116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MOUNT VERNON — When Marti Payseur and Ash Bruxvoort opened Thistle’s Summit bed-and-breakfast in August 2019, they didn’t necessarily set out to be a beacon for the LGBTQ community.
But reflecting on their impact — having had only about six months in business before the pandemic hit — they realized just how far their visibility glimmered beyond the porch where the rainbow pride flag waved.
“Truly, it has been the work that I am most proud of in my whole life,” said Payseur as her voice broke slightly and her eyes welled up. “To see people be who they are and feel safe, to really understand that there’s not just comforts like a bed and a closet, but true, real safety and peace. To see that in people — it’s something you don’t get to witness often.”
On April 9, the couple announced they would be closing the bed-and-breakfast on Summit Avenue SW in Mount Vernon less than a year after opening. With the discovery of Bruxvoort’s chronic health and mobility problems, maintaining the four-story, 2,800-square-foot Victorian home was no longer an option.
But the legacy it graced its guests with — even those who never physically visited — will live on, they said.
By simply being their authentic selves, they created a sanctuary where others could feel at ease in a world where even the little things that straight people take for granted are top-of-mind daily for LGBTQ people. But what’s more is that in creating an unabashedly queer space, they were privileged to witness the milestones that come only when those inhabiting a space feel at peace.
In just a short time, they were privileged to witness tender moments they didn’t anticipate when they opened.
LGBTQ people coming to terms with who they were for the first time aloud at the breakfast table. A closeted transgender woman, married for 45 years, confiding in them when she knew no one else she could trust. The mother of a 7-year-old asking for wisdom on how to ensure their child’s happiness after they came out. Pandemic ceremonies legally marrying same-sex couples at a time of fear their rights could be stripped away. Same-sex parents enjoying their first trip away without their child.
Hospitality, as the couple knew it, was not just a place to lie your head on a pillow but a place where you feel safe.
“To be able to do that with another layer of emotional safety and care was really the most rewarding experience of my life,” Payseur said. “We didn’t want to be for everybody. We wanted to be who we were, and whoever that brought to our front door was who we wanted to have here.”
Being able to provide that environment drew from a lifetime of experience from Bruxvoort, 31, and Payseur, 30, who spent most of their adolescence and young adult lives either in the closet or silent about their identities out of fear for their own well-being.
“You’re wrong, everything about you is wrong,” said Bruxvoort, who uses they/them pronouns as a gender nonbinary person, recalling how they were made to feel growing up. As a child on a farm in Mitchellville, Bruxvoort was told they were going to hell. As a young teenager, they were abruptly outed. Pressured to hide their identity and live with suicidal ideations, they later married their high school sweetheart, a man, before divorcing.
“Knowing just in general what it’s like not to be your true self creates this vulnerability in your heart for people who are going through the same things,” Bruxvoort said. “You know how painful it is to not be accepted, so you want to never make somebody else feel that way.”
It’s such traumas that make the quiet of a bed-and-breakfast appealing to those trying to find themselves after being separated from their identities for so long. So the couple strove to be the people to who anyone could disclose their most difficult thoughts and secrets.
But even the smaller things in life that may be taken for granted by straight and cisgender people — using the restroom while traveling without worry, or holding hands without the judging glare of strangers — were things that Thistle’s Summit took into consideration for its guests, a majority of whom were LGBTQ and from out of state.
In fact, it was those little things that prompted their idea to leave comfortable lives in Des Moines to start a bed-and-breakfast in a small town. While traveling as a couple, Bruxvoort and Payseur once had to pretend to be sisters at a bed-and-breakfast. At another hotel, they were asked three times at check-in whether they wanted separate beds.
But together, they said they helped change the perceptions of travelers, both gay and straight, one conversation at a time. LGBTQ travelers learned that queer people exist and can thrive outside of metropolitan and coastal areas. Others learned that, despite major legal victories for the LGBTQ community in the last 10 years, there’s much work to be done for equity and equality.
“We definitely learned that (activism) is a good cup of coffee and a yogurt parfait,” Payseur said of their breakfast table conversations — not just taking to the streets with marches and signs.
For many meals, their visibility transformed them into ad hoc educators with gentle conversations they were happy to engage in to change minds. They also learned about their own community along the way. Even some within the queer community don’t understand the struggle that transgender people face simply to exist, they said.
“I’ve learned that we tend to attract people that are like us,” Payseur said. “Visibility to the degree of which we’ve actively been is a bit of a rarity.”
Though they cannot continue providing guest beds, the couple will continue to provide plenty of good eats as they move the food side of their business, which also goes by the name of Thistle’s Summit, to Des Moines. Payseur will continue to serve the vegan and gluten-free goodies she started making to survive the pandemic at a pop-up shop in the Drake University neighborhood as she searches for a permanent storefront.
Bruxvoort, a full-time astrologer, will continue to provide readings through the Ash Gravity business.
They hope the buyers of their 1902 home, currently on the market for $294,500, will use the space for a family business with similar values of inclusivity.
“Not just a rainbow sticker on the door,” Payseur chuckled.
“How am I going to make people feel when they walk in the door?” Bruxvoort asked. “To me, that’s what creating the future is all about.”
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