Proposing a Third Space in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Back-and-Forth

I’ve been thinking about something John Gustav-Wrathall shared with me recently, a man whose insight I’ve come to appreciate and respect.  He wrote about people’s sense of feeling invalidated in the current LGBT/religious conservative conversation and the practical impact that was having on their sense of community and faith: “I’ve heard from numerous individuals who are living church standards who were so discouraged by [recent events] that some of them are resigning from callings, taking church vacations, etc…. If that’s the effect on folks living the standards, imagine the impact on the rest… It’s left so many people feeling hopeless beyond words.”

What are we missing here?  What’s leading to so much hopelessness? Laying aside the usual commentaries (primarily) targeting inadequate characteristics or mindsets on one side or the other, is there something else between us that may be making this conversation a whole lot harder than it has to be?  If so, what more could be done to allay and relieve that pain and difficulty?

The very same week, a new post by Kendall Wilcox stood out. While I can’t get behind everything he argues, this part of his message resonated (with some license on my part in broadening the referents)[1] :

What the situation requires is the healing and revelatory power of empathy. There is a very real…empathy gap between the lived experiences [of one side] and the hearts and minds [of the other] – and it must be overcome if we are going to see real substantial change of any kind. We have not yet truly allowed the lived experiences of [the other side] to inhabit our own souls long enough to render within us the kind of Christlike empathy that manifests as a visceral familiarity with the existential reality of [others]. And it is only in that spiritual and existential space that we will be able to have revealed to us the depths of sexual/gender/religious conflicts that [others can face].

What if Kendall is basically right? What if there are powerful shifts that could happen in the space between us – starting by earnestly deepening our capacity for generosity and yes, empathy? What would this change look like and what could it mean for the many who are feeling hopeless and ready to ‘call it quits’ on any further engagement with ‘those people’?

This is different, by the way, than what we most often hear proposed in public discussion about LGBT issues – e.g., something demanding shifts in philosophy, policy, theology, etc. as a condition of ‘true’ acceptance, empathy, equality, etc.[2]

If only it were that simple!  With respect for the many, many people I personally know who earnestly believe this, I would simply suggest that (at best) this proposal will only take us so far – unless, of course, everyone will eventually just ‘learn enough’ to think the same way when it comes to God, identity, sexuality, the body, choice, change, happiness, eternity, etc.

That may be possible and even what both sides seem to be planning on – e.g., with progressive and conservative Christians both convinced that Jesus will one day arrive on the scene and help people see they were right about his ‘true message’!

But what do we do in the meanwhile – including both those waiting for Jesus and those who think that’s crazy talk? What if – barring some cataclysmic or apocalyptic event – these disagreements are here to stay? In that case, maybe our mutual attempts to persuade each other will continue working about as well as one spouse working to change the other? (just ask my wife!)

As most long-term couples know, not until that moment when we agree to let our spouse be where they are, exactly as they are – only then do things ‘really start to change’:  ‘Hmmm, okay – maybe my spouse is always going to think differently than me…and what if that’s okay?’

Is it possible to come to that same moment in the LGBT/religious conversation – one perhaps embodying the “healing and revelatory power of empathy”?  If so, once again, what would it look like?  And what could it mean for us all?

An Example from Beautiful ‘Crazy People.’  Just a few weeks ago, I sat in a room with twenty others being trained for three days by two women who hear voices (yes, two self-described “crazy people!”). It’s hard to imagine another group of people more disenfranchised and systematically hurt than those who experience unusual or ‘extreme mental states.’

And yet, we learned how these two women had found not only healing and rich relationships, but a productive, wonderful life helping support literally thousands of others who hear voices.

The turning point for both women was finding real, human connection, listening and empathy – no matter how crazy their thoughts and beliefs may have sounded.

That moment of connection had universally been extremely hard to come by…Indeed, it was precisely because of how crazy this community sounds to people, that they have struggled to find anyone who might offer real human interaction. With remarkable frequency, these individuals described trying to share their heart with another and hearing an automatic ‘have you taken your meds today?’ or ‘that anger (or sorrow or elation or pain) is really just a symptom – it’s your disease speaking!’welcome_hvn1

Rather than listening and empathy, in other words, they met people who insisted on imposing their own story upon their experiences.

And no wonder! If I told you the CIA hired me to protect our neighborhood from terrorists, wouldn’t you have a hard time just hearing me out?

And that’s just about as crazy as we religious conservative and LGBT communities sometimes see each other:  ‘You believe WHAT about identity?  You think you can be happy in THAT relationship? Humph!’

I believe that it’s precisely this difficulty of human connection-when-the-disagreements-are-intense that explains the impact of the Hearing Voices Network over the last 30 years since it was established in Europe. For people who found resistance, control and imposition everywhere they looked, it was revolutionary to find someone – anyone – who didn’t automatically assume illness, disorder or a need for ‘intervention.’  It was refreshing to find a space where anything could be shared – no matter what (e.g., no matter whether others agree or believe what they were saying).

In contrast to the usual approach of having to fix or force or manage or treat, everything about this approach aims at opening the space. And it turns out that in the offering of this kind of space-for-human-connection, listening, respect and dignity – something else happens:  Insight.  Healing.  Affection. Community.

So now circling back to the question:  What would happen if we brought this same kind of super-spacious mind-set to our ongoing LGBT-religious conservative back and forth?[3] Imagine a diverse mixture of folks from religious conservative and LGBT communities sitting together and following the same HVN groundrules (guidelines, by the way, that strongly resemble other kinds of pioneering efforts – like Circles of Empathy):

  1. Not assuming others’ experience reflectsillness.HVN-for-website
  2. Not focusing on trying to change each other or tell people what to do.
  3. Not insisting on particular labels or diagnoses (or insisting that people not have them either).
  4. Taking seriously what each of us has to offer, even and especially when we don’t agree or believe what is being shared.
  5. Preserving a space for authentic questions and curiosities, as well as ongoing disagreements (to be explored only as people are interested and willing).

What would that look like? Anyone else like to find out?

Calling for a Third Space.  In moments where we feel ham-strung by the two party system in America (like NOW?), there are often calls for third party candidates as a way to open up options and provide a bit more freedom. Could this be one of those moments in the LGBT/religious conservative impasse?

In this moment when it’s so maddeningly hard to find any shred of common ground (or possible next steps forward), I’m curious about fleshing the possibility of a THIRD SPACE out – at least enough for us to seriously consider it. A friend of mine, Mark, and I have been exploring what this same Third Space might look like for Mormon-Post-Mormon conversation (see here & here & our joint launch across parallel Mormon and Post-Mormon blogs here & here).  It’s been as powerful and moving a conversation as I’ve ever had across the religious/secular divide.[5]

When it comes to this conversation about sexuality, I draw from an organization called “Third Space” (operating in another domain), paraphrasing parts of their vision potentially relevant to our own, where they describe:

  • A SPACE distinct from those we usually live our lives (distinct socio-political communities)…
  • A SPACE which enables us to unwind & step out of role…
  • A SPACE which encourages both reflection & sharing…
  • A SPACE of hospitality & generosity…
  • A SPACE where everyone is welcome

Some have rarely felt such a space, while others have lived in relationships, families and communities where this happens all the time. Most often, of course, this kind of space is found primarily (or exclusively) in the company of those who agree with us. While community among like-minded folks will always be important and crucial, the trick here would be somehow to extend that space between us – in a way that spans our greatest disagreements.

Third Space Pioneers. Although it’s been personal experiences with dialogue that have inspired my own thinking in this area, they are not necessarily unique.  The last decade has seen the emergence of several initiatives to establish this kind of Third Space-like “dialogue” or “bridge-building” between religious conservatives and the LGBT community. This includes the Marin Foundation (est. 2005, Illinois), Love Boldly (est. 2010, Kentucky), New Directions (realigned 2010, Canada) Circling the Wagons (est. 2012, Utah) and the Reconciliation and Growth Project (est. 2013, Utah).

These initiatives have all sought to bring together diverse perspectives in an authentic space of safe disagreement – for instance, in the Marin Foundation’s Living in the Tension gatherings, Love Boldy’s SAFE gatherings and New Directions Generous Spaciousness retreats.

To illustrate, Living in the Tension gatherings were inspired by Martin Luther King’s teachings[6] – aiming to help “non-Christian LGBTQs, gay Christians, celibates, ex-gays, liberal and conservative straight Christians and straight non-Christians all willfully enter into a place of constructive tension, intentionally forming a community that peacefully and productively takes on the most divisive topics within the culture war that is faith and sexuality.”  By bringing together “all different shades of what is faith and sexuality in our culture today,” including “secular gay and lesbian people and gay Christians and celebrate conservative people and ex-gay people and liberal straight Christians and conservative straight Christians” the Marin Foundation aims, in their own words, to “just mix it up in one big unholy uncomfortableness and have a discussion. Every stereotype can be broken with a face, and every face has a story.”

We’re not just talking warm fuzzies here, by the way. My own experience mixing it up in “one big unholy uncomfortableness” has been profoundly life-changing. Our 6-member SEXTET dialogue group (bringing together gay, lesbian, queer, straight, mormon, evangelical, atheist, Marxist, conservative, liberal) has renewed my optimism for what is possible in the space between us. And recent meetings with Kendall Wilcox have done the same – with each meeting powerful and rich in learning.[7]

Starting with this:  Laying aside the different interpretations and narratives we have about identity, sexuality, morality, marriage, God – and virtually everything – this kind of a discussion QUICKLY reveals that underneath all the stories, labels and disagreements is something we can agree upon: A person.  Of worth.  And fundamentally priceless inner value (see more on that discovery here).

If that was the only thing people glimpsed in this space, it would probably be worth it…but there’s much, much more:

Just Another Attempt to Change Me? Rather than taking place in a particular location or setting, Third Space is more of an ideal that could be enacted and embodied in many different relationships, locations and practices.  Wherever it happens, a common element of this space – compared to our ‘home-turfs’ – is an agreement that our primary and deliberate aim is not to try and ‘change each other.’

The reason we say ‘primary’ or ‘deliberate’ is because it’s understandable that many or most people who come into the space (from both sides) still retain the desire, hope and commitment to inspire other people to come over to their position – e.g., ‘see the truth’/’join their movement.’  And that is okay!

As we’ve talked about it with others interested, there is no need to strip or divest oneself of passion, commitment and zeal upon entering this kind of a Third Space; instead, the invitation is to be especially mindful and attentive to how that same passion is articulated and experienced by others.

While retaining whatever hope and desire one has to help someone understand or appreciate your views/experiences, the primary aim here is something else:  connecting and (really) hearing each other out.  In this, the Third Space would (and should) likely always be distinct from the mission and message-oriented communities it seeks to serve.

In this way, this kind of a space sets itself apart from both the institutional LGBT and religious conservative communities – since, of course, neither can be expected to dramatically change their own structures and efforts often designed to advocate, defend, persuade or convince others of their views (and unify people around one side).

I, for one, fully expect both communities to be resolute in their positions for a long time – even indefinitely. And that’s what intrigues me about the potential of Third Space-esque efforts – and why I hope the significant resistance they have generated from both religious conservative and LGBT communities may be reduced (e.g., especially as each side understands there is NO agenda to change either side’s philosophy).

To summarize, then:  Rather than trying to change either community directly, the idea would be intentionally creating spaces between communities where we can do something different. It’s here – between the various communities and positions – that I’ve come to believe some really exciting work can start to happen.

Wouldn’t that be a truly radical space? Like a chronically miserable married couple, imagine if we – representatives from religious conservative and LGBT communities – could agree to experiment with (temporarily, at least here) stop trying to CHANGE each other…just enough to hear each other out?

Rather than a high-pressurized atmosphere of working-on-each-other or defending-oneself, this would be a space of openness and curiosity, of letting down our guards (when we’re ready) and of seeking a deeper understanding.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could both hear each other out – I mean, really? (without any kind of subtle pressure to adopt each others’ views)….A conversation where the goal is something more than jockeying to ‘educate’ or ‘enlighten” or ‘convert’ those who see things differently….A conversation where we actually ask each other real questions – instead of pseudo-questions[4] – what’s really on our hearts and minds.

In this place, everyone is heard – Affirmation and North Star folks, Side A and Side B people, LGBT-identifying and non-LGBT identifying people, those who prefer and dislike the term ‘experiencing same-sex attraction,’ religious and non-religious, frustrated and reconciled, activist and non-activist, certain and uncertain, confused and clear, liberal and conservative…

So Why are We Doing This Again? Aside from busyness itself, our experience has shown that perhaps the biggest resistance people have about coming into this kind of dialogue space is that…well, they don’t have any questions. They’ve already got ‘those people’ figured out!

If we have any chance at all for a more productive conversation on these questions, people on both sides are going to have to do something hard:  stay open to the possibility that there is more to learn, more to appreciate and more to understand about those people.

Speaking for myself, after ten years in the conversation, I feel I’m only beginning to appreciate the full nuance and complexity of these questions – with a personal curiosity and list of questions that seems to grow every day.

It’s much easier, of course, to read all the articles about the Big Bad Mormons (or those Big Bad Gay Activists) – tending to our respective righteous indignations and planning our next strategic moves – to ‘keep up the pressure’ or ‘mount a better defense.’  I again suspect a large portion of people (on both sides) cannot help but continue that path (almost full-time) – fueled or addicted to their own resentments and unable to see past them.

If that’s you, then you will have stopped reading this blather by now.  For the rest, I’m again asking – even pleading with you – to hold onto the possibility of humanity across this divide and not give up on what a real conversation could mean for all of us….a conversation where we stop pretending the answers should be simple and obvious to everyone.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s become a life or death issue for our body politic.  We either learn to do this – or the hatred and polarization spreads like a terminal cancer (and quickly).

Let me say that more positively (avoiding a death sentence isn’t the greatest motivation!): Even in heightened moments of conflict (maybe especially in those moments), my experience has been there are things we can learn together – precious things – that we will not learn on our own…in our own silos.

Rather than remain in a paralyzing crisis, what if these moments could become opportunities for huge learning – yes, on both sides!

Raw, Honest, Powerful Conversation. If we’re ever going to get there, this space would and could and does take real trust of each other – a trust to be vulnerable and honest with each other, and even trust that we can make mistakes.

Furthermore, we would trust each other to bring our passion, conviction and feelings, while still being sensitive to not using them as cudgels or weapons.  We would trust each other to ask tough questions and share our strongest arguments, without diminishing in the least others’ space to disagree fundamentally (My wife and I have this as one of our own couple conversation intentions:  “Especially when one of us feels passionate about something – it’s okay for the other person to disagree!”)

We would also need to take each other at our word that our goal in this space is not to try and manipulate each other’s heads – e.g., that our gathering is not a deliberate or explicit or planned part of a liberal or conservative proselyting agenda.  In Kendall’s own writing about this space of empathy, he makes this point explicit:  “this transformation does not inherently mean [those deepening in empathy] would necessarily change the doctrines of the Church to accommodate same gender relationships” (although he also points out, that can always be on the table).

While some can and will scoff at a space not centrally focused on persuasion, I wish they could see actual conversations in this kind of a space.  I’ve literally never experienced such a powerfully persuasive conversation in my life (and in both directions, with strong arguments openly and vulnerably heard from all directions)…Tell me:  Where else does that happen?

Above and beyond everything else said above, there’s one more reason that draws me to this space – perhaps more than anything else.

Multiplying Freedom, Rather than Constraining it. In the space described above, people’s freedom to follow what feels best and right to them would be explicitly protected and respected.  As we all seek the peace and happiness we all want, we would be met in this space, at least, with attention, listening and an attempt to understand (all of which is different than “support” or “legitimizing” or “agreement” or “validation” – none of which are expectations).

The point is not to merely bless and encourage what people are choosing, but instead, to defend, protect (and even increase) the space in which they can explore those options in making choices for themselves.  In this way, the aim is not to hedge people in (on either side) by demanding that people accept “the ONE true path” as outlined by liberals or conservatives or “the ONLY way for you to be happy.”

That does NOT mean we cannot believe that such a path exists (we all pretty much believe that, right?) – nor talk about what that looks like.  But it DOES mean that we perhaps work together to create an environment that ensures no ONE view dominates to such a degree that people lose freedom, choice and agency to chart their own course.

Among other things, this would underscore a variety of options that thoughtful people explore and decide upon.

That’s the kind of Space I would hope many on all sides of this issue might come together to support…clearly, not everyone will.

But I’m convinced many – MANY – will.

Could this be the unity that many sense is still possible?  As one author suggests, “This period of history gives us a chance to rediscover our common ground and realize that political issues, even though heated, don’t break the bond of the spirit that unites us.”

I hope that’s true.


[1] I can understand why someone might direct questions and concern directly to Mormon leadership – especially when comments from them carry so much weight in a conversation. I’ve had my own concerns in the past at some ways that mental illness was portrayed by an apostle. In both cases, however, I see leadership commenting upon and reflecting larger American discourse. Rather than calling on certain religious leaders to repent, it seems to me the larger conversation is what needs to shift, with everyone engaging in the conversation responsible for this change (including religious leaders, but not specifically targeting them).

Having said all this, I’ve also found Kendall to be true to his self-description as an “equal-opportunity challenger” who insists that “this empathetic obligation runs both ways and implicates all of us.” In his latest comments about Elder Bednar, for instance, he sought to demonstrator empathy for where Elder Bednar was coming from, even while raising some critical questions. In all this, Kendall reminds people that “if we want empathy, we have to give it in equal measure.”

[2] In fairness to my conservative community, many of us vacillate in and out of a fight or flight response as beloved traditions and practices in American society come under seemingly relentless assault and demands for change. Our response is pretty understandable given what (we experience) as an aggressive assault.

[3] All metaphors and analogies have limits, and this one has plenty of (big) and meaningful differences.  (I can already hear the response to this article, “I can’t believe we’re comparing hearing voices to sexuality!’”)  That being said, it’s hard to overlook how deeply both groups have been stigmatized as sick, broken, dangerous, etc – and how problematic this has been in both communities.

[4] Charles Taylor described “pseudo-questions” as something designed to make a statement and assertion, rather than to sincerely inquire.

[5] If Mormons and Post-Mormons Can Talk Productively, then Anything is Possible!  I’ve deeply enjoyed time exploring contrasting perspectives with Mark Foster –  and have found both enduring respect and affection across our disagreements. Out of those conversations, we realized it could be neat to offer this same kind of experience to others – a place not aimed at changing either Mormonism or Post-Mormonism…but rather, opening up a new experience where authentic interaction could happen between the two communities.  (See Can Current & Former Mormons Have Vibrant and Beautiful Relationships?  What Would Make for a Mormon/Former Mormon Exchange (Really) Worth Having? Mark’s pitch for the Third Space here and More Thoughts on the Third Space)

[6] These gatherings were inspired by a comment Martin Luther King made in 1963 when locked up in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama: “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension my whole life, but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth.”

[7] Out of an early conversation between me and Kendall came the realization that fundamental wholeness could be a unifying common ground value.  Our own connection led to joint writing about the World Congress of Families as an Opportunity for Dialogue and a recent joint workshop focused on Enjoying Treasonous Friendship and Trustworthy Rivalries

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