A Place I Used To Live

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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.

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Rolling Queers

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“My friends and I, we used to go down to the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Saturday nights, and we would roll queers there.”

I looked at the man, the murderer, with confusion on my face. “Roll queers?”

“Yeah. We’d go down, bash them up a bit, steal their jackets or shoes, take their stuff. Gay guys would hang out in the cemetery that night, so we knew where to find them.”

I could hardly hide my expression of disgust and shock as he told me this simple tidbit. Knowing this man would go on to brutally torture and kill a gay man just a few years later, in the late 1980s… hearing him casually talk about beating gay men up in his youth, it just felt like a blow to my stomach. I felt cold for the entire interview after that.

Later, after the video call ended and I could finally think clearly, I realized I was shaking. I splashed some cold water on my face, guzzled a bottle of water, and chomped on some chocolate that had been offered. I felt myself calm down. A few minutes later, I rejoined the camera crew at the table, and sat in heavy silence for a bit.

“That was intense,” I processed out loud. “Challenging on so many levels. On a personal level. He was charming. Charismatic. But there was a coldness to him. He was manipulating, lying at times. I can’t figure out why he talked to us. I mean, he seems like a nice man, someone who has been changed by nearly 30 years in prison. And as a social worker, I believe in prison reform. I believe people can change, that they deserve second chances. But I know what he did, what he is capable of.”

“What did he mean by ‘rolling queers’?” I looked up at the woman asking the question, knowing this story was new to her, and wondered what she must be thinking after an interview like that. I took a deep breath.

“It’s different, being gay, nowadays. There are gay bars, clubs, and phone apps. It’s easy to date, to find people to connect with. But back in the 1970s and 80s, it was different. It was dangerous to be gay.”

“Dangerous?”

“Absolutely dangerous. Coming out was impossible in a place like Salt Lake City. It could mean being disowned by family, being fired from jobs. There were gay bars back then, but guys like this might wait outside, to beat you up, to ‘roll’ you. Plus you had to register to get inside. And cops would patrol these places, arrest gay men, threaten to expose them unless they were paid off. It wasn’t exactly common, but it happened a lot. Gay men could lose their jobs, their church memberships, their families. And they could be attacked.

“But they still wanted to meet other gay men. They had to hide from everyone around them, and yet they needed to connect with others. They would sometimes go to public parks or other places, like libraries or cemeteries, to try to meet other guys. They might use fake names, afraid to be exposed in their public lives, but their need to connect with others was so great that it was worth the risk.

“I’m picturing these guys in the 80s, going down to a cemetery discreetly, walking the grounds and trying to meet other guys, catch their eyes. These guys could have been lawyers, bishops, dads. Just lonely guys in Utah. Have you been to the downtown cemetery? There are all these walking trails. It’s almost like a park.

“Anyway, imagine these guys, parking blocks away, nervous to be seen, walking through the park. And then being attacked by this group of violent teenagers. Their wallets are stolen, their jackets, their shoes, maybe their car keys. And then, punched, hurt, beat up, having to find their way home to tend to their wounds. Imagine the excuses they had to make to their families and coworkers. Imagine how scared they must have been to go out again. To be targeted like that, to be hurt, to be “rolled” just for being gay, that’s a hate crime. And sometimes these accidents resulted in permanent injury. Sometimes in death. What could they do, go down to the local police, say ‘I’m gay and I was attacked’? Imagine living like that!

“To see him sitting there, talking about ‘rolling queers’ as a regular pass-time, like he was talking about ‘tipping cows’. It’s like frat guys sitting around and casually discussing rape with terms like ‘banging chicks’. It just, it just makes me furious. It hurts me to hear it.”

The room was silent for a bit. Saying it all out loud helped me process, but the feelings didn’t go away. They stayed with me that night, and into the next morning. ‘Rolling Queers.’ It’s a different world now in 2018, but people are still attacked for being gay. I think back to last year’s Pride celebration and the group of so-called Christians standing outside with their messages of God’s hate for gay people. I think of a history of gay people being assaulted, of transgender people getting it even worse. I think of the men on the other ends of those blows and how they lived their lives thinking this was normal, that it was acceptable. How they went on to become fathers and how they spread their hate.

It’s going to take a few days for the images in my head to leave. In a weird way, working gone this project, I feel a bit like Truman Capote, during his work on In Cold Blood. I won’t dive into depression and alcoholism, I’ll process, open up, maybe even write a bit about what I’m going through, knowing that the end result, the final project, the documentary itself, has the potential to teach about our past, to remember the fallen, and to learn about ourselves.

Wrong Sides of History

I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. I believe that even when people act in a sense of self-preservation for self or family, that they believe they are doing the right thing. I also know that there are individuals and organizations in the world that are fundamentally evil, that are willing to exploit, corrupt, steal, and murder to gain power. I recognize that all individuals are not part of these organizations, yet that these organizations, at times in history, influence public opinion in such dangerous and terrible ways.

As an American citizen in 2016, I sit with a sense of panic about the days ahead. This week, Donald Trump was officially put in place as the President Elect by the Electoral College of the United States. I am not the only person to be outraged and saddened by an election. I am not the first person to see progress seemingly stunted or halted temporarily. I look backwards at some of my heroes, like Gloria Steinem, who fought for the perfectly reasonable Equal Rights Amendment, tirelessly and for years, only to see it ultimately fail. (It still hasn’t passed). Abraham Lincoln had to take the country to war to end slavery, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, yet racism still exists in many forms. Malala Yousafzai only recently became an icon after being shot in the head for being a Muslim girl who wanted the right to learn, yet many Middle Eastern girls are still denied access to education.

Ultimately, we only dwell in the present. In the present moment, we experience and feel, looking backward to the past, while fearing and hoping for the future. And in the present, we justify our actions, our votes, our decisions with our present reality, and can only look back later with hindsight.

We sometimes throw around the phrase “the wrong side of history”. What that fundamentally means is there are a lot of people, looking backwards, who made decisions in their present realities, things that with a slight amount of historical perspective can no longer be understood.

Overlooking for a moment the corrupt organizations referenced above, let’s look at the individuals along the way who have been fundamentally good, who were only dwelling in their present and wanting to do so with as much ease and grace as possible, but who ended up on the wrong side of history.

Look at the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the back of the bus to a white person, and called the police when she refused to.

Look at the first President of our country, George Washington, who made sure to move his group of slaves South every so often, to make sure they didn’t qualify for freedom by staying the North for too long.

Look at the county clerk in Kentucky who simply refused to give a marriage license to a gay couple, choosing jail over compromising her personal principles.

Look at the German family who turned in their neighbors for harboring a Jewish couple in their basement, afraid for their own lives if they didn’t speak up and were thus held as complicit.

Look at the young black female who turned in her older brother to the plantation owner after hearing her brother’s plans to run away, knowing that her brother would be punished, but not wanting the rest of her family to be punished after he fled.

Look at the early American settler who believed it was more humane to sterilize the Native American population, to force them to become Christians, in an attempt to save them from their own savagery.

Look at the house wife who scoffed at the Suffragettes for fighting for female equality, chanting that these women should know men were better suited for the work outside the home, that women should know their proper place.

Look at the judge who found the young man innocent of savagely stabbing a gay man who had flirted with him, believing that the gay man should have known better and not wanting to ruin a young man’s life for one moment of insane and violent passion.

Look at the woman who served lemonade to her friends and neighbors, smiling and laughing at jokes while the tree branches strained to hold the bodies of two lynched black men above them.

Look at the schoolteacher who told her students to never shake hands with a gay man or they would get AIDS, the disease God sent to punish sinners on Earth.

Look at the father who dropped his pregnant teenage daughter off at the nunnery, crying as he hugged her goodbye forever, unable to forgive her for the unpardonable sin of premarital sex.

Look at the nurse who performed her twentieth clitorectomy of the day on a five year old African child, mutilating her genitals, knowing the girl would heal and develop scar tissue and then save herself for her husband, never enjoying sex as the custom dictated, the same procedure the nurse had undergone as a child.

Look at the young small town man who stood guard at the gates of the internment camp, making sure no Japanese American citizen could escape as they might be a spy and could forever endanger American lives.

Look at the proud father who refused to share his wife’s bed after she had given birth to a third female child, forever shaming him in the eyes of the community around him, now seeking a new and worthier wife who would deign to give him a son.

Look at the teenage girl who carefully watched her classmates for signs they might be a Communist, looking over the checklist of signs given out by her school, scared that one of them might be among her.

 

My politics are not the politics of all good and decent people, I know this. Nor are my morals, my values, my ethics, my beliefs. I will not vilify someone for not wanting change, for wanting peace and security for their family, for voting for someone who stands against the things I hold dear.

But I will dwell in my present and stand firm. I will look backwards at those who sought the easy way for themselves and their families and who ended up being on the wrong side of history. I will learn from them as I view the world around me.

And I will look forward with hope, knowing that the future has yet to be written.

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Political Outrage: an Internet story

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“Validate me!” she screamed with her fingertips after taking a sip of her triple-shot Americano with just a splash of vanilla in it.

“Why don’t you validate me!” he screamed back, his fingers moving slowly and carefully on his old trusty personal computer. A glass of untouched milk, fresh from the cow, sat next to the keyboard.

She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and her eyes scanned the coffee shop patrons to see if anyone else could sense her outrage. “I saw you share that post from Fox News that said Donald Trump might turn out to be a good president. You shared the post, which must mean you voted for him, which must mean you are a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist who has no understanding of history. Japanese internment camps, the Suffragettes, slavery, the Nazis! Why don’t you just unfriend me if you can’t even stand up for basic human decency!”

He almost choked on the hairs of his moustache that he had been chewing between his teeth. “And I saw that you shared that post from CNN that exonerated Hillary Clinton from Benghazi and her Email scandals! You shared the post, which must mean you voted for her, which must mean you are so focused on political correctness that you are automatically discrediting our President-Elect and an entire political party for not agreeing with you! And I understand history just fine. I’m seeing it repeat itself in my own community! The Great Depression, the Recession, the National Deficit rising due to illegal immigrants, the welfare system, and Obamacare! Why don’t you just unfriend me if you can’t even realize hard-working families like mine are suffering!”

She pounded a fist down on the table when she saw his reply. She had just finished checking the likes on her newest Instagram selfie and had snickered during the newest released jokes from Samantha Bee on Full Frontal. She took a moment to collect herself before replying. “For your information, I work just as hard as you, if not harder. I go to school and I’m getting As, and I work full time. I consider myself educated and empowered and I’m dedicated to the causes of social justice! You don’t get to cast generalizations of me based on your own ethnocentrism!”

He took a long clean drink of milk and grinded his teeth for a moment, then looked up at a picture of his wife on the wall to steady himself before answering. He checked the clock to make sure he wouldn’t miss Sean Hannity’s radio show in an hour. “For your information, I am a 52 year old man. I run my own farm and my wife drives truck just to make ends meet. I have to pay four employees, and I’m putting both of my daughters through school. Don’t you dare assume that because my family comes first, I am some sort of backwoods hood-wearing gun-toting uneducated misfit because I don’t share your opinions!”

She felt an empty pit in the base of her stomach as she tightened her braid. “Don’t you understand that Hillary represented change! She supported gay rights! Women’s right to choose! She didn’t want to deport millions of Americans and build a wall to keep out more! She didn’t want to register immigrants! She would have worked for the rights of others without trying to change your rights! Plus she won the majority vote!”

He felt that familiar thud in his chest, all defensiveness and anger. He cracked his neck with a quick twist before replying. “And don’t you see that for the rest of us, Trump represents change! The system isn’t working! I can’t feed my family! I don’t agree with Trump on everything, but a man that can run a business that employs thousands, use a corrupt system in his own favor, and who isn’t afraid to just speak his mind, well, that is a man I can support! And he won the electoral vote, which is the law of the land!”

It took a few days for her to reply because her heart was broken. This time, she sent a private message instead of a public post. “Look, I just can’t stay in contact with a man who so clearly doesn’t understand me. I’m blocking you from my Facebook, but I’m sure I’ll see soon enough.”

He took a week to write back, his jaw tense with pride and hurt. “Your mother tells me you’re doing well at school. I’ll see you come Christmas time. We may disagree, but you’ll always be my daughter.”