by Dan Woog*/TRT Special
Most cross-country bike riders go west to east. Some take the more challenging route, into the wind.
Danielle Girdano bicycled north to south.
Gay people always seem to do things differently.
But the former marketing director-turned-cycling activist and advocate did not devise her itinerary randomly. Ride the Arc – this summer’s 1,300 mile, six-week journey from Minneapolis to Dallas – covered that route for a reason.
Girdano wanted to publicize the need for equal rights for LGBT people, and raise awareness about the high suicide rate for gay youth. To do that, she went to the place she thought needed it the most: America’s heartland.
“If I rode coast to coast, I wouldn’t spend all my time in places that had to hear this message,” Girdano said. “This way, I was always there.”
The first documented ride by a female athlete to cross the country from north to south, Girdano’s ride paid tribute to a pioneer of social justice for another oppressed group. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr said. That explains Ride the Arc’s name.
The route and ride “mirror our struggle as a people,” Girdano explained. “It’s uphill, hard, long and requires a tremendous amount of preparation. It’s not a race; it’s a journey of endurance.”
Girdano is no stranger to activism – or action. A former marketing director, in 2004 she spearheaded a $140,000 project: a weekend honoring Marine veterans of Iwo Jima.
Ride the Arc was less about money than education. Along the way she gave countless newspaper, television and radio interviews. Wherever she stopped – for food and water, a bathroom break or the night – she engaged strangers in conversation.
Girdano is no stranger to small towns. Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, she said she was “molded to fit into a role. Men hunted and drove pickups. Women cooked and had babies.”
Women were not lesbians. She had no role models. When she finally realized it was OK to be “who I was” – after high school – she moved to gay-friendly Atlanta.
Though some family members have never accepted Girdano’s sexuality, her father has. An 84-year-old Iwo Jima Marine – “Republican and conservative through and through” – he went so far as to join his daughter’s bike ride in Tulsa.
“He can get through to people who would never listen to me,” Girdano acknowledged.
She’s done a pretty good job of getting through herself. She received major TV coverage in Minneapolis, Des Moines, Topeka and Wichita. But Girdano is prouder that a dozen newspapers and radio stations that had never done a story on an LGBT person covered her ride. The teen and young adult angle particularly intrigued those outlets.
There were setbacks. Some stations sounded excited on the phone, but after receiving her press kit – and realizing what “LGBT” stood for – they backed off. “This wouldn’t fit our readers,” one person said bluntly.
A radio station in Missouri edited every “LGBT,” “gay community” and “hate crimes” reference out of her interview before it aired. “It sounded like I rode across the U.S. for teen suicide in general only,” she said.
But the positive personal encounters overwhelmed the negative ones. “Whether it’s a small town of 150 people, or one of 10,000, it’s still significant to say, ‘I’m here,’” Girdano said.
One woman – who apparently did not know what “LGBT” meant – made a “those people” comment. When Girdano personalized the issue, the woman stammered, “But you don’t look like…”
“It’s an awakening,” Girdano said. “Awareness leads to dialogue. Even if people don’t agree, it’s good to talk.”
Hundreds of supportive e-mails poured in. A Facebook page enabled supporters across the country to talk with each other – and raised awareness even further.
Then there are the LGBT people themselves. A woman in her 50s told Girdano that she’d just come out to her boss that day – because of the ride. “She was so intimidated and fearful she’d lose her job,” Girdano said. “And she’d been with the company for 30 years. That was very empowering for her.”
A girl who had recently tried to commit suicide joined a group ride for the final 10 miles into Dallas with Girdano. “Stories like that are the reason I did this,” she noted.
“If we can save one kid, or give hope to one person, every mile would be worth it.”
The cross-country rider added: “Martin Luther King went where he was not welcome. I’m not comparing myself to him, but I wanted to go where I wasn’t welcome too. I have a right to ride anywhere, and to bring my message there.
“I rode, I waved. I wished you a good day. If you don’t want one, that’s your problem.”
*Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com