Proposing a new (common) agenda for LGBT-RC conversation: Multiplying space & freedom

     “Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end.” – Mahatma Gandhi

    In this current cultural moment, the LGBT-religious conservative conversation has become locked into a grinding debate about freedom: Whose liberty is being (more) threatened?  Who is imposing on whom?

    As so often happen in “debate-mode,” each side gets overly focused on attempting to convince everyone that its reality is the only truly legitimate and sensible one….even if that attempt paints a deformed picture of another’s experience (“oh, when those conservatives say they’re worried about religious freedom, they’re really just wanting to discriminate”….”oh, when they say they just want the freedom to marry in the gay community, they’re really just looking for justification of a selfish lifestyle and a another way to stamp out Christianity from society”).

    Those kinds of portrayals are not uncommon – and they each deform and distort the experience (and self-understanding) of the other side.  As a way to get past the mutual lack of acknowledgement, what if we admitted that freedom can mean different things and can feel threatened in different ways (depending on where we’re standing and the story we’ve embraced as true)?

    If we did that and began to cultivate opportunities for vibrant understanding, I believe freedom could become a major point of common interest, shared agenda and real solidarity.

    Imagine the following:

    • Someone who believes that being gay is part of their core identity is respected in his/her freedom and space to explore what that means, without harsh or aggressive condemnation if that means they opt out of religious conservative ideals and institutions.
    • Someone who experiences same-sex attraction (but does not identify with it as fundamentally), likewise has the freedom and space to explore what that means.
    • Those who believe that LGBT questions are primarily a matter of civil rights, equality and justice, have the freedom to support that movement.
    • Those who don’t see LGBT questions as a civil rights matter, also have the freedom to hold their own questions and concerns, without harsh or aggressive condemnation if that means opting out of progressive ideals and institutions.

    Is that kind of mutual space possible?  “Live and let live….allow people to have the freedom to explore and believe what feels right”…sounds simple enough, right?

    But obviously, it’s not.  It’s just not.

    As we explore extensively in Chapter 5 of a Third Space, there are all sorts of complications related to contrasting narratives of freedom and coercion (see”Pressure: Who’s Imposing on Whom“).

    For religious conservatives, the freedom for a gay-identifying man or woman to explore different life options can feel like a threat on their families or way of life (especially when those life options take individuals away from their religious community). And for the LGBT community, the freedom of religious conservatives to believe what they want can also feel like a threat on their families or way of life (especially when encouraging people to pursue identity construct outside of the gay community).

    Hence, the pressure.  The force.  And sometimes, the aggression.

    And once that pressure-cooker starts, we quickly start to grip to Stories of each other that only remotely resemble the real thing. Sometimes it seems as if we have some psychological need to see each other in our worst possible light, like the divorcing couple who cannot help but monster-ize the other.

    But then again: If something or someone is seen or perceived as a real threat to any of our ways of life, isn’t it understandable that someone would want to fight? (either to defend themselves or attack the enemy…). And perhaps for this reason, even raising the specter of other life paths and options (either as alternatives to religious conservative or LGBT norms) can make some in each community feel disrespected, unsafe or vulnerable.

    So what to do?  Is it possible to make all that pressure go away – in a way that doesn’t drive us all nuts?

    Making space around pressure points.  I would propose that rather than create a new imaginary scenario where all goes right, it’s time to do something much more simple: together acknowledge the differences that already exist in how this all plays out in real people’s lives – describing them in a way that each side can accept.  This could happen in multiple domains; I’ve picked two here:

    1. Two ways to “come out.” Coming out is usually taken for granted as an important and crucial step for people to accept. While there are some who highlight possible dangers in coming out[1] there are others who have sought to come out in a way that still sustains and affirms their religious conservative values and beliefs.

    But to our point, the latter is hardly ever acknowledged.  What if we did?

    I’ve written up a document to get started, reflecting actual differences across diverging narratives of coming out:  “Two ways to come out

    Let me know what you think! I’d love some feedback (

    2. Two ways to support a child with same-sex attraction. Another area where fundamental differences are hardly acknowledged is in ways to support a child experiencing same-sex attraction.

    As with coming out, there seems, at times, to be One True Way promoted that reflects an inherently progressive worldview, leaving religious conservative parents at a loss of what to do.

    Rather than require progressive conversion as part and parcel to loving a child with same-sex attraction, what if we acknowledged different kinds of support that parents may offer that aligns with their own values?

    Along those lines, check out this document and let me know what you think:  “Two ways for parents to support a child identifying as lgbt/ssa

    Of course, there are more than two ways – and these two examples are of particular interest to religious conservatives (who feel limited space in these domains).  In parallel, we could talk about “two ways to be married” or “two ways to have a family” – as domains in which progressives feel limited space:  Can religious conservatives make more (human, relational) space for those conversations too?

    In short, across all these possible examples, it’s important to be aware that the very contrasts outlined and proposed as helpful for space and freedom-making can be seen as threatening to someone else’s freedom. These are important questions that I don’t want to overlook. For instance, by making space for religious conservative experiences of working with same-sex attraction to be more prominently acknowledged and considered, what does that mean for the freedom of those who are identifying with same-sex attraction as more central to their core identity (in alignment with a progressive worldview)? Will that freedom for different views and options be harmful to them?

    And by making space for progressive experiences of identifying with same-sex attraction – and embracing and following it out romantically – what does that mean for the freedom of religious conservative institutions who consider certain romantic pairings as ordained by God?  Will freedom for that option likewise become a threat to them?

    In both cases, I don’t believe the threats are inherent – and feel persuaded personally that extending freedom to both sides would improve the well-being of everyone involved (even if it involves some growing pains at first).  Even so, all these kinds of questions – including doubt and skepticism about all of the above – deserve equal space in this conversation as well.

    Moving beyond the single story:   Different interpretations, different choices, same space. The ideal I’m envisioning is one that allows for different choices, different stories – but all with the very same space.

    By “same space” I mean space for all of the above:  multiple explanations, multiple decisions of what to do – and multiple life pathways.  The argument can be made that raising and imposing any single story for a person or a group of people can be dangerous (see a wonderful TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie reflecting that point: “The danger of a single story“).

    When only one story is being heard, the space for exploration and consideration can become limited and constrained – leaving little to no chance for critical thinking or open choice.

    But if we made space for multiple stories, both progressive and conservative voice could be heard in their experiences – each making space for others to interpret similar events differently – and to make different choices about how to work with them.

    So overall, here’s the formula I propose:  “More Space + Less Pressure = A less painful LGBT/Religious Conservative Conversation.”

    What do you think?  Is this crazy talk – or a possible way forward?

    As always, would love to hear your response.

    Jacob Hess is the author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and socio-political issues.  He currently directs the health non-profit All of Life which offers free online classes exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges. Jacob has (co)authored three books: You’re Not  as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still WrongOnce Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore and A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference). Two other projects – Red Blue Dictionary and My Science Can Beat Up Your Science, will be released this fall.  His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York has been featured on This American Life and was recently honored by Public Conversations Project. His many wonderful writing collaborators and dialogue partners disagree in all sorts of ways with Jacob’s religious conservative views, and this essay only represents his own convictions. As a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and a long-term member of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Jacob’s life work is dedicated to making space for thoughtful, good-hearted people to find understanding (and affection) while exploring together the deepest of disagreements.


    [1] This is another perspective I would argue deserves space to be heard as part of this ongoing conversation. It’s the less popular views that we’re most prone to quashing and ignoring…and the views that perhaps we need to be most proactive protecting.

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