VOICES FROM THE STREET: Thinking of you, Willa

It’s maddening as a writer when you’re working on your column and you’re way past deadline. Then something pops up. It makes you stop the presses and restart as I’m doing now. I don’t like it but if I don’t get this out it would be lost.

By now everyone on the planet has seen the cover of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. The reactions have been funny, moving and also more than a little sad.

It’s a shame that some of us can’t see beyond our narrow mindedness long enough to accept people as they are. I even heard some snide remarks while I was selling papers about the last issue of SCN, which featured Brian McCook’s drag alter ego Katya.

Get over it people!

But for me I was happy for Caitlyn and I also thought about my cousin Will, or Willa, as he sometimes referred to himself.

Yes, Willa was gay and flamboyantly so. He went to church, worked hard, had tons of friends on both sides of the aisle and played hard. His house parties were epic and funny. I can still see him dressed in drag rolling his eyes at me and shaking his head: “You are such a man.”

He introduced me as his favorite relative because I accepted him as he was. And yes I did. I never saw him as a gay man, I just saw him as my cousin. He was always cool with me. I could talk to him about anything—something I could never do with the rest of my family, not even my mom who, like the rest, rejected Willa too.

I guess you can say that the reason we got along so well was that I too felt like I never fit in. And even though I wasn’t gay I could still identify with him. I could also feel his pain: though he was happy-go-lucky most of the time, he had moments in which he was so sad. Mainly because the rest of our family pretty much pushed him away. He wasn’t allowed at his own father’s funeral.

I don’t know how many times I had to threaten idiots who bullied him. He just wanted to be accepted. Was that too much to ask? The one thing I will never forget about him is that when I first became homeless at the age of 18, he found out from my mother. He searched the streets trying to find me. He did. He gave me a place to live, encouraged me find a job and helped me get back on my feet, though that was short-lived.

I didn’t see him much before I left New York for Boston. I wish I had. By the time I saw him again, he had HIV. This was in the early days—before people found out it wasn’t just wasn’t a gay disease and scrambled for a cure.

My final moments with him were sad. Not for him … but for me. He was laughing and joking as always. There he was, so sick, and he was worried about me. I loved him to the moon and back. I didn’t see him as anything but human. And you couldn’t be more human than him. I like to believe that it’s because of him that I have always been accepting of the LGBT community. I’ve met some wonderful, beautiful people and many are beloved friends. If he were here today, his reaction to Jenner would be: “I’ve got to do that.”

There’s little doubt in my mind that Willa would have been a beautiful woman. Love and miss you.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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