to Caitlin Doughty (author of "Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?" and other excellent death related books, founder of The Order of the Good Death, and YouTuber Ask A Mortician) recant the tale of this headstone in an episode of "Death in the Afternoon", I couldn't help but wonder how many LGBT+ couples had similar stories and what challenges they faced when trying to build a perfect togetherness in eternity that they were very likely denied while alive. Overall, I really wanted to learn more about how LGBT+ people are memorialized in cemeteries.
While not many elaborate marble effigies marking the future graves of lesbian lovers exist, more stories like this do. I found that the history of the LGBT+ as seen through headstones is as rich and varied as the community itself.
Cronin’s “Memorial to a Marriage” was more than just a monument to the love between two women and a marker on their future burial site: It was created to be a triumph in death over a (then) denial in life. Cronin and Kass married on July 24, 2011, the very first day that New York State legalized same-sex marriage. The marble memorial was replaced with a bronze one in celebration of their legally recognized marriage.
The podcast goes on to discuss two gay men from Hollywood who had a similar marvelous monument unveiling at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “Two Hearts, Two Souls, Together in life, Forever in Eternity.”
Bernardo Puccio and Orin Kennedy married in 2007 in California. Both men had found huge success in Hollywood, Puccio as an interior decorator and Kennedy with various film and acting gigs.
They unveiled their grave with a large party, inviting their friends (many of whom were skeptical at first). Caitlin goes on to tell us that the grave currently contains the ashes of a beloved cat, but both men are alive today.
This podcast episode describes two elaborate and beautiful monuments: one that marks an actualized marriage and a victory for same-sex couples, and the other acting as a death positive ode to a Hollywood marriage in a state that happily allows it.
As someone who identifies as LGBT+ and works in a cemetery, I found the stories of these couples inspiring. They prompted me to research LGBT+ headstones and burial stories- I wanted to know the stories of other couples like the ones above. How many found power in their final resting spaces like Cronin and Kass did? How many have been denied togetherness, even in death?
I found many stories of success and struggle, and learned a bit about LGBT+ history in the process. Many of the accounts I’m sharing today involve gay and lesbian veterans and how the process of memorialization can also erase the identities of LGBT+ couples.
The first cemetery we are (figuratively) visiting today has the only physical LGBT+ Section in the United States. This is Congressional Cemetery, located in Washington, D.C. It is dubbed by cemetery administration as “The Gay Corner”, and it also happens to be a place unlike any other for LGBT+ veterans to honor those who faced bigotry before them.
The headstone pictured above reads “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” This is the grave of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first active duty military member to challenge the military’s ban on gay men. In 1975, Matlovich sent a letter to his superior stating that he was gay, and was subsequently discharged. Following this, he became a prominent activist championing for military inclusion of LGBT+ people.
My favorite part of this story comes when Matlovich decides to purchase two grave spaces at Congressional Cemetery for himself and for a future partner. He chose the location that he did because it was close to the grave of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s burial location. Hoover launched a seriously nasty and damaging anti-gay campaign during the Cold War, the goal of which was to “Identify every gay and suspected gay working for the federal government.”, and create a physical list of these individuals with the intent of having them removed from federal service (Isikoff, 2015). His war on gay people continued for some time, but what is fascinating (and maybe not so surprising) is that he was suspected of being gay himself (History.com, 2010, Isikoff, 2015). Hoover was never married, and kept a very close relationship to Clyde Tolson, the FBI's Number 2 official at the time. In fact, Hoover willed his estate to Tolson, and Tolson is buried near Hoover.
I love that Matlovich chose to be buried in this location largely because it would go on to turn this part of the cemetery into “The Gay Corner”, which I imagine Hoover would have hated. Part of me wonders if there are more facets to this decision, and that creating a place for gay activists and veterans to be memorialized near a man who very likely hated his own queerness can also be seen as a small act of peace-making and healing.
Matlovich designed his own headstone, with the intent of having it resemble the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. In fact, both monuments are made from the same type of black granite (Chibarro, 2013).
Matlovich was buried here in 1988 (pictured above), having died due to complications related to AIDS. Many others who have been buried here have been HIV-positive. It is important that their stories are known, because many funeral homes and cemeteries fear and therefore discriminated those who carried the disease and refused to handle their bodies. A prime example of this occurrence is New York's Hart Island. Hart Island is home to a burial site called Potter's Field that turned out to be the final resting place of countless unclaimed bodies of those who died from AIDS and related complications in the '80s and '90s. You can read more about this little-known chapter of the AIDS crisis here.
Other notable LGBT+ people buried in "The Gay Corner" of Congressional Cemetery section include Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was dishonorably discharged from the Army for being gay. in 1950 Kameny co-founded the Washington D.C. Mattachine Society, which sent pro-gay information to politicians including J. Edgar Hoover (Morton, 2016)! Shortly after, he organized D.C.'s first public protest for gay and lesbian rights, right in front of the White House (Martin, 2018). His grave is commemorated with the familiar “Gay Is Good” headstone:
Barabra Gittings, who some regard as "a mother of the LGBT civil rights movement", is buried here as well. Gittings and Kameny were fellow activists, and you can see the same "Gay is Good" message on the monument marking her grave:
Gittings and Kameny both fought to end the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, as it was then classified by the American Psychiatric Association. They succeeded in 1973. This was monumental, particularly because treatment for such an "illness" was often electroshock therapy, institutionalization, and even lobotomy (LGBT50, n.d.).
Gitting's partner of 46 years, Kay Tobin Lahusen, will be buried next to her one day. The inscription depicted on their headstone above reads: "Partners in life, Married in our hearts". As with Cronin and Kass, this seems to be a monument to a marriage that was unobtainable legally.
Continuing my research, I came across the story of Madelynn Taylor and spouse Jean Mixner. These two women were married in California in 2008, but when they moved to Idaho, their marriage license was no longer recognized as valid. At the time, same-sex marriage was not yet legalized in Idaho. When Mixner died in 2012, Taylor wanted to have her urn interred in the Idaho State Veteran’s Cemetery.
Taylor was a Navy veteran of 6 years who was discharged dishonorably after being outed (along with other women in her unit) by another recruit as a lesbian. Taylor had to petition to get her discharge paperwork, which is a separation document one gets when leaving military service, re-classified as honorable in character.
Her petition was approved, and now that she has paperwork showing she is classified as being honorably discharged, Taylor is entitled to be someday buried in a state or national veteran’s cemetery. The spouse of a veteran is also entitled to this, however, Mixner was not legally recognized as Taylor’s spouse on a state level, and so the cemetery denied her burial.
Jean Mixner (left) and Madelynn Taylor (right)
Taylor began to petition to overturn the legal definition of marriage in Idaho. In her words, "I don't see where the ashes of a couple old lesbians is going to hurt anyone,". The then 74 year old Taylor filed a lawsuit in federal court (Wright, 2014), but on October 15, 2014 same sex marriage became legalized in Idaho, and Taylor was able to proceed with having her wife’s ashes placed in the Idaho State Veteran’s Cemetery. Taylor commented jokingly on the success of being able to take the urn out of its storage spot in her closet for burial:
"It's a good day we get to get Jean out of the closet!" Taylor joked Wednesday after finishing the paperwork. "She's dancing."
Jean Mixner’s urn was placed in a niche bank at Site 230 of the cemetery with a plaque that reads “Together Forever”. (Ganga, 2014).
Idaho State Veterans Cemetery Columbariums
After all of the research done around this concept, I came away feeling incredibly thankful that so many of these stories had good endings (well, aside from the fact that of their main characters are dead).
Historically, death has been a time for society and spiteful family members to erase LGBT+ identity. The lack of a will, prepaid funeral arrangements, or other legal protections can sometimes cause harm and even more grief when an LGBT+ person dies, not to mention cemeteries that outright refuse(d) to allow acknowledgement of LGBT+ marriages (such as the 2016 case of husbands Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon).
Even though there are more protections now, it is valuable to be mindful of those who fought for their love to be memorialized, those who found power and togetherness in death, and in broader terms, those who paved the way for LGBT+ rights as they are today.
A great way to pay tribute to those people is to know and exercise your own rights, especially as they pertain to end-of-life matters, and (most importantly) by creating a plan to protect yourself when the inevitable happens. Hit the Subscribe button and stay tuned for future articles on how to do just that in Oregon, check out our resources page, or visit your local estate planning attorney if you can. Talk to your loved ones and make your wishes known. How you choose to approach dying is one of the most important decisions of your life.
 "Memorial to a Marriage". http://www.patriciacronin.net/art.html
 "Full Bronze Memorial to a Marriage". https://www.patriciacronin.net/memorial.html
 Lynch, Patsy. "Wreath Laying Ceremony Conducted By Gay and Lesbian Service Members." https://www.washingtonblade.com/2013/11/12/lgbt-veterans-honored-congressional-cemetery/
 Thai, Ted. 1975. https://time.com/4019076/40-years-leonard-matlovich/
 Idaho State Veteran's Cemetery. n.d.. http://www.veterans.idaho.gov/cemetery
Ganga, Maria. 2014. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-idaho-gay-rights-20141023-story.html
Idaho News, Associated Press. 2014. https://idahonews.com/news/local/madelynn-taylor-gets-ok-to-be-buried-with-gay-partner
Isikoff, Michael. 2015. https://news.yahoo.com/uniquely-nasty-j-edgar-hoover-fbi-war-on-gays-152550068.html
Kilgannon, Corey. 2018."Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field" https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/03/nyregion/hart-island-aids-new-york.html
LGBT50. no date. https://lgbt50.org/barbara-gittings
Martin, Kevin. 2018. https://www.magellantv.com/articles/the-mattachine-society-lgbtq-history
National Cemetery Administration https://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/index.html?cemetery=S107
Russel, Betsy. 2014. https://www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise/2014/apr/25/idaho-veterans-cemetery-wont-bury-gay-spouse/ The Spokesman-Review.