Yesterday, as I got ready to leave the studio, for some reason I decided to check into Facebook a last time– only to see on my wall, news that Madeleine Hershey had passed away from Cancer. Many are sharing on Facebook about her, and I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed with emotions and utterly at a loss for adequate words to express the depth of my sadness. Below you will find Mad’s obituary and some notes about cancer support resources taken from Facebook and shared here with love.

I met Madeleine years ago, when I went to see her for a massage. I remember thinking she was different and interesting– at least as much as one can tell from a single interaction. Brad and I were already together, but I was seeking out someone to see for massage. The commute to her space seemed more than I was  looking for or I’d have gone back.

Then, about five or so years ago, I met her again, but this time in the context of the Initiative for Transgender Leadership (ITL). I was just amazed at this organization, and I believe it is still today, one of the best examples or models for how LGBTQ organizations can structure themselves so that all their talent and time go into doing the real work of advocacy, activism and change. But it wasn’t just the structure that made ITL work, but the people engaged in it, and Mad was at the heart of it.

I watched Mad in action too, as she participated along with so many others, in QUILTBAG meetings, which were initiated by Rayden Sorock, also connected to the ITL. I thought Mad was magnificent in the way she added to the dialogue, and was a key part without ever taking over. She brought to a meeting, in her participation, a quality and a way of being that I wanted and that I wanted to bring to my participation in meetings and projects. So I watched and I listened and I tried to see what I could learn from her. I believe that today I am a different person and different advocate because of those opportunities to see real leadership and activism role modeled so beautifully and masterfully by Mad.

As I think about what I feel I learned from Mad, it can be boiled down to a few ideas that are so easy and so hard, all at the same time to achieve. Maybe these aren’t at all what Mad was about, or maybe they are– but they reflect how I feel impacted by her.

  • Be who you are, and bring to the table what you have to bring. Don’t waste everyone’s time trying to prove you belong there, just be present with what you have to offer.
  • Put as much effort into listening as you would speaking, and give to others the same respect and support you want from them.
  • Be aware of the big issues, but remember to focus on doing what can be done in practical terms. Balance big dreams with manageable smaller steps along the way.

I’m guessing Mad touched many people in many ways, so I’m sure she was not unknown. But I also doubt that her name would be at the top of the list, if you asked the average LGBTQ person on the street, who are the leaders of Pittsburgh community . Yet it belonged there, and in a real way it was. I just think she set out to be a real leader rather than set out to make sure everyone knew she was a leader, if that makes sense.

As a gay man, in the struggle for equality, I’ve lost hundreds and hundreds of amazing friends, and colleagues  to AIDS. So much effort has been put to seeing AIDS and the devastation it causes, and that is as it ought to be. But death comes from many sources, and the loss to our collective communities is the result of all of these, not one alone. I sit here now, almost kicking myself. Why didn’t I do more or make sure to engage myself more with Mad? Because it never occurred to me that she could be gone.

Mad, isn’t the only amazing leader and hero out there, just one who I am keenly going to miss. There are many people who identify as lesbian, gay, straight, bi, trans, or queer who may be gone one day. Will I rise to the challenge and make sure I connect, and interact and work with as many of them as possible today?

Cancer and Community Support

<snip>… recommending Family Hospice (412 -572-8800), and to Family Hospice for being so well informed, above-board, for making it clear that you heard us, for respecting our family’s values and priorities, and communicating clearly in a way that supported our informed choices. I would encourage anyone in western PA who receives a life-threatening diagnosis to learn about the Family Hospice agency early on.

Mad’s Obituary

The obituary contains a word that does not get published by family newspapers. We have opted to self publish the obituary in full rather than pay a newspaper to censor a word Madeleine championed. Please help us spread the news and the word by sharing this status as you see fit. And if this February you find yourself at a production of the Vagina Monologues, feel free to shout out a cheer at the mention of the woman from Pittsburgh who had to talk about texture, and a certain pejorative word.

Madeleine Hershey died in her home held by loved ones on January 17, 2015. Madeleine was born in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh, PA) to Carol Hershey (nee Fine) and Nathan Hershey. She is survived by her partner of 20 years, Michelle Wirth; her dear sister Suzanne Hershey (Girish Altekar); father Nathan Hershey; and many beloved family members and friends.

Madeleine briefly attended Allderdice High School and Antioch College, but preferred hands-on learning. She found her calling as a deep tissue massage therapist, through which she used her strength, gentleness, and meticulous attention to detail to serve hundreds of people for over 27 years. In addition to running her small business, she joined with Darlene Smith, Aurora Smith, and Amy Simpson, to form the group The Great Lominies, and together they gave sacred lomi massage to people embarking on transitions.

Among Madeleine’s many great talents were an incredible ability to bring together diverse groups of people, a knack for home and office organizing which she gleefully turned into a successful business as The Space Queen, and being a great shot with a pistol.

Following an early performance of the Vagina Monologues, Madeleine started an enthusiastic conversation with playwright Eve Ensler that resulted in the monologue “Reclaiming Cunt,” which has been performed for audiences around the world.

Madeleine was a co-founder, along with friends RT Peck and Jen Saffron, of the Initiative for Transgender Leadership (ITL), a group whose mission is to positively effect community life by promoting the professional and leadership development of transgender youth. ITL has partnered with local community members and raised over $10,000 to provide paid internships to transgender youth.

In her personal charter, Madeleine declared: “My purpose in life is to expose all beings to their own magnificence. The values at the heart of who I am are love, integrity, compassion, play. I can be counted on to instigate, illuminate, and arouse.”

She fulfilled her purpose.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Initiative for Transgender Leadership, in care of Persad Center, 5150 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224.

Celebrations of Mad’s life will be held on Saturday, February 14 and on Saturday, April 11. Mad and Michelle hosted an annual comfort food potluck each year on the Saturday closest to Valentine’s Day. It is in keeping with Mad’s tradition of sharing love and comfort to celebrate her and hold her extra close in our hearts on that day. April 11, 2015 would have been Mad’s 52nd birthday. We will visit her marker at the Homewood Cemetery and gather at their home afterward. Details forthcoming.


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