This story is adapted from Broadly's Queerly Beloved podcast.
Kelli Dunham and Heather MacAllister met—“like all queers do,” as Kelli put it—at a queer conference. And it didn’t take long for them to fall in love. But not long after, Heather was diagnosed with cancer. After about a year of being together, Heather passed away.
Kelli’s recollections paint Heather as a dominating burlesque dancer—the kind of magnetic person who knows what they want and isn’t afraid to ask for it. “I had a lot to give at that point,” recalls Kelli, “and she was willing to have it.” Also, she had a type: kinky, chubby, masculine-of-center queers. That surely encompassed Kelli, an ex-nun, genderqueer nurse, author, and comedian. Bonus: Kelli made Heather laugh like no one else.
When Heather died, she left Kelli a note: a couple pages of composition notebook paper folded once with Kelli’s name on the outside. It wasn’t, as one might expect, a lengthy, sentimental goodbye. Rather, inside was a list of all of Heather’s ex-lovers. “How I deciphered what list it was is because it had my name and the date that we first had sex,” recalls Kelli.
At first, it wasn’t clear to Kelli why Heather would leave such an odd momento: “I thought, OK, is this a posthumous brag or something?” But, Kelli eventually realized the potential tactfulness of the gift. Gradually, it bloomed into a safety net of sorts: an extensive queer community to catch Kelli right at the moment when she lost her person. Throughout her life, Heather compiled a massive, cross-country constellation of well-vetted queer friends and that is what she left behind for Kelli.
Heather had funerals in five different cities, and during that time, as Kelli met so many people who knew Heather throughout her life, the list offered context for what some of those relationships were. After that, even, Kelli would have moments of meeting people—at conferences, at comedy shows—who would approach her with tenderness and say, “I knew Heather.” After consulting the list, Kelli would often find that they, too, were mentioned. Eventually, Kelli met 73 other folks whose names were scrawled onto that paper, some who became close friends and others who remained acquaintances.
“It’s hard to say what her intention was, and I don’t think I still know whether she foresaw all of us getting together in this train of emotion across the country. I don’t know, because it wasn’t what I was expecting, either,” says Kelli. “But my guess is that aside from… celebrating a bit her sexual prowess, there was also a bit of care for me in it; that this list would be ultimately useful for me in some way.”
It wasn’t just the fact that they all knew Heather that connected the people on the list, though. Because Heather tended to be attracted to masculine-of-center queer people, often, the people that Kelli met from the list shared aspects of her masculine identity. And sometimes, that commonality served as the foundation for an unexpectedly deep and honest bond.
“It’s been kind of this lifeline of sorts going both ways of having these deep emotional, often grief-field conversations with other masculine people,” Kelli reflects. “As a person who’s assigned female at birth but I have masculine identity, I have often felt pressure to be less emotionally demonstrative. There was a special kind of permission because we were all sharing it.”
Kelli would often find herself saying things like, ‘I’m crying, you can cry,” when connecting with others from the list. It created a kind of “bristerhood,” as Kelli calls it—a combination of brotherhood and sisterhood—of masculine queer people sharing memories of Heather, about when she first made them feel seen, or the time she forced them to get a pap smear.
“It’s made for all these intense, masculine-of-center friendships that I never had before,” recalls Kelli. “Because we had this thread in common, and in trying to take care of eachother, we grew connected.”
To hear the full story straight from Kelli, alongside one of the people who she connected with in the wake of Heather’s death, listen to the Queerly Beloved episode "The Past Lovers." And for more stories like this, check out the whole column here.