What Is A Different Spokes Ride?

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Is this too obvious a question? We all know what a Different Spokes ride is, right? It’s a ride listed in our ride calendar and led by a member of the club. Our calendar does have a few non-DSSF rides such as local century rides. These aren’t Different Spokes rides per se but are rides that either have been popular with Spokers in the past or that a member would like other Spokers to ride with even though it’s not offered by DSSF. But for the most part the above answer is trite and true.

However a Social “A” Ride this year caused me to mull over this question a bit more deeply. As far as I know, the turnout on all but one Social “A” Rides has been completely LGBT ranging from just me and Roger (only once!) to about a dozen riders. On the one exception we had 13 riders and six turned out to be non-LGBT couples whom a Different Spokes member invited along. They were very pleasant, older, and obviously at least LGBT-tolerant if not –friendly. The ride was fine: everybody got along and we had a fabulous ride with a delicious (and noisy) lunch afterwards. But the group dynamics were subtlely different. I certainly noticed that my behavior changed with having so many straight people along who also happened to be old farts the same age as I. Those of you who are younger and are “post gay” may not have experienced having to pass; maybe you came out in elementary school or your parents were fine with having a queer child. But some of us who hid in the straight world or didn’t have such a supportive milieu are intimately acquainted with trying to pass for straight (or at least, be less fey lest we suffer the consequences) and some of us still have a latent, automatic habit of going into passing mode that we have to deliberately check. However in this case it wasn’t pretending to be straight. Instead I caught myself pretending to be less “gay chatty”: I just toned it down “for the benefit of our straight friends”. After all, I wanted them to feel welcome and talking about the things that we typically talk about in front of non-LGBT people might upset them. I reverted to talking as I talk in the office, i.e. “safe for work”. It’s not that I typically converse racily on Different Spokes rides but when sex comes up—um, does it ever not come up?—I don’t shy away from it. Until this ride.

Occasionally rides in our calendar are cross-listed with another club, invariably a non-LGBT club. Most recently it’s been Stephanie cross-listing her Grizzly Peak rides with us, and that actually has worked out well for me and Roger because we also belong to Grizzly Peak and have quite a few Grizzly friends and acquaintances. They’re a Berkeley-based club and have “Berkeley” values, plus they seem to have more lesbian members than we do! I’ve been on a few cross-listed rides over the years and these are a “different” kettle of queers altogether because one can safely presume we would be outnumbered by non-LGBT folks. With the exception of cross-listed rides, I do not recall a club ride that had such a high proportion of non-LGBT participants until this recent Social A Ride. So, I can perhaps plead lack of practice for my behavior.

Occasionally we have had straight folks some of our rides. Back in the day it was usually because they didn’t realize that Different Spokes was a queer cycling group and they invariably never came back. Some folks were “fellow travelers”—they had gay family members, or when AIDS was decimating our community they were straight people deeply affected by the epidemic. In that era we had a larger profile due to the AIDS Bike-A-Thon. In recent times we’ve had a few straight and queer-friendly members, perhaps providing some evidence that we are slowly rolling towards ‘post-gay.’ But they’ve always been a minority, a few straight droplets in a sea of Gay.

Back to my question: what makes a Different Spokes ride? A Different Spokes ride is our space: it’s a cycling environment where we can be gay, i.e. just be ourselves and enjoy our second favorite activity, cycling. If we can’t be ourselves on a Different Spokes ride, then what’s the point? When non-LGBT people come on our rides, some may not realize they are entering a milieu where the cultural norms are slightly different. I’m pretty certain that a lot of straight folks would raise an unmanicured eyebrow or two at some of the explicit chatter that erupts on DSSF rides. If welcoming non-LGBT means toning it down, is it really a real hearty rainbow welcome? And if they are taken aback, is that our “fault”? Of course on this particular Social Ride I just made a presumption they would be taken aback. Perhaps they would not blinked a blasé eye but, alas, now we’ll never know.

In public spaces a good rule of thumb is to try to be respectful in speech and behavior. There is no sense in inadvertently offending or intentionally putting off others, is there? Respect is an important byword for all DSSF events. But Different Spokes rides are not like your  local public library; they are LGBT spaces where the values, customs, and behavior of the LGBT community predominate. Just because straight people come on a Different Spokes rides does not mean that suddenly the space is generically public and that our behavior should change. Isn’t it our space? Or, do we lose that “privilege” once we become a mixed environment? Sex is such a charged topic anyway—can one safely presume that all LGBT people on a DSSF ride would not be put off by explicit conversation? It’s like all intercultural communication: it’s hard to negotiate the middle ground when worlds collide.

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