On the one-year anniversary of Billy Manes' death, we stop to wonder what he would make of this shitshow administration

The persistence of resistance

On the one-year anniversary of Billy Manes' death, we stop to wonder what he would make of this shitshow administration
Photo by Rob Bartlett

There are times at which this administration overloads my capacity for outrage, and this past week was one of them.

From the Helsinki "summit," in which President Trump prostrated himself before Russia's authoritarian thug on the world stage days after Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for election interference, to Trump's subsequent suggestion that the U.S. should abandon its obligations to NATO because no one really cares about Montenegro, a country that Russia very much wants to separate from the West; from Trump continuing to blast the media as the "real enemy of the people" just weeks after a gunman murdered five journalists in Maryland, to the Trump-loving NRA being exposed as easy marks for a Russian spy; from the release of the FISA warrant application for former Trump adviser/ likely Russian asset Carter Page, which proved to anyone who could read that the Republicans had been lying about the origins of the Russia investigation, to the president gaslighting the country about that same document; from the revelation that Michael Cohen tape recorded his conversation with Trump about buying a former Playmate's silence to the president trying to distract us from all this with an all-caps war threat to Iran (look! squirrel!) – the Tangerine Traitor was in fine form this week.

All of that transpired in about seven days.

What's perhaps most disturbing about all of this is that, even as we witness the president unraveling in real time, Republicans – both the quislings in Congress and the rank-and-file throughout the country – aren't fleeing for the hills. Quite the opposite, actually. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released over the weekend found Trump's approval steady at 45 percent after this shitshow, buoyed by near-record intraparty support among Republicans. Tribalism is a hell of a drug.

Again, keeping up with this perpetual outrage is exhausting – overwhelming, even. Trying to find insightful ways to write about it is even more so. So I wanted to pause from trying to make sense of this senselessness and talk about something at once sadder and more uplifting and hopeful.

I wanted to talk about death.

Not death in the abstract, but one specific death: Saturday, when I started writing this column, was the one-year anniversary of the day I and perhaps two dozen of Billy Manes' closest friends and family members crowded into a small hospice room at Orlando Regional Medical Center and watched a brilliant light dim. It was a profoundly despondent experience, yet there was something beautiful about it, too. There was something beautiful about Billy no matter what he was doing, even when he was dying.

Billy, for those of you who haven't been reading Orlando Weekly very long, was a staff writer here for about a decade starting in 2005 – about half of which overlapped with my time as a staff writer – and a nightlife columnist before that. He later was the editor of Watermark, the Orlando/Tampa LGBTQ publication. He was the cleverest and wittiest writer I've ever encountered, someone whose intellect was too often underestimated by area power brokers, someone who could distill complex policies into digestible pieces and yet infuse them with humanity and empathy, someone who was willing to bare his soul in his reporting and his activism.

Billy was my friend and my brother, and not a day goes by that I don't miss him. I think not a day goes by that the world – at least this corner of it – misses him, too, whether it realizes it or not. Reporters (like me) come and go. Columnists (also like me) are usually disposable and quickly forgotten. Voices that define and uplift communities are rare diamonds. Billy was one of those.

I spent the weekend listening to Duran Duran and Alison Moyet and thinking about the conversations I'd be having with Billy were he still here, especially how hilarious he'd find it that a Russian agent was apparently able to fuck her way through the conservative movement.

I also thought about how brave Billy was, to channel his own grief into power. After his longtime partner Alan died of suicide by gun in 2012, Billy became a poster child for marriage equality (he had a long fight with Alan's family over the estate) and a champion of gun reforms. In the aftermath of Pulse, the issues of LGBTQ rights and gun reforms converged and defined Billy's work, to the point where it took a toll on him personally.

He was tireless, and he never stopped, even when he probably should have. Billy realized that his life and his place in Orlando was about more than him. Sure, he usually reveled in being Billy Fucking Manes, as he referred to the persona most people knew him as. That character was a piece of Billy, but not all of him. The Billy I knew saw his sliver of fame as a means to leverage his influence to make Orlando a better place for people who had been marginalized and cast aside.

There's no way around the fact that Billy had a difficult upbringing. But he was able to use all that hurt to transform himself into something more than just one man, more than just one writer, more than just one friend. In so many ways, he used some of the worst experiences you could imagine to turn himself into the best of us. I'll always admire him for that.

Billy's death, as it turned out, occurred on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump formally accepting the Republican nomination for the president with a long, dark speech that painted this country as some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape from which only he could save us. It was a rambling missive full of dissembling and disinformation, meant to evoke racial anxieties, wrapped in the kind of narcissism befitting the authoritarian regimes Trump so plaintively admires.

Coming a few weeks after Pulse, it terrified Billy.

It didn't terrify the rest of us enough.

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