Into the Margin
A gay unicyclist might understand
more quickly than me how
of Virginia roads resembles gay America,
how lack of safe
space threatens life.
Three weeks into this journey I begin unicycling in
Maryland, in safety. Pedaling on One Wheel, alongside the 5:30 a.m. commute near
Frederick, I barely notice the traffic speeding past at 70 miles-per-hour. Some
good transportation planner built this Maryland highway with its grassy median
and with shoulders big enough to park truck convoys. On this stretch my mind
wanders freely, anticipating the final two weeks of unicycling Straight Into Gay
Everything changes as I cross the Potomac River to
Virginia. All the four-lane traffic converges upon an old bridge with no
shoulder. Compression brakes of a big-rig roar behind me, the driver jamming
down to my one-wheel speed. The trucker has no choice. Against opposing traffic
she has no room to pass. I glance for the briefest second at the Potomac that I
pedal above. Otherwise, cycling at top speed to cross the bridge, I eye the
grille of the giant Freightliner filling my rear-view mirror.
Winding the first few curves into Virginia, the dozen
inches of shoulder turn into four inches and then two. Every single car must
consciously consent to pass me, calculate survival space before swinging around.
Trucks pound their brakes and time their passes with opposing traffic. Long
trailers press into me as I balance on One Wheel.
One cell phone distraction, one ill-timed look
the mirror to finish morning make-up,
one Starbucks spilled in a lap— I die.
I make ten minutes in Virginia
then dive off the
road and give up
unicycling, too little space even to hitchhike
this danger, 711 miles of unicycling Straight
Into Gay America. I become nothing, tensed to bursting,
quivering in the weeds and stickers at the side of the road.
privileges of white skin, male features, economic power,
do nothing for me
here. The center of the road
which I typically command, has become a killing
Panic. Frustration. Anger. I turn to walk back, pushing
through gravel and grass,
to a solitary EZ-Gas station half-a-mile
Not until I buy coffee from the EZ-Gas
outdoors, pacing on the asphalt
parking lot, heart still pumping madly,
tension dominating my body,
watching traffic pouring by,
do I begin to see
to see how being gay in America
is like the lack of safe
on the shoulder of this road,
how gay people must
with every person they meet,
calculating whether to
that others will honor their life
lesbian, bisexual, or gay.
"Will you give me space on this road?
you kill me with your bumper?"
Every legal right of cyclists matters
not a bit when
riders have no space
to put their cycles, their bicycles, their
their identities—when no room exists for difference.
For the first three weeks of my tour, the margin of the
road has provided me with safety. This morning my ride reaches the line
between life and death. Equal rights have become survival rights. I want
to make it through these next two weeks of riding. I want to return safely
to my family. The parting at the start of this ride had been so
Son Kai grumps his way along the gravel road, this
ten-mile bike ride from our family's home at Holden Village in Washington State,
to the ferry dock at Lucerne. "I really don't want to do this," he says, nearing
the ferry that will shuttle me downlake away from our remote community to the
land of automobiles, airplanes, cell phones and a unicycle tour. At the boat Kai
follows suit with KariAnna, tears rolling as I pack my gear onto the ferry,
beginning my five-week journey, Straight Into Gay America.
Anne hugs the kids
into herself, their mother hen. I watch from the ferry railing, impotent, voice
gone, crying at what I am doing to her. Again. Foxes have holes, birds of the
air have nests. I am flying the coop once more. How much I take for granted, my
own blue pillow, the eight kisses for Kai each night, to mark his years, and the
eleven for KariAnna. Of falling asleep with Anne after the pattern of another
day, two bodies as one, two souls resting into each other.
"What's that part about flying the coop?" Poetry Man
breaks in, beginning to work through my manuscript.
"I wore Anne out when I toured through the fifty states.
She took care of the kids and finding campgrounds and calling the churches where
I was speaking. She drove the old motor home with the broken air conditioner
through the South, suffered through every mechanical breakdown. When we finished
the trip, she wrapped up the keys to the motor home and gave them to me, saying
she'd never drive it again. When One Wheel – Many Spokes came out, I wanted to
unicycle my book tour along the West Coast, from Canada to Mexico. I planned to
do it alone if I had to, or see if my Dad would drive for me. Anne ended up
coming along with the kids. We tented that trip; she drove our car. It was
shorter, simpler, but I still wore her out."
"Were you scared about your marriage when you started
"We've got a lot of LGBT friends who've been hurt by the
church, and we both believe in equal…"
"Were you scared?"
"What I'm scared about is sitting here talking to you,
turning this manuscript into a book about myself instead of about LGBT life in
America today. Yeah, I was scared about being away from Anne for five weeks. I
knew she'd be safe in the community we lived in and have good company. But the
last time we were apart was the three months she was teaching in Alaska and I
was back in Berkeley, finishing seminary. In those three months Anne's father
died, we miscarried our first baby, and the Mt. Spur Volcano erupted; all while
I was gone."
"That's what Anne was thinking about the whole time back
at Holden while you were riding?"
Suddenly I'm remembering our honeymoon, six months of
bicycling through Europe, from Stockholm, Sweden, to the Rock of Gibraltar, and
how when we tell the story to friends Anne tells of the night in Spain, four
months into the trip, when I said to her, "We could just keep riding. In three
years we could get all the way around the world." Anne tells friends how
she went to sleep crying in our flashlight tent that night. "I wasn't crying for
myself. I was crying for Lars, for what I was doing to his dreams. Four months
was a good trip. Six months was okay. But not three years."
I tell this to Poetry Man.
"You think that's not part of your ride this
"Yeah, that's part of the ride."
Poetry Man puts his
glasses back on and returns to the manuscript.
On the plane
tonight, heading toward Vermont to begin the tour, I will sleep upright, six
miles above earth's surface, putting thousands of miles between KariAnna's wet
tears and my own, between Anne's body and mine. Our hearts will ache with pain,
stretching to bridge this distance.
At the Sea-Tac airport, Jennifer Ting meets me for just
the second time. Five feet tall. Asian features. The purposeful walk I've
already come to recognize. A week ago she and her videographer, Tan Vo, were
visiting us at Holden Village. After a spring announcement about my tour in The
Advocate, (the nation's largest LGBT magazine), Jennifer had called up her
videographer, Tan Vo, to announce she'd found their next documentary
"Yeah, right," Tan had replied when she heard Jen's
idea. "Gay rights? A unicycle? You're sure about this?"
Jen went ahead and wrote me an eight-page proposal
describing why she wanted to follow my ride. She noted her discouragement with
the 2004 elections: Eleven states passed anti-gay marriage amendments. She
mentioned her disillusion with religion, including her Catholic background. "I
thought Jesus was about including everybody," she wrote, "not judging others."
Along with her proposal Jen mailed the DVD of "Not
Straightforward," her and Tan's first documentary. Tan starred in this film; ten
Seattle dates to explore lesbian relationships. Watching the mixture of humor
and insight, I had a feeling I'd be in good hands with these two. Their interest
goes far beyond capturing the best camera angle. Gay America is their
Jennifer gets right to work. "What does this feel like?
You've been preparing for this ride for two years?"
Tonight my heart is still back at Holden with my family.
I don't know yet what this ride feels like. Right now I'm taking it step by
step, checking my unicycle in at the counter, walking through security, finding
the gate where I'll step onto the plane. As Jen films my image reflecting off
the airport window, the ride begins to feel real. Watching Jen work, I realize
how we will observe the same tour, but we will author different stories, each of
us interpreting as best we can.
Here at the airport, Jen films me walking onto the
boarding ramp, taking the next step toward returning to the road with One Wheel.
She will catch up with me tomorrow in Burlington. Finding my seat, I
settle in for this overnight journey. While we wait for takeoff I begin my first
conversation of the trip. The proud aunt sitting next to me tells energetically
of her nephew's college graduation. She listens with interest as I tell her I'm
starting a unicycle tour, but mentioning Straight Into Gay America disconnects
"Do you know any gay or lesbian people?" I
From Charleston, South Carolina, she answers:
"Only by suspicion."
"So there's not much conversation?"
She seems to pull away but her considerable
size defies the effort to disconnect her thick
from the side of my freckled white one, all through
hours of this overnight flight.
Looking down at our parallel legs
I see Straight
Into Gay America in clear
perspective. Individual seats are a deception.
Isolation is an illusion.
Sun shines on the New Jersey tarmac through
cloudless 6:00 a.m. sky. The TV monitor announces a coming high of 95 degrees. I
change planes here to get to Burlington, Vermont.
Not only am I leaving Anne and the kids for five
weeks, I also don't know what route I will ride or where I will stay on
this trip. I have an eight-pound backpack that holds all my gear. Other than
this first night I have planned in Burlington, I hope to journey day by day,
staying each night at the invitation of someone along the way, creating my route
according to the stories I follow, propelled by hospitality from one place to
the next. The night on the plane felt long and lonely, separating from my
family, transitioning into this wandering existence.
The pilot announces our arrival. "We've got 72 degrees
in Burlington, scattered clouds, a chance of rain." The landscape outside is a
rich green of hardwood forest. Inside the airport, I notice an immediate
difference from New Jersey; almost everyone here has white skin. Then I see one
Asian woman, then an Asian couple. After a while an African-American woman walks
past the baggage carousel; none of Newark's rich racial mixture. The things I
seek on this trip are less apparent than the color of skin.
Baggage arrives. At a seat near the baggage carousel I
unpack two boxes of unicycle parts, arranging pieces like an altar around me for
the beginning of my tour. Seat post, wheel, water bottles, knee and elbow pads—I
savor One Wheel in its parts. I stop to write. I stop right now so I will
remember to stop all during this journey. Jen asked me if I prayed the night
before my ride. This is prayer. This is a great thanksgiving, and now lifting
the elements, assembling the parts, I pray for five weeks of holy communing. I
pray for safety; I want to show doubters that travelers can still find grace on
the shoulder of the road.
While I screw in pedals, Dayton and Sarah walk up and
offer a first story. Born, raised, retired in Vermont, they tell of a Governor
Hoff, from the 1960's, the first Democrat elected after 49 Republicans in a row,
"that would be the beginning of movement toward civil unions."
Then middle-aged Matt stands next to me, washing large
hands in the restroom. "Follow your conscience," he advises. "Personally,
though, I'm Roman Catholic; that sums up my position." He holds up one finger
like a bolt. Circling the fingers of his other hand like a nut, he jabs the bolt
through it again and again. "That says it all. That's normal."
"Good luck on your ride," he adds. "I'll look for your
book when it comes out."
The woman at the information desk tells me where I can
leave my packing boxes. I call my mom to tell her I've safely landed. Mom has
always been my safe place. Although she worries about me providing a living for
my family, she has always encouraged my path. She doesn't need to know where it
is leading. When friends ask her what I'm up to next, she answers, "We'll have
to wait and see."
Rain drips down on me as I pedal the three miles into
the center of Burlington. I barely notice this weather. Cars honk greetings.
Drivers wave. Pedestrians turn to stare. Bicyclists hurry to catch up and ask
about my unicycle. I am back on the road, riding again at ten miles an hour on
my 36-inch wheel. Handlebars rise up from behind me, and I grip them as old
friends; the half-year of memories from unicycling the fifty states start
Three years ago I pedaled coast to coast and back again.
During 9,136 miles, I set two long distance Guinness World records. More than
the miles or the records, I sought out Native American lands and people wherever
I could. American bombs were falling on Afghanistan when I began my tour; we
were ramping up for Iraq before I finished. Watching the news I saw only fear,
violence, and retribution. On the unicycle I heard different stories, like the
90-year old man who was out for his daily bicycle ride near Sundance, Wyoming.
"Keeps the belly fat off." He'd come out west from Pennsylvania, on a
motorcycle, seventy years earlier. He'd seen wars.
The deeper I rode into our land, the more people sought
me out, the guy on the unicycle. They'd pull off the highway and wait for me to
catch up. "Where are you going? What are you doing?" For half a year I
dove into the daily life of this country. Having served as pastor with Native
Inupiat Eskimo people in Nome, I buried suicides and officiated other tragic
deaths. Pedaling across the country I put these horrors into the bigger story of
genocide and the American destruction of Native life. After a Nez Perce man in
Washington State blessed my ride, he told me to pray when I reached the East
Coast. I prayed questions.
How can a nation of such hospitality be so
How can a nation of such violence be so
Riding on the road feels more like church than sitting
in a pew. The physical meditation of pedaling thousands of revolutions each day
helps keep me going even as the ride exposes dark sides of life. This ride too
will have genocide in its background. Homosexual people wore pink triangles on
their way to the death camps in Nazi Germany. Some fanatics quote the Bible
today, saying homosexuals should be stoned to death. The 1998 Wyoming fencepost
crucifixion of Matthew Shepherd remains fresh in people's minds. New hate crimes
make news, then fade away. Friends worry for my safety. "Watch out for the
crazies," they say.
Now, unicycle assembled, beginning this ride into the
complications of our country, I enter this dialogue with a single question. What
is everyday life like in LGBT America?
My departure anxiety fades to the background now.
Worrying about Anne and the kids ceases. I feel the thrill of finally starting
this ride; no doubts, no jitters, no worries as I take the first pedal strokes.
I have only the trail of this story for my route. Other than an e-mail with an
offer to stay in Manhattan, my only known destination is this first night with
Dave. I hope to see Washington DC. I hope to worship at Jerry Falwell's church.
All I know is wherever the story leads, if all goes well, my flight home to
family will depart from Baltimore on the afternoon of July 19th.
Riding these first moments out of Burlington Airport, I
turn One Wheel into the adventure of the road, into this big wide summertime
country. Dave speaks directions into my cell phone. I get them mangled on the
way into downtown. Ending up on Church Street, four young people, sitting on
their possessions, tell me my unicycle is the coolest thing they've ever seen.
One has a half-inch plug through the center of his nose. They are dressed in
khaki clothes, darkened by weeks of unwashed grease, "We live on trains," they
say. I tell them my own ride is headed to Baltimore. They're interested until I
ask their thoughts about my riding Straight Into Gay America; then they close
off conversation and resume their separation from the crowd.
I'd stand here
longer to see if we could start conversation, but a young man comes striding
up, "Is that a Coker?" he points at my unicycle.
"You know these?"
"Sure, I unicycle. My girlfriend and I just had a baby,
though, so no time for pedaling. I'm still a member of the Vermont Unicycling
Club." Ashley talks about riding, club, and new family, as he walks me to the
porch of Dave's apartment.
Dave at the door is the same as I remember, some inches
shorter than my 6'1", still lots of curly dark hair. Seven years ago we met at
Holden Village. I led a retreat and Dave quizzed me hard when I claimed all
theology, all thinking about God, begins with the old bumper sticker, Shit
Happens. "Most of us didn't start wondering about God because everything was
going fine," I told the participants. "The challenges are what make us wrestle
with God and struggle to make sense of our lives."
Dave's story fit, but he'd never heard God talked about
that way. The death of his Dad. The death of his brother. Ostracism for being
gay. Strained relations with his mom.
We kept intermittent contact while Dave lived in Fargo,
North Dakota. When I decided to start my ride in Vermont, Dave e-mailed, "Guess
what, I just moved to Burlington; can you stay with me when you come
Now, in his apartment, he tells me. "This is the first
place I've felt at home. I can walk down the street, and I can talk openly with
people here. When someone hears I'm gay, it's fine; it doesn't end our
Fargo felt different: "When people discovered I
was gay, they snickered, said something snide, and couldn't treat me the
Growing up in Iowa felt different: "In 8th grade I
told a boy in school I liked him. He told the others, and school turned into
torment. Heck, I didn't even know what the word gay meant. I just knew I liked
that boy and wanted to be friends."
Family felt different: "Being gay means I'm a
disappointment and an embarrassment to my mom. I remember when I told her about
being gay, and having the most wonderful news, â€˜Mom, I have a boyfriend!' She
lost the son she wished I was. I'm in my forties now. This is a lot of years to
live this way."
"Why did you write these things down?" asks Poetry Man.
"Why so short?"
"Because I've got a lot of people ahead of me on this
ride. I'm not trying to write an encyclopedia." I look again at Dave's
summaries: The words â€˜Embarrassment to my mom' jump off the page and bite
me. Just as Dave was an embarrassment to his mom, riding Straight Into Gay
America seems to embarrass my dad. I tell Poetry Man the connection.
"Remember how we met?" he asks.
"Yeah, one week after I announced I was going to do this
ride. You were visiting Holden Village, leading a poetry workshop."
"You had a letter in your pocket that very night.
"From my Dad. He'd written right away to express concern
about my plan to unicycle Straight Into Gay America."
"That's what I remember. And I remember the poem you
wrote at that workshop. Do you still have it?"
Poetry Man keeps working through my manuscript while I
pull a pile of other pages from my shoulder bag. When I find the poem that I
wrote back then at Holden I hand it over to him. He takes the pages and
then begins to read the poem out loud to me, starting with the quote I included
from my dad,
With that in mind
I would suggest to you
should try to find
a way to stay in the mainstream.
And the unicycle
STRAIGHT INTO GAY AMERICA
is not moving toward the
Poetry Man continues with the letter poem I composed as
my response. He reads slowly, driving the words more deeply into
I came to the poetry workshop last night
nothing in writing except the mail in my back
pocket, the letter you'd
written, Dad. I thought to read
a paragraph out loud, but it didn't seem the
Then, at the end of class, in the way serendipity
the class assignment came—write a letter poem. I walked back
Chalet Three, and here I sit, your thoughts pulled
from my pocket, trying to
gather my own for you.
How old was I then, anyway?
The time we took that cross-country shortcut to
our weeklong trek in the Sierras? Remember
white-granite crevasse we started up,
which got so steep we couldn't turn around to come back
How we ended up taking off our backpacks, handing them up
from ledge to ledge, and joining tandem hands to push and haul
other up impossible steepness until at last we came out on top,
bright high-altitude blue sky that felt closer
and more wondrous than before
the challenge of that chute?
Remember in the afternoon, at the trailhead,
after the hike was finished?
And Don's old Toyota pickup
we'd promised to spot
for him to retrieve
at the end of his own hike? How it wouldn't start
and wouldn't start, even for you the master
and me the aspiring mechanic?
And how, when
more than an hour later we gave
up, and sat in our car eating crackers and
from our water bottles, I had told you to go
and start the truck? And you'd said no,
I'd insisted, and you'd gone over to crank
the starter one last time, and
that little green pickup
turned right over and started running
And I followed you in our red Pinto, and we spotted his
and we drove home through Yosemite Valley.
And how a week later
when you talked to Don,
he told how he'd needed a tow for the truck,
from the trailhead to the auto shop
in Bishop, and
the mechanic there had voiced amazement
over how it ever reached the trail
junction, "These points
are completely burned out. Your engine should
never have started."
I grew up with no doubt of your love
for me, of your
hand being there to haul
me up when I am in need, and hoping mine can always
be there for you,
no matter the size of the mysteries or the
Strange then, how we two lovers of philosophy
to grow increasingly farther apart. The very places
that you admired me
learning from, the Air Force
Academy, Cal Berkeley and seminary,
all helped me see the holes in the center,
hope in the edge. The Christianity
I studied revealed a conflicted core,
even while Jesus
the person became a stronger partner for my
It's not new, your pushing me to the mainstream.
would have preferred something other than my bicycling
across the USA in
1987. Same with my first job, first unicycle tour.
Still, at the end of all
journeys, you offered your congratulations.
Now as I announce my next hope,
to unicycle Straight
Into Gay America,
you let me know once more
I'm moving against your
"There must be a way to work
for a better future
without listening to the shrill
voices and the â€˜Chicken Little, the Sky is
Know I feel both gift and question in your pushing.
Few others cause me such careful reflection, and my own
is always stronger because of yours. I wonder,
though, from the
center of this conversation,
what you would want for me if I were gay.
Would you want me not to be a pastor?
Would you want me
not to have your grandchildren?
Will you treat those grandchildren
if they grow up gay or lesbian,
or even wonder if I'd helped to cause their
by my own efforts at inclusion? Perhaps we're back
Sierra chute again, no turning back,
passing gear above our heads to one
handing ourselves into each other, not knowing
the crest is, or where the easy hiking will resume.
At the end of this
trail, will we find
another green pickup?
Poetry Man asks if I remember what he told me that
"You said poetry is dangerous. In a poem there's no
place to hide."
"And you told us at the start of each session, â€˜We're
all in this together. We're all just trying to figure life out.'"
"And you told me to mail that poem to my Dad. You told
me he'd cry when he read it."
I remind Poetry Man that my Dad did not cry when he read
it. "He wrote me another warning about not getting too far outside the
"Yeah," says Poetry Man, "but I