Pictured Wanda Alston with Mayor Anthony Williams in background. Photo credit D.C. government. Stacey Long & Wanda Alston's mother at the service March 19. Photos by Bob Roehr
The mayor's liaison to the GLBT community in Washington, D.C., was stabbed to death inside her home on the afternoon of March 16. Wanda R. Alston, 45, played a prominent role in both local and national affairs as a Black lesbian activist who was able to communicate across many communities.
The murder also rocked Chicago, where Alston visited last summer with her partner Stacey Long, former head of the Howard Brown Health Center's Women's Program. The two were in town for a benefit for the Affinity group, which supports African American lesbians, and Long has many friends here.
The day after the murder, police arrested and charged William Parrot Jr., 38, with the crime. Parrot was an unemployed neighbor who has claimed he was high on crack at the time and had sought money to support his habit. Alston resisted and her body carried numerous knife wounds as evidence of that fact.
The rapid resolution of the case and its apparent motives did not allow for fears and rumors to take hold within the community.
It kept the focus of discussion on a life of achievement that ended much too soon.
Wanda Alston was born and raised in Newport News, Va., where segregation was slow to depart and life in her large working-class family was hard. She joined the Air Force soon after high school, using the military as a pathway to education and a better life.
She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985. Cocaine use turned into addiction, which she shook in 1990. That experience left her with an abiding personal commitment to issues of substance abuse.
Recovery also signaled the emergence of Alston as a political activist. In four years at the National Organization for Women ( NOW ) , first as personal assistant to executive director Patricia Ireland and then with increasing responsibilities, she played a key role in organizing five national marches and joined the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995.
She worked for the Human Rights Campaign before joining the administration of Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams in 1999. She served in various positions within the city government before being appointed to head up the Office on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs in 2001. That position was elevated to cabinet level status last fall.
Alston was a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and took a leave of absence from her city job to work on John Kerry's presidential campaign.
She met Stacey Long, 37, last year and proposed a few months later. The pair were planning a wedding ceremony for June.
Alston's staff became concerned when they could not contact her. They notified Long, who discovered Alston's body lying in a pool of blood inside their residence. Funeral services were March 21 in Washington, D.C., with burial in Newport News, Va.
Long is a former Chicagoan who headed the Howard Brown Health Center Women's Program. Many Chicago lesbians were shocked by the news of the murder, and several travelled to D.C. to attend the memorial.
REMEMBERING OUR SHERO
The community came together on March 19 to share their stories of the force of nature that was known as Wanda. 'This is a celebration of life for a phenomenal woman … whose vision was to reach out and build bridges, and touch each other,' said Rev. Dyan McCray of the Unity Fellowship Church.
Surveying the century-old sanctuary filled with about 400 people, McCray said, 'This is exactly what Wanda often did. Even as an ancestor sitting in heaven, she has once again brought people together. She never stops doing it.'
Jim Graham, one of two openly gay members of the D.C. City Council, clearly had been shaken by Alston's brutal murder. He said, 'It leaves me searching for faith.' They first met when he was executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic and they shared a commitment to ending substance abuse.
'She had such an acute mind and the ability to zero in on what mattered and put the rest of it to one side.' The facts surrounding her death led Graham to 'renew my determination to fight substance abuse in this city.'
Adrian Fenty, another member of the council and a likely candidate for mayor next year, said Alston was 'so tough, so aggressive, but nobody had a bad word to say about her.' He attributed that to her passion for politics and that she always asked about your family, 'It was about people.'
David Catania, the other openly gay member of the council, praised Alston for her feistiness, a trait they both shared. He talked of those who had 'a sore butt from sitting on the fence, because they didn't know who they were, or what they were, or what they believed in.' That was not Wanda Alston.
'I know that Wanda had a soft side. Of course, I had to leave the Republican Party in order to see her soft side,' Catania said. 'She went out of this world fighting, and far too young.'
School board chairman Peggy Cooper Cafritz spoke of Alston's commitment to create a strong sex education curriculum for the system. She would say, 'If we do nothing else for our children, we must educate them so that they may come to know themselves and to take care of themselves.'
Earline Budd, a local transgender activist, praised Alston as 'an advocate for a community that is marginalized, stigmatized, and rarely talked about.' She was pushing for Budd to join the Democratic National Committee. 'She saw fit to say, we need to be part of the agenda.'
Valerie Papaya Mann called Alston 'a modern-day gladiator. She was just relentless. She stood up for all of us.'
'This woman was amazing, she was amazing in that position' of liaison, said long-time activist Carlene Cheatam. 'I don't think many of us know how big her story is … . If Kerry had won, she would have been in the White House.'
'I had my challenges with my sister. But even when I disagreed with her, it was hard to take it personally, because she was consistent. She didn't play games.' Cheatam said, 'The void that is left is very large … each of us has to do a little more so that nothing that she started will fall.'
Friends in Chicago are collecting donations. Send checks payable to Stacey Long and c/o Windy City Times, 1940 W. Irving Pk Rd., 1st floor, Chicago, IL 60613.