For most of the 52 years he was in a relationship with Robert Huskey, Jack Zawadski doesn’t remember much in the way of anti-gay discrimination.
Not while they were trying to grow apples on a farm in Wisconsin. Not during the decades they spent as special education teachers. Not even when they moved to Mississippi 20 years ago to retire someplace warmer and more lush, or after they married in 2015, when the Supreme Court declared that gay couples have as much of a right as heterosexuals to marry.
But in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Pearl River County, Miss., Zawadski said that prejudice finally reared its head when he was most vulnerable: last May, when Huskey died at age 86 after a long illness.
In a 14-page complaint, Zawadski, 82, said the funeral home that had been prearranged to pick up and cremate Huskey’s body refused at the last minute, telling the nursing home that they don’t “deal with their kind.”
In a response filed with the court in March, the owners of the Picayune Funeral Home in Picayune, Miss., deny the events as described by Zawadski and his nephew, who made the arrangements and is co-plaintiff.
Silas W. McCharen, an attorney for the owners of the funeral home, Ted and Henrietta Brewer, said in an email that the firm has never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Henrietta Brewer denies she made reference to not serving “their kind,” he said, and the firm never refused to pick up the remains. But he declined to elaborate further.
Zawadski is being represented by Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights law firm and advocacy organization based in New York. Because neither Mississippi law nor federal law explicitly forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the suit is relying on “other state laws that hopefully will provide a remedy for the terrible actions that happened here,” said Beth Littrell, the attorney handling the case.
“The essence of the claim is that they both breached a contract and denied services at the last minute to a grieving family based on the fact that the man who had passed away was gay and was married to a man,” said Littrell, whose organization is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from a jury.
For Zawadski, the suit is a rare activist moment. He said he and his husband lived unassuming lives and were rarely open with their friends and neighbors about their sexual orientation. “We lived our lives quietly,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t hit the bars or anything like that.”
The pair met in 1965 in California. After moving around and traveling to indulge their interest in Civil War history, they decided to settle down in the small town of Picayune, not far from the Louisiana border. Zawadski grew camellias, and Huskey served for a time as president of the homeowner’s association.
“And that’s how we lived,” Zawadski said. “We just enjoyed each other.”
They never mentioned their sexual orientation, and nobody asked, he said — not even after the two were married by a judge in nearby Hancock County on Aug. 17, 2015.
Photo Credit: Veronica Hayyar
Over time, Huskey’s health took a turn because of a heart condition that had previously required bypass surgery, the complaint said. “Jack cared for Bob through his surgery, recovery and as his condition deteriorated,” it said. “By August, 2015, Jack was helping Bob with all the daily functions of life, including eating, walking and personal hygiene.” Huskey moved into a nursing home, and last April it became clear that he would soon die.
The couple’s nephew, John Gaspari, made the arrangements ahead of time with Picayune Funeral Home, the only funeral home in the county with an on-site crematory, according to the complaint. Zawadski had hoped to hold the funeral there so the couple’s local friends could pay their respects. On May 11, 2016, the nursing home contacted the funeral home to let them know Huskey had died.
But after filing the paperwork, including a document naming Zawadski as next of kin, Gaspari got a call from the nursing home. “The Nursing Home relayed to John that once received the paperwork indicating that Bob’s spouse was male, PFH refused service because it did not ‘deal with their kind,’ ” the lawsuit stated.
Gaspari and Zawadski were left scrambling to find another funeral home that could cremate Huskey on-site, according to the complaint. They found one in Hattiesburg, about 90 minutes away. But because the nursing home did not have a morgue, it refused to hold Huskey’s remains until the Hattiesburg facility could retrieve it. So Gaspari and Zawadski had to enlist a second, closer funeral home to pick up his body and transport it.
“The turmoil and exigency created by Defendants in causing Plaintiffs to find alternative arrangements, as described above, permanently marred the memory of Bob’s otherwise peaceful passing,” the complaint said.
Zawadski said his motives for bringing the suit are not financial but rather to ensure that no one else goes through what he experienced. In a video produced by Lambda Legal, Zawadski said through tears that the funeral home had shown disrespect toward his husband.
“This, I hope, brings him some honor,” he said.