Mourning a gay son killed in a rough neighborhood

Ebony Wallace, next to a picture of her son Wauynee, tearfully talks about him during his funeral in Camden. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Ebony Wallace, next to a picture of her son Wauynee, tearfully talks about him during his funeral in Camden. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer) (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 14, 2012

Ebony Wallace hasn't left her house much since her son Wauynee, 17, was killed last month - shot once in the back of the head by someone who disappeared into the night. She can't stand to look at her neighbors' faces.

She's certain someone in Camden's Whitman Park section knows why her son was killed. She's sure she'll see it on their faces.

"I know guilt when I see it," she said. "And I'm going to be wondering, 'Why are you looking at me guilty?' "

Investigators don't have a motive in Wauynee Wallace's killing, but they see no link with a recent gang- and drug-turf battle that the city's police chief has blamed for a spike in violence.

Wauynee Wallace was one of 13 people killed in July, the deadliest month in the city in decades. So far this year, Camden has recorded 40 homicides, a dozen more than at this time last year. The latest occurred early Sunday morning near Mickle and South 27th Streets, where a man was found dead of gunshot wounds.

Wauynee Wallace's friends and mother are frustrated. Two friends who were with him when he was killed said they heard the shot, turned around, and saw him falling face down, with his eyes closing. Then they scattered. They didn't see the shooter, they said.

Wallace, 39, the single mother of an adult son and an 8-year-old daughter, said raising Wauynee sapped her patience. But she'll have to find some, she said, as she waits for authorities to find her son's killer.

Without a motive or witness, police have no case. So far this year, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office has solved fewer of the city's homicides - 44 percent - than in previous years, when the rate has typically been around 65 percent.

The city was just hit with a large batch of homicides all at once, and authorities generally have trouble getting witnesses to come forward, said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman with the Prosecutor's Office.

On Chase Street, friends have put up a memorial to Wauynee Wallace at an abandoned house. Like other tributes that pop up hours after a death, the words In lovin Memory are spray-painted before his name on a white sheet. Teddy bears, cards, and empty liquor bottles line the base.

This memorial also includes a rainbow flag.

Friends described Wauynee Wallace as a selfless, outgoing, and charismatic gay teenager, comfortable with his sexuality despite living in a city where gay youth said they were verbally harassed constantly and warned to stay off certain blocks.

People "make us feel like we're literally a dog instead of a human," said Heaven Filmore, 18, a close friend who lived near Wallace and who was with him the night he died. "Words definitely hurt, if you got to hear it every day, every hour on the hour."

Wallace was trendy, friends said. He would wear an orange athletic T-shirt and orange boots and shorts. He dyed the top of his hair blond, red, and other colors. He named his hairstyles - like the "peanut-butter-and-jelly." He wore wigs and makeup, his mother said.

He was known to snap his fingers and say, "I'm to the gauuds," which meant he was looking good that day, friends said.

He designed his own clothes and promised to design a cousin's wedding gown for a fall ceremony, now postponed since his death.

"There will never be another like him. Never. . . . It's impossible," said Ziare Nock, 18, a close friend.

Wallace's artistic talent emerged in childhood. His mother bought him art books, paint brushes, and easels.

Around 15, he started hanging out more with friends, sometimes late at night, his mother said. She warned him he was going to learn the hard way.

In February, he was caught joyriding with friends in a stolen vehicle in Lindenwold, according to records.

When Wauynee Wallace got into trouble at Camden High, his mother took away his iPod and other electronics. When he behaved, she rewarded him.

Once, he asked for money for the movies, but he had recently received an F in Spanish. She told him if he could ask her in Spanish, he could go. He memorized the question in minutes. She scolded him for not trying harder earlier, but gave him the money.

"That's the type of lessons I would teach," Ebony Wallace said. "Set him up first, then teach him."

She pulled her son out of Camden High after two years because he struggled in the conventional classroom setting.

In September, he would have returned to Gateway to College, a second-chance scholarship program at Camden County College that gives city dropouts a chance to earn their high school diplomas and college credit.

He wanted to move to the West Coast when he turned 18, where he could get into the fashion industry and, Filmore said, "just be him."

"Go somewhere where you can be you," his mother recalled telling him, "where you can be somebody."

When Filmore struggled with how to come out to her grandmother two years ago, Wauynee Wallace suggested she write her a note.

"He was really my everything. That's my baby. He's not supposed to leave us at 17," Filmore said. "It still feels like he's here."

His revelation to his own mother last year was more natural: He just told her. Though she wasn't comfortable with it, she said, she told him she loved him no less. And she told him to love himself - but to be careful in the neighborhood.

Some of Wauynee Wallace's friends said that although some neighbors were friendly, others warned them not to walk down certain streets "that don't belong to nobody," said A.J. McKim, 19, a close friend who came out in seventh grade after a peer told his mother.

The friends, sometimes in drag, would hop the train and go to gay neighborhoods in Philadelphia, which "accepts homosexuality more than Camden," McKim said.

"While they are trying to claim their identity, they have to put it on the back burner, just to make it through everyday life," said Derrick Gibbs, a former coordinator at Project Keeping It Safe, a supportive drop-in center for the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender community run by the Camden Area Health Education Center.

Camden is "a dangerous city. It's even more dangerous when you appear to be more on the feminine side," Gibbs said, adding that LGBT youth in the city need more havens. "In communities of color, we're typically socialized by a one-track definition of what a man is. Anything outside of that is looked down upon."

A few days before her son's funeral, Ebony Wallace sobbed on the phone while talking to her 22-year-old son at the funeral home. She had forgotten to ask the mortician to cut Wauynee's hair.

"Tell them to do his eyebrows," she said.

She wanted her son to look as exquisite in death as in life, she said. She dressed him in a white suit and a scarf with several shades of pink, one of his favorite colors. The top of his hair was dyed blond.

At the funeral, she told his friends to love themselves and to be with openly gay partners.

Wallace hopes soon to leave the city where she grew up - where she was raised in a strict two-parent household that required her to get A's and B's, and, despite a teen pregnancy, she graduated on time in 1992 from Woodrow Wilson High School.

On Thursday, she picked up her son's ashes. She'll store them until she graduates from Camden County College, where she's just two courses short of associate degrees in accounting and business administration.

Then she plans to move on.

"I understand the hate that breeds in my 'hood," she said. "I understand why they kill, why they sell drugs, why they murder. I understand where we come from, but why my kid? My baby was a good kid."


Contact Darran Simon

at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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