‘Kamala Harris Is My Fairy Godmother’: A VP Super Fan Says She Saved His Life
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Photo by Beth LaBerge / KQED
Growing up in Modesto in the 1970s, Billy Lemon was popular and outgoing. He was a good Catholic boy, and a bit of a jock.
But all that was a cover-up.
“I really wanted to be a backup dancer for 'A Chorus Line.' But I didn't want you to know that,” he says, referring to the iconic musical about dancers auditioning for a Broadway show. “So I would secretly listen to 'A Chorus Line' at home, by myself, when my parents and my sisters were gone. To hide all that stuff all the time is exhausting.”
His reckoning came when he was 27. He was still in college, studying abroad in Europe, and got an invitation to see mass at the Vatican on Christmas Day. He was sitting in row 12, staring up at Pope John Paul.
“I could have thrown a paper airplane and hit him. And I was like, this is the closest I am ever going to be to what I know as God, I'm just going to have a frank conversation with Him,” Billy remembers. “I said, ‘OK, I'm gay. I’m putting it out there, I know that I am gay.’ That was the moment. The next week I was wearing a fake ostrich-feather coat and I was listening to Madonna.”
When Billy came back to California, he headed straight for San Francisco. He was 30, but he says it was like he was 16, discovering his sexuality for the first time. He dove into the party scene.
“It was like gay paradise, it was Mecca,” he says. “You’re in a dance club with a thousand men, they’re all basically naked, and a good majority of them are high. It was off-the-wall crazy.”
Billy developed a taste for crystal meth. It erased his shame, his inner critic. And it gave him the sex drive of a 16-year-old. It was fun. Until it wasn’t. After the World Trade Center fell on 9/11, he lost his bartending job.
“Hospitality here in the city came to a screeching halt,” he remembers. “It's kind of like now, to a lesser degree. And that's when I started selling.”
'Breaking Bad' With Show Tunes
At first, he sold small amounts, just to support his own habit. But eventually, he was shipping pounds of meth across the country.
He would go to Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf to buy bread bowls, hollow out the break, line the inside of the sourdough with meth, then cover it back up and shrink wrap it, he says, adding “some accoutrement from Fisherman's Wharf, so it looked like a care package,” then shipped it to Boston. Then his customers would send back $16,000 in $20 or $100 bills via FedEx.
“No exaggeration, my life was 'Breaking Bad' with show tunes,” he says, referring to the television show about an entrepreneurial meth cook. “That sounds fun and funny, but it wasn't. It was that bad. There were guns and people getting robbed. Stolen cars, people getting beat up. It was bad.”
Though Billy was never caught for the cross-country care packages, he was arrested three times over his 10-year drug career for possession or intent to sell. The first two times, he served a month or so in jail, then skipped out on probation. The third time, he got caught with a half-pound of meth and was facing a mandatory sentence in state prison.
The day he was scheduled to go before the judge, he sat in his jail cell at 850 Bryant St. in San Francisco, desperately bargaining with himself, with God, with the universe: "Please, please, anything. Is there anything you can do to get me out of this?"
Billy was escorted to the courtroom in his orange jumpsuit and shackles.
And the judge dismissed his case.
“I was released that day,” Billy says.
The Kamala Harris Twist
This was 2010. Kamala Harris was the district attorney of San Francisco and her office was swept up in a scandal involving the San Francisco Police Department’s drug crime lab: a 60-year old lab technician was suspected of skimming cocaine out of the evidence room for her own use, throwing the integrity of about 1,000 drug cases into question.
Harris’ office, which relied on this evidence and the testimony of technicians in drug prosecutions, came under fire for failing to disclose the tainted evidence to defense teams, and for failing to have a policy in place for how to handle potentially exculpatory information like this.
Though her office initially tried to minimize the number of cases affected and fought hard to keep them alive in court, Harris ultimately decided to drop them.
“It was like Christmas for drug addicts. Everybody was getting released,” Billy remembers. “I was the lucky beneficiary of one of those cases.”
To Billy, it was the answer to his prayer. A sign that the universe wanted something different for him. He committed that day to stop selling drugs, he says, and he made his way to rehab.
Through years of therapy, Billy unpacked all the shame, trauma and internalized homophobia underlying his addiction. He’s been sober for eight years and now runs the Castro Country Club, helping other gay men get off drugs. Billy says it’s all because of Harris.
“She literally saved my life,” he says. “She has no idea that she saved my life, but she saved my life. She gave me my second chance.”
Billy continued to draw inspiration from Harris as her political career advanced, from DA to attorney general to senator. It’s as though each of her successes was an affirmation of his own small triumphs toward recovery. When she announced her run for president, Billy’s friend told him it was time to take the next step.
“He’s like, ‘Girl, you got to work on her campaign X amount of hours to pay back the fact that she kept you out of prison and doesn't even know it,’ ” he says. “And I was like, oh, yeah, I'm already making a shirt.”
Billy canvassed and raised money for Harris’ campaign. He says she’s a fighter for folks who struggle. And that smile — it conveys strength and compassion, he says, drawing him in every time.
The Fairy Godmother Phenom
Of course, other people have mixed reviews about Harris and her record as DA. In San Francisco, she had to walk the line between being the city’s “top cop” and living up to her more progressive promises. Either way, dropping those cases was not an act of benevolence for drug offenders. She was not in the business of handing out “get out of jail free” cards.
Billy knows this, but he sets it aside. He’s got his narrative about her role in his life and he’s sticking with it.
“It was easy for me to put her on a pedestal. And since putting her on that pedestal, she’s only gotten bigger,” he says. “I feel this weird fairy godmother kind of connection to her.”
The gay community has had a steady run of celebrity fairy godmothers over the years: Judy Garland, Madonna, Beyonce.
Especially for men of Billy Lemon’s generation, who’ve been rejected by their families or the church, they’ve elected these famous women to fill the role of nurturer and advocate.
“A lot of us gay men that grew up in kind of strict religious dogma, the idea of God is just kind of gross,” he says. “The idea of a goddess actually sounds really kind of awesome.”
So for Billy, a former Catholic who began to forsake his conventional God at the Vatican itself, it is fully fitting that he deify Kamala Harris. Especially now that she will be vice president and the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, responsible for some of the biggest decisions in the country.
“It’s kind of rad, like, super rad. The first 50-50 vote that they have, and they get to zoom in on her gaveling in the vote, is kind of badass," he said. "I’m kind of inspired by that."
Whether it was intentional or not, Billy says he turned his life around because of a decision Harris made.
Her ascension to power is just another sign that he made the right decision to believe in her — even if she is just the human symbol of a massive lucky break.
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