“How did we forget that our differences are among our most valuable assets?”
-Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy
Above and beyond and before any sticking point between LGBT and religious conservative communities looms one question massively relevant in our culture war-ish society today – across both this conversation and other socio-political, philosophical and religious divides: Can Jew & Palestinian, Hutu & Tutsi, Sunni & Shiite, Black & White, Republican & Democrat, Mormon & Former Mormon, (and LGBT & Religious Conservative) communities…have vibrant, affectionate (and FUN) relationships?
No one can blame you if your answer is “ummm, not sure”…after all, look around! Doesn’t the evidence surrounding us, at a minimum, raise serious doubts about the possibility of healthy relationships across these cultural differences?
I know it has for me. If not for the experiences of the last ten years of my life, I might still feel doubtful.
But not anymore…all that changed when this conservative Mormon boy went to graduate school in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign – a place flat-out TEEMING with die-hard progressives (the very people that Rush Limbaugh had warned me were trying to destroy the country!)
No wonder I felt a little on edge that first year – surrounded by so many of ‘them liberals.’ The environment felt more profoundly exotic and foreign than my own Mormon mission to Brazil several years earlier.
That year, I mostly kept quiet and listened (not a bad thing to do when introduced to new ideas…) During the second year, my brother Sam was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma – which we were told was “very treatable.” I’ll never forget the day I got the phone call at our lab telling me his cancer had come back. During that moment – one of the worst of my life – my lesbian classmate Adrienne held me in her arms as I sobbed at the office – consoling me in a tangible way far away from home.
Following the funeral that year, I was surrounded with incredible love and concern from my progressive community – with both professors and classmates mourning with me. Later on, Wendy Heller, a brilliant neuroscientist (and lesbian mother), became my dissertation chair – shepherding me along in a fascinating exploration of the intricate relationship between brain science, clinical practice and larger narratives involved shaping our experience of depression. In the home of Wendy, her partner M.J. and their beautiful daughter, I felt embraced and cared for with a kind of motherly love – birthday cakes and all. When my own mother later ended up in the hospital with chronic nausea from her own chemotherapy, Wendy went out of the way to find a remedy in her natural medicine book that literally took the nausea away in day (don’t ask me why oncologists don’t know anything about pro-biotics!!)
And that was just the beginning…I got involved researching inspiring community-based approaches to fighting domestic violence with Nicole Allen, fell in love with the power of community from one of the ‘fathers of Community Psychology,’ Julian Rappaport and discovered new courage to follow my professional dreams from the spunky Elaine Shpungin. 
Is it any wonder I fell in love with ‘those liberals’? Within a few short years, I went from seeing these people as my mortal enemy, to relishing them as partners and collaborators in building a better society.
That didn’t mean, of course, that we suddenly agreed on what that ‘better society’ looked like – nor on its ideal goals or ways of best working. But in a startlingly vast amount of our hopes and values, the common ground was immense: Stopping domestic violence, child sexual abuse, bullying…Improving community connectedness, education and family life…Taking care of the planet (and each other), etc.
What exactly constituted racism, how to improve education and family life, what it meant to ‘take care of the planet’ (or each other) – so many of these questions remained unresolved. But that wasn’t really a problem, since the differences compelled such rich learning together.
Rather than allowing ourselves to be taught and challenged by these kinds of differences, of course, we often treat them as justifiable bases for suspicion, resentment and never-ending political warfare.
So again, the question becomes simply: is there another way to do this?
My answer: YOU BETCHA!! If you don’t or can’t believe that yourself, then at least hear me out a bit more: After eventually co-teaching a liberal-conservative dialogue class in graduate school, I met Phil Neisser, the chair of the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York, during a conference at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation.
Over the next two years, Phil and I talked about everything that we fundamentally disagreed about – morality, power, authority, gender roles, sexuality, religion, God, the devil and Karl Marx himself. Rather than eroding our friendship, these intense conversations brought an intimacy and connection beyond what I experience with many people in my own ‘like-minded’ community. (You should see the looks on their faces when I tell them that a leftist, atheist hippie professor is one of my best friends!)
The paradox of that “treasonous friendship” challenged and changed me in powerful ways. After all, one friend recently told me that close relationships can only happen with a shared ideology. And here I had deep affections with someone who thought my “devil story” was kind of silly.
It’s a question I still puzzle about – because it’s not as if these differences are trivial. Big decisions have to be made in society about these questions – and pretty much down the line of choice-point, Phil and I disagree vociferously about the best outcome.
On one level, certainly these differences matter. They shouldn’t be minimized. And yet, on another level, they have come to matter very little compared to what I’ve been able to find in the space between me and my political opposites: an affection, sweetness, connection and communion that is undeniable.
Over the last year, the dialogue between Phil and I has expanded to include four other amazing souls – John Backman, an ersatz monk and Episcopalian who identifies as queer, Tracy Hollister, a gay activist and former program director for Marriage Equality U.S.A. (with a penchant for having dinner with her political opponents), Arthur Peña, a gay Christian man with a piercing intellect and courageous heart (and honestly, the single most interesting conversation you will ever have about LGBT/religious conservative divide), and Heidi Weaver, an evangelical who has worked longer and harder and better in bridging the conservative religious/LGBT divide than anyone I know.
As a group, we’ve spent over a hundred hours e-mailing, calling, sitting, walking or hiking together. Our disagreements run deep – and that’s what makes the conversation so darn riveting! I wouldn’t take back a single hour. The insights, discoveries and knowledge gained from this group of beautiful souls has been rich – and we share a sense that the learning has “only just begun.”
Just last night, I met Tracy and her partner Lisa for a delightful dinner. I reaffirmed that she and Lisa are welcome in my home anytime. I want my boys to know Tracy and get to enjoy her as they grow up.
With so many others in the progressive community, I’ve found this same sweetness and intimacy – including Joan Blades & Debilyn Molineaux at Living Room Conversations, Liz Joyner at the Village Square, Dave Joseph at Public Conversations Project, Sandy Heierbacher at the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Kendall Wilcox with Circles of Empathy and Jay Griffith at Think Again/Faith Again.
So there you have it! The answer is YES. Nourishing, powerful and enjoyable relationships across this divide are very much possible. That’s not the same thing, of course, as saying this kind of relationship is always possible – or always right to pursue. There are times for any of us when we should probably just step back from certain relationships. But don’t give up on the possibility entirely!
And hey – you don’t have to just believe me. Try it yourself! Your own experiences, your own conversations will teach you well – especially if you’re willing to lean into your own uncertainties and flirt with some honest-to-goodness curiosity! If you’re interested in exploring a gentle and generous approach to these conversations, check out tips and suggestions here.
To help stimulate more of these conversations, starting next week I’ll be touching on 30 questions identified in my own discourse analytic research on the LGBT/religious conservative conversation – each of reflect a center of gravity in the discussion and involve substantial differences in perspective between communities. In each case, I will be mapping out the contrasting answers to these questions – illustrated by examples in the larger discourse.
My hope in doing so will be to invite a deepening, expanding public conversation – the kind where we all learn something and make space for our individual explorations. Ultimately, I also admit hoping to prompt more of the kind of beautiful relationship and connection that I’ve found in my own life with ‘them liberals’ (see more about my dialogue work and the intentions of the blog).
Although my main goal is to bring friends and families together in their own generous explorations, at the end of each week, I will be hosting my own online Living Room Conversation via Google-hangout – open to anyone interested in exploring these question(s) with me directly using an effective and fun format.
That’s all for now! Thanks for checking this out. I look forward to hearing your thoughts next week.
 And these are only the beginning. Numerous other classmates and professors have shaped my path profoundly – Brent Slife, Thomas Schwandt, Greg Miller, Mark Abers, Joycelyn Landrum Brown, Joe Minarik, Danielle Rynczak, Nathan Todd, and many more. There is no way I would have reached this point without knowing and learning so much with these ‘crazy beautiful liberals.’ (:
 Check out Heidi’s work at Love Boldly – you won’t regret it! Tracy’s finishing an exhaustive book project sharing patterns and gems from extensive interviews across the world with members of the gay community – click here to support her! Also, if you’re looking for an amazing book on dialogue from a Christian context, check out John Backman’s book, “Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart?”