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- Photo by Erin Sullivan
- Billy and Tony flanking Adri and Jeff Billman
The funny thing is, Billy wasn't supposed to run for mayor. In retrospect, he was the obvious choice, but at the time, he wasn't our plan A.
The idea that germinated in the Weekly's newsroom was to illustrate absurdity – the snap special election following Buddy Dyer's indictment in 2005, and the city's elites rallying behind former Mayor Bill Frederick – by being absurd. And we wanted to do that by running Ian Monroe, then the Weekly's know-it-all IT guy, against Frederick, to make the once and future mayor have to debate our smug, ponytailed candidate. Only Ian didn't meet the city's residency requirements. Neither did the other names atop our list.
So we circled back to Billy Manes. Wouldn't it be hilarious, we thought, to see our flamboyant, profane nightlife columnist put on a stage with uptight suits? No one told Billy this was all supposed to be a joke.
I mention this because, for the first three or four years that I knew Billy, I knew him only in the shallowest sense, and I suspect that's how much of Orlando knew him, too. To me, he was the life of the annual Best Of party, the debauched host of the 2001 Orlando Music Awards, the platinum-haired, brittlely skinny libertine who always had a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, who knew way more about boy bands and Duran Duran than any grown man should and who had a bizarre fondness for turning proper nouns into verbs. (A representative sample from a "Blister" column, quoting me: "'I hate you guys!' Billman Cartmans.)
But I came to learn that was only a character he played, a public persona, someone he referred to in private as Billy Fucking Manes (as in, "I'm Billy Fucking Manes, don't you know who I am?!"). It wasn't an act, nor was it disingenuous. It was certainly part of who he was. But it was also only a piece of a much more complex, much more beautiful whole.
Billy threw himself into that campaign in a way none of us expected. He studied issues and boned up on the intricacies of city government. He spoke out, even though he hated public speaking. He raised money. He cared. It didn't matter that he wasn't going to win or that the Sentinel's editorial board condescended to him or that the haut monde rolled their eyes when he entered the room; he wanted to do this thing and do it right, to represent people like him who were all too often overlooked in the political sphere.
It changed his life.
In the story he wrote about that campaign, Billy painted this evolution as an Eliza Doolittle transformation, but I don't think that was exactly right. Billy always cared about these issues, about Orlando, about people; he was always smart and engaged. But now he had a platform, and he used it.
The election never happened, of course. But Billy parlayed the campaign into a staff writer gig at the Weekly, where we worked side-by-side for three years and became close; then in 2015 he parlayed that into his editor's gig at Watermark, where he became one of the most influential LGBT voices in the state. And as he grew into these roles, I – and Orlando – got to see more of the complete Billy: the resilient fighter who turned his partner's suicide into a poignant push for marriage equality; a champion of the marginalized; a plugged-in political animal; a community leader who wore the pain of Pulse on his sleeve; and a prolific and articulate proponent of progressive values.
He was all of these things, and also Billy Fucking Manes: witty, droll, brimming with love and life and light, beloved everywhere he went. That's not to say Billy didn't have his demons, or that there wasn't sadness behind that endearing smile. I was with him in some of his darkest and most despondent moments, especially after Alan died, and I saw him at his most vulnerable.
But I also got to see him rise out of despondency after an unspeakable tragedy. I saw him fight for years in the courts for what was rightfully his. I watched him find love and happiness again in Tony Mauss, his wonderful husband. I watched St. Elmo's Fire with him the night before his wedding, just the two of us and his dogs, which he joked passed as an old-men bachelor party. I saw him buy a new house and settle into an almost-contented middle age, surrounded by friends who adored him and would walk through fire for him.
That campaign changed his life. And, in a way, it changed mine. Because really getting to know Billy, as that campaign and Billy's years as my Weekly partner in crime allowed, meant growing to love Billy. He became one of my closest friends, like my own brother. Billy, for all the tragedy and strife he endured, had an irrepressible light and an intractable commitment to making the world – or at least his corner of it – a little more compassionate, a little more loving, a little more joyful. His life was a reminder to me that I need to be those things – compassionate, loving, joyful – no matter what was going on around me.
I'll miss him every day. Orlando will miss him. The world will miss him.
Goodnight, Billy, you sweet, sweet man.
Jeffrey Billman is the editor in chief of INDY Week in Raleigh-Durham. Previously, he's been editor of Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, senior editor and writer-at-large at Philadelphia Magazine, news editor at the late, great Philadelphia City Paper, and a staff writer at the Orlando Weekly.