Just before my senior year in high school, I became homeless. This is the summer I learned the difference between a home and a dwelling place. I carried a blue and black backpack that contained a spiral notebook, several pens, my Bible, a change of clothes, a wash cloth, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a bar of soap that was in a plastic Ziploc bag.
My books were in boxes at my grandma’s and my clothes were in garbage bags at my dad’s. I made stops at each residence a couple of times a week to retrieve books and to wash my clothes when I knew that no one would be home.
I worked the early morning shift at the gas station where I could wash up and then I went to my summer internship that I had at the hospital. When I left the hospital, I’d find a coffee shop, drop-in center or restaurant to sit at for a few hours and use the payphone to call my younger sisters.
At night, I scattered my prayers and memories in ink while riding the city busses until my bus transfer ran out. Once my transfer ran out, I took long walks along the Mississippi River, I slept on the couches of friends whose family could spare a night or two, and sometimes I slept squatted in dimly-lit places that didn’t have much traffic.
My parents had divorced and my mother was ill so I was living with my grandmother at the time I became homeless.
“Are you a lesbian?” She was standing in the living room one afternoon as I had come home from work.
“No, grandma I’m not a lesbian.” I closed the screen door and tried to walk past her to my bedroom but she stepped in front of me with her hands folded across her chest letting me know that it was unwise to make any further movements.
“What about that thing you brought here last year—was that a boy or a girl? I thought it was a phase but then I saw you holding that girl’s hand at the bus stop. She dresses like a boy.” Her face was pensive and her eyes were unkind.
“There is nothing wrong with holding anyone’s hand and that thing is a person. Tee was born a girl but she presents as male and likes to use male pronouns—and we only dated for like 3 months.”
“Born a girl but what?” Her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head like she had seen a ghost.
“But presents as male…” I knew she wasn’t going to understand and I never wanted her to know that Tee was a girl but in that moment I felt pressed for the truth.
“What about Jermaine?” She snapped back, now with her hands on her hips.
“What about Jermaine? We dated two years ago and we broke up.” At this point I could no longer look at her in the eyes because I was scared.
“Was he a boy?”
“Yes, Jermaine is a boy.”
“So you broke up because you’re a lesbian?” Disappointment covered her face and she let out a deep and heavy sigh.
“No grandma, we broke up because we broke up. And I’m not a lesbian; I am attracted to the spirit of a person. I don’t care what genitals they have.” Over the years we had talked openly about everything except my identity, so I decided to throw it all out on the table.
She lunged at me and wrapped her hands around my throat and began to squeeze. Her eyes were filled with hatred and her face looked afraid.
“What have I done to deserve this? I’ve always kept a job, my grades are excellent and I’ve never been in any trouble. You always brag about me at church and now you’re choking me?” I gasped between the words and tears to try and maintain my breath.
“Yes, let’s talk about church. What would God say about all this?” She loosened her grip and regained her composure.
“There is a difference between God and the church, and God wouldn’t want you to choke me, I can tell you that much.” I began to sob uncontrollably into a puddle on the floor. My grandmother was my hero; she had taken me in when my parents were incapable of caring for me. She had introduced me to spirituality, helping me develop a love for learning and the church. She held me when I woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares, and she’d rock me to sleep.
“Oh, now you’re being smart!” She was towering over me as I laid on the floor in a fetal position.
“I’m just answering your question. Can I go to my room please?” I had not disassociated mentally since grade school when I was living with my mom, and I felt the walls closing in and the room beginning to go dark.
“I will not have that here. You carrying on like this. I read your journal. I knew something was different about you when I first took you in. I cannot have this under my roof.”
“You read my journal? It’s under my mattress? You went through my things?” I felt naked and cold.
“Everything in this house belongs to me and I am putting my foot down. I know you had problems when you lived with your mom and I’m sorry about that but she is sick and couldn’t help that she hurt you guys. I raised you better than this.” She shouted angrily and spat as she spoke.
“Better than what? Better than loving people for who they are and not judging them like you’re judging me right now? My schizophrenic mom has nothing to do with this but did you know she’s also attracted to men and women? She told me herself that she’s had girlfriends and boyfriends.”
“Well I don’t know about any of that but if you want to stay in this house and stay at the church, you will not be carrying on like this. Like some sort of demon whore.”
“Why would you call me that? Seriously. I’ve never done anything to hurt you and I’ve always helped out in every way I could and now you’re going through my things and calling me names and choking me?” The tears wouldn’t stop. I had enough. After all those years and through all the tears, I thought she was different than my mom, I thought she actually loved me.
“I cannot have this in this house. If you want to be some hippy freak and love everybody, then do it somewhere else because God created Adam and Eve. He created woman to be with man; that’s it. That’s what the Bible teaches and that’s what I believe.”
“That’s what the Bible teaches? That’s what church teaches about the Bible but we pick and choose what we believe as truth. Did you know there are two creation stories in the Bible? What about that? The Bible also says we shouldn’t eat shrimp do you want to choke me for liking shrimp too? Next you’re going to tell me that we should go back into slavery.” I got up from the floor, pushed my grandma out of the way, and went into the bathroom that was directly behind her to get tissue to blow my nose.
“I’ve heard enough. If you want to go to hell, be my guest but I am not condoning this. You will not sleep here tonight!”
I convinced my grandmother to let me pack my things and I asked her if she could give me a ride to my dad’s house. Although I had not lived with my father for almost a decade, I knew that he couldn’t turn me away and I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. The 10 minute drive to my dad’s house was spent listening to my grandmother tell me how evil I was and how she’s always known I was different. I drowned out most of her words by reciting the 23rd Psalm in my head. After I unloaded the garbage bags full of my belongings onto the grass, my grandmother drove off in her silver minivan.
“Can I stay here with you, dad?” I shouted as I knocked hard on the door. My dad opened the door to his two bedroom townhome that was scarcely decorated with a couch, a recliner, and a large table with pictures of me and my sister that had been taken years ago.
“You are my firstborn, and nothing will ever change that. You can stay here.” He smelled like beer and hadn’t shaven. He helped me carry in my things and showed me to my new bedroom up the narrow staircase. My dad and I have almost identical facial features and hairline, and by then, we were also the same height.
“Granny called me this morning and told me what’s going on. She said you’re a dyke.”
“Dad, please don’t call me a dyke. And if I was a lesbian, so what?” He stood in the doorway watching me unpack my clothes.
“So what? That’s nasty. Being gay is nasty. I can’t believe you do that!” He scrunched up his face with a look of complete disgust and he brought his hand up to his bloated stomach as if he would physically become sick.
“I didn’t come here to have you think about me having sex, dad. The idea of you having sex completely grosses me out too but I still love you!”
“Ok smartass. I’m not thinking about you having sex, I just don’t understand why you have to be gay.”
“Being attracted to someone is not a choice. Besides, I don’t have to have sex with anyone to know who I like.” I felt defeated and deflated, and I couldn’t look him in the face because I was scared to see hatred in his eyes like I had seen in my grandmother’s eyes.
“It’s still nasty!” He barked, before turning to go down the stairs. “You can stay here and finish school if you’d like but don’t bring it here; I don’t want to see it or hear about it.”
I slept there that night and stayed for almost a week. The constant barrage of comments about how disgusting he thought I was began to wear me thin and I decided that it was better to live on the street than to hear his demeaning and derogatory thoughts. I made my home inside myself and dwelled in many places.
This is the summer I learned the difference between a home and a dwelling place. A home is where you are safe…it’s a place of refuge and sanctuary. A dwelling place is space to lay your head.