March 24, 2005
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Saying Goodbye to Wanda Alston
Spring was in the air as people arrived at Luther Place Memorial Church on March 19 to celebrate the life of Wanda Alston, a D.C. mayoral cabinet officer stabbed to death three days earlier by a crack-addicted neighbor. The sunlit scene on the church steps, starkly contrasting with the grief that brought us there, showed how integrated the gay community has become in the life of Washington.
Television news crews and a Washington Post reporter were on hand, as were four members of the D.C. Council and the president of the Board of Education. The police were out in force, led by members of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. I had last seen Wanda eight days earlier at the opening of the GLLU's new headquarters on Dupont Circle.
Sergeant Brett Parson, head of the GLLU, had been scheduled to attend an advisory committee meeting with Wanda early on the evening of March 16, but was called away to a homicide at 3808 East Capitol Street. He left her a voicemail saying he'd have to miss the meeting. After hanging up, he thought, "Wait a minute. That's where Wanda lives." The rest of us are blessed not to have the memory of the murder scene that he and Stacey Long, Wanda's partner who found her body, carry with them.
Wanda was an energetic director of Mayor Anthony Williams' Office of LGBT Affairs. The fact that her death did not appear to be a hate crime was of little comfort to her hundreds of friends, colleagues and family who were called together by Rev. Abena McCray of Unity Fellowship Church. The Mayor spoke at the funeral two days later at All Souls Unitarian Church, but we needed this time on Saturday to comfort one another and share memories of her.
In the crowd I encountered Wanda's mentor, former National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland, and mentioned that the last time I had met her she was sitting directly behind anti-gay fanatic Lou Sheldon in a Senate hearing room. "I tried to block that out," she replied with a smile. We got much better "vibes" on this day, surrounded by friends. The sanctuary was a healing retreat from the social and political battlefield.
That battlefield, while for most it may not involve physical violence, is never a safe space. Fighting for change rocks the boat, it makes people uncomfortable, it violates protocol. Wanda, several mourners testified, was a fighter. She was scrappy, tough, strong-willed, tenacious. She was a fiercely competitive tennis player. In her final moments, her wounds show, she fought for her life.
At the best of times, activism takes its toll. Someone who "never settles," as many of Wanda's friends said of her -- who is restless and always pressing for reforms and urging people to do more -- such a person is not an easy friend. Those of us with this calling, if we are lucky, find a soul mate who sees past our eccentricities, or loves us for them. Wanda had found Stacey, and they were going to be married. She had given Stacey a ring. At the memorial service, when School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said that Wanda had recently talked to her about having the wedding next year at Peggy's home, the sobs that rose up from the front row were heart-rending.
Several weeks ago, Wanda convened a meeting where we briefed community leaders on the details of the Domestic Partnership Equality Act of 2005, which would equalize District laws on inheritance as well as providing for things like alimony on the responsibility side of the ledger. "But I don't want to pay alimony!" Wanda said, half in jest. If she were serious about that, she could have gotten the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement, which the bill also provides for. Alas, the man who took her life ended all such questions as Congress could never do.
"We don't need murders to bring us together," Cafritz had said, but this wrenching loss certainly made a gathering necessary. More than all the words, it was simple hugs that meant the most. We left the safe space of the church to carry on the fight, bolstered by the example of our sister warrior's life. As she demonstrated right up to the end, some things are worth fighting for.