In the Catholic Church, many people will know that in spite of official disapproval from on high, and outright hostility by some individuals in the church, very often parishes on the ground can be truly welcoming and accepting, with acceptance and full inclusion from both parishioners and parish priests. That was certainly my experience at Holy Trinity Parish, Braamfontein, Johannesburg -and is the experience of many others at countless parishes around the world.
A story from Chicago Sun Times demonstrates that this disconnect between official disapproval and practical warmth on the ground also applies in other formally homophobic institutions, in this instance the US marines. In spite of the policy of DADT which was still in force last June, and notwithstanding the vicious persecution that some gay servicemen experienced under that policy, the widowed husband of one Marine, John Fliszar, found exceptional co-operation from the Naval Academy officials when he approached them for help in executing the dead man’s wish to have his ashes interred in the Naval Academy.
I enjoyed imagining the confused expressions of these officials when they were first approached by the widowed husband, Mark Ketterson:
The memorial coordinator asked about his relationship to the deceased. Ketterson said that John Fliszar was his husband.
“They were always polite, but there was this moment of hesitation,” Ketterson recalled. “They said they’re going to need something in writing from a blood relative. They asked, ‘Are you listed on the death certificate?’ ‘Do you have a marriage license?’ ”
But here’s the point: he was, and they did. Thereafter, Ketterson was treated exactly like any other grieving military widow, with courtesy, consideration and respect.
Ketterson sent a copy of the marriage license. That changed everything.
“I was respected,” he said. “From that moment on, I was next of kin. They were amazing.”
The USNA alumni association sent Ketterson a letter expressing condolence for the loss of his husband.
The USNA says Fliszar’s interment followed standard operating procedure.
“His next of kin was treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to the next of kin of all USNA grads who desire interment at the Columbarium,” said Jennifer Erickson, a spokesperson for the academy. “We didn’t do anything differently.”
Shipmate magazine, the publication of the USNA’s alumni association, ran Fliszar’s obituary. It noted his two Purple Hearts for “having been shot down from the sky twice in military missions.” It noted “for the rest of his life he would joke about his ‘government issued ankle.’ ” It noted “his burly but warmly gentle manner.” It noted he was “survived by his husband, Mark Thomas Ketterson.”
There’s no doubt about it: that little piece of paper, confirming legal marriage, makes a big difference, in so many ways. What of surviving partners of other servicemen and women who are unable to produce those marriage certificates – because local law doesn’t allow it?
While the public generally approved of the official end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ in the U.S. military, the details still need to be worked out. The thorny issue isn’t ending the costly and counterproductive practice of forcing gays out of military services — that cost $40 million a year to enforce and deprived the armed services of thousands of qualified personnel. A bigger challenge is the question of entitlements: Who is a survivor? Who gets military benefits?
A marriage certificate was the key that let the USNA know how to treat Ketterson in relation to his husband’s service. Gays in the military and gay marriage are thought of as separate issues, but without legal gay marriage, or at least civil unions, how can the military know who gets the folded flag?
Such practical concerns were far from Ketterson’s mind when he and Fliszar got married after dating for six years — “because I loved him and he asked me,” Ketterson said, adding that the USNA alumni he’s heard from have made grieving more bearable.