The Willis Edwards I Knew

willis edwardsLast week we lost our beloved brother Willis Edwards. For some of us, Willis was more than a national board member of the NAACP who was behind getting the Image Awards on TV and an “ally”, he was our friend.

So I wrestled with myself about writing this until I remembered who I was writing about. Knowing Willis the way I did, he’d probably have an attitude if I didn’t say what’s on my mind.

I am not an advocate of the closet. In fact, I hate it. In a perfect world, people, particularly Black gay people would be free to be all of who they are and love who they want to openly and honestly. But this isn’t a perfect world and people are still harshly judged by their sexual orientation and sexual identity.

At the same time, as I have grown over the years, I no longer am a part of that club that feels that I have to announce my sexual orientation everywhere I go. I don’t need a rainbow bumper car sticker or silver trinkets that I can wear that say, “Hey look at me! I’m gay.”

No, I am not in the closet, ashamed, or hiding who I am—I am just clear that my sexual orientation is not all of who I am and is on a need to know basis — and most people I come into contact with, if they don’t already know, they don’t need to.

There are a lot of people—in particular Black people—who feel this way and for the record, there’s nothing wrong with it.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started seeing posts online from gay rights groups announcing that an “openly gay NAACP board member” had passed away.

I thought, “Really? Who else died on the board of the NAACP?” because they couldn’t be talking about Willis Edwards. The Willis Edwards I knew was not openly gay. In fact, there’s a funny story about that very subject that involves Willis and a very young, naïve, and disrespectful Jasmyne who almost came to blows with him during an NAACP conference.

Being young and impressionable, I allowed their message of gay marriage to come before my own common sense and the issues facing Black people. Willis thankfully didn’t and had no problem checking me on it. But that was years ago, and Willis forgave my ignorance and we moved on with our relationship, but I never forgot what he told me.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I was one of the people who sat with Willis in the hospital during his last months. I would read the Black newspapers to him and discuss who was doing what in politics. I listened to Willis talk about how the redistricting issue was going to tear Black Los Angeles apart and how disappointed he was in a certain councilmember.

I thanked Willis for his advice and for cheering us on as my colleagues and I took on Clear Channel and KFI 640 AM over the lack of Black talk show hosts and radio hosts John and Ken’s Whitney Houston “crack ho” comment. And, you know — I don’t recall ever running into or hearing of visits from any of the gay civil rights groups and advocates so broken up over the death of Willis.

If you knew Willis at all, while he was a strong advocate for HIV and AIDS issues, he was not what one would call openly gay. Whether he was or wasn’t isn’t the point. What is the point is that the people outing him as if he really were openly gay all over the Internet in his death, no less, clearly didn’t know Willis and are blatantly using Willis’ position in the Black community to further their cause. Despicable. I guess they saw an opportunity too good to pass up and the chance to have the words “openly”, “gay”, and “NAACP board member” in the same headline.

This is why the gay civil rights community can’t get anywhere with Blacks. To them Willis was just an ally but around here Willis was our brother and our friend and how dare anyone use his death to further their cause in a way that Willis would not have wanted.

The flying headlines and blog posts about Willis’ death and him being openly gay were just as disrespectful and illustrate the disconnect between us and them, as the union that picketed Los Angeles’ Black gay pride celebration last week for choosing a hotel that wasn’t deemed union-friendly. This after the same union spread their support and money around to Long Beach and West Hollywood gay pride celebrations, but told the Black gays, “no thank you,” and whose members are the same people who replaced a lot of Black people who used to work in the hotel industry. But yet and still, Black people are supposed to be their “allies,” this according to them.

Let me be clear, we’re allies when it’s convenient and it was convenient to use Willis’ death to further their cause and call for gay marriage.

That isn’t what Willis would have wanted and it’s a shame that in their fight for gay marriage, good people like Willis—even in death—are used as pawns. Have these people no shame?

jasmyne cannick

A dear friend of mind once asked me whether it was more important to drag people out of the closet kicking and screaming (or in this case in death) or rather let them come out on their terms. I think the latter. When people are ready to come out, they will. It’s a two-way street as far as I see it.

When Black people can get over their fear of people who are gay and stop being so gullible and ready to follow every pied piper of morality into the voting booth — setting aside both common sense and rational — maybe more of us will venture out of the closet. Until then, I just want to say rest in peace my friend Willis.

Jasmyne Cannick

Posted: Thursday, 10 July 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on July 19, 2012
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About Jasmyne Cannick

Jasmyne is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the intersection of pop culture, race, class, and politics as played out in the African-American community. An award-winning journalist who previously worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a press secretary, Jasmyne was selected as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “News and Notes.” She is currently working as a political consultant in California on local and state campaigns.