The recent ugly flurry of proposed laws that could allow businesses to deny service to gays (and many others) based on their religious convictions got me thinking of the time such a denial happened to me. It’s something I haven’t written about yet on this blog, but perhaps it’s time to share.
I think it was the summer of 1992 when I was notified I would work in an intern position as a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Illinois. I was just finishing up a summer as a naturalist at a bible camp in southwest Wisconsin. One of the counselors was going to college in Rock Island, and had room in their house I could live in while I interned. There was another roommate who I would be sharing the house with as well, and would meet her the next summer.
The bible camp I worked at was primarily ELCA Lutheran, one of the more progressive “synods” within the Lutheran church. I was confirmed as ELCA Lutheran, and never heard a bad word spoken about gays then nor at the bible camp where I worked and also went as a camper when I was younger. The other synods – usually named after a state like Missouri or Wisconsin – aren’t so progressive. Maybe things have changed with those last two synods. I don’t know though, I haven’t been a practicing Lutheran in a long time. But saying you’re “Lutheran” could mean you’re progressive or quite the opposite. I would learn about these differences later.
I was out of the closet by 1992, and the fellow counselor knew I was gay. The other roommate – whose name was Bridget – did not know I was gay. I think I discussed the issue with my fellow counselor and we may have decided to keep it on the down-low at first. I can’t recall those details, but Bridget would eventually find out.The next summer came around and I moved in the house and started the internship. I mostly worked at a visitor center that overlooked Lock & Dam #15 on the Mississippi River. I often sat at the front desk answering visitor’s questions, giving talks about why there are dams on the river, and led nature programs. In the winter bald eagles would gather around the base of the dam which made for good birdwatching. And things got pretty exciting there during the Flood of ’93 when I got deployed to Des Moines to ensure emergency sources of water were potable after their water treatment plant got flooded.
The roommate situation seemed to be going all right at first. Bridget was tidy, if not a bit icy. Back then we didn’t have the Internet or cell phones, and communicating with potential dates was done with the shared house phone. I think Bridget must have overheard a conversation I was having with a potential date or something, and talked to the other roommate about it. She brought it up and said that Bridget didn’t want to have me as a housemate because I was gay. As I recall the basis for her problem with me was her religion.
I was 23 at the time, didn’t know my rights, or whether or not I even had any. Plus the icy silence in the house was becoming uncomfortable. I think I tried to talk to Bridget about it, and she started crying. So I moved out, mostly to keep good relations with my original counselor friend. And I didn’t want to live where I wasn’t liked. The first place I moved to was a stark and lonely apartment complex with noisy neighbors where I didn’t get a lot of sleep. Then I moved to a somewhat better shared housing situation with a friend of the (nicer) roommate until the end of my internship.
Throughout my time in Rock Island I didn’t meet many other people and I think it was an overall lonely time in my life. And the experience of getting iced out of my first housing situation for being gay gave me some lasting anxiety about living where there are few other gays. It’s probably a basis of my initial evaluation for moving to DC – a larger city with a sizable gay population where people are more tolerant of gays. My experience wasn’t unique, which is a big reason why most gays flock to larger cities. Things are changing fast, but in some parts of the country attitudes haven’t changed much.
Getting kicked out of a house, losing a job, or being denied any kind of service for who you are is a shitty feeling. There are all kinds of religions, and even more types of convictions depending on what branch of religion you’re involved with. So these laws being proposed in several states open the door for legally denying many kinds of people for many reasons. I’m aware that they probably won’t be successful, but for those who could be turned away in these states I know from experience that it’s an unpleasant feeling at best.