Every person is born into a particular set of circumstances that defines the beginnings of their lives. For their own reasons, some choose to remain close to their roots and resist from straying very far from home while others find their origins intolerable and go off in search of a life of their own making. These people become the architects of their own lives, constantly evolving, creating personas that flow and change, always a work in progress.
One such person, Jon Weddell, was born into circumstances that could have been ripped from a Tennessee Williams play. Born in Johnson City, Tennessee, to what he calls a “conservative redneck family,” Weddell was horrified by his parents’ behavior. He describes his mother as a flower child of the ‘60s, the daughter of a preacher, an alcoholic con artist who could talk anyone out of anything.
On the other hand, his father chose early on to be a stay-at-home do-nothing dad, who had no interest in developing a profession and never bothered to work. With two older brothers who had developmental disabilities, Weddell sought refuge in religion from an early age in order to survive. “I was a real Bible-beater,” he says. Only his younger brother, whom he describes as normal, also managed to stay below the fray and survive intact.
Following the death of his grandfather, and unable to cope with this chaotic family situation, Jon Weddell, then 16 years old, managed to convince his mother that the best option would be for him to live with his grandmother. As grandma Josephine was the main financial support for the entire family coupled with the fact she found her son’s religious leanings distasteful, Weddell’s mother quickly agreed. Such was his great escape.
After caring for his grandmother for the next two years and being closely involved with the church, Weddell managed to get a full scholarship to Davidson College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, based on his merit and grades. He entered the pre-ministerial program, majoring in music with a focus on choral conducting and psychology.
While he was a junior at Davidson College, Weddell was involved in a serious relationship with another student, a young woman, for a year. Once they began talking about getting engaged he made the decision to be open with her about his gay sexual tendencies. Weddell felt that he needed to be totally honest — but that honest disclosure caused the end of the relationship. “Neither of us knew what we were doing, and it was too much pressure,” he says.
After graduation, he came to Princeton in 1996 to enter the Master of Divinity program at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The supportive but open atmosphere at the seminary helped him realize that he could affirm and accept that he was gay. “They enable you to deconstruct your world view,” he says of the seminary faculty, “and then they help open you up to mature into a more honest person. It was exciting and disturbing at the same time.”
Later, when he decided to break away from the seminary socially, he joined the Princeton University Players (PUP) to participate in their music theater events. It was a mixed group; a number of the players were university students and members of Terrace Club, an eating club on the Princeton University campus. Weddell began to join them and soon began to frequent the Terrace Club. “I went to social events there like parties or listening to bands. It wasn’t a place to date people.”
In fact, he says he made more female friends than anything else, but the entire group cared about who he was and not his sexual orientation. “For me, that was liberating and not something that mattered whereas the religious-based groups that I had been affiliated with, those efforts were to help me keep my sexuality at bay. But,” he adds, “I used to be able to go to the functions with my friends who were members at Terrace. I’ve heard that it is much more strict now, and you have to be a member.”
PUP was a social entrance into the community of university life, the supportive liberal atmosphere that Princeton University offers. Weddell played piano for some of the shows and directed a number of musical productions while a member of PUP. It was there, in the midst of the theatrical group, that he began to feel truly accepted and at home.
After graduating from the seminary in 2000, Weddell continued to live in Princeton and worked for seven years at the Community Presbyterian Church in South Brunswick as the music educator. “Despite many years of working in church music, I had never discussed my sexuality openly with a pastor,” Weddell says. Then the church hired a new director, someone he says “who I felt I could trust, and I openly discussed my sexuality with her. However, within only a few months, I was terminated by the church, at the pastor’s urging. I really hope this decision was not related to my disclosure but the experience felt suspicious and invalidating after trusting a pastor with more intimate knowledge of my life.”
After that life-altering experience, Weddell used his background in psychology to move into case management jobs working with adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses (SPMI). He now works as the coordinator for the supportive housing program for Greater Trenton Behavioral Health Care, where he deals with clients from all over Mercer County.
“Once we get into our 30s, there are two main groups,” Weddell says. “One becomes cynical and disillusioned about finding romance and are just interested in sexual encounters. The second group is looking for something genuinely intimate and long-lasting. Which of the groups you find yourself with is going to determine the road you take.”
In Princeton Weddell has found many supportive and socially active groups. He says that the Unitarian Universalist Church (50 Cherry Hill Road) and the Christ Congregation (50 Walnut Lane) are among the most affirming, as they have inner support groups. “Along with the Terrace Club and the entire eating club system on Prospect Avenue, the Nassau Presbyterian Church is very accepting,” he says, “and McCarter Theater has its Pride Night series.”
“When a church says they are ‘affirming’ that usually means that they are accepting of alternative lifestyles, gay and otherwise,” Weddell says, adding that there are a lot of churches where people who are gay or who just want to be associated with a church that is more open, can find information. One such website is www.Gaychurch.org, which lists churches by state.
In terms of liberal policy and attitudes, Weddell says that, in his opinion, the Unitarian Church is followed by Christ Congregation www.ccprinceton.org), which is known for its hospitality, affirmation, and welcoming atmosphere. Weddell says it is very warm and accepting as well as fairly liberal. He adds that the Nassau Presbyterian Church (61 Nassau Street) is more mainstream but also affirming. Its website, www.nassauchurch.org/index.php, lists many specialized groups that meet and offer support to people in the community. These groups range from Alzheimer’s caregivers and cancer support groups to a regular Friday morning men’s breakfast and women’s book group.
Finally, he lists the Trinity Episcopal Church (33 Mercer Street, www.trinityprinceton.org), like Nassau Presbyterian, as mainstream but affirming.
Weddell emphasizes that these four churches offer myriad social opportunities and support for church members and especially for gays who are looking to develop roots in the community. “If someone is looking to reach out socially and is not connected with the university, these religious organizations will help them become a part of the community,” he says.
When asked if he had a first love, Weddell says that he met the first guy he ever dated in spring of 1999, but that the relationship ended with “the scars of a first dating experience” as the fellow was not monogamous. But it did confirm for Weddell that he wanted to date other men.
After graduating from the seminary, Weddell found what he feels should was the “ideal first romantic relationship,” full of love and giddy joy. Charlie was an organist in Minneapolis and they flew to see each other monthly. Their meeting was totally random as Charlie had just graduated from Wheaton College in Chicago and had come to visit a friend in Princeton for a week. They shared the mutual friend, and it was love at first sight. Their careers were complementary as Weddell was a choir director and Charlie an organist. “He showed me that I could be in a relationship that also fit in with my faith experience,” Weddell says. “Before that, I thought I would have to be away from my church and religion in order to have a relationship with a man but this showed me that they were compatible.” But in the end, the long distance proved to be too much and the separation ended the relationship.
Adam, the mutual friend who introduced Weddell to Charlie, then became romantically involved with Weddell and the two dated for over two years. “It was a long-lasting, stable, and mature relationship,” Weddell says. After it ended, they remained extremely close as friends and remain part of the same circle of buddies today, a group that Weddell affectionately dubs “the Gang.” A group of seven friends, the Gang is made up of four females and three males. Two of the males are gay and one is bi-sexual. The women are all straight. Several members of the gang are from the south and Weddell knew them before they all moved to Princeton, while two are from Princeton University and the other two from the choir.
Over a 10-year period, they would gather together to watch “Friends” every Thursday night. Needless to say, they were all heartbroken when it ended because it was that show that got the group to start meeting every week and helped form the core of their friendship. They later got into “Alias” but couldn’t relate to it as much and are now trying “Lost.” Unfortunately, nothing has worked yet. “Friends” helped them bond as the events of their own lives were often reflected in the show.
For a long time Weddell’s house was the hub where the gang would gather and plan events. These days, they have started getting together more sporadically. Now that they are in their 30s, two of the girls have married and moved on with their own lives. But the gang still has their places in Princeton.
“Big Fish in the MarketFair Mall is still one of my favorite restaurants,” says Weddell. “They know me very well. It’s very young and trendy. The staff tends to be young and fun and the kind of people who relate well to my gang,” he says. “It became a real hangout for our gang. We’d spend hours there and hundreds of dollars.” Almost all celebrations and major events like birthdays were celebrated at Big Fish over the years. Weddell says it’s not so much of a college hangout as it is a place for young professionals with good ambiance and good food.
“In some ways Big Fish is comparable to Triumph except that Big Fish is a little more casual whereas Triumph has more of a corporate clientele,” he says. “Neither of these places is a ‘meat market’ but are social meeting places where you can hang with friends and meet people without necessarily looking to pick anyone up, which is much more of what my friends and I enjoy. “
The gang also has its own Christmas tradition. They decided to stop buying presents for one another and to start doing something based on the “angel tree” concept.
The decision was made that they would identify an adult who is mentally ill and who has a child. The gang gets a wish list from the child and gives them the most amazing Christmas they can whip up. The wallets come out and they buy that child everything he or she wants and could ever dream of having. Then they give the wrapped presents to the parent so that he or she can give them to the child. It is left to the parent to make it like the presents are coming from him or her, or the parent can tell the child that very special friends sent some of the gifts.
Having seven people pooling money enables the gang to could pull off a wonderful Christmas to fulfill a child’s dreams.
When asked about the gay social scene, Weddell says “there are no gay bars or restaurants in Princeton. There are good bars and restaurants like Triumph and Big Fish and On the Border, where you can meet people to socialize with but which are not geared toward any sexual group in particular.
“The Princeton Wellness and Fitness Center is a good gym for social meetings but skip the YMCA as it is too Hispanic and family-oriented. Stores like Wegmans rate high on the list of places to just meet people of any gender, along with the many coffee shops and bookstores in the Princeton area.”
Weddell says that he has never felt nervous about being gay in Princeton and has found the community to be very open and accepting. “In the intellectual atmosphere of the university town, you are an hour from everything, be it New York or Philadelphia. In fact, he says, “I feel safer with less discrimination in Princeton than in New York.”
Weddell laughs that many of his friends work in New York and complain that when they come home to Princeton that there is nothing to do. “It’s never right outside your door like it is in the city,” says Weddell, echoing a sentiment that has been voiced by many single straight people living in Princeton. “You have to make the effort to go out and create a social life.”