Carrie Ross-Stone sits in Springfield, Ohio, talking about lesbian marriage in a town whose name so screams heartland that The Simpsons are set in one.
How is the slow-moving soul of our country taking to Mars, Pa.-born Ross-Stone and her partner Elisia (carrying the same surname) as they bicycle from San Francisco to New York City, spreading the word that gay unions are no threat to civilization?
"We have met three groups," says Carrie Ross-Stone. "The one type is vocally opposed to the point of protesting us with signs -- mean, disgusting signs. Then there is that group that's silent but feels that way too. Then there is the third group of fence-sitters who just don't know what to believe. That's where I think we're making a difference. They're most interested in our story. We certainly do not look like the negative stereotypes [of lesbians] that are being slung about. In some cases we're told we don't even look like grandmothers." (Well, they're new grandmothers, with a grandson only one year old.)
"Plus," she adds, "when we describe to people what protections we want, people are surprised that we don't have them" -- that is, the more than 1,000 privileges, from tax breaks to rights of inheritance, that married couples now enjoy and homosexual couples are denied. "It's very scary to us," says Ross-Stone. "What if one of us gets sick? Maybe we won't be able to make health-care decisions for one another. We stand to lose everything, so we decided to do something."
The pair will publicize their cause in Pittsburgh at The Andy Warhol Museum on July 1. They'll be joined by a quartet of cyclists from New Haven, Conn., who began recruiting voters on June 20 (under the sobriquet "Bike the Vote") along a route from their hometown to Portland, Ore. According to participant Vanessa Herald, pausing in Tyrone, Pa. on June 28, the group had already ridden 385 miles and registered 263 voters. They are keeping a painted tally on the door of their support vehicle.
Carrie Ross-Stone says Mars was not kind to her, growing up gay in the early '70s. She was outed in Mars High School, then teased. "I felt suicidal," she says. "I ran as quickly as I could into the closet. Made everybody happy except me. As long as I'm quiet everything's great. But I'm not quiet anymore."
The town itself, "It's like a teeny little Peyton Place. I know the truth about what happens in those little houses. The fact that the town rejects me is amusing and a little painful."
The couple are New York residents now, although Ross-Stone's youngest daughter lives in Oakland. Their cross-country trek is being filmed for a documentary, although it's neither their first nor last ride. In 2003 they rode from St. Augustine, Fla., to San Diego. Next year they'll pedal from Seattle to Boston.
"When we left last year and rode across the southern U.S., we called it our civil rights movement, our Freedom Summer," she says. "We got a lot of flak for that." She recalls reading the comments of Rev. Gregory Daniels, a black minister in Chicago, as quoted in The New York Times. "If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them."
Weighing one struggle against another, she concludes, is not helpful. "Oppression is oppression. Right now the [most frequent] target groups are Muslims and gays. To try to make comparisons is to just belittle all rights that have been fought for and won."