Jeff Zirpolo died this week—C’s colleague, our friend—whom we have known since early in the AIDS years. The wake was on Thursday in Watertown. There were about a hundred people there, his birth family—his brothers and his sisters-in-law, and his sister and his brother-in-law, a number of nephews and nieces—who called him “Mike,” and us, his friends in the bear community in metropolitan Boston, who called him “Jeff.” One woman spoke of the two communities gathered around the casket—she was glad to see us, she said, and we were glad to see them. The conversation went well, and the wake went on for three or four hours. We talked of his childhood and of his long, active life here in Boston. Jeff started a motorcycle club and a support group for the friends and family members of persons with AIDS. He also started at least two other social clubs for men in the gay community. He was active in organizing community-wide events. I first knew him, in the late eighties, at events he had organized around Pride. He instinctively knew what to do with a flat-bed truck, a sound system, and men in Speedos or black leather. That was fun, but he also raised money for worthy causes. He was a leader of our community in the kinds of things that were necessary to him and to us—defining ourselves, protecting ourselves, expressing ourselves. He had found a way to give himself what he needed in Boston.
The power of that was evidenced in the number of men who showed up at Jeff’s wake. The fullness of his life, however, was illustrated also in the number present from his birth family. Most of us who lived through it can remember that when a friend died of AIDS, all the public parts of his death—the obituary, the wake, the funeral service—were bleached of anything that said gay, and it was said that he died of “a long illness.” There would be a wake and a funeral in some nearby town, and, a month later, a memorial service in Boston, the first a heterosexual event for blood family members and townspeople and the second a queer event for the rest of us. Jeff’s wake this week seems to show that we are getting beyond that. Even if we haven’t completely assimilated ourselves one to another, and even if we don’t respect each other quite enough to know what we need to know about each other, we do seem to be groping toward one grieving process for one person—for Jeff and Mike. I think that’s probably a good thing. Later, if his birth family want to gather to reminisce among themselves, even with a priest, that seems to be OK. And if, at some point, queers want to have something for themselves to remember good times with Jeff at the Ramrod or the Arena or the Alley, that might be OK too. The point here I think is to get the grieving processes together, so that they all seem to be about the same person. One person, our family member.