Seventeen-year-old Wauynee Wallace was tragically killed in the city of Camden, N.J. the city that I often write about and proudly name as home. Today, however, my words are fueled by anger and disappointment, because someone in the neighborhood where I played, lived out my youthful days, and experienced community thought it OK to place a bullet in the back of the head of a young person who was budding with the potential to be an active citizen of our world. In fact, I am searching for words, but I am only able to summon images, as captured in the heartrending media articles, of tears painfully flowing down the face of Ebony Wallace, Wauynee’s 39-year-old mother, his family members, and friends as they buried a young person they lost much too soon.
Wauynee was a gay-identified youth, a courageous teenager described by friends and family as someone who set fashion trends, freely expressed difference, and defied societal rules that would have limited his boundless sense of self-awareness. Darran Simon, writing for The Inquirer, noted that Wauynee’s friends described him as “selfless, outgoing, and charismatic.” Simon also reported that he was soon to matriculate at Gateway to College, a program where he would have been able to earn his high school diploma and college credits, at Camden County College. He lived. Wauynee fully embraced and experienced the joy of life… until he was killed.
According to Simon’s report, Wauynee was walking with two of his friends in the Whitman Park section of Camden and was shot in the back of his head. The two friends recall hearing a shot, but they did not see the shooter. They ran after the shooting occurred.
Wauynee’s killing is one of several that occurred in Camden during the month of July. I am certain that some might wonder: Why is this particular call to remembrance or call for change necessary when so many other lives have also been lost? Where is the demand for communal accountability and transformation on behalf of the many people who have been affected by gun violence?
Wauynee’s death is tragically mundane and exceptional. In other words, the fact that 40 people have been killed in Camden so far this year speaks to a broader community concern of public safety. The horrific act of killing others has become too commonplace an occurrence and is ruining the lives of so many in the community. Nevertheless, Wauynee’s killing is particularly different, though no less horrifying than the others that occurred throughout the year. Wauynee, like so many others, may have faced multiple “killings” even before his life was cut short by a bullet a month ago: killings of his spirit, of his sense of self, of his psyche, because of his sexual identity. While there is no evidence that Wauynee’s killing was motivated by bias, the fact that he identified as gay in a world and a city that still has yet to eradicate its homophobia must be said aloud.
Wauynee’s warm blood was spilled on the streets where I grew up under constant ridicule by both neighbors and strangers, who were sometimes provoked by the seeming sexual difference of others. I lived on Carl Miller Boulevard, a few streets over from the block on Chase Street where a makeshift memorial now stands as a site where neighbors are beckoned to celebrate Wauynee’s life and remember how it was stolen from him. I imagine that he might have understood what it felt like to be called “faggot,” “sissy,” or “punk” on the streets in Whitman Park. I do.
I was 14 or 15 years old, a few years younger than Wauynee, when I confronted hatred in Whitman Park. The matches that one of the boys tried to light would not ignite, because of the wind. I beat death on my day of confrontation; Wauynee did not. And it’s because of this atrocity, which may have been the result of someone’s disdain for Wauynee, that we must speak. There are so many others who have endured hate-motivated brutality because of their perceived or actual sexual identities and gender expressions — some lived and many did not — and we must speak. But who will tell the story of the young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) person of color who lives and dies in Camden, in the urban and economically challenged spaces in our nation?
I am infuriated that this note of remembrance had to be written. I am deeply saddened that a young man’s life was ended. I am frustrated that many of us who live outside the Camden/Philadelphia area are just reading about this tragic incident many weeks later. The lives of young black and brown LGBTQ people matter, but it seems that mainstream media, including some LGBTQ media and advocacy groups, have yet to really understand that truth. We must make them pay attention.
Wauynee, you were not meant to be killed in your city, our city, at 17. In fact, the 16 other persons who were killed in the same month should also be alive today. Someone robbed you of your life. Your horrifying death has forced me to recall that I, too, was once a young gay boy of color growing up in Camden. Growing up young and gay in Camden takes courage, and you were brave. May we forever remember your name. May we never forget your life. May your mother find comfort in knowing that you spent your short time among others living in truth. And may your killer be daily reminded that truth will always set the truthful free, even as such truth incites those who are resistant to and afraid of our freedom.