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Slain D.C. Official's Mission to Unite Carries On

Mourners Share How Activist Inspired, Led, Sought Justice

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page C01

The church off Thomas Circle was packed, and just about everyone had a Wanda Alston story.

There was the young woman whose life was going nowhere until Alston steered her into activism. The transgendered advocate who felt demoralized by hate crimes until Alston persuaded her to keep going. The Human Rights Campaign worker who, in the wake of Alston's slaying, must face skeptical ministers alone this week at a meeting about gay marriage.

Mourners join in prayer at the service for Wanda Alston, Mayor Anthony A. Williams's liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Burial will be in Newport News, Va. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

"Look at this place," Carlene Cheatam, a gray-haired veteran of Washington's black gay community, said yesterday as she scanned a sanctuary filled with nearly 400 people of myriad ages, races and sexual identities.

"People are not here just because it's the right place to be. Most of us couldn't be anywhere else," Cheatam said. "I don't think Wanda knew -- I don't think any of us know -- just how big her story is."

Alston, 45, was remembered as a gale-force personality who stormed through Washington, bringing people together and inspiring them to fight for social justice. A feminist and gay rights activist, she had served since 2001 as D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. She was killed Wednesday in her Northeast Washington home, when, police said, a crack-addled neighbor stabbed her eight times, took her car and used her credit cards to raise cash for more drugs.

Alston, who comes from a large family in Newport News, Va., will be buried there next week, friends said. Her funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. tomorrow at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights.

But All Souls is quite small, and Alston's circle of friends quite large, said the Rev. Dyan "Abena" McCray, founding pastor of Unity Fellowship Church. And so McCray organized yesterday's event at Luther Place Memorial Church, calling it "a time of healing."

The standing-room-only crowd was sprinkled with politicians. Council members David A. Catania (I-At Large), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) were there, as was lobbyist Michael A. Brown, a potential candidate for mayor. Williams (D) did not attend but is scheduled to speak at Alston's funeral.

Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women and Alston's political mentor, sat quietly in the audience. And D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz joined a long line of people who waited to share memories of Alston from a lectern at the front of the church.

Cafritz, who said Alston was always trying to "find me a boyfriend in the District building," revealed that she had agreed just a few weeks ago to host Alston's wedding next spring at her Palisades home. The statement drew sobs from the front row, where Alston's partner, Stacey Long, 37, sat with Alston's mother and a small band of close friends.

Cafritz, Graham and others pledged to carry on Alston's campaign for gay and civil rights. Eric Eldritch of D.C. Radical Faeries, a gay religious and educational organization, and Earline Budd, executive director of Transgender Health Empowerment, thanked Alston for reaching out to them and other groups that often are "stigmatized and rarely talked about," as Budd put it, even within the gay community.

Others mourned the void Alston's passing will leave in the city's gay rights leadership. Donna Payne, minority outreach coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign, said she "broke down" when she learned of Alston's death because she couldn't imagine facing those ministers alone.

Finally, there was fury about the senselessness of Alston's slaying.

"I don't believe in capital punishment, but this has tested me, I got to tell you," said Sheila Alexander-Reid, founder of Women in the Life, a magazine for lesbians of color.

"There was a window of time after the murder when I would have said: 'String him up by his neck,' " Alexander-Reid said. "But then I thought: Wanda wouldn't want that. She would have said, 'We've got to help people like that.' "

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