outburst ends the first dinner of my trip. Dave has driven me across town to
this gathering of eight people. Some are friends of friends, some have heard of
my ride from the Internet. All are allies of LGBT rights. Conversation moves
quickly as we sit on the porch, talking our way through dinner and homemade
Perhaps the extra glass of wine, perhaps the issues
themselves, charge the explosion that follows the meal. As the conversation
turns to political policy, we find ourselves aligning seven against one on our
ideas of war, economy, jobs, and health, a Democrat versus Republican discussion
in this liberal city. Even with full agreement on LGBT equal rights, the words
about war and taxes and government policies ramp quickly.
The Irish redhead comes to her lone husband's side,
"You're ganging up on him. Whenever we go anywhere this happens. I knew we
shouldn't have come tonight. " The evening lasts a few more exchanges, then ends
with her shouting, "He's a better person than any of you!"
"You won't show this on the film?" our host asks Jen
when the rest of us get ready to leave.
We already have plenty of other footage from our few
short hours in Burlington. Jenn's RU12 (Are You One, too?) Center footage from
this afternoon is a highlight. Dave had been hoping we'd get to meet Peg. As we
walk in, she is writing e-mails in the computer room, a tiny older woman,
plainly dressed for the rain-showered day, no-frills grey hair, a cloth bag to
carry her papers.
Peg moved to Burlington in 1969, when I was just
eight-years-old. She arrived in town married, "Heterosexual marriage was such a
strong expectation back then." She might be my mom or dad's age; her story is
Recognizing her attraction to women, she found no
resources at the library, only the degrading definitions of homosexuality
current at the time. "That's not me," she knew. Over time, as she met lesbian
women she began to understand her sexuality in a positive way.
"Coming out as lesbian in 1973, Burlington had no
services and no organizations for LGBT people. "We had one weekly rap group that
people came to for a place to talk. Everything else we've created. We're still
Magazines. Speeches. Papers. Causes. Issues. Original copies of Common
Woman are framed on the walls of this room. Peg helped found this magazine to
focus on women's rights.
I soak this woman in. Finding Peg on this first afternoon of the ride puts a
marker on the map for me, not of geography, but of purpose. She is living the
life I want to live, a vision, wrapped in layers and decades of experiences. She
doesn't seem to be slowing down or giving up on her work. When I reach her age,
I want the texture she has in her life, and I want a place in a small room where
I can write e-mails to keep the fires burning.
Peg talks to us about the intersections between women's rights and LGBT
rights. "Some of the women's studies' professors these days don't have activist
experience. I worry the sense of movement isn't as strong as it used to be.
Today you have some kids who have grown up and never experienced the struggle
Poetry Man stops me again. He's not pushing at the
moment; this time he wants to talk. "People are going to read about gay kids who
grew up and didn't have the same struggles, and they're going to think the
world's all better now."
"But that's not what I want to know. What do you think,
or do you think, there's any difference between a person with Peg's experience,
and one of those kids who grew up not having to struggle through the same
battles for LGBT rights?"
"I like the struggling people," I answer him
"I can talk to people if they know about
"Why is that?"
"Because that's my own life. I have good credentials,
but they don't satisfy me." I start sharing the memory of a wedding.
"One time a couple from Indiana asked me to
officiate their wedding even though the groom's dad was a seminary professor. I
was nervous. I felt like a trespasser. This should have been Dad's wedding to
do. It turned out there were issues beneath the surface. What I remember most
about that wedding was the groom's brother, the one they'd warned was the black
sheep of the family. After the service he asked if we could talk. We left the
celebration, walked into town, and found a café where we ordered chocolate cake
and beer. I listened for two hours, all about how he didn't make the grade in
"Damn," I tell Poetry Man, surprised at myself. "I still
get angry about that weekend when I remember it. This guy's dad could preach all
about Jesus and love, and grace, and forgiveness to his classes, but he couldn't
bring the message home to this son. His son felt only judgment for falling short
of expectations. The professor was getting paid to teach about love, but the
family dynamics held more power. I remember telling that black sheep son that he
might be closer to understanding Jesus than his dad."
"You said that?" Poetry Man looks at me.
"Sure. Jesus only made sense to the people around him
who were suffering or struggling. The people with the credentials, they had no
need for Jesus, no understanding that we need love because we really can't
control life. That black sheep son was drinking too much, going through too many
relationships, going through too many jobs. But I could have talked to him all
night. He was eager to hear life might be about more than just measuring
"That's why I loved meeting Peg," I continue. "Her whole
life seems to engage the struggle and the contradictions of life. She's still
working at making a safer place for people to live, and she still has energy. In
my experience, that's rare. As a pastor, I mostly waited around for the wheels
to come off people's lives, like the black sheep son, like the strong father,
like all of us who think we should be able to live a successful predictable
life. When the journey finally breaks down, that's when we usually take a
different look at life. No one ever seems to change because they're too
comfortable or because I preach nice sermons."
Poetry Man sits for a moment, then brings me back to the
manuscript. "So at the end of the conversation with Peg, you ask her what the
big picture is, and she answers, ‘Recognize our common humanity.'"
"Yeah, she said that two or three times."
"Common humanity. They're such plain words." Poetry Man
lifts the phrase up. He asks me "Does a person have to struggle, does a person
have to suffer, to recognize common humanity?"
I lean my head back on the couch and close my eyes,
remembering the story-telling I did from the pulpit, of the people who found
ways to hold meaning together, how often I'd preach that the beginning of
thinking about faith and life is the bumper sticker, "Shit Happens." That always
got a laugh. I was always trying to talk about suffering and trying to cushion
the blow at the same time. I told listeners, "I'm not advocating
suffering." Or I'd advise, "If you can avoid this in your own life, please
have thought of these things often, but I have
never said out loud what I am going to say now. I open my eyes, sit up straight,
and look at Poetry Man.
"Yes. I believe a person has to suffer if we're going to
recognize common humanity."
Poetry Man senses me wanting to give qualifications. He
stops me before I can offer explanations and dilutions. "It's okay. Say your
truth. Don't worry." He gives the slightest smile. "No one's going to listen to
you unless they're already there."
"Peg was a gift," Poetry Man tells me. "Don't try to be
her. It's enough to be yourself."
The end of day one. Dave drive's me back to his
apartment. He insists that he take the couch and I sleep on his bed. After an
all-nighter on the plane, I'm grateful.