Dotti Berry and Roby Sapp were just being themselves. That’s how the trouble started.
In 2004, they bought a new house in a Blaine, Washington neighborhood and were planning their wedding. They were legally married in Portland, Oregon on March 7, 2004, a union that has since been voided by a Portland court, but many of their new neighbors attended their wedding party.
A few weeks later, after sensing some coldness from their neighborhood, they asked around and discovered that a petition was being started protesting “too much gay activity in the neighborhood.”
Sapp worried, but Berry saw the developments as a “cry for love” from her neighbors.
The next day, she took a bundle of red roses around to each house and invited the neighbors over for Sunday dinner. The next day she followed up with written invitations and on Sunday, the house was crawling with people.
“Once they saw that we were just regular people and nothing to fear, it’s been different ever since,” said Sapp. “That one event changed the whole dynamic in our neighborhood. That was the most amazing example of love in action that I’ve ever seen.”
That one act turned into inspiration.
“We thought, if this can happen in our neighborhood just by extending ourselves in love and not meeting people with fear and just being our authentic selves and connecting with people, then it can happen anywhere,” Sapp said.
Inspired by this event and the story of Lars Clausen, who launched a journey of understanding called Straight Into Gay America, Sapp, 40, and Berry, 52, decided to take their new-found boldness on the road and go gay into straight America – as it were. One September 11, 2004, they set out from their home – now being watched over by their once contentious neighbors – on a journey to bridge the divide between gay and straight America. Traveling with their poodle, Rylee Joy, in a donated purple Suburban and Scotty trailer, they are out to start conversations with those whom they call “wrestlers” – those in the moveable middle who have not yet hardened their position on gays and lesbians.
Most of the people they meet are at rest stops and gas stations, attracted to their vehicles because of the magnetic signs that show their logo of two women and a poodle and the Web site address, gayintostraightamerica.com.
Sapp tells the story of one man who confronted her at a gas station.
“He was not a small guy and his demeanor and hardness about him was threatening to me. I told him ‘this is a journey that my spouse and I are taking and we’re trying to reach out to people who are wrestling with their understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.’ He said, ‘what would you say to me then? I’m a Christian and I really struggle with this,'” she said.
Sapp told him she and Berry were also women of faith and explained the purpose of their trip.
“We had a great conversation,” she remembered. “He took our card and said, ‘I’m going to go visit my pastor today because we need to have a conversation about this.'”
Sapp said they have experienced a huge amount of support from the people they meet.
“Complete strangers give us hugs,” she said.
But, what has struck her is that there is fear on both sides of the issue. Gays and lesbians are afraid to talk with their friends and families about the issue, even if they’re out of the closet.
“We ask each person we meet if they know a GLBT person and they all say yes, but they are not talking about it,” Sapp said. “Dotti says it’s like the elephant in the living room but nobody is talking about it. People thank us for asking them because they want to talk about it but they thought their daughter or niece or whoever didn’t want to talk about it.”
They’re not talking, according to Sapp, because there is a perception of a large movement against GLBT people by the religious right. But, their conversations have revealed a different America, one struggling with the issue, trying to overcome the fear that has been perpetuated by the religious right.
They believe the bark of those who oppose gays and lesbians is bigger than its bite, though.
“We’ve found that the people out there screaming loudly that seem to be such a huge group of people against us – they are really the vocal minority. They are the little Chihuahuas that have a great big bark,” she said.
Sapp and Berry hope their journey will reveal the right for what it is – an annoying ankle nipper that needs to be ignored. The lesson from their journey for the rest of us is that when we are authentic, and speak from our own hearts, the hearts and minds of others are changed in the process. Each of us then is challenged to go on our own journey, telling our truths, being our authentic selves and going boldly gay into straight America.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.