Photo by Rob Bartlett
I’ve been thinking about Billy Manes a lot these last few weeks.
Five years ago this week, I stood in a small, crowded hospital room in Orlando, Fla., and watched my best friend die.
I lived a few states away, so from my perspective, Billy Manes’ decline was sudden: tests on Monday turned into an urgent message that I needed to fly down on Wednesday turned into massive organ failure by Friday morning. But for those around him, it wasn’t so unexpected. In ways big and small, Billy had strained and abused his tiny body for decades, and the year after the massacre at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse was probably more than he could bear.
Billy’s career arc has taken him from acerbic, flamboyantly gay nightlife writer to insightful, empathetic political reporter to editor of the region’s LGBTQ magazine. And when the nation’s eyes turned on Orlando’s traumatized gay community, they inevitably found their way to Billy, who’d long been something of a local celebrity. Being Billy Manes meant throwing himself into that role, and overcoming the parts of himself that hated being the voice of a community amid unspeakable grief and anger.
It also meant understanding that politics is personal. A killer had pumped hundreds of bullets into a club a mile from his house. He’d had a partner whose body was ravaged by AIDS. He’d gotten married in 2015 because a court said he could, after a lifespan of being called a “pervert” and “faggot” and told that by asking for basic dignity he wanted “special rights.”
And then Donald Trump got elected. And then, as happens too often in this business, work became a thankless chore of impossible expectations.
And then he—or his body—gave out.
I’ve been thinking about Billy a lot these last few weeks. Not just that he’s gone. Not how much darker my little corner of the world is without him. But just how dark and chaotic everything has become in the last five years.
How the knuckle-dragging extremists Billy and I rolled our eyes at are now the mainstream of the Republican Party, replaced by a new generation of knuckle-draggers who are shifting the Overton window yet again. How the new knuckle-draggers now consider Mitt Romney and Paul “Ayn Rand” Ryan RINOs.
How there are two new right-wing television channels that emerged because they thought Fox News was too moderate.
How we went through a deadly pandemic with a president who advised people to take a horse dewormer. How that president then tried to orchestrate a coup, and when it failed, most of his party stood by him. How Republicans aren’t going to pay a price for sedition and insurrection because gas costs a lot.
How the Supreme Court glibly tossed out Roe v. Wade and gun restrictions, and made it obvious that the rights of same-sex couples to marry and even be together are next. How the same Supreme Court that told women their autonomy is up to state legislatures also allowed state legislatures to gerrymander their way into permanent majorities without interference from federal courts—and in a year or so, perhaps without interference from state courts, either.
How state laws that immediately banned abortion has already forced little girls to drive across state lines to abort their rapist’s fetus and doctors to watch women experiencing miscarriage deteriorate until they were sick enough to qualify for an abortion. How one coal millionaire from West Virginia thwarted plans to combat climate change and legislation that would have expanded the social welfare system on a level not seen since the Great Society.
How conservatives turned famous men facing consequences for sexual misconduct into the very scary “cancel culture,” then morphed that into an attack on the idea that 400 years of American slavery and racial oppression might still have lingering societal effects, then into the claim that children are being indoctrinated by teachers and “groomers” into changing their gender identity, which evolved into book-burning crusades and new laws to ban puberty blockers.
How, in Florida, even mildly criticizing the governor leads to direct governmental retribution, and this authoritarian shakedown probably won’t cost the governor his job this fall. How Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor-Greene are actual, no-bullshit members of Congress.
How we have a mass shooting every other week, it seems—kids in a school, people in a grocery store, suburbanites at a parade—and we are still thinking and praying and wondering why these things keep happening but haven’t got after the weapons that inflict the damage. How even the smallest movement toward reforming the broken criminal legal system didn’t survive first contact with a pandemic homicide uptick.
How our democratic institutions are hanging by a thread, and the Democratic Party has all but given up even trying to fix them. How the feckless Democratic Party has become the only pro-democracy major party this country has left. How the Washington media still hasn’t figured that out—or that the Republicans are playing Calvinball.
I don’t think you’d like it here, Billy. But I wish you were here to help me make sense of it.
Or at least, to make me laugh at how stupid everything is.