For me, Philadelphia, the city I grew up in, was a weight around my neck when I was in high school. I felt I could not be my true self in Philadelphia. When I went back to Philadelphia for graduate school and worked for my father’s company part time, I began see what living in Philadelphia would be like. My parents had a wide network of friends. My father served on multiple boards, had business and political connections across the city. My parents traveled in certain circles that, had I stayed, I would have been expected to travel in too. I hated it.
I felt like an outsider in my parents world. I did not fit in. There was a deep feeling that the lives of my parents was in a different universe than the one I lived in. It was not just that I was gay that made for the separation. There was an artificial, self important, moneyed world that my parents moved through. There was also a generation gap: my parents were products of the 1950’s and I was a child of the 1960’s. I needed to escape from their world which I felt smothered by.
I went to high school in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in a predominantly poor, African American area of the city. My high school, which was in its original location, was now surrounded by a poor, inter-city community. I loved the grittiness of that area. It made me feel alive, when I was 14 and 15 years old, to leave the protection of my school buildings at the end of the day, walk to the public bus on West Chelten Avenue, and take the bus across town, where I would be picked up closer to home. In high school we would leave the campus at lunch time for a dive coffee shop called Duvas, a block from the school. There was something real, earthy, and greasy about Duvas. I loved it.
I moved to Brooklyn, New York for college. I love the hardness and energy of Manhattan. It was invigorating to take the subway into Manhattan for the part time jobs I held all through college. I loved being part of New York City. The city met something deeply in me. I felt I needed the hardness and energy of the city to counter something in me that felt too soft.
For many years I felt that places like Germantown and New York City had a hardness and a roughness which met me deeply and combated a softness that I felt within myself.
Today I do not feel the need for my external environment to provide me with hardness. I have grown up. I have more grit and hardness inside me. I have matured and changed. I also feel at home in my own skin. The gay man inside, with all the softer attributes, is ok with me today. I’ve accepted the softness in myself and seen how powerful it can be.
But Philadelphia is still no longer my city. It still feels like my parents city, not mine. I identify more with Washington, D.C. or New York City, and feel them both to be my home towns. But today I am comfortable in my own skin, a gay man of the world.