Dear Gay Community, We seem to have an irreconcilable disagreement about Who-We-Are…is that okay with you?

Note: On the year anniversary of the LDS policy clarification regarding gay marriage, I pose two questions for others who care about this conversation. In doing so, I acknowledge the great pain people on all sides have felt, while being as hopeful as ever that a broader, more spacious conversation can alleviate pain better than Prozac! A central conclusion of my dissertation research was that pain and suffering are intimately linked to various narratives we carry around – and out of which we interpret (and inhabit) the world. Much of the focus of my subsequent work has been exploring various narratives of sociopolitical and health related questions. As always, I welcome feedback, pushback and even sharp disagreement…as long as you don’t make fun of my big ears like the elementary school bullies. (:    

I once met an evangelical leader at a sidewalk booth on campus at the University of Illinois. Although he was otherwise friendly, as soon as he found out I was Mormon (aka, identified as Mormon), he let me know that I would be “going to hell” if I did not change course…and soon.street-preacher-s

Needless to say, it wasn’t the best way to kick off a relationship.

I joke about that moment, but I also don’t begrudge this man his passion.  Identity is a sensitive, personal and serious thing.  And when we think someone has got it wrong, it can be scary (and even painful) to see them pursuing an identity construct we consider false or even destructive.

It can be equally painful when others don’t accept or “validate” (as true) the identity narrative we have embraced for ourselves.[1]

That seems to be where we find ourselves in the current LGBTQ – Religious Conservative conversation –  operating out of distinct views of Who We Are – and unable to bring ourselves to quite “embrace” others’ worldviews, identity constructs and life narratives.

Is that a bad thing?  Or is it inevitable and understandable?

On one hand are those who see (and experience) LGBTQ identity as representing a fundamental aspect of self-hood – leading them to see “LGBTQ folks” as a legitimately different kind of people.  On the other are those who see (and experience) same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria as legitimate experiences[2] and even perhaps aspects of “who people are,” but not so central as other aspects of identity.

In both cases, the Other View of Identity can feel minimizing and even threatening of what we, ourselves, experience as a simple reality:  “who we are.”  Like most strongly felt convictions, we speak of, relate to and present Our Own View of self as simply a reflection of Reality Itself.

How DARE anyone question our Reality, right?  No wonder, then, that people go out to march in protest of what they see (and experience) as a failure to adequately accept, embrace, include, and yes LOVE People As They Truly Are. 

But what if, despite protests and entreaties, we still fail to come to a philosophical alignment on Who We Are (Who You Are/Who I Am, etc.).  Is that okay?

The ongoing lawsuits, boycotts and blacklists over the last year speak very loudly in that regard. They tell us that for some of you – clearly the answer is:  NO.

Or something more precisely like: “How dare you question or challenge WHO I AM?” 

If someone feels something strongly about himself or herself, of course, it’s not hard to understand why they might expect or hope others could accept that view of themselves too – that is, if people truly love him or her.

Fair enough. I get that! But here’s an honest question:  how would that same proposition work if applied to other interactions – for instance, between Baptists and Mormons? Imagine how Baptist folks would respond to hearing something like: “If you truly love me as a Mormon, then you need to accept what I believe about myself and my core identity.”

Baptists, of course, alongside many orthodox Christians, hold profoundly different views of identity in comparison to Mormons. Whereas most Christians interpret the Genesis verse about God “making man in his own image” as merely metaphoric and allegorical, Mormons do not.  For my Latter-day Saint community, these verses are a clear and deliberate reflection of our relationship with God as literal spirit children.  Human beings thus represent the very image of a Heavenly Father (and Mother) in their bodies and spiritual DNA. That’s one (or 10) steps too far for most Baptists, and according to experts in Mormon-Baptist dialogue (here and here), it may accurately be characterized as the most fundamental disagreement between these religious communities.

Back to the question: If agreeing on THAT somehow became a pre-condition of “love” between different faith communities, what would that mean for future interfaith relationships?  Can anyone imagine Mormon-Baptist relationships existing at all under those conditions?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we’re inadvertently doing the same thing in our relationships between LGBT and religious conservative communities.

Clearly religious conservatives do not share the LGBT community’s beliefs about identity (and vice versa).  On one hand, particular religious views of eternal identity and sexuality do not reflect what most of the gay community believes about selfhood.  And on the other hand, gay identity does not reflect what most religious conservatives believe about human beings in a fundamental, eternal sense.

So in other words, “I don’t see You the same way You see Yourself” is a sentence BOTH communities might easily voice.  So to both communities, I would ask again:  Is that OKAY?![3]  Put another way, can we disagree about Who We Are without becoming enemies?

Race Comparison. Almost always, when this conversation begins to move into more nuance, a question like this comes up:  Hold on, now – would you say that kind of thing to someone of another race? Imagine telling someone who is African-American, “is it okay if we disagree about identity?” or “I don’t believe this is who you are fundamentally.”

Rather than prompting a no-brainer answer, that question (for me at least) illustrates once more how profoundly these two communities disagree about identity. For one side, of course, sexual orientation is analogous to race – offering a 1-to-1 comparison.  To the other side, however, these two demographic identifiers don’t line up as such a clean analogy.   7546-004-7f54297c

For sure, there are some similarities in terms of how people’s racial identity evolves over time as a developing construct – and on a very basic level (“fundamental categories of how people self-identify”) the commonality is obvious.  On another level, however, religious conservatives typically see race as representing a distinct category with meaningful differences from sexual orientation.  In particular, the lived experience of race isn’t as fluid and evolving as that of sexuality: less divergence of options, less space to “work with” complex inner experience differently, and less meaningful differences in trajectory over time.

I’ve come to believe personally, based on the hundreds of narratives I’ve reviewed personally, that a closer analogy to sexual orientation is religious orientation itself.  In both cases, deeply felt, enduring feelings and subtle physical sensations become so important to individuals that they can organize their lives around them – adopting complex systems of beliefs and assumptions to support and validate those inner experiences.

For me then, someone “being gay” is very much like someone “being Mormon” – with remarkable similarities in terms of how the two identity constructs function and play out over time in the complex unfolding of personal narratives.  If that’s true, then no wonder there has been such a conflict between (Mormon & Gay) identities!

On the bright side, like diverse religious identifications, I’m hopeful that various kinds of sexual identification can be something we make space for in our human communities, in order to allow people the basic agency to explore and stand in different places.

Understandable divergence of views.  So what does this all matter?  Why even bring it up? Whether or not these questions deserve more attention – or have much practical significance – is something I disagree about with people in the gay community I respect.  [3]

For my part, I think the narrative and interpretive differences matter considerably – and that we “live stories” as much as telling them. For instance, depending on what you and I come to believe about identity, we naturally arrive at very different conclusions about what love is – as well as compassion, acceptance, choice, change and marriage and family itself.  We also reach different conclusions about how churches should run – and policies they should pursue.

That’s a whole lot to talk about…with complexities that are incredibly rich and rewarding to explore! (trust me)

If that’s true, and if great friendships and insights can emerge from a broader conversation, then perhaps you can forgive my own passion and advocacy for improvement in the state of our ongoing public conversation.

In particular, I continue to struggle to understand why so many voices insist the whole matter can be boiled down to a much simpler calculus:  who is loving (and who is not)…who is inclusive, exclusionary, compassionate, accepting (and who is not).

It all starts to feel a bit dishonest, I admit – with often what seems to be a complete lack of acknowledgment regarding what conservatives like myself actually believe.  While I understand the gay community is emphasizing their own honest convictions and beliefs (and what the world looks like from that place), a pluralistic society requires honesty about what others believe too.

That obligation falls on me too. So if I’ve mischaracterized anything you believe – please let me know! (Remember – I’ve got Big Ears).

There may have been a time when it was politically wise and strategic to frame and portray religious conservatives as plain and simply “unloving.” Given the profound gains the gay community has made politically, I hope the time for a more nuanced (and honest) conversation has arrived.

By the way, my own efforts aren’t some kind of reverse ‘tactic’ or ‘strategy’ attempting tosnidely whiplash counter efforts in the gay community either. I don’t plot or plan or Twirl My Mustache when thinking of what to say.[4]

This is all simply my own observations about evident and actual differences in perspective between our different communities. I’m just one pair of eyes – and am surely getting many things wrong (which is another reason I write)!

In the end, I write this with a primary aim not of convincing people to think like me, but instead, of proactively seeking to improve the Space Between Us where we can explore this and a thousand other questions.

That Space is too good to let languish or die.  And too important to not defend, preserve and promote.

Looking forward to your thoughts!

Jacob Hess is the author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and sociopolitical issues.  He currently directs the 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] Whole-hearted validation is sometimes assumed to be a goal of intergroup dialogue – as if we’re gathering primarily to make sure everyone feels comfortable believing what they do, thinking as they do – and seeing the world as they do. Although good dialogue practice does always offer a refreshing degree of interpersonal validation – aka “I see you as someone worthy of respect and being heard” – that validation does not necessarily extend to beliefs and narratives. In fact, I’ve experienced quite the opposite to often be the case.  Especially as dialogue partners become comfortable and safe together, conversation becomes a site of serious and intense probing and questioning of various beliefs. I’ll never forget a moment when my friend Phil told me, “I find your Devil Story quite dangerous” – or when Arthur expressed in frustration, “I think you’re lying about that!”

Particular beliefs and narratives, then (however sacred or important or meaningful or personal or sensitive), may or may not be “validated” or confirmed or even “respected.”  It’s very often the case that serious concern is raised about a particular belief – “I find that a frightening or dangerous or painful thing that you just said.”  The difference is that in a dialogue space, that kind of honesty can be heard and held and explored…in productive and powerful ways.

[2] Not necessarily a disorder, a disease – and not something needing to be aggressively “fixed” or ashamed of…acknowledging that this kind of eager attempt to control or manage can compound suffering and multiply tension in every direction.

[3] Of course, the degree to which diverging identity narratives matter at all, or play a “practical” role in our experience is another aspect of this larger disagreement. This has been one of the more powerful discoveries from extensive conversations with Kendall Wilcox, in particular. Although he agrees with the power of narratives in our lives, he does not see them as having the same power to shape experience as I do – and hence, does not see the discussion quite as relevant to the practical, “lived-experience” of people. I consider that same practical, lived experience as profoundly and intimately and inescapably influenced by narratives, moment by moment.

[4] Those who know me best will tell you plainly, that I don’t even have it IN ME to grow a mustache!  (:

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