‘Queer Eye’ moment: KC man meets shooter whose bullet paralyzed him. And thanks him

He was given the “Queer Eye” makeover — new haircut, clothes, cooking lessons and one of the most extensive home renovations in the history of the Netflix series, whose fourth season, shot around Kansas City, debuts Friday.

But Wesley Hamilton of Raytown — who for two years languished obese and clinically depressed after a gunman’s bullet paralyzed him for life from the waist down — now says that his most transformative “Queer Eye” moment came when he was given the opportunity to sit face-to-face with the man whose bullet stole his ability to walk.

And to forgive him.

‘It was really, really liberating,” Hamilton tells Karamo Brown, one of the “Fab 5” makeover gurus. “(I) looked at the man who shot me, and told him, ‘Thank you.’ Now I can be the Wesley Hamilton I always wanted to be.”

Whatever doubts one may have about the reality of reality TV, Hamilton on Monday said the moment is genuine.

“I would say that after that episode and everything was filmed, it allowed me to really be my true self and to speak my truth,” said Hamilton, seated in his wheelchair at the downtown gym where he runs classes. “I was just freeing myself. And in that situation, at that time, you could see it freed him as well.”

Wesley Hamilton rolls his wheelchair into his remade home, accompanied by “Queer Eye” guys, from left, Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Bobby Berk. Christopher Smith Netflix

In December 2016, The Star profiled Hamilton for a New Year’s Eve story about how a person, so resolved, can turn his life around.

In his youth, he had taken to the streets, as he told the “Queer Eye” hosts. “I was going to live my life as reckless as I could, because eventually I knew I was going to die or I was going to go to jail.”

In 2012, five days after his 24th birthday, he was at his car after an argument with a former girlfriend who was seeing another man. Hamilton called a friend, but so did his former girlfriend’s partner. They arrived with guns. Bullets were fired. Two entered Hamilton’s body, one severing his spine, leaving him paralyzed, feeling lost, tied to medications.

“It broke me,” Hamilton told The Star in 2016. “It messed me up.”

In time, seeing his life spiral, he became motivated to be strong for his then 2-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, who is now 9. Her name is “heaven” spelled backward. Hamilton strengthened his mind and body. He exercised feverishly, weaned himself off of medication, becoming a competitive wheelchair body builder with biceps like cannonballs. He could climb a rope upwards of 15 feet still strapped to his wheelchair.

In March 2016, he also began his own nonprofit, Disabled But Not Really, to help motivate others with any kind of disability to push for healthier bodies and lives. Two months ago, in May, he relocated his gym program to downtown, 2540 West Pennway.

In one class on Monday, he helped train four men: Joe Stoermann, 19, with spina bifida; Theodore John, 50, who suffered depression and PTSD following deployment as a U.S. Marine to Iraq in 1991; De Hassan, 26, and Dion Martin, 48, both of whom, like Hamilton, suffered spinal injuries from gunshot wounds.

Wesley Hamilton founded the nonprofit Disabled But Not Really in 2016 to help motivate others with disabilities to push for healthier bodies and lives. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

Hamilton said that although his meeting with his assailant was unscripted, it was not unplanned.

Hamilton’s mother nominated him for the show. Prior to being selected, the production team interviewed him about the incident that paralyzed him. He told the producers that as part of his own transformation, he had long ago forgiven the man in his heart, because he felt that such forgiveness freed himself from bitterness and resentment.

“Truthfully, in, like, my process of personal growth and everything I have been doing, I couldn’t do that without forgiving the person who put me in that position,” Hamilton said this week.

In many ways, he felt grateful, convinced that perhaps the shooting was fated. He became a different and better man — a role model.

“That Wesley Hamilton,” he said of his former self, “died that day I was shot.”

Still, he noted, he had never actually met the man who shot him.

“I never faced him since that day (of the shooting),” Hamilton said. “I didn’t know him prior to that.”

As he recalled, the producers questioned him: “Oh, you forgave him. Well, let’s talk about that. How important is it for you to genuinely feel that forgiveness, and would you be willing to face him?”

Hamilton said he would, believing it would help his assailant as much as himself.

“I took the effort to find him. I knew his name. I did my research. I didn’t just talk to him directly, but I did make sure they (‘Queer Eye’) knew the right contacts to reach out,” Hamilton said.

In the show, Hamilton sits across from the man who shot him, Maurice Birdwell, identified only by his first name on the show. He had pleaded guilty to three charges — first degree assault, armed criminal action and unlawful possession of a firearm. In May 2013 he was sentenced to seven years in prison, served three and a half years and was released in November 2016. The Star reached out to him but did not hear back.

In the episode, Birdwell and Hamilton, accompanied by Karamo, meet at a downtown restaurant.

“There was no malice in my heart,” Birdwell says of the day he fired his gun. He explains that he was convinced that Hamilton and a friend of his were carrying guns at that time, too, and he judged that the situation was likely to get out of hand.

“I can understand why you did what you did,” Hamilton tells Birdwell. “If it was the other way around, (I’d) probably react the same way you did.”

Hamilton doesn’t ask for an apology but instead tells Birdwell, “I thank you for me being in, like, this position. … I don’t even feel bad energy from you.”

Birdwell responds that he doesn’t feel any, either. The two leave on good terms.

“We just ended it,” Hamilton said. “We just shook hands, hugged, everything. There was no bad blood. … I was able to face him and, most likely, take something off of him. To say, this is my position, but I’m better now. And I’m only better now because of you.”

Hamilton is planning a sold-out watch party for the episode on Saturday at KC Live! He plans to invite Birdwell.

The “Queer Eye” team spent five months last year filming around Kansas City. The first batch of episodes —Season 3 — debuted in March and transformed some lives. The Jones Bar-B-Q sisters, for example, immediately sold thousands of bottles of their sauce.

The eight episodes of the new season also include an Army veteran who helps build tiny homes for homeless veterans, a drill team leader who realizes she needs to devote more time to her adult daughters, and a KC sports superfan who realizes he is depressed.

Hamilton is the subject of Episode 2.

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.