Saturday, July 22, 2017

An Interview with Billy Manes at Watermark.

On June 30th Pam Schwartz, Dan Bradfield and I entered the Watermark offices to conduct an oral history with editor-in-chief Billy Manes about the events following the Pulse Nightclub massacre. Billy grew up in Florida and was a bit of a club kid.  He suffered much adversity and sexual abuse in his childhood. At the time, he felt that Florida is a place without history, so you have to make your own history.  In 2005 he ran for mayor, being the first openly gay candidate to do so. He felt he was the best choice to replace the then suspended Mayor Buddy Dyer specifically because he's not a politician.

He met Alan Jordan who was very different than himself and they had a long relationship. "We were very Burt and Taylor in our relationship." said Billy. On Easter Sunday of 2012 Alan shot himself in front of Billy. Alan had HIV but didn't want to admit he was positive. Billy watched his love die in front of him. Alan's family took everything a redneck could need, despite the long relationship, even threatening to take the ring off of Billy's finger. Billy fought them in court and won back some of his possessions. He decided to become more purposeful about these issues. "Trying to save someone else saved me." said Billy. There is a documentary that was filmed entitled " Billy and Alan".

As a senior writer at the Orlando Weekly, Billy found his voice as he made jokes about Tallahassee government policy which is often, "so fucking boring". Billy Manes was hired by the Watermark in 2015. As I sketched, I found the black blinds strangely ominous. He coughed once, and Pam commiserated since she had a cough for 6 months after cleaning up dead flowers and collecting items at the Pulse Memorial sites for the One Orlando Collection.

"I only remember 5AM on June 12th." Billy said. He used to work there, when it was Dante's. He was friends with the owners and staff. It wasn't "divey" at all. It was a good place to come together. At 5 AM his husband Anthony Mauss woke up. He told Billy not to look at his phone. Billy of course looked at his phone and was immediately pulled on for an MSNBC interview. Unshaven and uncombed he spoke with Tamron Hall. As he spoke, he realized that he didn't know if his friends were alive who worked at Pulse.

This was a hate crime and Billy was annoyed at any news organization that would white-wash this fact by playing up the terrorist theories. On that first morning, a mother drove by and she asked if her son was alive. Billy said he would try and find out.

After Pulse, the whole tone, everything changed. Billy suddenly found himself in a whirlwind of interviews by over 7 networks in the days following. Watermark approached the following weeks with a three step program. They did a glossy cover, a story about the psychology behind the attack and stories about the need for gun control. In the barrage of activity, he stopped caring about himself. Watermark was at every event. Billy reflected, "It is still amazing to me. You can say 49, but imagine the moms and families having to deal with probate, the law."

Our oral history interview was just an hour long. We wanted to get together for a second interview to grapple with the intricacies of the weeks following Pulse in more depth. Shortly after this interview Billy Manes said he was "let go" from Watermark on Friday, July 14th. In a Facebook post on the following Sunday Billy shared, "I was effectively let go on Friday and it wasn't easy and it wasn't psychologically easy. I wanted to give Watermark the chance to break the news. Not sure why, but it was fair enough. Best to the future editor and please keep up...the work. I'll figure something new. I always do."

Billy died just after 4 p.m. on Friday, July 21, at the age of 45, surrounded by his husband Anthony Mauss, friends and family at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The loss is a shock to me. Billy and I were both born on May 22 and he playfully reminded me of this each year via Facebook.  Having lived through so much tragedy, Billy always injected humor into every exchange. He will be deeply missed. He helped to write Orlando's history while joking about the political forces that stifle Orlando's future.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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