Minneapolis has been declared the gayest city and the No. 1 bicycling city in the United States – and Minnesota has been declared the “most hipster” state. Coincidence? It’s a pretty good place to live, if your lifestyle is what some consider “alternative” and you crave some company as you live that way.
Such rankings, however, are as much a statement about how hard it is to live outside the big-box suburban stereotype anywhere as about how perfect it is here in the Twin Cities. I am neither gay nor – I think all my friends would concur – particularly hip, but I am a cyclist, and it is through that lens that I have a little comprehension of how important public policy can be for the daily lives of anyone who does not fit the mold. Exhibit A is the proposed constitutional amendment to make marriage “one man-one woman,” a pre-emptive measure to stop same-sex marriage in our state – which does not yet exist anyway.
Most drivers I know (including myself, when I am behind the wheel) are not belligerent road hogs. They are, at their best, sensitive to the fact that they are driving a couple tons of steel and that a cyclist is a lot more vulnerable on the road. So drivers make “helpful suggestions” to cyclists: “Stay off the busy streets,” “don’t ride at night,” and “if there’s a bike path, don’t ride in the street.”
Paths are inadequate for commuters
The trouble is, if you’re using a bicycle for transportation, not just a fun ride around the park, bike paths are woefully inadequate in most cities. If you commute by bike, staying off major roads is, in many communities, virtually impossible. This is especially true in suburbs, which abandoned the grid layout in favor of cul-de-sacs connected by six-lane arteries. Even in Minneapolis, where our park system is fabulous and bike commuters are plentiful, riders who want to get somewhere must either break the well-intentioned speed limits on the recreational paths, or ride on the road because the path is only one-way. Our public policies are molded as though 90 percent of all transportation will be done by individuals in cars. This kind of policy ignores the fact that 29 percent of the population is too young, too old, or too ill to operate a motor vehicle.
After being honked at more times than I can count, and clipped a few times so closely that my life flashed before my eyes, it finally hit home: Drivers treat cyclists the same way “one man, one woman” people treat same-sex couples.
Toleration, not acceptance
“Stay off the busy streets.” “Don’t ride at night.” I know these recommendations are well-intentioned, but they sound a lot like the protests of people who “tolerate” gay and lesbian neighbors. “It’s all right if you don’t flaunt it” is really just shorthand for “will you please just go somewhere else?” It’s rare that this kind of grudging toleration breaks out into outright hostility, but we all know that on the road, when you’re trying to get somewhere, we are not always our best selves. When I am in too-close proximity to a driver who doesn’t believe I should be there, I know who will win, and it’s frightening.
If I were a citizen of Minnesota who simply wanted the same civil recognition, rights and responsibilities that straight couples can get for a hundred bucks and a five-day wait, it would infuriate me to hear that I should be satisfied with the “alternative route” that domestic partnership provides. 515 state laws automatically give married straight couples benefits that gay couples – no matter the level of their commitment to each other – have to pay a lot in legal fees to gain.
Of course, this is not a perfect analogy. Since I drive as well, I know that cyclists can occasionally slow traffic flow when the road is busy and that driving speed limit is a lot more than a fit cyclist can muster. There is no comparable situation I can think of in which a gay marriage would hinder someone else’s straight union. And while riding a bike in a car culture may occasionally endanger my life, I can choose to give it up when I feel the conditions are too hostile. By contrast, my gay friends cannot get up on a rainy morning and choose to fall in love with an opposite-sex person. They must simply ride out this ugly politicization of their relationships for the next 18 months, paying their taxes, raising their children and mowing their lawns even as politicians and pundits debate the legitimacy of their commitment to each other.
The climate for my GLBT neighbors in the “gayest city in America” has gotten a little more hostile this year. As I bike this summer, I intend to be more mindful of the safety my straight status provides, and do what I can to open up the road to family for all my fellow Minnesotans. We are not so different. We want to do our work, raise our children, enjoy this beautiful state and simply arrive home to our loved ones, safe and sound.
Pamela Fickenscher commutes by bike when she can — especially during BikeWalk Week, June 4-12 — to her work as pastor at Edina Community Lutheran Church. She blogs regularly about ministry and motherhood at Living Word by Word.