The first ever Death Cafe for london’s lgbt community brought together 22 queer men and women in the candle-lit, atmospheric basement of Cakey Muto in Hackney’s Chatsworth Road. We filled the room, sitting in a tight circle with a few bodies on cushions in the middle. It was the evening before the summer solstice sunrise, a highly suitable time to be reviewing attitudes to death and loss, to be releasing fears and meeting tribe as we prepared to step into the summer season.
It was hot and humid in the room, more so with so many bodies packed in, but as we became more relaxed and present in the space during the course of the sharing somehow the energy transformed into a very comfortable, compassionate air that nobody was in a rush to leave.
We arrived and settled, brought our minds and feelings into the space before passing a talisman and sharing why we had come along to the cafe. A tiny disco glitter ball in the ceiling, perhaps the archetypal queer symbol of connection to something greater than our individuality, seemed to say this was the right space for us. An emotional connection was well in place by the time the talisman reached the last person. We stayed in one circle for the rest of the evening, speaking as we felt moved in a fascinating discussion that explored the many directions a conversation around death can go. Nobody held court or dominated proceedings, the quality of focussed listening was awesome and everyone contributed when they felt moved to. Incredible stories were shared and the room was filled with a lightness and a beautiful sense of connection and positivity. Nobody really wanted to stop talking, it felt like many avenues had been opened but it would take days to explore them properly.
Is there a need for a specifically LGBT Death Cafe? The queer community has had a very special relationship with death, in fact I wondered if people would want to come talk about it after the journey we have been through. Of course the AIDS years came up in the conversation, with powerful stories and insights from those years shared. It is crucial that that part of our history is talked about, and there is perhaps a tendency in the gay world today to ignore what happened. Time gives perspective, and many of us at the cafe had moving tales relating to the epidemic that deserve to be remembered. We also appreciated how the encounter with death can make living so much more vibrant.
And there are other reasons it may be very important for queer folk to make space to explore this ultimate taboo. We are breakers of taboos – around sex, around relationship models, around drugs, around gender. Death is another one that society harbours lots of fears and misunderstandings around.
Queer people in the modern world are usually defined by our sexual behaviours, but to the indigenous people of the planet we were often seen as the shamans or gatekeepers who performed a service to the wider community, by being both the priest/priestesses who opened the doors to the spirit world and by holding an important space between the men and women of the tribe, making us the mediators and peacemakers. Examples of this can be found across the planet on every continent, and we are still respected for this role by the Dagara tribe of western Africa…… Much admired Dagara priestess, Sobonfu Some, says “What would happen if you’re dealing with a culture that doesnt care about these gateways? What happens is that a gay person cannot do his job. Gatekeepers are left unable to accomplish their purpose….. one of the reasons gatekeepers are able to open gates to other dimensions is in the way they use their sexual energy. Their ability to focus their sexual energy in a particular way allows them to open and close different gates.” A crucial role of the gatekeeper is to help dying people make it safely through to the spirit world. Something we did for each other a lot during the AIDS years.
The first europeans to arrive in the americas were horrified to find that the sacred functionaries of the native tribes were cross-dressing gender benders. These shamans became known as the berdache, though every tribe had their own word for them. Often translated nowadays as ‘two-spirits’ there is a revival of this ancient knowledge underway in the united states, with ceremonial dances such as the Naraya offering space for queers to experience direct connection to the ancestors and their higher selves.
We might note that, for all the furore in the christian churches around homosexuality, gay men have filled a vast proportion of the ranks of priests and monks in the west through the centuries. There is a special relationship between our sexuality and spirit.
Modern gay culture has focussed on the physical and social spheres. Collectively we have had few chances to discuss our spirituality… because of the negative attitudes of religions towards us this has been a hard subject to address rationally. But the time has maybe come when gay life is growing to its next phase. If we do not learn lessons from the HIV epidemic it is likely that our drive to hedonistic self expression will lead to more casualties – in fact, this is already happening, through drug excesses as well as physical disease. We might find, by talking and listening to each other, that there is a spiritual root to our nature that it is even more fundamental to who we are than the sexual act. We could discover that the reason death entered so quickly and harshly into our liberation story is because death is the ultimate gateway to spirit, and that gateway is ours to open.
While some were confused or concerned, nobody at the lgbt death cafe was in a state of distress regarding death. A lot of work had clearly already been done. Nor was there an air of defeated resignation. This was a circle in which great hope was shared and the possibility that death can be a friend was opened.
THANKYOU TO ALL WHO CAME AND SHARED