Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Common Humanity

A screaming 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 apple pie.

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 different.

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 working."

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 for rights."

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 back.


"I can talk to people if they know about struggle."

"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 his family.

"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 up.

"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 do." 

 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.

Read Chapter 3

Straight Into Gay America:
My Unicycle Journey for Equal Rights.
by Lars Clausen
(Soulscapers, 2006)


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Lars Clausen is the author of Straight Into Gay America: My Unicycle Journey for Equal Rights.  Visit for more information.