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Brother Thomas Zerafa, Activist for LGBTQ+ and Numerous Progressive Causes, Dies at Age 71

This year, Brother Thomas R. Zerafa, activist and prolific volunteer for LGBTQ+ and numerous progressive causes, would have celebrated his 50th anniversary of coming out as part of the LGBTQ+ community. He informed me of this milestone in December and suggested Pride Source write a story for the occasion. It had been 10 years since he was last celebrated in our publication, and I kept that thought simmering on the back burner. Sadly, Zerafa didn’t quite make it to that incredible milestone. He died Feb. 13 at age 71 after recent health struggles.

As the story goes, Zerafa was 22 years old and his parents came from Florida to visit when he wasn’t feeling well. Weeks later, he received a letter that his father had been “confused” by some of the literature he saw in Zerafa’s apartment. Zerafa said his mother “was nice about it.” At first they struggled, but his parents weren’t judgmental and came to accept him. 

Zerafa and I were introduced after the memorial service for another local LGBTQ+ elder, the artist and writer Charles Alexander. It was actually the second time we met; I remembered him from an Oak Park/Huntington Woods Democratic Club meeting where I sat next to him at a bar to watch one of the gubernatorial debates before the 2018 primary. I was there giving a spiel for the Human Rights Campaign and he made sure I knew he was Brother Thomas (Zerafa took vows as a Franciscan brother in 2018) and that he was gay. He made an impression on me.

Brother Thomas Zerafa. Photo: David Coulter

At the memorial, I didn’t expect to have a conversation about death with someone so close to death himself, but now it makes sense that I was present to record his thoughts about Alexander — which never made their way into print. I consider it a meaningful coincidence. 

“[Charles Alexander] was absolutely one of the most learned persons I’ve ever met in the gay community,” said Zerafa, who knew Alexander for at least 45 years. “He was a very outgoing man and very generous with his time. Once you met Charles Alexander, you had a friend for life. And he never forgot your name or things that were peculiar to you. He always kept that in mind, and he himself allowed himself to be open to everybody he met.

“He will be missed but his spirit continues to live, and it lives through everybody who he ever met,” he added. “And as we’re sharing a dessert buffet, he’s at the heavenly banquet being fed forever. And I look forward to the day he welcomes each of us to where he’s at now.”

Thomas R. Zerafa was born July 30, 1951 in Detroit to Joseph and Imelda (Gauvin) Zerafa. With a bachelor’s of music degree from Marygrove College, Zerafa was a music minister in the Archdiocese of Detroit, serving many parishes over the course of his career. 

“Tom was active in the early years of Affirmations,” said Jan Stevenson, the organization’s first executive director and former co-publisher of Pride Source Media Group, “and I came to appreciate his wry sense of humor, intelligence and fierce sense of justice. We shared a love of classical music — he being a church organist.”

In a Facebook post, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter called Zerafa “a kind and dedicated soul passionate about his faith, his community and his politics. His backyard BBQs in Oak Park were welcome events where he helped connect his myriad of friends, and he will be dearly missed.” Coulter later added, “[Zerafa’s] commitment to social justice, especially for the LGBTQ community, but also on a host of other issues, was in his DNA.”

Politically, Zerafa was involved in various capacities with the Michigan Democratic Party. He also ran for mayor of Oak Park in 2007, endorsed by the Victory Fund and the Triangle Fund PAC. At the time, he talked about what drew him from Detroit to Oak Park six years earlier.

“The racial diversity of the city attracted me,” he said. “Gay people live in all parts of Oak Park. It’s a very accepting city.” He pledged to work for a comprehensive human rights ordinance.

Zerafa was well known for his service to the LGBTQ+ community. Organizations and causes that benefited from his involvement over the years include but are not limited to the Wayne State Gay and Lesbian Liberation Front, Affirmations LGBTQ+ Community Center, Dignity Detroit, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, the Triangle Foundation (a predecessor to Equality Michigan), One Royal Oak and the Gay Connection, where he served as program chair. Zerafa was also active in opposing Proposal 2, the so-called marriage amendment, which sought to ban equal marriage rights, civil unions and domestic partnerships in Michigan’s Constitution.

Zerafa was also passionate about environmental causes. He recently traveled to Washington D.C. as a volunteer, where he lobbied for climate action with the Sierra Club and Citizens Climate Lobby. Additionally, Zerafa was a board member of the Motor City Freedom Riders, which fought to bring mass transit to Southeast Michigan.  

In 2006, Zerafa received a Community Service Award at the 21st annual Pride Banquet. Before receiving his award, Zerafa commented, “My first reaction was, ‘At least it’s not a Lifetime Achievement Award.’ My work isn’t done yet. But then again, I guess it’s a plateau to look back at, but there’s still a mountain to climb.”

Many know Zerafa for his community gatherings. Aside from his barbecues, he held holiday and block parties. 

Exceedingly generous with his time and efforts, Zerafa’s final word on death can be summed up in what he told Pride Source in 2013:

“My life is not about me. It’s about service and I intend to do just that until my last breath. My bags are packed whenever God is ready to take me. I have no regrets in my life, just work to do.”

Zerafa is survived by his brother, Joseph (Theresa), of Livonia. Preceding him in death is a brother, Larry; sister, Linda Montoya; and his parents. In accordance with Zerafa’s wishes, he will receive a green burial. A graveside service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 in The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery, 4401 Nelsey Road, Waterford Twp., 48329. Friends and family will gather again on Friday, April 14, from 9:30 a.m. until time of memorial Mass at 10 a.m. at St. Mary Catholic Church, 730 S Lafayette Ave., Royal Oak, 48067.

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