Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.
I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.
And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.
I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.
Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”
We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited, I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.
Fast forward to 2018.
20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.
“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.
“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”
My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring. Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.
“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”
I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”
I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.
I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.