Chapter 3

Chapter 3

A Riddle

June 15th. Up at six, toast and two bowls of cereal,  I pedal through Burlington, heading east. Seeing the Main Street Barber sign on the way out, I stop for an opinion on my hair length. "Do what's practical," says the stylist. "People don't judge by hair anymore. Certainly not in Vermont." She takes another look at my twelve inches of summer-blond hair.

Jen has caught up to me and she is filming this encounter. She wants me to cut my hair. "You'll make a better first impression with short hair, especially with people who might listen if we can get the conversation started."

Since then I've been asking for reactions, and the conversations feel like déjà vu. Three years ago, preparing to unicycle the fifty states in support of Inupiat Eskimo people in Alaska, I also received suggestions to cut my hair. One potential donor remarked with concern, "Who's going to give money to a long-haired hippy on a unicycle?"

The irony struck me hard. I "pass" on every other stereotype in America—tall white man with two graduate degrees, two soccer-playing children, and one watercolor painter spouse of the socially acceptable, opposite gender. The Inupiat people I was riding in support of could never pass the automatic stereotype test—from the color of their skin to the accent on their lips, from the traditional foods of walrus, seal, and fish, to their 12,000-year-old hunting-gathering culture that shapes the soul of this people. What's a bit of long hair compared to these rich differences?  In the end I kept the hair for my ride across the country. I decided to ride close to the margin.

Now we're back to hair again, Jen and Tan trying to make me look nice for the film. When I put the hair question to my e-mail list before the start of Straight Into Gay America, I received dozens of replies. Opinions fell on both sides of the cut or keep conversation, but I felt unconvinced until Leslie Deatrick e-mails. She did her undergraduate work at Michigan State University, while I served there as a campus pastor. Now she's deep into a Communications PhD.

One of the axioms of communication is "you cannot not communicate," so even when we are silent, we communicate in many ways. Think about your audience. Knowing the audience is key to getting a message heard. You need to figure out what message your hair sends, and what message you wish to send. Sync the two together and you have your answer.

I vote for a haircut. There is a ritual to a haircut, a transformation. I think it is right to prepare yourself for this next journey. I bet some of the hair on your head accompanied you on the last trip. Make this trip new, not One Wheel Part II. Becoming clean-shaven feels like a preparation and a fresh start.

Besides, you can always bring a picture of your long hair (better yet, put a picture of it on a t-shirt) to get hippie credibility if you find you need it on the road.
Best,  Leslie

"Dear Jen and Tan," I wrote back before the ride started. "OK. I'll get a haircut." I sent a message to those in Burlington who are on my e-mail list, inviting someone to find a trendy gay barber who will read my online hair discussion and offer the perfect Straight Into Gay America hairstyle for my ride. But yesterday in Burlington turned out busy. No hairstyling arrangements were made.

I decide to wait on the haircut for a more convenient time. After this morning's Main Street Barbershop I decide to wait longer and check in with more hair stylists. I have plenty of time. And the road beckons, a 70-degree morning, with rolling terrain, deep green woods and the small farms of Vermont. I jump up on One Wheel and begin spinning my pedals toward Montpelier.

NBC News catches me ten miles east of Burlington. Ole and Gus spend almost two hours with me, filming and talking. I ride through hay fields and truck farms, passing the small communities of Richmond, Jonesville, and Bolton while they film out the back of their Ford Explorer. They stop often, and we get time to visit without the camera rolling. Ole recounts a bit of the civil union history from the year 2000.

"We heard predictions that marriage would be endangered, that our state would be overrun by outsiders, that our legislature would be dominated by gays and lesbians. A lot of protest money and protest organizations came into Vermont from outside the state. Five years later people say, ‘Civil unions—what's the big deal?'"
We talk about the difference between civil union certificates and marriage certificates. The single difference is the title; every other word is identical. "Civil unions," says Ole, "were easier to accept than the word ‘marriage'."
"Marketing," Gus quips.

Jen has stayed back in town to interview a woman we met yesterday. She catches up when Gus and Ole are almost finished. When they leave, she takes over the filming, leapfrogging ahead of me, framing in shots with Vermont barns in the background, signs announcing homemade honey, fresh eggs, maple syrup. She's got a lot of work ahead if she's going to make her story look like more than a unicyclist on break from the circus.

"And what is One Wheel to you?" asks Poetry Man, breaking into the silent reading. It's morning time. We usually meet at night. Sun streams in across his garden onto the now familiar couch.

"I swim," he tells me. "I understand how the rhythm of physical exercise works on the mind. I can see that part of your ride. I can see how riding a unicycle attracts attention and it starts conversations for you. But there's something in your riding that's more like church than circus. How do you answer when people ask if you do circus tricks?"

"Kids ask me often. Even after I've ridden a hundred miles in a day, a youngster will still ask me if I can do a trick."

More like church than a circus.
I ask Poetry Man if he remembers the story about Jesus when he goes up to the mountaintop with his disciples and they see a vision of the prophets? "Remember when the disciples want to build tents up there and stay up on the mountaintop forever?"

Poetry Man nods.

"And then Jesus says they have to go back down the mountain to real life. That's how unicycling is like church. The vision, the balance, is always a fleeting thing. Whenever I get up on One Wheel, I know I'm going to come back down. But while I'm up there, I'm balanced. Sometimes I battle windstorms, using everything I've learned to stay on top. Other times I ride a wide shoulder on a 70-degree day, my mind free to wander.

"Riding One Wheel is like opening Scripture,
when Scripture does what it's supposed to,
breaking down, building up, breaking
down, and building up your life,

depending on the day, the road,
and the weather when you open the text.
Scripture comes through your eyes.
One Wheel comes at my whole body,

eyes on the track my wheel
will cover, legs pushing, reacting
to the terrain, ears tuning to traffic,
nose finding smells of farm fields

and roadkill. I sweat a perfect balance
between my exertion and the moment.
You never know what's coming
until it arrives.

"One Wheel is where I take my conversations, and my questions, and see if the prophets will speak to my life, fit things together enough to face coming back down and keep trying to live my life. After you read Scripture you have to close the book and get back to living. After every worship service you have to say the benediction and head outside. But when you're up there…"

Poetry Man's looking at me,  "And you're telling me you're the pastor who doesn't believe in God?" He starts reading again.
While he reads, I look out at the garden. If I were riding One Wheel, I'd pass this house in about four seconds.

A few more miles into the day I ask a bus driver for directions while he awaits his next run. He looks near retirement. "Why are you riding to Montpelier?"

"I'm going all the way to Baltimore," I reply.

"I've got nothing to say about gay rights," he says when he hears why I'm riding. Then he talks for ten minutes until he has to start his route. "Civil unions are just the way we do things here in Vermont. I know lots of gay and lesbian people, and they're as good neighbors as everyone else. Here in this state, we wouldn't have it any other way."

"Any problems?" I ask.

 "No, none. A few people, just a few, aren't on board with civil rights. The only place I ever get bothered is when I go to Florida for vacation and people tell me I'm from that crazy radical state of Vermont."

Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Factory rolls into view. I watch the tourist video and eat Cherry Garcia ice cream. Back on the road, pedaling 45 miles today, I return to my riding routine of eating all the food I want.
At Waterbury Wings I order "world famous" Fire-Hot-Honey-BBQ chicken wings. At the next table, a family agrees to talk with Jen for an interview. The parents are from Decatur, Illinois. "I've got nothing against gay people, anymore," says the stout, balding, bearded dad.

 "Anymore?" I ask. "What do you mean?"

"Well, when I was a teen, some of us used to go down to the bus station to beat up gay people. We called them fags back then."  The daughter looks embarrassed to hear her father speaking. She attends the University of Vermont in Burlington.

"What changed you?"

"Well, some of them were really tough," he laughs. "I wasn't winning the fights. What really made the difference is working in the food industry. I work with a lot of gay people. They're no different from me."
He tells me a few stories. I talk to his wife and daughter, too. Then Dad interjects again.

"One more salient point." He begins a new story, his voice different from before, slower, serious, telling how he and a friend drove from Iowa to Kansas to spend a week at a veteran's hospital with their war buddy who was dying. "I'm a Vietnam Veteran, and we Vets stick together."
On the trip back to Iowa the two friends drove through Topeka, Kansas. "We passed a church there. Picketers were outside with three and four year-old children, carrying signs saying GOD HATES FAGS. It disturbed us enough that we circled around the block for a second view. I remember asking my friend, 'Is this what we fought for?'"

I'm guessing his daughter has never heard this story from her father. She's watching him from across the table, looking at him differently, at least for a moment, the weave of his life suddenly more complex, deeper than the coarse bravado of a carefully constructed exterior. I watch father and daughter now; they're underneath the everyday veneer, beyond their regular masks. This is what I used to wait for when I was a pastor. I know what to look for. I know what to do. Shut up.
That young fag-beater who went to Vietnam and then circled around the block now has a grown daughter, looking anew at her father, maybe ready to come around the block one more time and ask, together with Dad, what is worth fighting for? As I watch this daughter responding to her father's story, I know I ride for these times.

Rain begins falling. The bartender asks if I will show how I unicycle. I pedal over the floor of this old bar, floorboards creaking beneath my wheel, circling the pool table, accepting a beer he holds up to me while I unicycle. He tells us of a lodge nearby, "Two men run it. They do a lot of civil unions. And the coffee shop next door, two partnered women run that." This encounter is over. I head out the door to see what's around the block.


Day two. Already the web of stories spins faster than I can keep up with the opportunities. The last fifteen miles, south of Waterbury, I ride in pouring rain. A bicyclist passes me, then loops around to visit. He tells me to stop at the Red Hen Bakery in the morning."

The owner's a bike nut. And their sticky buns are the best in New England."

An hour more of riding brings me to Ann-Marie's home. After talking to her on the phone yesterday, she offered to host me for the night. "There's a four-mile hill before you get to my house," she warned.

The grade is worth the ride. Here in North Fayston, I pedal by forest, occasional houses, following Shepherd's Brook. The paved road turns to dirt long before I reach Ann-Marie's home in the woods, complete with tipi and 18 foot tall wooden giraffe. Young children wait under the covered porch to greet my soggy arrival. They want to see me ride. Jen films me riding for the kids as I pedal around the driveway for them. When I go inside I realize the house is full with guests. Two lesbian couples and their kids have arrived before me. Sara and Danielle have four children. Barbara and Jane have one son. Once inside I see food is ready in the kitchen.

"Do you want a shower first?" Ann-Marie asks, pointing me down the hall. My clothes are as heavy with water as if I'd been swimming. I savor the hot shower and switch to my single change of clothes, the pair of biking shorts, shirt and socks that exactly match the soggy ones I've just changed out of.

There's not much else in my daypack. Other than this change of clothes, I have a windbreaker, toothbrush, floss, notebook, pen, camera, cell phone. An extra inner tube, air pump and patch kit are my only tools. I bought the tiniest deodorant stick and toothpaste tube I could find—eight pounds of gear for five weeks.
If people like Dave and Ann-Marie keep inviting me in for the next month, I'll do fine. With kids playing in the background, we gather around the table for a potluck meal. I receive a riddle almost as soon as we begin. Barbara and Jane describe their civil union with great joy. With far more ambivalence, Sara and Danielle tell me about their marriage ceremony. "We wanted a civil union like other same-sex couples." Why does one female couple get a civil union and the other female couple end up with a marriage ceremony?

Answer: Danielle is transgender. Born with male features, Danielle's internal identity, her self-understanding has always been female. Many of us never question our gender identity, and we're surprised to learn when others do. For those who do question their gender,  the questions and the issues never stop. Civil union? Marriage ceremony?  That's just the start.
On Danielle's Pennsylvania birth certificate she's allowed to change just one item at a time. She got her name changed from Daniel to Danielle, and then after too much hassle, she gave up on having her gender updated from male to female. At least in Pennsylvania she can eventually fight her way through to getting her birth certificate changed. Danielle tells me some states don't allow any changes. Depending on their state of birth, some transgender people won't ever again qualify for a passport.

Talk turns to church. Sara first. "We got married in our Methodist church. Our pastor was great. He's one of our best friends. We used to lead music there with a band we called Joyful Noise. Eventually, though, we chose to leave."

"We got tired of being the ‘lesbian poster family' in our congregation," joins Danielle, "but the real reason for leaving is how the Methodist church keeps putting gay and lesbian pastors on trial. We couldn't keep supporting or participating in that system anymore. Now we go to an Episcopal church. It's very accepting."

"We both agree on being there," says Sara, "It's a shelter for us.  A safe place. But I miss the Methodist service. I don't go so much for all that high church formality in the Episcopal worship service."

"I love the liturgy," responds Danielle, a self-proclaimed recovering Catholic.
A few moments before we'd been talking about the mushrooms in the salad, talking about foods we do and don't like.

"I love mushrooms," Danielle reported.

"I hate mushrooms," Sara had said. "How can people eat fungus?"

The term "queer," comes up. Once derogatory, this term now finds common use among the LGBT community as identification for anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

"I don't like the word ‘queer'." It's Sara again.

"I love ‘queer'." Danielle adds her contradiction.

"The word seems so demeaning," says Sara. "I don't want a truckload of rednecks to drive by and shout ‘queer' at me. That's scary."

"True," Danielle concedes,  "but I like the way it describes difference, It pushes LGBT people to accept who we are."

Back to church talk, Barbara shares her experience. "I gave up on church. I couldn't keep going to worship and hearing the negative messages and fighting the fight for acceptance. But then," Barbara continues, "one day I passed by a church flying a rainbow banner, and I said to myself, ‘Any church that flies a rainbow banner deserves one more chance.'"

Jane picks up the story to tell about their experience with this Unitarian Universalist Church.  UU's, as they call themselves, describe their religion as liberal, keeping an open mind to the religious questions people have struggled with through the ages. They believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion, and that religious authority does not lie in a book or person or institution, but in each person.
"We're so glad we checked out this church. We feel completely accepted there. Largely because of this church, because we felt we had a safe community for us to raise a family in, we decided to try to have a child. When we announced to the congregation I was pregnant, there were cheers."

"That's great," says Sara.  "Celebration. That's what I want more of. I'm sick of gay people being just ‘tolerated.' We can tolerate rashes, but we need to celebrate people."

The kids enjoy their play, but eventually parents start to eye them for bedtime. Before they go, Sara and Danielle invite me to overnight with their family in Montpelier. The decision to start my ride in Vermont centers on this state becoming the first to enact civil unions for gay and lesbian people. Montpelier is the capital of the state where the decision was reached in the year 2000. I have been looking forward to spending time there.

When everyone leaves, I sit back down at the kitchen table to write in my journal. In the background Ann-Marie is playing guitar and singing a song she wrote to make it through this past year. Jen is sitting with her on the couch; afterwards I hear them talking. Ann-Marie's marriage is ending.

After they go to bed, I write in the silence that envelops the house. Half-an-hour later Jen comes walking down from her room. "Couldn't sleep up there. They were talking about bears. Mind if I sleep on the couch?" She's asleep before I finish another page. In the morning I find her in the same spot. Later, when I ask how she slept,  "Not as good as usual. I kept waking up."

Jen is behind her camera for hours each day, asking questions, probing people's lives, searching to discover the stories for her documentary. Maybe the intensity of the conversations during the day doesn't ease up enough at night for good sleep. Maybe Jen processes these conversations in her sleep. I'm sure I do, too, but I also have the unicycle, giving me hours of solitude and reflection each day. My best thoughts surface when I'm active. On this ride, I stop often at sidewalk curbs or storefront benches to pull out my notebook and jot down ideas.

The ride to Montpelier is short, and the weather has cleared, so I take time for more visits. Euan Bear, the editor of Vermont's LGBT newspaper Out in the Mountains, drives over from Burlington to interview me at the lesbian-owned coffee shop in Waterbury, next door to yesterday's bar visit. Looking to be in her early fifties, the black bowler hat she wears fits her mixture of realism and humor.
Almost immediately Euan shows her ability to laugh at herself. "There are times I've gotten more paranoid than necessary. When my partner and I moved from Burlington into rural Franklin County, we felt a bit concerned. Soon after we moved we woke up one morning to a broken mailbox. We felt sure it was gay hatred until a neighbor told us our stretch of road has always had mailboxes smashed in a juvenile game of 'mailbox baseball'.

"Two months after the mailbox was smashed, I went down to the end of the driveway one night and found that someone had painted a bight yellow letter L on the edge of the road at the end of our driveway. I got some black spray paint and covered the letter over, worried about who would mark our house as lesbian, how would they know so soon? A couple of days later, going up to the village,  I saw that a few yards down the road, there was another yellow L, and a few more yards later another, and another! It turned out that the L was a bracket showing the highway line painters which way the dotted line for the passing section should go!"

After this story, Euan turns serious. "Life is a lot better now that Equal Rights has passed in Vermont, it has made a huge difference in our lives, absolutely. But there are still plenty of challenges if you're LGBT in this state, especially for people living outside the more liberal and accepting areas of Vermont. Legal equality doesn't magically change a state into a paradise for LGBT, even after 5 or 6 years.

"For instance," she begins. "We're still working on getting nondiscrimination language passed in the legislature to explicitly protect transfolk.. And the LGBT anti-violence agency in our state continues to document dozens of hate events each year, including verbal harassment, physical abuse and assault, property damage and family rejection. Even today in Vermont, some high school kids are thrown out of their homes when they come out.

"And you know what else?" Euan asks. I sense her list is far longer than this iceberg tip she's giving me. "I even have to be cautious when I ask politicians my questions of concern for LGBT people. If they give a supportive answer in public, they might be voted out of office for their inclusive views. That happened in 2000. It's still a danger today."
Euan takes my questions for awhile, but finally holds up her hand, "I'm supposed to be doing the interview," she protests. We talk for another half-hour. At the finish I ask her what value she sees in my ride. Her answer takes me by surprise.

"Well," she begins, "truthfully, I hear you trying to connect to the LGBT experience of living in the margin, but other than your unicycle it's a little hard for me to feel this connection. Your gender, your color, your family, and your education are all so mainstream. You may never fully understand what it feels like to not even know your culture's own name until your late teens or twenties. You may never understand being beaten, reviled, taunted, disowned, dismissed, evicted, stripped of children and family when you finally find that culture.  And you may never understand how it feels to have this happen not because of some political position you've chosen or some heinous act you've committed, but because of who you are in the center of your being.

"You want to know the power of civil unions in Vermont? In the face of all these experiences that LGBT people have, the state finally affirmed our relationships and made them official.  That's why long-time couples cry and cannot speak when they come to Vermont for their civil unions."
For a moment she says nothing; then begins again "As for your ride…" She stops again and I see tears forming in her eyes, "This comes from a person whose history has three suicide attempts in it…I can't say how much this means to me, that you're a straight person and you're making a public stand for LGBT people. Who better to speak to the opposition than someone they can at least partly identify with?"

We end our conversation and I return to pedaling One Wheel toward Montpelier. I keep seeing Euan's tears. Along with others, she is putting my unicycle ride into larger perspective. Euan and Danielle and Sara and Peg and David are forcing me to take my role as an ally more seriously.

LGBT strategists focus on a variety of avenues for achieving equal rights. Some lobby political organizations. Others work to change religious understanding and church rules. Encouraging people to come out about their sexuality is another emphasis. Whatever these strategists attend to, everyone agrees on the importance of allies.

Allies are the ones who can speak up without being accused of holding selfish motivations. Allies are the ones who can most easily be heard when they make the point that the struggle is for equal rights, not for special rights.

Accusing the equal rights movement of being a special rights movement is one of the favorite anti-LGBT strategies. Despite all the rhetoric and all the temptation to believe it, the special rights claim falls flat. In my state of Washington there are still no protections against evicting tenants or firing employees when they are found out to be gay. A Texas law prohibiting same sex activity even in one's private home was only recently struck down by the Federal Supreme Court. The special right this country was founded on in our Declaration of Independence was the special right to equal rights.

Anti-discrimination laws for gender, race, religion, and disability have all evolved to address specific shortcomings in our nation's commitment to equal rights. The same process is now underway for LGBT rights. And as white abolitionists helped the cause of black slaves, and as forward thinking men helped the cause of women's rights, so too, allies play a part in the journey toward LGBT equal rights.

My conversation with Euan starts me thinking about how to balance my motivation to unicycle for fun with this journey as an ally. So far, unicycling is a good way for me to work more deeply into this advocacy. Maybe I don't need to try to balance this journey. Maybe I just need to stay open to hearing what comes my way. Conversations so far have surprised me with their depth and honesty and I'm still only beginning this ride. Perhaps as the journey develops I'll discover how to be a better ally and learn what to do with these gifts I'm receiving from this tour.

My ride from Waterbury to Montpelier takes two hours. I parallel the Mad River, famous for canoeing. Road shoulders are wide enough I can focus on the farms, the houses, and the forests I ride through. Halfway to Montpelier I'm called over to the side of the road for another conversation. Two older women are walking along the road. One waves, and I hop off to talk. They could be partners, mother and daughter, two friends. I don't know. Turns out they're on vacation from Alabama. The younger of the two has a quick answer when I ask about LGBT people.

"People should follow their hearts."

"Follow their hearts?"

"Yes, we should live our dreams. We should live our love. I should know. I didn't." Looking at me, she adds,  "It looks like you're living your dream."
I've been meeting people like this woman ever since I began touring by unicycle, the kind who stop on a Montana highway, far from any town, to ask me questions. Some people see a wheel rolling down the road and they start thinking maybe their own dreams aren't so far fetched. Others just want to tell me about a dream they wished they'd dared to try when they had the chance. The pastor in me hears holiness at each of these moments. Before I go I offer the four lines from Mark Twain I use for my own compass.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed
By the things you did not do, than by the things you did do,
So throw off the bowlines, set sail from the safe harbor
Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

"Say it one more time," she smiles. "I like those words."

Sign me up for the rest of the book.

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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.