Friday, 22 May 2015

Remembering William B Kelley

I first got to know William B Kelley more than 20 years ago when he came to visit Penang with his close companion, Chen Ooi, who happens to be my god-uncle.

You see, we Chinese have this time-honoured tradition where good family friends like to accept one another as close relations. So it was in the mid-1950s that my paternal grandparents took care of the son of one of their family friends and eventually, accepted him as their god-son, which made me a god-nephew to this fellow. He was just two years older than I, and we got along quite well. We played together whenever we got the chance. After Form Five, he suddenly decided to seek his fortune in the United States where he settled down later in Chicago with William Kelley whom he got to know over there.

I think it was in the mid-1990s when my family was still living in Seberang Jaya that my god-uncle and William Kelley - whom my son and daughter would call Uncle Bill - came to visit Penang. It was the first time that I had ever met Bill, a distinguished man about 10 years older than Chen Ooi.

Their second trip to Penang was more sober. Chen Ooi's mother had passed away and they came for the funeral. And their third trip was several years later when my god-uncle wanted to visit the columbarium and temple, and pay his respects to his mom. I would take them on a tour of the island, visiting places like the Kek Lok Si temple, the Ayer Itam dam, the Khoo Kongsi, Butterfly Farm, etc. These three visits of theirs and our numerous email exchanges brought me to understand Bill and his work better. Definitely, knowing Bill helped to broaden my outlook of life.

For you see, Bill was a human rights activist in the United States. But he was not just any common human rights activist; Bill was more special. He was an LGBT rights activist. Almost throughout his whole adult life, he breathed and worked to promote LGBT rights. Unfortunately, my friend Bill passed away in his sleep at home in Chicago on Sunday, 17 May 2015, and today is his funeral.

Bill was born in Missouri but he moved to attend the University of Chicago in 1959. By 1965, he was a member of the Chicago branch of the Mattachine Society, an early gay organization, founded in 1950.

In 1966, he helped organise the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations and helped found the Chicago Gay Crusader newspaper.

In 1967, along with some of the great names in American LGBT history, he picketed Independence Hall in defense of equality of rights before the law for gay people.

In 1977, Bill was one of the representatives of the LGBT community to have met with President Carter at the White House.

In the last few years, he had witnessed many landmark decisions to overturn anti-gay legislation in the United States. When Bill first moved to Illinois, it was illegal to be gay in all of America's 50 states. By his death it was legal for gay couples to marry, and Bill was instrumental in this battle.

My memories of Bill would include him visiting my home for the very first time and calling my aunt (and Chen Ooi's god-sister) Busu-chi or Sister Busu. Also, in February 2013, I had arranged a Skype hook-up with Chen Ooi and Bill in Chicago so that they could talk with my aunt who was already in great pain and in the last few months of her life.

Also, I remember Bill as a very well-read man who was very proud of his family lineage. While I could trace my own ancestors in Malaysia back to my great-great-grandfather, Bill could count on ancestors that fought in the American Civil War.

Healthwise, I knew that Bill had suffered from a heart attack maybe about eight years or so ago. Thankfully, he had recovered sufficiently to carry on with his life's work for the LGBT community in the United States. But anyone with a similar health history as him would certainly realise that every new day would be a bonus. Bill knew that of course, because he told me:
"I'm recovering well from my heart attack, though I occasionally still get a little short of breath. Apparently the heart damage, though considerable, wasn't as much as the cardiologist thought at first. I never took care of my health before, except that I ate fairly well, and have been fortunate in usually having good health. There's not too much I can do now that the damage is done, except try harder to eat well and (ugh!) exercise, take my medicines (now down to a few more than half a dozen a day), try not to waste time, and consider it a signal that I probably won't live many more years, given my cardiac heredity and the fact that I've already had an attack."
Apart from his activist work, it may be unnecessary for me to add that Bill loved music and concerts, good food and travelling. In addition, I could sense that he loved nature deeply. In the last month of his life, I had noticed that he was more appreciative of the natural beauty that surrounded their house in Chicago.

Rest in peace, Bill, rest in peace. Your work is done.

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