Edward “Blaze” Waters has been living in his house on Orthodox Street in the city’s Frankford section for 20 years, and has been sharing it with his boyfriend, 34-year-old Justin Benoit, for the last two.
They say a couple weeks ago, they came home to find a homemade sign, a slab of wood bigger than a door, propped up on the porch of their neighbor’s house. Since the houses are only about a foot apart, the sign—which had “MOVE FAGS” spray-painted on it—towered over the couple’s front porch space.
“I was just mortified,” says Benoit, a transplant originally from Louisiana. “I’ve never encountered anything like this.”
The sign was the final straw. Benoit left the house and is crashing with friends in South Philly. Waters, 48, who’s staying with other friends nearby, alleges that the sign is just the latest stunt in what he describes as years of ongoing harassment from his neighbor, Jose Roman.
Waters claims the trouble started when Roman purchased the house next door several years ago. Waters says he and Benoit have been called “faggots” and “homos” and told they were living “in a house of Sodom and Gomorrah” by Roman, who was employed as a counselor by the Philadelphia School District at the time. He was suspended after being arrested for criminal mischief and harassment last September. A former tenant of Roman’s who asked to remain anonymous claims he witnessed Roman use slurs against Waters. “It started out slowly,” says Waters. “Then became drastic.”
It seems no one saw who put up the sign. But it brings up an interesting point: Even if it becomes known who put up the sign, the charges can’t be legally considered a hate crime under Pennsylvania law.
Like the police told Waters, if he were a minority and called a racial slur in the context of another crime being committed against him, that’d be a different story.
Even though the FBI’s most recent statistics show more bias-motivated crimes are committed due to sexual orientation (19.3 percent) than ethnicity (12.8 percent), Pennsylvania law recognizes race, but not gender and sexual orientation, as a category of bias crime.
The list of grievances Waters and Benoit have against Roman is long. They say on top of the name-calling, he’s thrown dog shit on their front door and inexplicably dug up their backyard. Both men say they witnessed him kick their cat Mary in the face, who died soon after the attack.
Last fall, the couple installed surveillance cameras around their home. The camera rolled as a man who appears to be Roman leaned over his backyard fence, smashing furniture that Waters had temporarily stored on a tarp in the backyard with what looks like a pipe or stick. The couple burned a DVD of the footage and called Fox 29 news reporters.
“If he can do this to an innocent gay man who lives next door, what can he do to poor innocent children that might be gay or transgender growing up in the school system?” Waters asked the news crew.
On top of the Roman’s arrest and job suspension, Waters was also granted a stay-away order.
At the time, Roman denied to Fox 29 reporters that he did anything to Waters’ property. “I don’t do that,” he insisted on camera. “No, sir.”
Then Roman, who also works as a contractor, got in more trouble when Fox 29 followed up on the story to report that he had been illegally renting out the house in question without the proper license. A former tenant says many of the boarders are temporary, roaming in and out.
While it’s still unclear exactly what is going on down at the end of Orthodox Street and the motivations behind it all, it’s clear that this is a feud gone berserk: Between the two houses, records show the police responded to disturbances or calls 36 times since January 2011.
Waters says his health is suffering from the stress.
“I’ve had a lot of internal problems. I’m on nerve medicine,” says Waters. “A lot of this stuff has taken a toll on me. I’m like, I’ve got to move to get away from this insanity.”
He’s conflicted. Waters says he feels pressure to “represent the gay community” by not backing down, but he’s scared. He served time after being convicted for arson in 2003 (he says he is innocent) and isn’t about to go back. He fears that if he stays in the house any longer, he’ll be forced into a physical confrontation.
“I’m not staying at my house because I know that I’m going to have to go to jail if I have to protect myself,” says Waters. “But everyone’s telling me ‘don’t move.’”
Last May, when Tara Robertson began taking pictures of her friends in Philly’s LGBT community, the 24-year-old University of the Arts photography major didn’t expect that what was intended to be her senior-year fine-arts project would evolve into a potent campaign for gay equality in Pennsylvania.