Note: One of the most common and pervasive misconceptions of dialogue is that the overriding goal is to “maintain peace” – aka to make sure that everyone feels comfortable. This kind of perception can create what Arthur Pena, a gay Christian man who collaborated with me to create a Third Space, calls the “Tyranny of Civility” – reflecting an oppressive niceness that stifles efforts to grapple with important questions and ultimately, hampers our ability to reach together for greater insight and understanding.
As scary as it can feel, when two people (or two communities) are willing to step beyond the Eggshell Walking towards an authentic and heartfelt sharing-and-hearing of What We Really Think…well, that’s when it starts to get fun. (And hard). And transformative.
If you’re not wanting to be stretched or risk feeling some additional discomfort, no need to keep reading. But if you’re hungry for a more honest, productive LGBT-religious conservative conversation – please stay. Over the next several weeks, I will be proposing some ways to make a bit more space around key pressure points in this conversation, with an explicit aim of decreasing the suffering and increasing the freedom for all involved (whatever their views).
One of the most common patterns across the genre of SSA/LGBT personal narratives is a period of time where a person recollects “fighting” or “forcing” their body and mind – often, in an attempt to beat back or overcome same-sex attraction.
Although the details of what exactly constitutes “forcing” or “fighting” vary in meaningful ways, this state of mind is described almost universally (across both liberal and conservative-leaning narrators) as a negative and unnecessarily painful experience.
And no wonder! It doesn’t take a mental health professional to know that forcing or fighting one’s own mind or body are neither sustainable nor an especially happy way to live.
Practitioners of mindfulness have been teaching for ages the inadvertent consequences of harsh, aggressive tactics to control things, “fix” oneself or force away something we do not like. In the context of mental health, for instance, Mark Williams and colleagues write that “the mind doesn’t like to be forced” as an explanation for why efforts to make depression go away often have an unintended rebound effect.
If that is true, and people eventually discover how unsustainable fighting/forcing the mind and body are, then what comes next?
This is where the narrative differences get really interesting. While it’s almost universal that people feel compelled to stop all the fighting and forcing (something that brings immediate relief), the stories sharply diverge on what to start doing instead.
This shouldn’t be surprising, of course, to anyone familiar with mindfulness practice, where it’s clear that any given sensation, emotion or thought can be worked with in different ways. This is as true for sexual experience as it is for any other kind of experience.
And sexuality narratives bear this out, confirming at least two ways (among many) people who experience same-sex attraction seek to move beyond forcing and fighting to a healthier place:
1. As an alternative to fighting against body and mind, one group begins to embrace enduring thoughts, experiences and sensations (including same-sex attraction) as central to who they are and the life they want.
This is understandable for a group of people who often grow up feeling judged, out of place and even condemned – pushing back against these reactions to essentially say, No this is me and I’m not going to be ashamed or cower anymore. I’m embracing all of this as good.
A second group also pushes back against the fighting-and-forcing, albeit in a different way.
2. As an alternative to fighting against body and mind, this other group begins to accept enduring sensations, emotions and thoughts (including same-sex attraction) as simply what they are experiencing. This means allowing the experience to be as it is, without necessarily applying a label or story of what it necessarily means for their identity or future.
While stopping short of embracing same-sex attraction as central to who they are, this second response – like the first – builds on the substantial emotional relief of simply no longer having to force things. Indeed, many in both groups report an initial decrease in anxiety, since both are putting down the fight.
This might be good news, if we were looking for multiple ways to reduce the dangerous state of mind that many find themselves in after years of fighting or forcing. We can’t be ignorant, however, of the larger sociopolitical climate where making space for multiple pathways can be challenging or controversial.
In this case, for those who identify as gay (and thus embrace same-sex attraction as somewhat central to their identity), the existence of any other legitimate way of working with this attraction can understandably feel threatening.
Similar to the idea of an unchanging, determinate biology, the notion that there is only One Path to lasting happiness for those in the gay community may, indeed, be crucial in persuading (more) people towards a place of respect and compassion.
But what if we don’t have to be forced? What if we can believe in the changeability of biology – alongside a variety of ways to work with feelings, thoughts and sensations – while still making genuine space for how different people see themselves and choose to live their lives?
One of the driving assumptions behind my own work is that human beings deserve (real) space to chart their own course. That’s a nice-enough-sounding idea, of course, until you start talking about what it means in the details of sexuality, or mental health or physical health.
In almost every area, the push-back can be enormous as institutions, movements and popular ways of doing things can interpret Space-Making as some kind of an existential challenge.
What, however, I would ask is the alternative? Pretending like no one ever navigates a different way successfully? Insisting that they are not – and cannot ever find happiness – except by following our way?
If we’re honest, most people across the socio-political spectrum do think there is one path offering a better chance for lasting happiness (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!) It’s when we bring our One True Path into the conversation in a way that shuts down open exploration that problems arise. Some Loud Voice Religious conservatives are famous for doing this on occasion in the past. And some Loud Voices in the LGBT community are now becoming famous for the same thing.
I am heartened, however, at how many progressive and liberal colleagues – including openly gay and lesbian identifying friends – agree on the importance of preserving a public space that not only ‘allows,’ but encourages free exploration and open inquiry. I’ve got wonderful friends who are living out very different answers to the questions posed above – and yet many of them align on the crucial need for the kind of pluralism I describe here.
Maybe it’s our new 21st Century Golden Rule: Give Space Unto Others You Would Want For Yourself.
As long as we can do this, I feel optimistic about what is possible. If we can’t even do this, we’re in for a brutal fight ahead. At least that’s how I see it.
Do you agree? Disagree? Is there anything about this discussion you find helpful?
If I’ve got it all wrong, share with me how you see it. That’s the whole point of this, after all! I’ve got big ears (so the bullies told me in elementary school) – and look forward to your thoughts.
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 Wrong, Once 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.
 While many people prefer to simply say “gay people,” this phrase reflects a particular message about identity that not everyone in the LGBT-religious conservative dialogue embraces. That’s why I choose to use this term (notice, I’m not saying ‘people with same-sex attraction’ since that implies some kind of separable pathology or disorder – clearly unhelpful and far from what I personally believe).
 This is essentially what mindfulness students are invited to do as they learn to meditate – learning to “accept whatever they are experiencing in this moment….without trying to force or fix or control or make things change in any way” (and without “labeling or judging” them either). I’ve written about this approach elsewhere in the context of mental health and in the domain of spirituality (see MindfullyMormon.org).
All of this has led me to get curious about the applications of the gentle mindfulness approach to some of these questions around sexuality. Of course, how exactly mindfulness applies here is yet another area where substantial disagreement exists. While some would argue that mindfulness-based acceptance *is* fundamentally an all-encompassing acceptance of all our experience as trustworthy and good, others such as myself would see this as reflecting a label and story that also deserves to be held in awareness, watched and observed.
 How and whether mental wellness plays out in the future, of course, is another contested question. Typically, both groups end up saying essentially the same thing about the other:”well, they may feel a decrease in anxiety initially…but the path they have chosen is clearly unsustainable since it reflects a fundamental betrayal of who they are.”