I'm several days into a five-week bike ride up the Mississippi, from New Orleans up to its source in Minnesota. I'm taking a slow journey through the very middle of Middle America, along with thirty other women from around the country, and beyond. I'm doing this for the physical challenge, sure, but more so, I’m doing it to learn about my own country.
At the risk of offending some readers, I've got to be honest: I'm seeing a part of America that my social circle (NPR-listening "elites," to put it in Fox News parlance) routinely dismisses as a lost red-state wasteland. I get it. Back home, we too have our gay-bashing loonies, but being a lesbian is about as scandalous as drier lint. It's easy to write off the "other" America whenever I hear about a Koran bonfire or another "don't say 'gay' in our schools" bill making its way through some state legislature. It seems to happen most often in those places, in the other America – not mine.
Which is probably why it's good that I'm on this trip.
I often talk about the importance of keeping one's doors open to unlikely allies. Still, I'm nervous about wearing my New Orleans rainbow pride shirt in the Winn-Dixie down the road from my motel here in New Roads, Louisiana. It's a shame, too, because since I started my ride, strangers have treated me with more genuine kindness than I can remember experiencing in any seven-day period, ever. When my foreign traveling companions say the same thing about their own experience this week, I feel a rush of American pride that almost makes me choke up. Not that chest-thumping U...S...A! kind of pride, but more like how I feel when my partner takes a brave, positive stand for something important, just because it's right and that's who she is. It's what I love about her.
Nothing has happened thus far to make me think that I will be treated with anything less than genuine respect as I continue to pedal up the river. Yet, as I roll along the levees and look out across acres of ridiculously green fields, and as I spin through peaceful old neighborhoods with ancient sprawling trees, tire swings and swaths of soft Spanish moss, or perfect town squares with places called "Ma' Mama's Cafe" and "Dottie's Flower Pot," I have to rein in my romantic imagination. How cozy and friendly it appears, compared to any city I know...but for other people, certainly not for me.
I know that most of the bazillions of churches I'm passing are places of belonging and community for most of the folks I'm meeting. And that those churches have most likely declared people like me to be sinners, or even a threat to this American way of life.
So, does that invalidate the kindness and warmth? I see too, behind the old plantations that have become elegant inns and tourist attractions, there are the remains of old slave quarters. Does that make it all a lie?
It can't be that simple. We, as humans, are still on our journey. I am on mine as much as anyone else is on his or hers. These moments of goodness have to count for something in our human progress, even if we're still caught up in fear and small-mindedness. When I'm writing off my fellow Americans so easily, based on selective reports about what they're doing way over there somewhere, I'm hardly being much more evolved. I think, then, that my resolution for tomorrow's ride is to accept those gifts of kindness I'm offered and return the favor somehow. I might fix someone's flat on the levee, or maybe I'll find the courage to talk about my partner to a stranger, because it's the right thing to do. They might turn cold and wary, or be thrilled to hear about her. I really won't know until I try. Or perhaps I'll let someone know that she's not the only lesbian in town, at least until I go on my way.
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