An (Honest) Disagreement at the Heart of the LGBT-Conservative Religious Conflict…That (Almost) No One is Talking About

So I have an idea…something to help make this LGBT-Religious Conservative conversation a whole lot less painful.

Have you ever been in a long, drawn out conversation with someone close to you that just gets uglier and more tense…until you realize what your disagreement was really about?  Underneath ‘all those things’ you thought you were at odds about, it turns out there was something else – something that finally got uncovered when you talked enough to discover it?

“AHA– so that’s what we really disagree about…that’s what was driving this whole big mess with all that other stuff!!”

And just like that, things suddenly get lighter and clearer…and easier.

What if the same breakthrough could happen in the chronically-tense-and-often-ugly conversation between LGBT and religious conservative communities?

Of course, some believe that such a breakthrough has already happened – that we already know what is driving the larger, complex conflict. Depending on who you ask, the larger conflict really boils down to a simple question of love or freedom or privacy or not imposing beliefs or respecting diversity.

Although every one of these issues plays hugely important parts in this conversation, none, I would argue, quite explains the striking divergence that exists across all parts of the public discourse[1]: including different views on suffering, love, hate, religion and biology to contrasting positions on marriage, sex, choice and change.

That’s a lot of pretty intense disagreements!  So what’s the thread that underlies them all?

I’d like to throw out one more possibility:  Identity.

For many, identify doesn’t offer much to talk about – an issue either so personal that it’s off the table or so obvious that it’s almost a non-question.  Rather than seen as involving meaningful disagreements, identity is commonly assumed to be a bare reflection of unquestionable reality and taken for granted as something we all agree on.

For others, however, this is a deep and mysterious question of vast importance – indeed, one that human beings have grappled with (and without reaching a ‘final answer’) for ages.

Based on my own review of public narratives over the last decade, there are at least five ways I’ve observed individuals across the sociopolitical spectrum disagreeing about identity in relation to sexual orientation. After briefly summarizing these five distinctions, I touch on how they might well underlie many of the larger, more public differences in this same LGBT-RC conversation. [Note:  the following inquiry is more complex and conceptual than I prefer to write, but feels necessary for this piece, in particular].

1. The Role of the Body in Relation to Identity. Although the value and place of the physical body in relation to identity is accepted by most everyone – from virtually all backgrounds – there are interesting differences that emerge in how exactly the body figures into the picture. While some see the body as a primary driver and determinant of who we are as a person, others understand the body as more of a partial and even secondary contributor to core identity – especially in comparison to belief surrounding the spirit and other things that ‘make us who we are.’ 

While most (not all) acknowledge some degree of fluidity in the body, what to make of this malleability in relation to identity is another meaningful difference.  Whereas for some, permanent and unchanging qualities of the body override any relevance of this biological plasticity for identity itself, for others this fluidity opens up possibilities for evolution that transcend what may otherwise be experienced as permanent (and physical) constraints on identity.

2. The Role of Sexuality in Relation to Identity. Most commonly, various aspects of human sexuality (like the body itself) are also taken for granted as a key driver and determinant of who we are as a person – a reflection of our essential nature.  Less commonly, these same aspects of sexuality are understood as a genuinely important contributor to our experience and even to some degree to our identity as a person, but on a less central or primary level than sometimes emphasized.

Similar to the body, there are also differences in the degree to which sexuality (and sexual orientation) are understood as either largely static and unchanging, or potentially fluid over time – with parallel implications for identity as well (e.g., identity as fundamentally static and set vs. fundamentally fluid and malleable over time).

3. The Role of Feelings in Relation to Identity. On one hand, it is common for many to approach any internal mental-emotional experience as a reflection of reality.  From this perspective, one’s current experience of sexual thoughts and feelings are a natural reflection of our life and who we are.

Rather than seeing thoughts or feelings as an immediate or automatic reflection of reality, others emphasize the possibility of thought simply being thought – and feeling, simply feeling. By approaching inner experience with some level of detachment, more space arises in considering different ways of responding to it:  should I embrace this current inner experience as who I am or what I want to be – or should I work with it in another way?  From this perspective, one’s current experience of sexual thoughts and feelings may not necessarily be a reflection of who we are – opening up possibilities of working with that inner experience in different ways, without necessarily identifying with it.

Note: Clearly sexual attraction goes far beyond ‘thoughts and feelings’ to involve basic physical and physiological sensation.  Despite popular perceptions, the same difference in perspective exists in regard to physical sensation too.  While on one hand, physical sensation is most often taken as a reliable indicator and reflection of reality – and one that we just accept or follow – from a mindfulness perspective, every physical sensation can be worked with in a variety of interesting and creative ways (e.g., there is never just ‘one way’ to take something as basic as pain, attraction or aversion).

4. The Role of Choice in Relation to Identity. For many (on both the right and left), identity is something “discovered” over time – as a non-deliberate, emergent realization of fundamental reality. From this perspective, choice has little, if any, lasting relevance to identity.

For others, identity is an ongoing “construction” or creation process – reflecting a more deliberate, open-ended exploration and building experience over time.  From this perspective, choice plays a central and continuous role in relation to thoughts and feelings moment by moment:  Is this who I am?  Is this who I want to be?  Is this what I want?

5. The Role of Religious Faith in Relation to IdentityFor many people, religious teaching has come to be experienced as an imposing or distorting influence when it comes to identity. More often than not, it is taken to be leading people away from an appreciation and acceptance of who they really are fundamentally (reflected in the contrast between religious teaching and what someone currently feels and experiences in his/her own body and mind).

For others, religious teaching remains an illuminating influence for identity – often helping to reveal to someone their deepest sense of self (and often in contrast to messages they hear from others – including the LGBT community).

Clusters of Belief.  These five distinctions obviously do not exist in isolation, but instead cluster together in meaningful ways.  For instance, if you see the body as primarily unchanging, on one hand, you’re more likely to see sexuality and emotion itself in a similar way.  In turn, you’re also more likely to see all three factors (body-emotion-sexuality) as a primary and central reflection of identity – and religious faith, by contrast, more often a distraction and distorting veil of one’s true nature. For purposes here, I’ll call this interpretive cluster Identity Narrative A.

On the other hand, if you see the body as fundamentally fluid, you’re more likely to see sexuality and emotion itself in a similar way.  In turn, you’re also more likely to see these three factors (body-emotion-sexuality) as secondary and more peripheral players in identity – with religious faith more often embraced as a trustworthy guide to one’s true nature. For purposes here, I’ll call this interpretive cluster Identity Narrative B.

So Why Do These Differences Matter?  Depending on which general narrative one adopts, I would argue that MANY other things follow.  For instance, if you believe that current physical, sexual and emotional patterns reliably reflect who people fundamentally are (Identity Narrative A), then it makes sense that you may also:

  • Accept the priority of physical, sexual and emotional aspects of experience as something to be encouraged and celebrated as central to identity, including for children and adolescents learning who they are.
  • Find it a silly idea to try and work with that emotional/sexual experience in different ways or do anything besides embracing and being that sexuality. This embrace-is-embraced as a healthy step – with people encouraged to take on the label of gay, lesbian, bisexual and so forth, as reflective of fundamentally ‘who they are.’
  • Resonate with the comparison to African-American civil rights as an obvious analogy – reflecting simply two people fighting for their rights.
  • Are predisposed to view religious faith as largely responsible for the stigma and suffering of those who experience same sex attraction.

By comparison, if you believe that people’s fundamental identity goes beyond or is distinct from current physical, sexual and emotional patterns (Identity Narrative B), then it makes sense that you may also:

  • Resist the quick or automatic acceptance or celebration of physical, sexual and emotional aspects of experience as central to identity, including for children and adolescents learning who they are.
  • Find it sensible enough to try and work with that emotional/sexual experience in different ways, only one of which is being that sexuality and identifying with it. While that may include taking on the label of gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. – other times people may take on other labels or no label at all.
  • Consider limits to the 1960’s civil rights metaphor – seeing meaningful differences between the various fight for rights.
  • Are predisposed to view religious faith as a central source of comfort and guidance, with other aspects of the intense personal and cultural conflict underway seen as more responsible for the suffering taking place than often acknowledged.

If nothing else, I hope this fairly arcane inquiry reflects one thing:  Depending on what people (you and I) think and believe about identity itself, we all come to really different conclusions about a lot of other stuff.  In other words, if you believe “this is who people are,” then you’re going to act one particular way!  Whereas, if you believe something different about “who people are,” you’re likely going to act in a very different way.

If that’s true, then what would it mean to actually acknowledge that – bringing awareness to the varying ways we’re conceiving of identity and getting curious about how these differences play out in real life?  What would that kind of awareness mean for the rest of our conversations?

My answer:  it would make this whole conversation a lot easier. The current back-and-forth between LGBT and religious conservative communities seems chronically beset with underlying resentments associated with personal character accusations (e.g., who is “more loving” or “hateful” or “faithful” or “godly” etc.)

Rather than getting preoccupied and mired down in this, what would it mean to simply acknowledge that there are honest disagreements underlying much of this – “hey, you know – we’ve got some pretty profound philosophical differences going on here…”

Of course, if we’re hardly aware that these interpretive differences exist (which is typically the case), then it’s nearly impossible to consider what they might mean in real life.  By clarifying these distinctive views, perhaps we can now appreciate more deeply their practical consequences (which, as I’ve highlighted above, may turn out to be considerable).

Among other things, maybe this could open up the conversation a bit more.  For instance, this awareness could invite people to acknowledge that there is more than one ‘right way’ to support those experiencing same sex attraction – and that for those identifying with Narrative A, (real) love, (authentic) compassion and (legitimate) support might look quite a bit different than for those identifying with Narrative B.

In other words, rather than (automatically) assuming a difference in people’s ability to love (which obviously do exist as well), maybe we can get curious about how profoundly our conception of love varies according to our different narratives of identity?

Rather than a mortal battle between good and evil – loving versus hate – suddenly we might just have on our hands…an interesting conversation about honest disagreements!!

I don’t know about you…but that sounds a whole lot more enjoyable than stewing in chronic resentment about ‘those awful people’ on the other side of this conversation.


[1] For instance, if the conversation is all about love, then presumably if we just loved each other enough and loved right, we’d be able to move forward fine, right? Having known many loving people who still happen to disagree on matters of sexuality, it seems a better ‘fit-to-the-conversation-actually-happening’ to simply say that there are different ways of thinking about love itself, rather than insisting on different kinds of people – e.g., “loving ones” (who agree with my views of sexuality) or “unloving people” (who don’t?)

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