Monthly Archives

November 2015

Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree about Same-Sex Relationships & Gay Rights

One of the interesting byproducts of protracted conflict – whether in a marriage, a family or a community – is that one or both sides begin to articulate the others’ “views” in ways that seem misshapen and skewed (at least to observers – and especially to those actually holding the purported”views”).

Similar to other great spiritual teachers, the Buddha once spoke of anger as a poison that potentially deforms and skews our view of others.  Social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have confirmed the degree to which our ultimate conclusions arise not merely from reason or logic, but rather from the underlying emotional commitments that drive us (all) – especially when they are intense.

Pushing against this perhaps universal tendency to mis-take and mis-represent, then, it can be helpful to at least try to articulate differences in a way both sides might recognize as accurate.

As part of  a Village Square series attempting to illuminate meaningful differences, this document below is the third of similar tools – following Ten Ways that Citizens Disagree on Development in the Farmington Foothills and a similar tool arising from the recent liberal/conservative disagreement over a new Mormon policy. In each case, the intention is to “map out” both key questions and modal responses in the current U.S. discourse about  important questions –  drawing upon summary arguments in the simplest language possible. The attempt here is to fairly delineate actual contrasts in the discourse, juxtaposing reasonable perspectives on different sides (this, in a way that would be recognizable to those who hold them).

To be clear, the attempt is not to somehow represent or summarize “the views” on one side or another – since the complexity within both the gay and religious conservative communities are immense. Instead, the goal is to summarize modal or “common” ways of thinking – as represented in the current American discourse.  As Arthur has pointed out, individual beliefs sometimes diverge sharply from the kinds of things that end up getting “said” in the discourse; it is the latter, and not the former, at interest here.

The overall aim – like the blog itself – is to help support and stimulate a thoughtful conversation between religious conservatives and the LGBT community – one where both sides are fully heard and respected in their humanity (even if the ideas are not respected – which is never an expectation of dialogue).  Rather than covering over differences in grasping for a “let’s all just get along” harmony, the intention is to very much turn towards the differences with more serious attention – including perhaps an acknowledgement of the seriousness and intensity of a conflict not likely to ever go away.

This document has been shared and reviewed with a number of people in both the gay and religious conservative communities – gathering input to strengthen it.  Any and all further feedback is welcome (either in the comments or at – with an aim to make further improvements and refinements.

1. For those attracted to others of the same sex, what does this attraction mean for identity?

  • If you’re attracted to the same sex, that says something about who you are on an important level.  The big question is whether you will be supported by those around you in living in alignment with your true self – including the expression of this sexuality with a same-sex partner.  The alternative is denying and suppressing who you really are.
  • If you’re attracted to the same sex, that is a meaningful part of your life experience. The big question is whether or not it centrally defines who you are. It is possible to openly acknowledge (and not suppress) same sex attraction, while choosing to not identify with it as fundamental to your identity.

2. How biological is sexual orientation and how malleable is that biology?

  • Sexual orientation is largely biological—in a way that doesn’t substantially change over time. Although environmental influences may shape development, their impact is secondary to the innate tendencies rooted in biology. This explains why people who try to change only compound their suffering.
  • Biological factors play an important part of sexual orientation, with environmental factors also playing a significant role over time. Consistent with the malleability of the human brain and sexual fluidity, some have experienced meaningful shifts in sexual orientation over time.

3. Hasn’t it become clear that “choice” and “change” are no longer useful or relevant concepts in this conversation?    

  • Yes, of course. Most people understand clearly that being gay is not a choice.  Given this, any attempt to emphasize choice or change can only invoke less acceptance and cultivate conditions of more hatred for the gay community.
  • Not quite.  Although whether to feel a particular attraction is clearly not a choice, how to respond to attraction, whether to identify with it, and whether to act on it are all meaningful choices about which thoughtful disagreement exist. Depending on these choices, the body, mind and spirit can change in meaningful ways over time – just as it does for all human beings.

4. Should the changes happening in society in relation to LGBTQI rights be celebrated?

  • Yes.  The changes in the U.S. and elsewhere are something to celebrate! They are civil rights advancements to be welcomed vigorously as an expansion of freedom and a genuine improvement to the overall well-being of society.
  • Not necessarily. These changes in the U.S. and elsewhere are fundamental challenges to Judeo-Christian norms and cause for concern. Despite people’s earnest hopes, these shifts will lead to unanticipated negative consequences in the future.

5. Is the civil rights movement in the 60’s the appropriate metaphor for what is unfolding?

  • Of course. As most people now acknowledge, this is the new civil rights movement—and the next stage in respect, rights and freedom for all.
  • Not quite. There are limits to the 60’s analogy—especially in relation to how dissenters are seen. Equality, justice and rights can be understood in very different ways. Other metaphors, such as Palestinian/Jewish co-existence, may be more fitting in their acknowledgement of rich cultural traditions at odds.

6. How are we to make sense of past and current distress in the LGBTQI community—including suicides?

  • Primary responsibility for the distress and suicides within the LGBTQI community lies with those sharing messages that undermine a sense of worth and value among the gay community – especially religious institutions that haven’t fully embraced the LGBTQI community for who they really are.
  • The factors contributing to distress in any circumstance are complex and multi-faceted. To attribute an event like suicide primarily to religious teaching not only mischaracterizes the messages of most faith communities, it ignores numerous other possible factors.

7. On a fundamental level, doesn’t this come down to simply learning to love and accept people?

  • Yes! That is the basic issue. It’s becoming harder and harder to see why it’s so incredibly difficult for some to simply love and accept people for who they are.  
  • More than simply whether to “accept people,” the fundamental conflict centers on whether to accept another view of identity, sexuality, choice and marriage – one that conflicts with classically understood religious teaching. In that way, this is not so simple as often presented (at least not for religious conservatives).

8. How should we thinking about those who experience same-sex attraction, but who choose to not to label their sexuality or to identify as “SSA/Same-sex Attracted” (and not LGBTQI)?

  • This particular standpoint is a reflection of inner homophobia—and dangerous to promote or highlight in any way. It might even be important to agree to condemn or shame this option so people see it for what it is—both inherently harmful and destructive in the larger message it sends those who are vulnerable – like LGBT youth.
  • This is a legitimate standpoint that deserves the same respect as other choices in relation to sexuality. Rather than sending a harmful societal message, this represents another viable option that others deserve to know about as they navigate how to relate to their own sexuality.

9. When the words “anti-gay” or “bigoted” are used, what do they mean?

  • This refers to someone who believes gay people are anything less than entirely equal and completely acceptable in their identity, sexuality, relationships and life experience.
  • This refers not to someone who is hostile to the gay community – especially in open and overt ways. Any broader definition pathologizes  religious or spiritual traditions that proscribe same-sex sexual relations.

10. What role has religion played in influencing the LGBTQI /SSA communities?

  • The influence of religion has largely been negative—acting as a driver and reinforcer of societal prejudice against the gay community. Members of conservative religions who experience same sex attraction often feel pressed to enter heterosexual relationships, which they could only experience as miserable.  As a result, these people are often left with only one option in how to relate to their sexuality: celibacy.
  • Despite popular perceptions, religion continues to be a force for compassion, love, respect and freedom in the world.  Although some who experience same-sex attraction in religious conservative communities do not find it possible to pursue a heterosexual relationship, some do—and find great happiness in these family relationships. There are others for whom celibacy is a commitment they are willing to make in order to feel peace within their spiritual beliefs and values.

#5 What role does choice play in identity development and working with physical sensation or emotion?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“We humans use words to communicate, words to describe and characterize issues, words to characterize human differences and words to form judgments; ‘what words mean,’ then, is a complicated and vexed subject. Words have to be interpreted – and most of us interpret what words mean through our own ‘private dictionaries.’ If we therefore assume that our definition is the definition, we might be setting ourselves up for gaping disagreements and misunderstandings arising from the clashing meaning of certain words. The real skill here may be learning to hear what the other person intended to say according to their dictionary – not according to our own.” -Bruce Shulman

The question of “choice” is a sensitive one in relation to sexual orientation, given how it’s sometimes been used as a cudgel against the gay community.

In response, this has become a question that for many is absolutely settled – and portrayed as largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

The unspoken insinuation is that there is only one way to think about choice in this discussion.  Closer attention to the larger conversation, however, reveals at least a couple of ways choice shows up in the lives of all human beings – including those who experience same-sex attraction.

1. Choosing a feeling – or whether to feel something.The way it is typically represented, the notion of “choice” is presented as a decision whether or how much to feel a particular attraction (or not).

It’s hard to tell how many people actually believe this possibility.  Within an American pop culture that insists we can ‘just choose’ to be a lot of things – happy, wealthy, beautiful –  there are definitely some who see emotion as immediately malleable in this fashion.

But for most of the rest of us, it becomes clear that this is a fairly ridiculous proposition – and one that doesn’t hold up in real-life experience.

As the narrative typically unfolds, people resist feelings of same-sex attraction and then spend time doing things to either “make the feelings go away” or “try to feel something else.” Similar to other attempts at controlling or forcing feelings to be a certain way, these people soon discover how much this really just “doesn’t work.”  Even if emotions are ‘successfully’ controlled or managed short term – over the long-term, this particularly aggressive way of relating to emotions virtually always backfires.

And that’s precisely why these stories often end with some kind of conclusion not simply at the potential harm of forcing or controlling feelings in this way – but about choice itself:

  • “When I came out to them even though there was a lot of heartache and tears and it’s a struggle and still awkward to this today, they are willing to talk about it and they accept that I am struggling with these feelings and it is valid and it is not just a choice” (FB-ER)
  • “I really have a testimony that you did not choose this. That you were born this way and he would choose this?” (FB-A)
  • “Orientation is no more a choice then Race!”
  • “Strong sexual compulsions are not conscious choices, whether genetic, environmental, or a combination thereof.”
  • “I don’t believe a gay person has any choice in their being gay.”

As reflected here, the failure of this first view of choice in ‘real life’ becomes evidence for accepting one’s particular sexual attraction as central to one’s identity:

  • “I realized I really am gay and I can’t just pray this a way I can’t just snap my fingers and have this change” (FB-St)
  • “At that time when I came to this realization that yes I am gay” (FB-EM)

To underscore the point, individuals often emphasize the larger difficulties faced by the gay community as context for why any notion of relevant “choice” is arguably ridiculous:

  • Nobody in their right mind would choose this…choose to be ostracized by their whole entire family. Nobody would.
  • Why anyone at the age of 12 or 13 would choose to be LGBT and then subject themselves to the tortures that ensue is senseless.
  • Why would a person choose to be something that can result in: 1) Verbal, mental, emotional, and physical abuse from family, supposed friends, and your community. 2) Being ostracized by family, supposed friends, and your community. 3) Being discriminated against when seeking employment and housing. 4) Being outright murdered.
  • I didn’t choose this and it’s the last thing I would want, the last thing, because I don’t want this kind of burden that I feel. (FB-SH)
  • I don’t understand how a lot of, sometimes a lot of people just think that it’s a choice or, you know, we choose to feel this way. “Are you kidding me?” Like, “why would someone choose to be this different? It causes so many problems in your life!” I mean, you get shunned by people who don’t understand, you get shunned by people who don’t want to understand. There are so many issues, “Why on earth would I choose to be this way?” (FB-WA)

In this way, “choice” ends up virtually always being framed in this one particular way.  Simply put, “being gay is not a choice…can anyone have any doubt after hearing the story of my own life?”

Case closed. The focus subsequently becomes living out these feelings – and insisting that others also embrace them as central to one’s identity.

This becomes the de facto definition of choice, whenever it comes up:  “Every now and again I would get comments like, ‘Are you choosing the right thing?’ And I would say to myself, well I tried for a really long time to be straight and to do the straight thing” (FB-ST)

Any subsequent choice for the individual experiencing same-sex attraction is subsequently de-emphasized, with the emphasis going to the choices of those around them.  One mother, for instance, spoke of eventually realizing “the most important choice wasn’t [her son with same-sex attraction]. It was hers.”

In this way, one particular framing of “choice” can shut down, overlook and distract from other ways of thinking about choice – fundamentally distinct from the first. It’s striking how little attention is paid to any other way of thinking about choice – including the following three:

2. Choosing how to relate to a feeling.While there is clearly often no choice in whether to feel something, others emphasize the choice available in how to respond, relate to and work with that feeling.

This gentle approach contrasts with the forcing, controlling and fixing that we are all accustomed to doing.  One man spoke of learning the wisdom of “not trying so hard to get rid of these feelings, but accepting that they are there and owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay” (VH-BLH).

 Like the first approach, this perspective acknowledges the harm that can be done from an aggressive attempt to control or force or fix particular emotions or feelings. Unlike the first approach, this perspective does not assume that is the only way to work with these feelings.

By gently watching and noticing these feelings, they can be held as a meaningful part of one’s experience – without either pushing them away or grasping on to them. “It’s okay that I feel this way,” one person commented, highlighting that rather than determining the rest of his life, “I still have choice and I still have agency and I still have the power to have the life that I want to have” (VH-DEC)

This experience of navigating particular emotions is clearly not unique to those with same sexual attraction, since from a mindfulness perspective, virtually every human being makes choices moment by moment about how to relate to particular thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

For some, this insight opens up more space to explore how exactly they want to work with particular feelings or physical sensations.  For others, however, the questioning of any feeling or physical sensation doesn’t feel okay:  “It’s not normal to go against with how you feel and so I think for me being gay is normal” (FB-DA)

3. Choosing whether to identify with feelings. The specific decision of whether to identify with a particular feeling or emotion (or physical sensation) is another way choice shows up in this conversation – in other words, whether to adopt that feeling into one’s identity.

For some, they decide to embrace certain feelings as fundamental who they are – subsequently living them out in virtually everything that follows.

For others, they do not see these feelings as central to who they are.  One person who spoke of “owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay” added, “that doesn’t have to determine everything about my future.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to define who you are; those feelings aren’t all of you” (VH-BLH)

Rather than embracing same-sex feelings as central to who they are, these individuals acknowledge them as a meaningful part of their experience, but only as part of that experience.  Reflecting on a period of great despair and hopelessness, one man said, “If I could go back…I wish I could just tell myself that these feelings and what you’re experiencing don’t define you; it’s not who you are. I realize now who I am – I am a son of God first and foremost. These feelings don’t define who I am as a person and I think if I really could have grasped that concept at that time I would have been able to save myself so much heartache” (VH-DEC)

For others, they have felt heartache from resisting particular feelings – and not embracing them.  This, then, becomes a choice relevant to all human beings: Does this feeling or physical sensation represent who I am – or not?

4. Choosing how to act. A final view of choice is simply how to act in relation to one’s feeling – as one person said: “I know I can choose my behavior.  I didn’t choose these attractions.  I didn’t choose to feel this way – but I can choose my actions.  And whatever anyone else wants to say, we can chose what we do, we can choose our sexual behavior.  We have choices about that” (VH-JTB)

 This shows up in the larger conversation about love quite a bit – especially given the dominance of a view of love that just “hits us” out of the blue…and which we are indebted to following.  By contrast, “Love is an activity, not a passive affect,” esteemed psychotherapist Eric Fromm writes. “Love and non-love, as good and evil, are objective and not purely subjective phenomena…Love is as love does.” He continues, “Even if one is feeling love, if they are not doing anything to help, that person is not loving. If a woman told us that she loved flowers, and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her ‘love’ for flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love.”[1]

Shakespeare similarly wrote, “They do not love that do not show their love.” And Albert Einstein himself one said, “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.” “Love is not an involuntary magnetic attraction or [an] irresistible impulse,” Erich Fromm added: “To love somebody is not just a strong feeling. True love is an act of will – both an intention and an action…It is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise, a commitment and ultimately an art.”[2]

These counter-cultural notions of love and choice raise other interesting questions.

Attraction and desire:  Aren’t they one and the same?  In particular, this view of love-that-is-chosen stands at odds with how we often talk of attraction and desire as one and the same. Indeed, the way we commonly talk, there is no separation between what we want and our desires. If you’re attracted to something, then of course, that’s what you want, right?

However, as reflected above, these other views of choice underscore an awareness deeper than feelings or thoughts – one that creates space and opportunity for choice and desire to come online. This opens up the possibility of a love guided by something deeper than felt attractions alone. As Stephen Kendrick writes, “Instead of following your heart…[choose] to lead it.” He continues, “The world says to follow your heart, but if you are not leading it, then someone or something else is.”[3]

From the second perspective, there is a space to explore the bigger question of how to work with any emotion that arises.  For those who experience same-sex attraction, then, they might ask as one person remarked, “who am I?  These same-sex attractions – do I want to embrace them?” (VH-JN)

Multiplying space, multiplying options.  For many, the choice will be yes.  For others, they may say, essentially ‘that is what I want, but I can’t have it or shouldn’t pursue it.  That’s where my attraction is inclined, but it’s not what I want most deeply.”

As one person stated, “I may have had these feelings but that doesn’t determine that I have to live life a certain way…Being gay may be what some people want to do and that is there choice, but for me that is not what I wanted.”  He continued;

Really, I look back, where could my life be? I could be gay, I could go and live a gay life, I could have chosen not to….I could be dead; I could have killed myself. There are so many choices I could have made in my life and I’m so glad looking back now that I kept what was important to me and what was important for me to have in my life as a central focus because I can’t imagine what life would be like without Erin and without my boys. I’m just so grateful I am where I am and I didn’t let this in my life control where I went. (VH-DEC)

He continued, “Some people would probably say, ‘You’re not happy; you’re just suppressing things.’ They can think what they want but I can generally say that I am happy and that I wouldn’t want it any other way” (VH-DEC)

Depending on how we choose to relate to our emotional or sexual experience, depending on whether we identify with it and act on it – our body, mind and overall life are shaped in a particular direction over time.

This is not to say that “choice” is the only thing at play either.  Life narratives are complex – and involve so many things beyond simply choice – “People aren’t simply consciously deciding on one path or the other.  There are aspects of their different paths that go beyond conscious choice–degree of desperation, degree of indoctrination (meant to be a neutral term here), life experiences, etc.”

In line with the overall blog aim, the purpose of this essay is to make space for not only various ways of thinking about choice – but for the individuals and families involved in this conversation.  Without acknowledging the various perspectives on choice, the space in which choice can operate can shrink and constrict to the point that no choice exists at all.

As mentioned earlier, the dominant conversation typically only presumes two kinds of choices:  “As I began to meet more people who had same sex attraction in the church I realized there were kind of two camps, or two categories that people fell into, or so I thought. I thought there were these guys who were actively gay and open about it and were living the gay lifestyle but not so much the church aspect, or that they were kind of living this double life and to me that just didn’t feel comfortable. Then there were the other groups who were just kind of white knuckling it and just were trying to suppress their feelings and to reject their attractions” (VH-JO)

This kind of a bifurcation and dichotomy results in subtle (or not so subtle) pressure.  Indeed, once it is taken for granted that there is no other way of thinking about choice, then it follows there is no other way to move forward. As one person stated, “There was a time that I thought because of what I was viewing and where my thoughts went, that as soon as I graduated from high school I had no choice – I was destined to be in a homosexual relationship; I thought that was what had to happen” (VH-SF).  Another person added, “It kind of came to the point in that relationship where I thought, ‘Okay, this is it, I’m gay, I can’t do anything about it. I might as well just live it.’ But yet deep down in I knew that wasn’t true, but I said it outwardly” (VH-BLS).

As already mentioned, the first kind of choice is an impossible task to ask of anyone – somehow “choosing to feel something we don’t feel.”  Like any other kind of feeling, we all learn quickly that this is no way to work with emotional experience.  As illustrated above, however, that doesn’t mean there is no other way to work with emotional experience. And for many, as detailed above, a more gentle way of working with emotional experience opens up a pathway to live with integrity in relation to both these feelings and their particular faith and religious tradition:

  • It was a great eye opening experience to know that I don’t have to live the way the world tells me I have to live. I can find my own way of living and there are other options from what the world tells me I have to do. (VH-JO).
  • I think people need to know that there are options. Personally I believe anyone who experiences same-sex attraction is faced a whole lot of tough choices. None of them are easy no matter what path one choices. It’s going to come with a lot of difficulty. But I want people to know this choice, this choice I made, that Anissa and I made together, is possible and can bring happiness and hope. We have been able to do that. (VH-BAO)

 To summarize:  In contrast to how choice is sometimes used to pressure or guilt-trip individuals, I adamantly believe in making respectful space for the different places people end up falling in terms of their choice.  This is something that can happen on both sides – as one woman mentioned “I’ve got some Backlash for – people get angry at me for not being with a woman” (FB-ME).

In this, I agree with the gay philosopher John Corvino’s exposition on choice, in particular, his insistence that respect can be offered regardless of how choice is framed or the individual choices people make about emotion, identity and life direction.

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • When you refer to “choice” in this conversation, what do you mean?
  • Have you seen “choice” used in a way that applied pressure to either side of the conversation – e.g., “you have a choice!” vs. “you don’t have a choice!”
  • What would it mean to broaden the conversation to look at various senses of the word choice? Do you think other meanings of the term are relevant in this conversation?
  • In what ways might a broadened view of choice ensure more space for possibility and agency?
  • In what ways might a broadened view of choice feel potentially threatening, dangerous or distracting? Can that be mitigated – or is it a reason not to talk about this?

Notes:  [If you have other questions to add, accounts to include, or further clarifications to suggest, please post them below!]

[1] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York:  Harper Perennial, 1956/2006), 21, 25, 83, 120.

[2] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York:  Harper Perennial, 1956/2006), 5, 57.

[3] Stephen Kendrick and Alex Kendrick, The Love Dare (Nashville:  B&H Books, 2008),  viii.


Question from Arthur – Is peace even possible or are we in the middle of an irreconcilable war?

One of the most common, most unquestioned and most damaging stereotypes of dialogue is that its primary aim is simply to create more harmony and peace in the world.

This is the same thing many people think about mindfulness meditation as well – ‘If I sit on the cushion, then I will feel more peace…

 In both cases, this Nirvana-now expectation is a quick ticket to either (a) immediate disappointment in the mindfulness/dialogue practice or (b) avoiding the practice altogether since it sounds so weak-sauce or mushy or sissy or spineless.

Even though both of these practices can result in peace and greater comfort (especially over time), in many cases their immediate effect is to open ourselves to more discomfort and tension, rather than less – as we turn towards the painful stuff inside us or between us.

For some people, that sounds like “yet another reason to avoid dialogue,” while for other people, it presents a practice much more appealing (and less spineless and mushy).  No one clarifies these points better than my colleague Arthur Peña – a gay Christian man who understands dialogue to his core.  No one has pressed me more forcefully or taught me more powerfully than Arthur.

Out of hundreds of e-mails with Arthur over the last year, I’ve selected a few parts that really distill this clarification well – organized by specific overarching questions:

1. Is Peaceful Co-existence Between Religious Conservatives & the Gay Community Possible?

On this point, Arthur says exactly the thing many of us avoid (but pretty much believe):  “There is no room for peaceful co-existence here.  Whether they know it or not, gay-affirming people have declared war on the church (Catholic or Mormon, as well as on those Protestant churches–both liberal and conservative–which are still trying to defend ‘Biblical Authority’).”

Arthur goes on to point out how gay-affirming people have felt for years a similar declaration of war from the Church.  For instance, in a conversation where I shared with him my conviction that “we can know something from God,” Arthur told me what a “deep threat” particular beliefs like this were to him, with “our sense of ‘rightness’ in the cosmic order of things (as a gay community) at stake” adding “our sense of truly ‘belonging’ to the universe and to society is at stake; our sense of safety from violence and persecution and discrimination is at stake.”

He emphasizes the fight as impossible to avoid:  “Yes, it can be a war ‘fought’ with charity and respect.  But it is a war to the death, nevertheless, at least at the ‘meme’ level.[1]  Gay-affirming theology and traditional Mormon theology (and the superhuman authority it claims to represent) are irreconcilable, and they cannot both be correct.  One of these memes must win, and the other must lose.”

“People have set their hopes on memes which are, I would argue, in fact and quite inevitably, in a battle-to-the-death.”

He continues, “We must, then, clear our heads of the deluded hope that broken hearts, shattered faith, and lost lives can be entirely (or even largely) avoided if we can just talk, if we can just meet heart-to-heart, if we can just ‘humanize the enemy’ and enter into dialogue.  Yes, perhaps a temporary (and in my opinion, obfuscating) “truce” can be called in this way, and the “collateral damage” can be minimized by talking, by meeting, by understanding.”

“Let’s just say that I want to be like those Allied and Axis troops who decided to play soccer together instead of killing each other that one famous Christmas eve (I think it was) so many years ago. Let’s hold to affection and respect, even if we sometimes wear different uniforms (I don’t even know which uniform I’m wearing!). As to whether we will ultimately have to aim our memetic guns at each other, and pull the triggers, I do not know.  I can only say that I do not want to.”

2. What is a Reasonable Expectation of Religious Conservative Institutions in this Conversation?

 “I just watched Elder Christofferson [apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] provide a kind of apologetic for the recent ruling that clarifies church teaching on same-sex marriage.  Given his assumptions about the truth of his church, he sounds very reasonable (and charitable) to me.  The interview with him can be found here.

“I wish that gay-affirming people would realize you can’t ‘reform’ a church–a church that is based on claims of superhuman authority–on fundamental doctrine, without calling into question that core authority.  They should break away and form their own church, or they should challenge the church’s authority and truth claims directly and forthrightly, instead of asking a superhuman-authority-based religion to stop being what it is (or what it claims to be).”

“I find this sort of indirect attack on the church’s authority to be quite frightening, because it strikes me as irrational (asking an entity to stop being what it is) and disingenuous (because not open or clear or direct or honest).”

“To be true to their own beliefs, and to truly respect the beliefs of the Mormon church” Arthur continues, these “people need to leave the church and to fight it openly and directly–not ‘reform’ it (such an entity cannot be reformed on this level–the level of authoritative church teaching–without ceasing to be what it is).”

3. If not Ultimate Peaceful Co-existence, What’s the Point of Dialogue?

Arthur continues:  “This may be a time not for ‘making peace,’ but for the clarification of positions, for the highlighting of the chasms that divide us, and for the taking of (well-informed) sides.  My only real concern is that people may take their sides without being fully informed, and with only distorted ideas about what ‘the other side’ really stands for.  Our goal then, is not to bring agreement, or harmony, or peace (at least not directly) but, rather, clarity…and a certain kind of mutual respect that can, in fact, arise as the result of clarity.”

“I therefore agree with Elder Christofferson:  it is not kind to be unclear.” 

“The war is unavoidable.  It is already here.  Blurry lines just encourage people on both sides to unwittingly stumble into enemy territory. There are real, irreconcilable enemies here on the memetic level; and, to the degree that people identify with those memes–memes which will not and can not ‘back down’–there are real, irreconcilable enemies on the personal level as well.”

“When the lines are blurry,” Arthur emphasizes, problems and more pain arise.  “Better, I say, to draw the lines clearly (even as we examine and talk about those lines, and perhaps–when there are reasons for doing so that are clear and transparent–shift them from time to time).  Draw the lines–and fight.  With charity and respect–and through dialogue–yes.  But fight.”

He continues, “The death of one or more memes is absolutely certain–and necessary.  And thus the death of certain kinds of hope and faith is also absolutely certain–and necessary.”

“It is not a question of choosing peace over war, or general well-being over general unhappiness.  The war is here, it is happening, and it is inevitable.  There can be no peaceful co-existence on the memetic level, and any attempt to arrange some kind of peaceful co-existence at that level will only lead to other kinds of hope and faith being destroyed.  People will only be led astray by holding out the vain hope of peaceful co-existence at the level of memes.”

“We cannot–and we should not–seek some sort of truce between gay-affirming theologies and SSA-rejecting theologies that are based on superhuman religious authority.  This only protracts the suffering, and re-shuffles the cards or the lottery tickets–merely changing who will be hurt, in what way, and when.

“I could perhaps reasonably be accused of advocating the ‘nuclear option’ here–a kind of Memetic Armageddon.  There may be gentler ways to ease people out and beyond the confines of the present culture war.  In fact, I am sure there are gentler ways.  I’m just not so sure that there are, in the final analysis, kinder ways.  In my experience, what passes for (and may truly be) “gentler” methods, usually involve the kind of “blurring of lines” I referred to above.  This may make it easier for some people (and may serve some strategic interests as well), but I believe it merely makes it harder (perhaps much harder) for other people.  It certainly makes it harder for me (which, of course, may make my concerns too self-centered to be of broader relevance or interest).”

“Better, then, in my opinion, to aim for the truth, as clearly and strongly and transparently as possible, and let the tragically inevitable (inevitable no matter what ‘way’ we choose) collateral damage–the broken hearts, the lost faiths, the lost lives–occur on a road that at least promises a deeper, cleaner, more definitive kind of peace-after-war, rather than half measures and compromises and blurry lines that are, I think, almost certain to prolong suffering in the form of a kind of ‘cold’ (and confusing) culture war that never ends.”

Arthur concludes:

“May the truth win out.

And may as few hearts be broken, as few faiths be shattered, and as few lives be lost along the way as possible.

And may I be corrected if I have overstepped bounds, spoken with unnecessary harshness, or failed to see a way forward that is both gentle and truly–in the long run–kind.”

 You may agree or disagree with Arthur’s thoughts – but regardless, you will most likely appreciate how much they are worth hearing.  They remind me that the purpose of thoughtful, healthy conversation is not simply to ‘get along’ or ‘be nice’ or ‘have peace’…especially on issues where real lives are in the balance and there is likely no ultimate peace between positions to be found.

In these instances (and this is not the only one), perhaps we need be more explicit about truth and clarity as aims of conversation – both of which are best served when we seek to understand each other (and damaged, I am convinced, by the misunderstanding).

In order to get to that truth and clarity, we may well need to sit in some very uncomfortable conversations – ones in which we may feel like they slice through us. Arthur’s words are a reminder to me that even those conversations are worth it – and a warning against what he calls the “tyranny of civility,” which is a kind of oppressive “respectfulness at all cost – so that there can be no actual challenging of things and an insistence on ‘equal validity’ of all points.”

That’s definitely not dialogue – and Arthur knows how to teach that better than anyone I know.



[1] A meme is defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.”  Synonyms include “idea, concept, buzzword, trend.” For a more elaborate discussion, see here.


#4 What exactly is meant in saying we ‘accept’ or ‘support’ or ‘affirm’ or ‘love’ or are ‘compassionate’?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“We are language beings…we are not the ones in charge of language; language is in charge of us..”[1]

It’s sometimes taken for granted in the LGBT religious/conservative conversation that we’re all on the same page about what the word “love” and its derivatives (acceptance, compassion, support, affirmation, etc.) really mean.

Are we?

On one level, there is substantial agreement regarding certain actions and situations as reflecting a clear absence of love, etc. – for instance, verbal insults or getting beaten up. On another level, however, there’s fascinating differences between other actions that different people might see as either loving or accepting or compassionate (or not).

First view. An especially common view of acceptance is represented in the following comments from men who identify as gay:

  • “’They’re perfect and they’re beautiful just as they are’ [this person said]. And then I started to cry because I’m perfect because I’m perfect and I’m beautiful just the way I am…It’s so nice to love and accept me. To not have to think about what I need to change” (FB-JE)
  • “And it was like night and day to not be alone anymore and to realize that I was perfect the way I am. And I’ve prayed and I’ve asked God about that and I know that he loves me just the way I am.”

As reflected above, terms such as acceptance, love and compassion refer to a willingness to embrace another person completely and in their entirety – “just the way they are.”

More than simply “loving someone no matter what” or “loving someone wherever they are,” this first view underscores loving, accepting and supporting people as “whoever they see themselves as being.”  Support and inclusion, then, from this perspective, includes support and inclusion of others’ beliefs and actions.  Although not always made explicit, this is a crucial and unique characteristic in this first view of acceptance, et al.

Arthur recently captured this view in summarizing what our gay activist friend Tracy, appears to want from me:  “an acknowledgment and recognition of ‘gayness’ as being ‘100% OK’ (on every level–psychological, social, spiritual), and deserving of all the rights and privileges presently accruing to heterosexuality.”

Living out the first story.  If we adopt this first view, then our work becomes trying to offer this to others, while encouraging others to do the same (and pointing out when others fail at this ideal).

From this view of acceptance, the question is fairly black or white: Are you inclusive…or not?  Loving or not?  Accepting or not?  Supportive…or not?  Compassionate…or not?  Gay-affirming….or not?

One man acknowledged his perception “that there’s only two options of how they’re going to respond. They’re either going to be fine with it, or they’re going to hate you and they’re not going to be your friend” (FB-AN)

Those individuals or organizations fully reflecting this particular view receive the labels of terms “gay affirming” or “inclusive” or “accepting” or “supportive” or “compassionate,” while those who not, receive other labels, such as “non-inclusive” or “non-accepting” or “anti-gay.” For an individual or organization in the middle, depending on the direction they are going, they may also be framed as becoming “more loving, more inclusive and more accepting” (versus less in the other direction).

Individuals also speak of the personal pain and difficulty involved in seeking (and not receiving) this full approval they sought. One person spoke of “how much shame I was experiencing because they wouldn’t validate my experience or my identity” (FB-CR).  Another said, “I think that it’s hard because I want so badly to, um, just be accepted in the church and in the gospel and just with everyone. Sometimes it feels like I can’t be fully accepted.”  This person added, “It’s hard going to church, and knowing that…I can’t just be me. I have to filter what I say so that I don’t say the wrong thing. I’ve found a lot of peace in the gospel though. It’s hard for me to, um, to be a hundred percent me at church” (FB-MA)

Second view. There are other views, of course, regarding what it means to be accepting, loving and compassionate – including one that emphasizes these qualities as something you offer to people where they are, without necessarily accepting all they see themselves as being.  This second kind of support, love and acceptance may involve relishing and treasuring individuals – even if not embracing everything that they believe about themselves or all they want in their lives.

This is how many with same-sex attraction within religious conservative families report experiencing those around them.  One person spoke of initially believing “that people in the Church….would be absolutely be repulsed at the attractions I was experiencing…that they would withdraw and completely disown me; that they would be ashamed of me…. I believed a lot of those lies that people would reject me. People would be too ashamed of me to continue their relationship with me, that my parents or my brothers would be embarrassed by me, or that my friends would simply walk away from our friendships.”

He continued: “I have experienced nothing but support and love without exception from those I’ve turned to for support, even if they didn’t understand it. One of the biggest blessings of my life has been the realization that I have friends, family, and priesthood leaders who I can turn to for anything, and they will support me through anything.”

This man continues, “they love me unconditionally, and no matter what mistakes I’ve made, what poor choices, no matter if they don’t understand the things I’m going through they were willing to support me, walk with me, and learn with me as I went through this. I would not be where I’m at if it were not for the support of my family and friends.”

This sentence may seem to some a contradiction, since “unconditional love” is often held to mean a kind of blindness when it comes to apparent “mistakes.”  However, as reflected here, the awareness of “poor choices” is a salient feature in the experience of love this man receives – and something that confirms, despite this awareness, how much his family loves him. He went on to share a particular instance with his mother, illustrating this other approach to acceptance – which accepts the person, without accepting everything they believe:

One of the best things my mother ever said one day, and I was visiting them for the day, and she asked me to accompany her to the grocery store; we were talking about something else entirely, and all of a sudden she popped in with this non sequitur, “You know we’ll love you no matter what, right?” I said, “I think so, where does that come from?” She said, “We would you love you even if you decided to go and lead a gay lifestyle. We would still love and support you.” She was honest and acknowledged that this would be “really difficult for us” – but we will never stop loving you, and we will never not accept you for who you are.”

He continues, “It was the best thing she could have ever said to me I knew that my family was going to accept me no matter what choices I made. She said expressly, “We have a desire for you, and there is a lifestyle we want you to lead surely, but we will accept you no matter what” (VH-SB)

This account reflects the classic Christian idea that there are parts of ourselves that are not acceptable, and that we need to not embrace.  A similar assumption is reflected in the following recollection from a man sharing his same-sex attraction with his mother: “She responded well. She helped me to realize what I really did want and that I wasn’t going to be happy settling for something less than what I really wanted for myself. I decided to turn to my Heavenly Father and start looking at how I could live with this and still stay in the Church and keep with the gospel. I had had attractions to women in the past so that wasn’t totally impossible for me” (VH-DEC)

 Living out the second story. If we take the second view, then people seek to practice something distinct from the acceptance described earlier.  Rather than accepting people completely, in their entirety – this involves accepting and loving people genuinely (in their humanity, their fundamental wholeness, etc.) – but not necessarily in all they decide to do in their lives.

Support then, from this perspective, does not include support of others’ beliefs or actions necessarily. Neither does inclusion or acceptance.  Going further than that, from this perspective, may potentially be harmful.  Indeed, by encouraging someone’s beliefs or actions not in alignment with God’s will, religious conservatives may fear instantiating and cementing an identity that is not fundamental to who someone is eternally.

Debates over excommunication reflect this difference in opinion.  As reflected in another church community, the experience of those who are cut off can feel painful and hard to understand. This kind of a decision can affirm, one person said, “just how hated we are as a people in most of this country.”

And yet, the contrasting narratives described above had a significant role in determining what is ultimately determined to be loving or hateful.  To illustrate, watch this video – noticing the different ways the Church’s response may be interpreted from these two views.  From one perspective, the Church is simply “not being accepting and loving.” And from another perspective, the Church is sending the right message – namely, that what these men did leaving wives and getting married together is not right in God’s eyes.  From that vantage point, at least, it would be unloving not to send that message clearly.

To restate the question – does love mean we embrace what others want or believe?  While some insist that ‘Yes, that’s the essence of love’ – what about when you see those desires as harming someone?

Of course, this goes deeper than just differences in belief to the variation in how we see identity, explored earlier.  Referring to this same distinction explored here, Arthur writes, “On one hand, the obvious question it raises in my mind is ‘what sort of love can embrace discrimination against others – the deliberate prevention of their fulfillment as human beings?’ On the other, ‘what sort of love can deliberately prevent the fulfillment of their temporal and eternal destiny as human beings?’”

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • So what does “acceptance” or “support” or “love” mean to you in the context of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
  • Do you believe someone could disagree in meaningful ways about what these terms mean, while still being thoughtful?
  • What does it mean when the same terms are being used in our larger conversation, with widely different meanings?


[1] Thomas Schwandt, Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, (2007, p. xxix).

Ten Ways That Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree about Mormon Policy

As introduced in a previous post, here is a proposed “map” of the conversation happening right now. Feedback is welcome!

1. Do these recent policy changes reflect coldness or cruelty on the part of Church leaders?

  • Yes, of course. Even if not intended to be cruel, the practical effect on families can only be described as such. Anyone paying attention should be able to see that.
  • Even though the intention may have been positive, the larger practical effect of these policies is outright cruel. A mistake was clearly made. If people were paying attention, they would see that.
  • Neither in intention nor in its practical effect do these policy changes reflect inherent cruelty to children or families. Those open to hearing where the Church is coming from will be able to understand at least that.

2. Won’t these new policies be harmful and damaging for any child with a gay parent?

  • Yes, of course. It will be deeply painful for children not to be able to be baptized like other children around them. By excluding a child from full participation in the church, they may be prevented from developing sensitivity to the companionship of the Holy Ghost in their formative years.  In addition, these children will feel further stigmatized.  Anyone who has a gay parent will be affected.
  • Those making this claim seem to be ignoring the intense pain a child may experience hearing teachings at Church that contradict the experience they trust at home.  In this sense, this policy respects the family structure in place without forcing a young child to decide between his or her family and the Church – placing that child in an impossible situation. Only children where full custody is held by a gay couple will be affected.

3. I understand the Church drawing a line on same-sex marriage, but why did they bring children into this?

  • Church leaders clearly crossed a line by involving children.  It’s hard to see whatever could have motivated this, except a mean-spirited and callous attitude toward gay families.
  • The legalization of gay marriage forced the Church to take action to protect all involved – including children. Without a clear line, ordinances would also have been the scene of continual conflict between the Church and gay families – something that some gay activists had openly hoped might one day press the Church’s hand to make changes.

4. Are these new policies about exclusion, barring or denying people blessings?

  • Yes, of course. How else can ordinance restrictions and disciplinary councils be understood.  It’s hard to understand why not even children of rapists and addicts face these kinds of restrictions in the Church.
  • Although in the short-term these policies function in a restrictive way, no individual will be denied ordinances or blessings when they are ready. This follows the policy towards polygamous families – who (like gay families) differ from other family circumstances in that the latter has no intention or hope of helping the Church to change its beliefs and actions to align with their own.  Thus, the same level of potential conflict does not exist across these circumstances.

5. What would Christ Himself think of these new policies?

  • Christ never turned away children during his own ministry, so the Church is clearly ignoring how He acted.  Since God doesn’t punish children for the action of parents, He must be abhorred by these changes.  To be Christ-like means, among other things, to include and accept everyone as they are and who they are.
  • Christ has authority to judge and did not shy away from drawing a line at God’s law (including where children were concerned). Even though Christ was willing to meet with and love everyone, that’s not the same thing as saying he accepted and included everyone.  The gospel message centers on how God intends to change us in a mighty way – rather than only accept us as we are.

6. Why would the Church need to draw such a sharp line on gay marriage – when increasing numbers support it?

  • Because of fear, hatred and misunderstanding. If religious conservatives understood gay people and how normal their lives are, they wouldn’t need to fear.
  • Because of what is embraced as God’s will. For a people who believe we are literally children of God with the potential to become like our Heavenly Parents, it seems sensible to want to preserve a clear pathway to exaltation – including for those who currently identify as gay.

7. Doesn’t this decision illustrate how far removed from the needs and desires of actual members that Church leaders have become?

  • You bet. Church leaders are far removed from the daily affairs of real people – and seem to know (and care) little about the problems they are facing.  Among other things, this decision disrupts people’s trust in the moral authority of the prophets.
  • Not quite. After receiving requests from local leaders, Church leaders spent many months contemplating and pondering the right course forward.  To those more closely involved in the process, it seems clear this was not an easy decision – and made in response to more than larger public opinion alone.

8. Doesn’t this represent a departure from the “progress” the Church was making?

  • Unfortunately yes. This is both surprising and shocking given the positive steps the Church had been taking – rather than moving towards the fairness and compassion that others have encouraged.  Two steps forward, twelve back.
  • From one view of “progress,” it may appear this way. But there are different visions of progress – just as there are contrasting views of fairness and compassion.  And from a religious conservative worldview, there is a consistency in the Church’s stances both towards marriage and public dialogue itself – even as members continue to stretch in their love for those who disagree.

9. But doesn’t the Church care about the happiness of gay individuals?

  • Clearly not. Otherwise, they would support what gay individuals find to be bringing them happiness – and appreciate how painful their stance continues to be for the gay community.  This is utterly shocking – and contrary to what an organization attempting to follow Christ should ever look like.  Furthermore, it seems to be an attempt to subtly pressure gay couples to remain in traditional marriages.
  • Of course it does. But different understandings of fundamental identity and eternity lead to different conclusions about the pathway to ultimate happiness. And for Mormons, that involves becoming like our Father and Mother in the practice of family life.  Even if it doesn’t yet seem possible for some, we hold out that ideal as something to strive for as best we can (without pressuring or forcing anyone who disagrees).

10. All in all, isn’t the Church responsible for a great deal of pain right now – just as they have long been to the gay community?

  • Clearly yes. If Church leaders didn’t insist on putting out so many hurtful things, the burden and suffering of gay Mormons would be relieved. This unfair and unkind decision is the sole reason for this week’s sorrow – and creates a situation of impossible dilemma for gay/SSA individuals in the Church.
  • To attribute all suffering to adherence to what we have always held to be God’s law is to ignore the myriad, hundreds of factors in human pain. At least some responsibility for the current furor goes to Mormon activists who cultivated an expectation that the Church was ‘on the way’ to changing  in a way that raised hopes in possibilities contradictory with consistent prophetic statements.  Many have found the dilemmas that can seem unending and inherent as potentially workable and resolvable within the current doctrine of the Church.

Living out the Stories.  Depending on how you answer these questions, of course, you will understandably arrive at very different conclusions about appropriate next steps.

For those who see the Church’s action as inherently cruel, reflective of fear, damaging in its impact and thus disappointing to God Himself, this policy change will naturally be seen as a departure from recent Church efforts and a reflection of sheer lack of care towards the gay community.  In turn, Church leaders will be understood as largely responsible for great pain – both inside and outside of the gay community.

For those who see the Church’s action as reasonable steps within a religious community, ultimately beneficial and reflective of God’s will, this policy change will be seen as consistent with the Church’s recent efforts and a reflection of love and care – however differently defined those terms might be understood.  In turn, the pain of this week – both inside and outside of the gay community – will be understood to arise from the discrepancy between widely embraced societal expectations that have evolved farther and farther away from the Church – enough so, to provoke clashes like this one.

If these differences in perspective and interpretation still seem baffling and impossible to stomach or grasp, that’s really okay.  Especially on irreconcilable differences such as these, the goal of dialogue is not simply peace (or “ultimate reconciliation”) – but rather, clarity and better (mutual) understanding.

Even though, as Arthur often emphasizes, ultimate reconciliation between these communities may not be found, he also adds, “like those Allied and Axis troops who decided to play soccer together instead of killing each other that one famous Christmas eve so many years ago. Let’s hold to affection and respect, even if we sometimes wear different uniforms.”

Something you can do TODAY to promote more Gay/Mormon affection and understanding

Since posting some thoughts last week about the current state of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation, I’ve been overwhelmed with close to 95,000 unique visitors to this website from 132 different countries. Rather than pressing religious conservatives to simply “divorce” their faith in solidarity with gay friends and family members, clearly there is a hunger to find ways we might legitimately, constructively (and together) move a conversation forward that honors thoughtful difference.  Lofty words aside, what would it take (in practical terms) to really move in this direction?

The practice of dialogue itself has a unique power to begin shifting dynamics between us (similar to what the practice of mindfulness meditation does within us). Most people who let themselves sit in dialogue with ‘those people’ (whoever that is), come away with a better understanding of how and why someone else might feel or see or experience things differently (without being the devil incarnate!)  Last weekend, sparked by a Facebook slug-fest he witnessed, Jay Griffith e-mailed some of his own friends and neighbors – inviting them to gather in that same cozy living room for an evening together.[1]

By the end of two short hours,  everyone involved – including a Mormon bishop, an atheist gay neighbor, an openly gay Mormon man, a senior LDS missionary couple, an LDS couple considering stepping away from the Church, a conservative-leaning young men’s leader and a liberal-leaning seminary teacher – had been given a chance to share what was in their hearts. As we left that night, each of us seemed to feel a little better – taking away both a little more understanding and a sharpened, bolstered sense of where we each stood individually.  One participant remarked:

“I came mostly to listen. I wanted to be with people more directly and emotionally affected by this issue than I. I needed to see the issue in real faces and stories if I hoped to understand a perspective different from my own. There was tremendous honesty, vulnerability and compassion in the room, but also a realization that various perspectives can be valid and respected. This was the perfect setting and format for this conversation.”

Another Living Room Conversation co-hosted by Joan Blades & Mark Meckler, a Tea Party leader

Another Living Room Conversation co-hosted by Joan Blades & Mark Meckler, a Tea Party leader

Our dream at Living Room Conversations is to give normal people (not just weird “dialogue-loving” people) what they need to feel confident and supported in hosting their own conversations with people in their own neighborhoods or communities – whether on this topic or any other that feels important. For those interested in proactively helping spark more understanding between Mormon and the gay communities, for instance, we’ve prepared a conversation guide specific to this current conflict that can be downloaded and used by anyone wanting to gather a few people together for a conversation.[2]

But what about those people who don’t feel comfortable in a dialogue for different reasons? (or who think this whole idea is pretty dumb or dangerous).  Earlier this year, we experimented at Village Square Utah distilling down the key questions (and contrasting interpretations) from both sides in a community dispute between a land developer and some local residents in Farmington. In contrast to popular “myth-busting” campaigns that deliberately paint the other position as flawed and inferior, the idea was to fairly represent the strongest arguments and perspectives on both sides in a succinct way that could be easily digested and passed along.

What we came up with became used by both sides as a peace-making tool to help invoke empathy and confirm the nuance of each others’ positions.  As a way to spark curiosity and and invite understanding-in-proxy, what follows is a similar attempt to map questions, interpretations and disagreements at play over the last week in Mormondom. Based on our own dialogues from this past week and other analyses, the following ten questions are presented as a way to help “prime the pump” of collective understanding and predispose more thoughtful conversation. First or second bullets reflect left-leaning interpretations, while final bullets reflect right-leaning perspectives.  The intent, once again, is distill down key differences in a way that feels fair to both sides. (Compared to official clarification from the Church, the intent here is to juxtapose various ideas reflected in the larger discourse about the changes).  Feedback is welcome to further refine and improve this tool: Ten Ways That Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree about Mormon Policy.


[1] Kendall Wilcox and I have decided to to co-host an ongoing, monthly Living Room Conversation for anyone who wants to join us. Please take a minute to check out Kendall’s brilliant Circles of Empathy practice – another helpful way to make space for thoughtful exploration for those who want do take an even deeper dive.  Special thanks to Jay and Jane welcoming us into their lovely home.  If you’d like to participate in an upcoming conversation – let one of us know!

[2] Although the guide is self-explanatory, Jacob will make himself personally available to anyone with questions and offer any guidance to help your experience be successful.  We are happy to share comments or insights that participants in your conversations have – as well as any pictures you take.  If you’d like to write-up your thoughts from the experience, we’ll also consider sharing your report on our weekly Huffington Post blog.


#3 Is there common ground both sides might hold to be precious…or not?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“[Improved discourse entails] an enormous range of possibilities for the advancement of meaningfully democratic practices and policies” which may be achieved “simply for the price of improving our capacities and enlarging our opportunities for collaborative inquiry about common problems” – Alison Kadlec and William Friedman, Deliberative democracy and the problem of power[1]

 In a conversation so sensitive, so charged and so personal as this one, disagreement can rule and reign from sun up to sun down – with little, if any, room for anything else.

One of the most profound gifts dialogue has given me is a glimpse of something more – something beyond, and above, and below the disagreement…something solid where we can (all potentially) stand.

Whether or not there is such a thing as “common ground” in this conversation, of course, is one of the points very much in dispute. 

At different points, one side or the other will pitch a potential topic of agreement. The question is deceptively non-simple, however, since many of the hoped for answers – “love” and “acceptance” and “tolerance” and “well-being of children” – it turns out invoke deeply disparate moral, spiritual and psychological narratives – e.g., What does it mean to be accepting? What kind of experience do children most need?  

If we can’t agree on that (and believe me, we can’t) – then what can we agree on?  If there is such a thing as legitimate common ground, what would it look like?  That has been a question we’ve grappled with in our Living Room Conversations – and it’s one I’d pose more broadly today.  

To start, click here to check out our short-list of agreements we’ve been gathering and “collecting” agreements at Living Room Conversations – identifying anything that comes up in conversation as something people on both sides (might) assent to and find some harmony. 

For each area we’ve identified, there are plenty of people who would probably balk at them – even with our qualifications. What do you think?  Are you agreement-with-these-agreements?  Would you suggest additions or changes?  

Not all agreements are equally powerful, in my mind.  That became especially clear during a meeting with Kendall Wilcox several months ago – openly gay Mormon man and a committed dialogue practitioner.  The backdrop of our exchange was a shared sense at how easy it is for both LGBT/SSA individuals (and their family/friends) to sometimes assume a profound level of inner deficiency:

  • “Just the fact that I had these feelings made me feel dirty” (FB-ME)
  • “I felt damned, and I felt dirty” (FB-L)
  • “I truly believed that I was evil; I was corrupt; I was sick in some way. And, so soon after that I became very depressed…it [was] hard to even live (​VH-SMT)​
  • “I thought that God hated me as much as I hated myself and therefore suicide became a real option for a very, very long time. Um, and it was a very difficult time” (FB-H)
  • “I felt like my world was ending. I thought I was never going to have salvation. I thought that even just feeling that way meant I was less a person, less of a daughter in God’s kingdom” (FB-ER)

 One man described how his own self-loathing began to take over his life:

I felt like I had done something wrong to feel those attractions and that it was my fault – that I had committed some sin that had brought about this consequence and now I was attracted to men. I felt therefore like I was dirty, dark, and evil. That feeling of darkness was too much to bear. That resulted in the darkest time in my life where I felt completely unworthy of any love or support of any kind. I felt completely cut off from my Heavenly Father, and that was probably the most difficult thing – I didn’t even feel worthy to pray….I knew He would hear me, but I felt like even God was ashamed to hear from me because of what I was experiencing. I felt like maybe I was being punished with these attractions, and so why would God want to hear about it when I brought it on myself. I was so desperate and I was so alone… Finally I just felt like instead of the eventuality or the possibility of somebody finding out somehow, in a weak moment telling them, or whatever – I would profit my friends and my family much more if I were just a memory rather than an actual presence in their lives. (VH-SB) 

If self-loathing were the end of it, that would be troubling enough and hard enough to grapple with.  But it doesn’t stop there:

  • “I was ostracized, slammed into walls, bashed over the head with trash cans, beaten, and taunted with homophobic slurs…’faggot’…was the word I heard most often. I only knew that people thought I was weird and hated me for it” (VH-AH)
  • “I ended up transferring schools because everyone was making fun of me. I couldn’t walk down the halls without people calling me obscene names. It hurt, it really hurt; some people would run up to me and say, ‘Is it true? Is it true, are you really gay?’ I would just bury my face and run on and just try to ignore it all” (VH-RC)
  • “A lot of derogatory things were said and I was always called a fairy and all the different words that people can use that can be hurtful” (VH-JT)
  • “I was teased by the boys a lot for the way I looked. They had a nickname for me; they called me ‘shim,’ a mix of she and him. It really hurt. I’d be standing in line at lunch and I would hear people whispering, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’” (VH-KK)

Many more stories like this could be shared – accounts which invoke a horror from people of all perspectives. For me, at least, these point to one undeniable, rock-solid area of potential common ground – something that goes deeper than simply standing up against bullying and violence.

Laying aside the different interpretations and narratives we have about identity, sexuality, morality, marriage, God – and virtually everything – perhaps we can agree that underneath all the stories, labels and disagreements is something we can agree upon:

A person.  Of worth.  And fundamental, inner, priceless value.

Fundamental wholeness. Out of the shared recognition of self-loathing and bullying as harmful and dangerous, perhaps people on both sides can arrive at this point of potential unity:  namely, seeing oneself as beautiful deep down – on the most fundamental level.

It is during my own moments of intimate listening, hearing and dialogue where this has surfaced in undeniable ways.  As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once said, “Truth comes through the face of the Other.”

And that day with Kendall, in particular, as we touched on the idea of fundamental wholeness, a spiritual rush of sweetness came over us: “hey – this is something to pay attention to!”

What to call that inner core[2] and how to make sense of the many things we layer on top of it…we’re back into Divergence land.  But resting for a moment on that deepest level of self – what mindfulness practitioners would call “awareness” and Christians, “spirit” – to what degree might we agree to relish, preserve and honor our profound, inherent beauty?

At that deepest level many people can find common acknowledgment of the fundamental worth, value and even perhaps wholeness our deepest selves.  Although not everyone might call this fundamental core “good”[3] – that’s even something that many might agree upon.  One person said, “And that was profound for me, and made me realize that regardless of who I was or my sexual orientation or my relationship with God, I was still something really great. And that was beautiful to me” (FB-RU).

The impact of this simple realization is reflected in this man’s story of progressing from the darkness of self-loathing to something else:

“I’ve had moments where I thought death was the only way out. Where I thought I would be better off dead. That I wasn’t worth it. Where I was so scared to move forward because I didn’t know what the future held for me. But something within me kept saying, Spencer, hold on. There’s healing. There’s purpose. There’s joy. And it didn’t come at once. It’s come in spurts. But it has gradually become more and more and more evident as I’ve done this journey, as Mary and I have gone on this journey together. it is worth it. That you’re worth it. That no matter how hard it gets at times. No matter how much you want to give up and throw in the towel or whatever, to not give up. That you are worth it and that there is hope, there is healing. … God doesn’t hate you. That God is aware of you, more than you even know. That he understands you to the depth of your core” (​VH-SMT)​.

The woman who spoke of feeling “like my world was ending” and that “even just feeling that way meant I was less a person, less of a daughter in God’s kingdom” added, “that’s not the truth at all. No matter how you feel you deserve to be loved” (FB-ER).  

In recounting interactions with others around him, Catholic writer Thomas Merton described his own similar realization this way:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Mormons might describe it saying, “we are all children of God.”  Jews might say “we all have the divine spark.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness-teacher, talks about “inner wholeness” and “our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”

As you read some other accounts, ask yourself:  is this something both sides might agree on solidly:  the profound value and fundamental wholeness of our deepest selves?[4]

One person spoke of “learning to love myself as I was right then. Not, one day I’ll be happy when I don’t have this, or when I do have this. Being able to say, right now with my struggles the way they are – I’m okay; I’m not the scum of the Earth.”  He added, “For me, that was probably the hardest thing to accept – that I wasn’t this vile person…I was still part of the plan. I was still part of Heavenly Father’s grand scheme” (VH-JO).

For many, this insight comes from an encounter with the divine – in a way that changed their view of this Being:

  • “As I delved into the scriptures more and studied more I got a different view of God than I had previously. I came to understand that He loves all His children which seems obvious, but that included me, and that He was very much aware of what was going on. You know God isn’t sitting there freaking out saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I have a same-sex attracted son, what is going to happen!?’ That helped me”(VH-JAJ)
  • “The pamphlet God Loveth His Childrenand talks by Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland – those changed my life. For the first time in my life I knew that it was okay that I was attracted to men. I found out that God still loved me and that there wasn’t anything wrong with me per se. That’s how it is and it was fine. God knew it and the Church leaders knew it” (VH-LJ)
  • “Even in the darkest times when I felt so cut off from my Heavenly Father, I never lost this intrinsic, innate knowledge that He was there, and that I was His son.” (VH-SB)
  • “God loves you. God loves you period. It’s not that He loves you despite anything or He will love you in the future – He loves you now”(VH-GB)

Compared to the more despairing, dark view, the discovery of another way to think is experienced as profoundly liberating.  One person describes his excitement that other LGBT/SSA individuals “were having the same spiritual validation that I was, and that we were still… we weren’t inherently evil, as it sometimes felt… I was able to escape that” (FB-AD)

Even with uncertainty, some talk of being able to rest in the confidence of that assurance – “I have no idea what the future holds, but I know that it will be amazing. The Lord has a plan for me and as I trust Him I will receive blessings beyond measure and I am so grateful for that” (VH-LJ)

What follows from this fundamental wholeness, of course, is a contested point: If our fundamental core is good, does this also mean that anything we experience is likewise good? (or not) Should same-sex attraction also be embraced as fundamentally good? (or not)

Regardless of these other disagreements, I would highlight this as powerful point of potential common ground. As Kendall Wilcox writes, “We assert that all our sisters, brothers, and families are inherently worthy of love and belonging in our homes, congregations, and communities – no matter where their life path may take them. This assertion means that we affirm the wholeness or innate divinity in every individual. We recognize the genuine, inherent worth of each soul as a child of God (without any insinuations about what that means in terms of life choices each child of God might make).”

Like all other common ground possibilities, this one has its limits. Certainly those religious conservatives who believe in the depravity of man would find this viewpoint far too liberal – while those who disbelieve God would contest any of its divine reflections.  But for those with some conception of an inner core – and one that is profoundly good – this may really be something to rest upon together.

In the discussion above, I’ve illustrated the larger case for fundamental wholeness.  Would you like to know a short-cut to discovering this for yourself?

Invite someone on the other side of this conversation to sit with you.  The magic moment for me happened in the home of Tyler & Michael Mathie – a gay couple who courageously hosted one of our first Living Room Conversations.

None of us were sure what would come out of the conversation, and I was personally surprised what it ended up meaning for me.  Simply put, I couldn’t believe how much I came away just really liking both of them. They were amazingly easy to love and to enjoy – people I wanted to spend more time with.  Following the conversation, they welcomed me back into their home multiple times – and became instrumental in Village Square’s first inaugural event.

I imagine that they – like my friend Tracy Hollister – might be nonplussed at why this affection hasn’t translated into seeing things the way they do (like some research seems to suggest it does for others). It hasn’t – and it may never happen. But that, again, is where the paradox offers to teach something to us all.

After all, if we loved only those who agreed with us, so what?  What would it mean to fall in love with those who disagree most vociferously with us?

Experiencing just that has changed so much for me!


[1] Kadlec, A., & Friedman, W. (2007). Deliberative democracy and the problem of power. Journal of Public Deliberation, 3(1) A8. []. (p. 23).

[2] In addition to Christian and Buddhist portrayals describe above, there are clearly many more ways to ‘narrate’ this inner core – including from people who are non-theist.

[3] Some Christians would certainly take issue with this – especially those who believe in the fundamental depravity of man.  For Mormons who believe in the fundamental divinity of man (albeit living in a fallen world), they would be comfortable seeing inner goodness and beauty all around.

[4] This, of course, is not the same thing as saying “everything about a person reflects wholeness” or “everything that person believes or says or says is beautiful” or “everyone that someone does should be embraced as whole and valuable.”


My question for people (more and more) convinced of inherent Mormon bigotry

“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Rumi

Much will be written today and throughout the weekend about the “narrowness” and “cruelty” of the Mormon Church in its recently clarified ecclesiastical direction regarding same-sex marriage in its congregations. The shock was tangible on social media last night – “this breaks my heart. I don’t even know what to say” – “Just wrong. So wrong” – “This REALLY bothers me” – “This is incredibly sad” – “It’s hard to believe anyone would be this cruel and close minded” –  “The Mormon leaders have gone mad with hatred” – “More Than Sick” – “Disgusting.”

And I get it.  I’ve been researching and facilitating dialogue in this area for a decade now.  And I know that from one telling of the story, the LDS Church has been “making great strides” in “softening its tone” and becoming “more inclusive and accepting” – fanning hopes among some for other adjustments and maybe even “additional revelation” in days to come.

And from within that narrative, this week’s actions feel like “twelve steps backward” after “two steps forward” as one person put it – and even “worse than Proposition 8!” another person declared.

Stipulations regarding the blessing and baptism of children, in particular, have been characterized as undeniably and inexcusably “callous” and “heartless” – with a striking sense in people’s comments that Mormon leaders are somehow taking out their hidden animus on helpless little kids (“TAKE THAT, you children of gay families!”) [1]

And yet – isn’t that what many people believe (or insinuate) to be happening?  The more time I spend time in this dialogue, honestly, the more complex it becomes – with so very much more to understand. If I had a chance to sit down with someone frustrated about these decisions – ideally in Jay’s cozy living room – this is the question I would ask:  Are you open to the possibility that Mormon leaders acted this week out of any other motive than animus and spite for the gay community?  More broadly, are you open to the possibility that religious conservative individuals (and churches) have acted in recent years out of any motivation other than hate or fear?

I already know what the answer would be for a good number of people – absolutely not!  One of the stand-out themes of my own research across thousands of online comments gathered since Proposition 8 is a category I’ve labeled simply, “Bafflement.”  Despite the relative novelty of something like gay marriage, those questioning or opposing the effort are seen with a striking level of bafflement: “It never ceases to amaze me that conservatives could be so against gay marriage,” said one person – and another, “there are ZERO good counterarguments to gay marriage,” and another, “The arguments used against gays and gay marriage fail even the simplest tests of logic,” and another, “Old beliefs set in stone that can’t stand up to logic. Haven’t we all seen this a thousand times before?”

Alignment with the gay rights movement is almost categorically framed as both more logical and more enlightened, such as these comments following Windsor v. United States:

  • “This is what a civilized country should do. Bravo to the intelligent people that passed this.”
  • “Wow. America drags itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century on equal rights for gay people. Never thought I’d live to see it.”
  • “The only thing that is annoying about this is that it took 17 years for America to wake up. What took you guys so long?!”

Those resisting these changes are often so framed as regressive –  somehow wanting a “return to the Dark Ages” – or “fanatics” who are as “bad as the Taliban.”

Even the idea that a Supreme Court Justice would be stupid enough to question these changes, showed up frequently after the same court decision:

  • “I really don’t get this. Incredible that ANYONE disagrees.”
  • “Wow, 5-4? The decision should have been closer to 9 – zip.”
  • “It’s a disgrace that it was still 5-4 along partisan lines.”
  • “I really can’t believe how close this was. The 4 nay voters should be publicly shamed.”

One person described the decision as “a temporary victory for sanity.”  As reflected above, the bafflement is great enough that insanity is hinted as one of the few possible (legitimate) explanations for dissent!

I detail these examples to make two simple points:  First, how in heaven’s name are we supposed to have any sort of a productive conversation under these conditions?

Despite what some people hope, religious conservatives aren’t going away.  Neither is the gay community. So what to do?

Perhaps it would be a step forward simply to recognize that genuine dialogue must entail the bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas.  The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be “dialogue.”  As Paulo Freire once said, “Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants.” [2]

Are you – whatever your stance – willing to support conditions that would allow for a dialogue that preserves space for legitimate, reasoned difference?

Secondly: Religious conservatives have often been criticized for the absolute certainty of their views – views that don’t always seem to make space for others to disagree…views that reflect a sense of superiority or judgmentalness to others.

To my progressive friends, I would ask: can we at least acknowledge this is happening on both sides? Can you appreciate that we religious conservatives are doing the best we can – navigating a world increasingly shaped by the passionate progressive convictions as to the righteousness and superiority of your own cause?

If so, then here’s a second question:  Are you open to the possibility of a group of people who are (pretty much) loving and thoughtful folks – but who happen to believe different things than you do about identity, sexuality, the body, attraction, choice, change, acceptance, love, justice, equality, rights, laws, religion, God, eternity, family, marriage and even the ultimate well-being of children?  In other words, are you open to the possibility that someone could disagree with you on any (or all of these) and not be stupid or hateful or wanting to hurt gay people or make little kids sad?[3]

WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS, my progressive (and conservative) friends.  It’s time to move beyond superficial and aggressive LGBT/religious conservative conversation – collectively leaving behind chronic disgust, resentment and yes, maybe even some of the bafflement (on both sides!) that others don’t happen to share our most cherished convictions.

It DOESN’T have to be this way.  I know. I’ve experienced what a more nuanced and generous LGBT/religious conservative conversation feels like.  And I’m writing to tell you that it’s worth fighting for![4]

I’m talking about a conversation where we actually ask each other real questions – instead of pseudo-questions[5] – something like, “help me understand what else you think might be motivating  the Mormon prophets in these recent decisions?” or “Help me understand why this decision by the Church today is so painful to you?”

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)  I believe such a conversation could be healing to all of us.

Along the way, we could explore other aspects of the situation – such as contrasting views of identity that underlie and shape very different conclusions among people who experience same-sex attraction about how they want to live their lives (as well as contrasting views of the role of choice in identity formation, what it means to “accept” or “hate” people – all coming soon!)

I’m talking about a conversation where the goal is something more than jockeying to “educate” or “enlighten” or “convert” those who see things differently.

But what’s the point of that? (both sides ask) Even if I don’t convince anyone, I’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 understand about those people.[6]

It will be 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 suspect a large portion of people (on both sides) cannot help but continue that path – 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 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.

Whatever our feeling or questions or confusion, maybe we could at least agree that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on almost everything in this world – including recent actions by Mormon leadership (see 10 key, thoughtfully-held disagreements here).

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 only spreads like a terminal cancer (and quickly).

Even in these heightened moments of conflict, I believe there are things we can learn together – precious things – that we will not learn on our own…in our own silos.

Rather than a paralyzing crisis, I’m persuaded these moments can become huge opportunities for huge learning – yes, on both sides!

I will warn you, however, that if you give this dialogue approach a try, it may suck you in.  Sitting for a real conversation threatens to give you a glimpse of the beautiful humanity of ‘those people’ on the other side.

And that, I can promise, has the potential to change everything…


[1] I understand why this announcement would feel much more than administrative for so many in the LGBT community and for their families – and how, without further explanation, it seems both inexplicable and unsettling. I have witnessed how these moments can feel like body-blows and gut-punches to some.  More than once I’ve seen people mentioning “this will put me over the edge…I’m leaving the church!” – watching some friends and family members do just that ever since Proposition 8.  Whatever space, listening and love people need in this moment – and every moment – should be top priority. Better understanding this pain and how to further decrease suffering has been my own hope in this work.

[2] Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, p. 70.

[3] This is essentially the same question, by the way, I ask conservatives in my own community: Are you open to the possibility that someone could disagree with you and not be evil or demonic or stupid?

Depending on the answers to these many questions, of course, people may arrive at very different conclusions about how to work with same-sex attraction, how to relate to conservative religion and the idea church atmosphere.  The take-away is that there are fundamentally different perspectives at play – without an awareness of which, this conversation becomes quickly toxic.

Even one whiff of an alternative viewpoint can suddenly open up a little more space to breathe together.  To illustrate, here’s one perspective Kendall Wilcox just posted on Facebook – in an attempt to invite bridge-building:

“I was born into polygamy and couldn’t be baptized until I moved from my mothers home. I was never encouraged to leave and didn’t leave until after I was married. Not once did I feel different or not loved by the church, it’s members and leadership. In fact it was quite the opposite. I understood the reasoning behind it. My mother was also treated with nothing but kindness. My ward family loved her and so did the leadership with who interviewed me. I waited 8 yrs. I did everything a member did (minus temple work) I even had a calling. The church teaches nothing but to love others. I understand the reasoning behind this. Maybe because I went thru it myself.”
“Legally, if an organization can be shown to be interfering with a child and their relationship with their parents, a lawsuit can be brought against them. Even if a gay couple has consented to an underage child being baptized, that child would be learning that their parents’ marriage was something their new religion considered a sin. Can you imagine the confusion and heartache it could cause, plus the potential legal ramifications? This is not only to protect the church, but also those families. I truly believe it is meant to be merciful, not hateful.”

[4] Like I’m trying to do now!  Most of my very best friends in the world are progressive, liberal people…and they have changed my life – inside and out.

[5] Charles Taylor called “pseudo-questions” – designed to make a statement and assertion, rather than to sincerely inquire.

[6] After ten years in the conversation, I feel I’m only beginning to appreciate the true nuance and complexity of these questions.  My curiosity and questions have grown exponentially.

#2 What role does romantic attraction play in identity?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“The attentive society is [a place] in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness to give and receive assistance on the road to truth.”-Tinder cited in Dionne and Cromartie, Why the Culture War Debate Endures[1]

Surely one reason the conversation about LGBT rights has been so uniquely intense is that, at base, the discussion goes to identity itself: who are we?  For any one of us, this question is a big deal – and something that invokes a lot of passion.

For some, the questions involved seem obvious enough as to be simple on their face: “You’re you. And that’s what you’re supposed to be” (FB-A).

For others, however, the same questions are complex enough that years are spent grappling with them. Depending on different cultures, belief systems and personalities, more or less weight may be given to various aspects of our experience in the process of ascertaining who exactly we are.  This includes varied views of the body, sexuality, emotions, thoughts and spirit in relation to identity.

The intricate process of identity clarification and construction has become a focus of inquiry in sociology, psychology and other fields.[2]  In what follows, one strand of this larger question is highlighted:  What role does sexual/romantic attraction[3] play in identity? (Or) what role should it play?

At the outset, it’s worth recognizing that sexuality (and sexual attraction) is important on some level to virtually everyone.  Indeed, for most people, it’s also embraced to some degree as ‘who they are.’  Where meaningful differences arise is in what exactly that means and the details of how sexuality plays out alongside other aspects of our identity – or as John Gustav-Wrathall nicely puts it, “the ways we create identities on the foundation of our sexuality as we experience it.”

So how do understandings in this area meaningfully differ and how do those differences play out over time?

Considering Another Spectrum.  Scientists have come to describe sexual attractions of different kinds as existing on various spectrums. In “mapping” the various interpretations at play, another spectrum of interpretive dimensions also emerges. On one end of the spectrum are those who approach sexual attraction as a core and determining aspect of fundamental identity.

On a broader level, of course, it’s common to hear sexuality talked about as a core determinant of who we are as individuals – something often taken for granted by those who experience heterosexual or opposite-sex attraction (OSA).[4] Arianne Cohen once said, “Sex … or lack thereof … is at the center of everyone’s identity, and once you’ve cracked someone’s desires, you understand them in full.”[1]

And this is understandably how many come to experience same-sex attraction (SSA) as well.  One person, for instance, recounted growing up and “beginning to realize how different I was in some unexplainable, undefinable, fundamental way, which, you know, I have since learned is my sexual orientation” (FB-CH). Another person identifying as gay added, “I don’t know all the answers but I also know that this is who I am, that this is how I feel” (FB-TY) and a third, “It’s important for people to understand that it [sexual orientation] is a part of who we are as inseparable from us as the color of our skin” (FB-MA)

At this end of the spectrum, then, sexual attraction (of all kinds) is embraced and honored as central indicators of who we are and a core reflection of our essential selves. 

For others, sexual attractions are understood as an important contributor to who we are as a person, but not necessarily so core, determining or primary an aspect of self.  One man said, “I don’t feel like being gay is who I am; I feel like it’s a part of who I am” (FB-CO). Another person reflected, “Obviously sexual and physical attractions are important… but I don’t think they need to be the guiding force in your life” (VH-GB) – with a third speaking of “accepting that [feelings of same-sex attraction] are there and owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay,” while adding, “that doesn’t have to determine everything about my future…my feelings don’t necessarily define me” (VH-BLH).[5]

At this point in the spectrum, then, particular feelings of sexual attraction are understood to be meaningful and legitimate aspects of one’s life experience, with some de-emphasis on the centrality of these attractions: “I am so much more than just an attraction” (VH-JO) and “it isn’t all of me” (VH-KK).[6] Some take it even further, with one man describing same-sex attraction as “a part of me, but it’s a small part”(VH-KK) and another saying, “same-sex attraction is such a small part of my life…an attraction, nothing more, nothing less” (VH-JN).[7]

Living Out the Interpretations.  Depending on where one falls on this identity-attraction interpretive spectrum (completely who I am <=> partially who I am <=>small part of who I am), different implications arise.

For those who believe sexual attractions are generally central and determining of one’s identity, there is naturally more emphasis on embracing one’s sexual orientation as central to who one is.  After initially considering same-sex attraction as something secondary, one person wrote of concluding, “OK, no that’s not what it is. It’s just who I am, and how do I accept that?” (FB-CH).  

In this way, people move towards a deeper identification with sexual orientation – variously described as being “open about who I am” (FB-BE) “more OK with who I am” (FB-CH), “embracing their sexuality” (FB-MB), embracing “who I am… in all parts of my identity” (FB-AN) “taking ownership of who I am” and “actually being who I am in every facet of my life” (FB-CH). As another person described it, “It wasn’t a temptation and it was, you know, it was just a part of who I am and I’m finally okay with it” (FB-DA).

The choice of whether to fully embrace or not this sexual orientation identity becomes the central decision point.  For some, this process takes substantial time, “It took me probably a good decade to accept my sexuality” (FB-H).  Another spoke of leaving behind other views of identity:  “I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was.”  He added, “it took many years to figure out, to have to hear people talking about what it meant to be gay, and what a gay person was, and to have to come to that conclusion. ‘Is that me?’ was one that I was not readily available for, or willing to make” (FB-KA).

Another person said, “I think the hardest part was admitting to myself, initially what was going on, how I felt” – “finally saying, ‘This is me,’ ‘This is who I am.'” He continued, “I’m in a place where I accept myself and accept my relationships, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about me” (FB-L) Another person said: “I’ve had that peaceful confirmation that I’m fine just the way I am….I am is a lesbian and I’m a Mormon and it feels amazing to be able to just be me” (FB-BR)

The alternative to this process above is to deny one’s identity – two choices often presented to others as their main options:  “One [option] is attraction denied, suppressed, and just keep everything inside and pretend that you don’t experience same-sex attraction. That’s one option. The second option is to be open and live a gay lifestyle. Essentially those are your two choices. Anything in between is fake, it’s not real” (VH-BAO). Another person said, “On one end of the spectrum is be yourself, be who you are, don’t deny who you are….On the other hand I had other people saying you shouldn’t tell anybody; you should keep this to yourself and this is something you really just need to push down and stamp down and just try to hide, suggesting in essence that I lead the life that I had been living the fifteen years previous to that point. Neither of those things was going to work for me, and I knew that my answer was a little more nuanced and more somewhere in the middle, but I just wasn’t sure where” (VH-SB)

Others spoke of grappling with a middle ground:  “One thing that people say often is that it’s not who I am but honestly it is. It is as part of me as everything else. Yeah, it’s not the largest part and it’s not everything but it’s a big part of me and I think about it all the time and I’m okay with that now” (VH-ML). Another person spoke of hearing often, “You need to be true to yourself; this is who you are…and you need to be true to yourself” – then mentioning a movie-line from The Incredibles, where Buddy is talking to Mr. Incredible and he says, “You always, always say ‘Be true to yourself,’ but you never say which part of yourself to be true to!” (VH-GB)

Continuing his reflection he states: “There are so many parts of you, but you need to be true to the most important one. So before being gay and before being attracted to men I am so many other things that are so much more important to me. I am a child of God, I am a disciple of Christ; I am a son, a brother, an uncle, an actor, a teacher…There are so many other things that are more important to me so I think it is important to find out what those parts of yourself are that are important to you and those are the parts of yourself that you need to be true to” (VH-GB)

As reflected here, for those who see sexuality as important but not fundamentally core, it naturally becomes less important to embrace sexual orientation as a central aspect of one’s identity. Referring to his same-sex attraction, another says, “I’m starting to learn the main focus for me has slowly stopped being about this one thing. That is not the number one priority in my life anymore. It’s starting to be other things and that is something that I never thought would happen” (VH-JO).

Even while coming to a place of acceptance in terms of experiencing same-sex attraction, many may not feel right taking the acceptance further.  As one woman said: “I’ve decided to put aside my sexuality, put aside those feelings – be okay that I’m attracted to girls. I want to be close to God more than anything else…and I want to reach the goals I have to marry in the temple and have kids.  And be able to love a man – and raise a family together.  And that seems far away – it seems almost unattainable at times. But that’s what I want.  It goes against what I feel in attraction, but that’s what I feel in my heart” (FB-ME).

This woman acknowledges a “battle between those different wants that I have” (FB-ME)[8]  One man concludes, “God loves you, you have a reason to be happy – just be true to whatever part of yourself you want to be true to, and if you have to set things aside then you have to set some things aside” (VH-GB).  

Rather than only deciding between coming out or not, then, these individuals pursue a third option that embraces same-sex attraction as a legitimate, meaningful part of experience, but not one experienced as centrally defining.[9] 

Is that even healthy?  For those who embrace attraction as central to identity, of course, any setting aside of sexuality doesn’t even seem to be a possible – let alone healthy.   Indeed, each position can appear irrational and even harmful to the other side. On one hand, those who approach sexual orientation as core to identity may see others as inauthentic for not recognizing this part of self enough. Those who question this might also be accused of “straight privilege” for not ‘having to realize’ how central heterosexuality is to their own identity. Arthur, for instance, emphasizes how a heterosexual man is embedded “in a society that continually affirms your sexual and romantic feelings, you are ‘swimming’ in it, and so just don’t always realize just how much of your life is determined by your sexual orientation.”

Those who see sexual orientation as part of identity – but not core – can also see the other side as likewise inauthentic for seemingly over-emphasizing this part of self. Reflecting on a previous time in his life when he saw sexual orientation as more central to his core identity, another man said, “What I was doing was I was taking this small part of me and I was amplifying it, making it something so big…this is just one part of me” (VH-JN) 

Being ‘true to myself’?  As reflected here, depending on how central you see sexuality in relation to identity, very different answers may be given to the issue of “being true to yourself.”  On one hand, following same-sex feelings into a romantic relationship may be understood as a basic reflection of self-honesty and being true to oneself.  On the other hand, someone (with equivalent feelings) may decide he/she is being “true to himself/herself” by not embracing a same-sex relationship. To this latter group, the very act of ’embracing’ same-sex feelings may be seen as a step away from one’s core identity.

Describing a man featured in an NPR story who experiences same-sex attraction but chose to marry his wife, one commentator summarized, “he did not hold his sexuality as the primary characteristic that defines him. He does, however, give priority to his Christian identity, and it sounds like he is trying to be true to this. For him, that IS being true to himself.”

It is, of course, those who experience same-sex attraction who are left to grapple with the tension between these positions.  One person described fears of her friends as she decided to identify as lesbian, “that I’m going to become something that I’m not” (FB-AN). Another person recounted all the curiosity she got after returning to activity in the LDS Church: “I really feel like the way I’m living now as an active member of the Church is who I really am; this is me being authentic. It has allowed me to really connect with people and to feel that deep connection that I’ve been looking for.”  She went on to say, “I have been asked, ‘How can you really be happy when you’re not being true to yourself?’ I think there is this misconception that you have to act on your feelings to really be true to you are, but I feel like I’m being true to the most important part of who I am, and that is a daughter of God” (VH-KK).

Obviously, a lot depends on the interpretation reached: Is this who you are – or something you are experiencing?  Is this who that child is – or an important part of their experience?

Whatever larger interpretation is adopted, helps to shape an entire life centered around the particular narrative of identity. Other weighty decisions connected to identity narratives might include:  Is it even possible to do what my faith community expects of me?  Should I leave my current spouse and family to seek someone better?

Regardless of the disagreements over how exactly sexuality figures in to someone’s identity, there remains striking common ground as well.  For instance, people on all sides can acknowledge the nuance and complexity in any human being.  One man who identifies as gay mentioned gay stereotypes (‘they all like Broadway shows), then added, “I’m not a stereotype – and I don’t think anyone is.  I’m more than gay.  I’m follower of Jesus Christ and I really like ice cream and I and I love to sing and I love to dance and I really like books and I think the color blue or so beautiful and I’m wearing a leather jacket….and I happen to like guys you know I mean there’s so much more to me than just being gay so when being gay becomes all that I am in all that I am judged for” (FB-CO).

And that’s probably something that everyone can agree on!

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • How comfortable (or uncomfortable) do you feel with the idea that thoughtful people might legitimately disagree on the questions above – namely, how closely to tie sexual attraction to identity?
  • Is it possible to respect various choices that people might make along this spectrum of interpretation in relation to sexuality and identity? If not, why not?
  • Might people on both sides of this conversation agree that it isn’t always so easy to determine when to embrace a sexual attraction as “you” versus “partially you” versus “not you”? If not, help us understand why not?
  • Would acknowledging the potential complexity of this decision provide more (or less) space and respect for people with same-sex attraction as they determine what path feels right to them?
  • Can we agree that it’s okay to disagree on who we are? If not, why not?
  • Is there any other common ground that exists here?



[1] Marie Claire Magazine, March 2008.

[1] Chapter in James Davidson Hunter & Alan Wolfe (Eds). Is there a culture war?: A dialogue on values and American public life. Pew Forum Dialogue on Religion and Public Life. (Washington, D.C.: Brooking Institution Press, 2006), 8

[2] See Cerulo, 1997, Alvesson, 2008, Dowling, 2011

[3] Sexuality, of course, is much more complex than simply thoughts, feelings and experiences – with many books, journals and research careers dedicated to understanding its nuances.  Acknowledging the innate complexity and richness, the aim here is simply to illuminate distinctions between how various political communities “narrate” the place of sexuality in identity, broadly speaking.  The effort is descriptive, rather than evaluative.

[4] From this perspective, it might feel baffling why it would even be a question as to how closely tied to identity same-sex attraction is. And yet it is a real question for so many!  The purpose of this essay is simply to map existing differences in interpretation, along the way to a more thorough, open exploration.

[5] Super interesting differences in Feeling Narratives exist as well. On one hand, feelings can be understood as a kind of essential and indivisible reality in themselves – held as a reliable and trustworthy indicator of one’s fundamental identity. One Mormon man identifying as gay writes, “I know that I am gay the same way that I know that the church is true, because I have this feeling deep inside that tells me so and I can’t distrust one without distrusting the other because it’s the same feeling” (FB-RY). From another perspective, something more fundamental than feelings is understood to exist – a deeper reality exists underlying whatever feelings are happening. From this vantage point, feelings may not be a reliable and trustworthy indicator of one’s fundamental identity – as reflected in that other comment: “I’ve been able to realize that who I really am is not defined by my attraction. I am way more than that; I am so much more than just an attraction” (VH-JO)

[6] As highlighted in the paragraph closing this essay, many in the gay community would agree with this statement – shared here, simply in the context of how central sexual attraction is to identity.

[7] Arthur’s response:  “Baloney!  Insistence on its being a ‘small part’ is, I think a more ideologically motivated characterization  than experientially motivated.  I don’t believe that the vast majority of people who choose to think of their sexuality as a ‘small’ part of who they are really experience it that way.  Your friends who identify with “SSA” are probably daily, maybe even hourly, involved in some activity that either reminds them of their sexuality, or that directly involves them in defending or explaining the choices they have made.  If they listen to the radio news, they will hear about their sexuality.  If they drive past a rainbow flag, they will be reminded… Every time a fleeting attraction surfaces in their consciousness, they will be reminded.”

To Arthur, I would say – what I am mapping here is interpretations of experience, not experience itself. To what degree any of these interpretations map onto actual experience is another question – one worth talking about? (My friends would, I think, agree and disagree with you on various parts of your answer).

[8] These stories also reflect an interesting difference in how “desire” is related to attraction.  For some, desire and attraction are synonymous – one and the same – while for others, they come to an awareness deeper than attraction.  From this place, they may find a desire to either embrace or not embrace this attraction. From the second perspective, there is a space to talk…wow, “who am I? these same-sex attractions – do I want to embrace them?” (VH-JN)

[9] Arthur points out that “many gay-affirming people also follow this option–they ’embrace their sexuality,’ and then move on….and live life, having relationships, pursuing jobs, having kids, camping, watching movies, etc.” Important not to overstate the differences here!

Another point:  Perhaps what sends the message of centrality is the labels often used – which is obviously a part of this interpretive picture as well. For those who embrace the first view, many taken on the core identification and label of being a “gay” individual. For those who embrace the second view, while some choose to still embrace the label of “gay,” others choose different labels (same-sex attracted) – or none at all.  For someone who doesn’t identify with their same-sex attration entirely, saying “I am gay” is too forceful of a statement.  One person who experiences same-sex attraction spoke of never taking on “gay” as a label:  “I’ve never viewed myself as that. I have come to the point where I have recognized that it is a part of me and it is a part of my life” (​VH-SMT)​.  One person who experienced SSA – but didn’t identify as gay said, “I’ve had a couple of friends and co-workers outside of the Church just straight up ask me if I’m gay…I say something like, ‘Well…kind of'” (VH-GB). For some, use of any other label than gay can be seen as dismissive.  One person said, “I wish the Church would drop the term same sex attraction” and Andrew Marin (Jul15 2010) writes, “the phrase ‘same-sex attraction’ and that is not liked within the LGBT community because it sounds like you don’t want to accept the word gay”).

#1 What does it mean to be attracted to another human being?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility.”- Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute

“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists.” – Harold Saunders, A Public Peace Process

Note:  As reflected in the accompanying crayon-image, there was a time when each of us were willing to ‘draw outside the lines’ just a bit – staying (even a little) curious and open to absurd ideas like colorful penguins.  Some of what you read below may feel absurd as well – and different parts will likely challenge people on both sides of this conversation. Encountering the ‘absurdity’ of the Other in a fresh way, of course, is precisely the point of dialogue – which, by virtue of bringing wildly diverse people together, presses the edges of our current understandings and invites a deepening for all of us (all of which inevitably entails “sitting with discomfort”).  Dialogue also goes beyond discomfort, however, and I also hope new insight and validation will be experienced by both sides as well.  Critical responses or questions are most welcome – whether in writing or in our Living Room Conversation Saturday.

One contributor to sociopolitical misunderstanding and confusion is the use of terms in particular ways by one side or another – even while talking as if ‘we all know what X means.’  As a way to get underneath some of the warfare dynamics, then, it can be helpful to illuminate some of the basic differences in interpretations[1] – starting with this thing called ATTRACTION.

Last week, I went to dinner with Tracy Hollister and someone she is falling in love with,  Lisa.  It wasn’t hard to see why Tracy would be drawn to this amazing woman – gentle, kind and well-qualified to be writing a book called “Being Love.”

This is how Tracy described her:  “My heart is bursting with gratitude for our deep connection. I feel so safe, cherished and at peace around her. She is beautiful, loving, smart, playful, fun, communicative, and compassionate. I adore her, especially when she is singing!”

Clearly the draw between these two is a whole-person, broad-spectrum attraction –  not quite the way we typically ‘do’ attraction in America these days!

One Approach to Attraction. A couple of years ago, I did an interviewing study exploring contrasting narratives of romance in our country[3] – with the ‘dominant story’ of attraction centered on three themes:

1. Overwhelming. Robert Johnson, a therapist who specialized in the psychology of romance, writes that true love has come to be defined by a mutual adoration of “overwhelming intensity”- an experience that pop music reassures us brings with it pleasures that are “virtually infinite.”[4]As Carlos Almarán writes of his lover, “You were the reason for my existence; to adore you for me was religion…a love…that gave light to my life…without your love I will not live.” According to the dominant story-line, this kind of breathless, irrational desire has become a basic litmus test and threshold for determining “true love.”

2. Physically-focused.Between 2004 and 2006, scholars from Harvard University and the London School of Economics conducted a study of how 4100 women across 13 countries viewed their own attractiveness. One of the central findings was that women rated their own “beauty” and “physical attractiveness” asone and the same, with ideas of beauty and physical attractiveness “largely synonymous” and “interchangeable.” The researchers summarize: “It appears that the word ‘beauty’ has – in many ways – become functionally defined as ‘physical attractiveness.'”[5]

Embedded within the American cultural soup, the (primary) attraction many of us end up seeking to confirm an ideal mate is essentially being attracted to someone’s body. Even so, a 2007 American Psychological Association task-force on sexualization reported that “many individuals have become uncomfortable with ‘real bodies.'”[6] People have become so accustomed to high levels of visual novelty and stimulation, other experts note, that they’re often “unable to focus” on real human beings– reflecting “eroding individual appreciation of the unaltered human form” where “suddenly a normal [person’s] body looks abnormal.”[7]

3. Immediate and Enduring. The right person, from this story-line, should also sweep us off our feet and enthrall us “from the beginning.” Attraction is thus expected to happen “right away,” reflecting what the philosopher Shopenhauer called “the wholly immediate, instinctive attraction.”   If that was not enough, this immediate intensity of feeling is also expected to show remarkable staying-power and endurance throughout a relationship and a life span. “If human love ever wanes,” one author notes, “then it wasn’t love in the first place.”[8] In another study, 65% of people surveyed reported believing that “the intense passion of the first stages, if it is real, will last, or it should last, forever.”[9]

And there you have it!  You see, this is not about merely finding a trusted companion or a good match; within this Story of Romance, we’re looking for much, much more.  How about, “Super Relationship”?!  Historian Simon May describes a turning point centuries ago where human beings began to believe that “a single human being” could be “experienced as embodying the greatest good and be worthy of the sort of love that was formerly reserved for God.”[10]

This Story is seductive enough to most human beings that arguably one commonality in this conversation is simply how this larger Story of Romance tugs at us all.

Living out the Story.  So what does this Story mean for real-life couples trying to make a life together?

Like all good stories, this one starts off feeling pretty exciting at first (when the sparks fly).  But what happens when (not if) the hyper-sexual arousal between a couple cools down?

That’s the moment at which (according to the Story), it’s time to let the person know, “I’m just not feeling it anymore…sorry!” Johnson writes, “When we fall out of love the world suddenly seems dismal and empty, even though we are still with the same human being who had inspired such rapture before.”

In this moment, he continues, we begin to hear a “whispering that ‘true love’ is somewhere else, that it can’t be found within the ordinariness” of this current relationship. This voice tells us that “life will only have meaning if [we] go after” that romantic intensity again – “Nothing less will do, for [you deserve] passion, and passion is all.” [11]

Out of this mindset, we naturally begin to wonder if our relationship was right in the first place…noticing new deficiencies confirming ‘I’m not getting the experience I deserve.’ Those who hang on in a relationship can see themselves as martyrs – sacrificing one’s larger happiness and losing one’s chances for true love. After all, at this point, Johnson writes “it is hard for us to imagine that there could be any love, at least any worthwhile love, still alive for a couple outside of the presence of strong romance.” Indeed, it’s exceedingly hard for someone fully committed to the Story not to desperately miss the ecstasy and rush – and to feel as if he or she is getting  “cheated” by continuing the relationship – “giving up” on something he/she really wanted – and “something that excited and thrilled” them. In light of these pulls and tensions, Johnson writes “suddenly our human loyalties…are going in different directions a terrible conflict of values.”[12]

And then one day, another person catches our eye…”On that day,” Johnson continues, “two opposing armies in the Western psyche take up their swords and go to war” inside us. On one hand is everything good experienced and felt in the current relationship – including commitments, memories, peace and whatever potential you’ve glimpsed – each of which calls for more hope and patience. On the other hand, a voice continues “insisting fervently that it is a wonderful thing to search” more for something better…”rather than settle for the flesh-and-blood [individual] that real life has put into [our] arms.”[13]

For any of us (of any orientation and any perspective), the possibility of happier possibilities and truer love just out of reach can drive us to grasp after ‘something better,’ while walking away from the person and relationship we’ve already embraced.  If we choose to stay with that person, the Story often “booby-traps relationships with an impossible expectation,” resulting in relationships left in “shambles from the crushing burdens…placed on them.”[14]

In summary, then, a second commonality across the LGBT/religious conservative divide is that the Story reviewed above potentially hurts us all – in both subtle and profound ways. And to be very clear, the weight of this Story falls on not just people who are conservative or liberal or religious or secular or gay or straight.  It comes down on all of us – especially those seeking a committed love.

This can be a particular burden, however, to those in the middle of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation, who find themselves often trying to navigate message, impulses and ideals that can feel paradoxical.

The Story’s Confounding Influence.  One of my close friends experiences same-sex attraction, but wants to be in an opposite-sex relationship (due to his faith – a Story for another day).  After an evening date with a new girl friend of his, he started telling me how amazing their conversation was and how much fun they had.

Then his face suddenly clouded over, “but I’m frustrated, because I just wasn’t feeling what I’m supposed to…”

I asked myself, “what just happened?”  In slow motion, it’s as if I was witnessing a relationship with some admitted potential (and excitement) suddenly asked to measure up to The Story.

The weight of this contrast shows up in other accounts as well – including these men (who all identify as either gay or same-sex attracted) recounting their past experiences in a Romance-crazy society:

  • “It was really hard because I would be sitting around with a group of my guy friends and they would be talking about some girl that was really hot, beautiful, and gorgeous.” (VH-JT)
  • You feel like you know how you should be just from the things that people say and the movies you watch and everything your friends are talking about and you know that you’re not that way.” (VH-ML)
  • “I dated lots of girls, but my form of dating….was just having a best girlfriend and we would just hang out all the time. In high school my friends started talking about girls in a way I couldn’t really wrap my head around. They talked about these feelings that they were having for these girls and I was dating at the time and I was kind of confused why I didn’t have those same kind of feelings.” (FB-ST)
  • “The one thing that bothered me about it, I guess, was the fact that I wasn’t having the same feelings for girls…that my friends were. They were going crazy… I was scared. I wasn’t feeling the same way about girls that everybody else was.” (FB-AD) (highlights my own)

Clearly, there are many other things happening in these accounts beyond the influence of the Story of Romance.  As Arthur points out, individual physiological differences clearly play a huge role in co-creating the experience [15], interacting with surrounding context, inner values, and the Stories themselves.  In future weeks, much more will be said about the various Faith Stories at play as well.

Narratives, then, don’t operate in a vacuum – interacting with potentially hundreds of other details.  To bound the conversations in some way, I’ve chosen to “chunk” up the various narratives into 30 pieces – starting with this one.

On that note, it’s important to point out that the same Story of Romance can be as much of a confound in committed gay relationships [16] – as in the accounts I’ve gathered from heterosexual relationships: “Why can’t I feel those feelings for her?  She’s perfect in every other way!” (available for download here).

Multiplying the Awkwardness.  On a broader level, this Story arguably plays part in some of the awkward cultural pressure faced by those who experience same-sex attraction growing up in America – which can press someone into chronic fake-ness, like one woman who spoke of  “made-up crushes, pretending to like some guy’s eyes – just because everyone else did” (FB-ME).  One man similarly said:

As you get older and they start asking you about girls and who you think is cute or hot and I just remember having to make up stories about it; having to pretend like I understood what they were saying or I agreed with them. I just kind of went along with it because I knew if I said what I really felt that it would be completely different and completely awkward. So you put on a façade and pretend like everything is fine and I guess you get really good at it and keep your mouth shut. (VH-ML)

Is it any wonder (speaking now to my religious conservative friends), that many individuals opt to pursue the attractions that come more naturally to them?  Two men who identify as gay/SSA recount:

  • “I didn’t have any feelings for women—not at all. More that to the extent that thinking about kissing a girl made me feel sick. I was okay with holding her hand or giving a hug or so, but like, kissing a girl? Oh no, not in a million years. Not at all, back then” (VH-SM)
  • “I had a lot of dates where they were very pleasant they were very fun and then they and they usually end up with some sort of an awkward hug at the end and it was kinda like dating my sister it’s just there wasn’t any spark or chemistry there” (FB-unsure)

Attempting to invite more empathy, one gay man told a straight friend, “you know, like you’ve been attracted to men your whole life, but imagine, you know, someone telling you like, ‘Okay you have to be with women and you have to love them and you have to marry them and that’s what’s normal.’” (FB-DA)

This is a point on which religious conservatives can, I think, have a lot more empathy and understanding:  What would it feel like for you to experience this same kind of conflict between larger cultural expectations and your own personal affections? If it’s your own experience, it’s not so easy to know how to move forward, right?

Surrounded by this Romance Story, of course, one could argue that ultimately any couple (and likely every couple at some point) will face the question that many mixed-orientation marriages do – namely, staying in a relationship “that is comfortable and safe or taking the necessary risks to find true love” (FB-KK). Most every couple has to face that question at some point – betraying the Story on some level. For those in “mixed-orientation” marriages, in particular, this larger awareness might help identify where some of the difficulty arises.[2]

Bottom line:  this larger story arguably makes things more difficult for all of us. Within this cultural pressure-cooker, a third commonality involves a hunger for a broader, deeper kind of intimacy in our romantic relationships.

Another Approach to Attraction. Contrasting with the dominant story, is a viable alternative – romance re-branded – pointing towards something more, something better.

1. Comfortable. Rather than demanding knock-me-dead feelings, this approach is more accepting of comfortable romance. Don’t worry – this is no pitch for settling or embracing loveless relationships. Instead, this is about bringing attention to another pathway of progression towards long-term, profound emotional intimacy – one that starts with smaller seeds nourished over time.

Saraceno writes in her historical essay on Italian families about “tranquil affection” as something that used to be widely understood to develop over the course of a long-term relationship.[17] Rather than needing to feel ‘everything’ right now, a couple may thus look for just enough confirming emotional assurance to begin.  Rather than needing to be ‘madly in love,’ ‘head over heels,’ or find a partner ‘the most amazingly attractive person ever,’ many couples decide to embrace a romance and love more subtle with potential to grow over time.

2. Whole-person focused.In the same international study of thousands of women, the overwhelming consensus was expressions of desire “to embrace a conception of beauty that defies the narrow, physically-focused standards set for them by popular culture” – towards a view that is “richer and more complex than the physical ideals that dominate popular culture” and thereby “admits to a far greater and nuanced range of ‘the beautiful.'”[18]

From this vantage point, the affection of romance may go deeper than what individuals see alone. Instead of de-emphasizing the body, this is about embedding our romantic experiences in a kind of “full spectrum” attraction. While enjoying whatever sexual enjoyment a relationship offers, this approach does not place so many huge demands on either the sexual attraction of one’s partner or ‘how it has to be’ between the two of you. Deeper qualities may thus ground love powerfully, with individuals drawn together for reasons far beyond the immediate physical appeal. “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

3. Emergent & Evolving.Rather than demanding an immediate experience, this approach understands the deepest of attraction and affection as an emergent and evolving process. When the sweet excitement of early intensity fades, one author writes, that is often “the moment of disillusionment. You think love is gone…This is the time that most people go back and look for someone else to provide this feeling of euphoria.” Another author notes, most “react to this stage of romantic love – this breaking of the spell – as though it were a great misfortune!” – even a “disaster.”[19]

The psychologist M. Scott Peck adds, “When love exists it does so…. with or without a loving feeling. It is easier – indeed, it is fun – to love with..the feeling of love. But it is possible to love…without loving feelings, and it is in the fulfillment of this possibility that genuine and transcendent love is distinguished from mere loving of an object.”[20]

By contrast, Johnson continues, this moment may be seen as “the crucial point in an evolution,” the opening of an “awesome possibility” – namely, loving someone because of who they are, not simply what they’re giving you.  Scott Peck proposes “real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving.”[21][1]

Living Out Another Story.  Quite a contrast with the first story, no?  There isn’t time to detail all the practical implications of this second story.  Suffice it to say:  Just as the first narrative impinges and burdens real human beings trying the messy practice of love, this alternative story can equally de-burden and disabuse couples wanting to stay committed.

I have seen real love in my faith community and I have seen it in friends’ relationships in gay community.[22] Wherever it arises, I’m arguing that it is harder to find, harder to practice and harder to sustain (for all of us) when we take the dominant cultural story of romance for granted.

By contrast, if we choose to adopt a broader story of affection, romance and love – all relationships could potentially be benefited.  Rather than being driven to a particularly narrow kind of beauty and a particular kind of affection-experience, more space opens up for people to seek the relationship in which they find the greatest happiness.  [But wait a minute, what do we mean by ‘greatest happiness’…?  Better stop here for now!  Thanks for indulging a lengthier opening essay; upcoming ones are much shorter! I would love to hear what you thought!]

But first, some Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • To what degree might religious conservatives acknowledge – without violating their convictions of marriage – a form of legitimate beauty in gay couples who are practicing sacrificial, charitable love together? If not, how would you help someone understand why that’s going too far for you?
  • To what degree might the gay community provide – without violating their own convictions of identity – more acknowledgement to individuals with same sex attraction who do not identify with the gay community – and choose to seek happiness in opposite-sex relationships? If not, how would you help someone understand why that’s going too far for you?)
  • In what ways would it change the current LGBT/religious conversation, if simply greater empathy could exist for the actual experience of people who experience enduring attraction to the same-sex? Even while acknowledging ongoing disagreements about God, eternity, marriage, etc – what would it mean to simply appreciate how difficult it can be for those in the gay/SSA community to know how to move forward?
  • Can both religious conservatives and the LGBT community agree that the dominant Story of Romance (touched upon above) can burden any relationship? If so, are there any common ground measures that both communities could support – e.g., in aspiring for community ideals of whole-person commitment that endures the ups and downs of life?


[1] With any key term, of course, there are always naturally arguments for “one true definition” that should be obvious for everyone – whether via religious or scientific authority.  Conviction around various definitions is not a problem – as long as we can still acknowledge the role of interpretation in permitting others to define the same word in profoundly different ways.  My past work has focused on doing just this in the area of mental health – exploring different things we might mean by “recovery” (Hess, Lacasse, et al., 2014) or “successful outcome” (Hess & Lacasse, 2010) – and what follows from these various meanings.  In collaboration with a small group of dialogue practitioners from the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, we are also finalizing a Red Blue Dictionary in time for the 2016 presidential race – that will succinctly address this word and many others.

[2]  I find it fascinating to notice the influence of this Story for couples deliberately making decisions that fly in the face of its expectations. Describing the beginning of his relationship (a man with SSA) with his wife, one man writes: “I remember going home from that just being totally devastated. I sat there next to this girl I told everybody I liked, but I didn’t feel anything at all, it just felt uncomfortable. It was kind of the same thing with our first kiss too, like I had these feelings, I really really wanted them to be there. I really liked her a lot and at this point I had known her for a long time and I loved her, but feeling this really strong desire and this sort of anticipation and hoping that…I just want to kiss her again and again kind of thing, but it didn’t. The first time we kissed it was…I think that is why it wasn’t a great experience for me” (VH-BLH)

Despite this challenge at the beginning, other aspects of their relationship drew them together:  “We were so close in other ways besides sexuality that when sexuality didn’t turn out exactly like it does in the movies it was okay. We could talk about it and work through it.”  They described how the sexual closeness developed eventually: “We have a healthy intimate life. sometimes more so than other people that I’ve talked to at least… I feel like we have a really good romantic relationship” (VH-BLH)

Related to these kinds of stories, some people speak of experiencing same-sex attraction initially as broader expression of healthy affection, rather than a “problem to be fixed” :

  • “I was always .. not as fixated on the physical stuff. I figured that my priorities were more the spiritual connection, the emotional connection, because that’s what was most important and so I didn’t let myself be too bothered by the lack of physical or sexual attraction towards girls. I figured that was a reflection of my priorities more than an orientation issue” (FB-JA)
  • “I had a ‘girlfriend.’…[but] It didn’t occur to me that I was “supposed” to be sexually attracted to her. I just figured that my lack of sexual desires for women meant that I was really good at respecting them” (VH-AH)

One woman married to a man with same-sex attraction felt similarly:

“A lot of what I missed, a lot of what I appreciated in women, was that emotional closeness and my husband’s great at that. You know, if I were married to somebody else it might be a different story, but I get a lot of spiritual and emotional support from my husband. He’s very good about talking about feelings or opening up to that; and that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about him” ​(VH-LC)​

From a religious conservative perspective, then, the same-sex attraction may also be considered a strength, an advantage – and even a part of Godly attraction. One person noted, “I believe being gay has a lot of divine qualities. I believe that in the next life we will all be attracted to each other in the exact way that Heavenly Father meant for us to be and that there will be more affection among men” (FB-Al). Reflecting this perspective, one Mormon friend, Ty Mansfield, writes:

If we understand intimacy in it’s purest form/meaning and note that in the Church of the Firstborn we will ALL see one another “as we are seen” and know one another “as we are known” (see D&C 76)–and experience there a deep kind of celestial intimacy, as an entire community, beyond anything any of us will ever experience here (including a a divine expression of same-sex love).

[3] “Once Upon a Time… He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore. What’s Killing Romance in America – And What to Do About It.” Download it here for free or find it on Amazon for a couple of bucks.

[4] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), xiii, 72.  Sheff (2011)

[5] Nancy Etcoff, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott and Heidi D’Agostino, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being” StrategyOne, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (2004), 13, 47.

[6] Cited in Deborah Schooler and L. Monique Ward “Average Joes: Men’s relationships with media, real bodies, and sexuality.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(1), 27–41 (2006).

[7] Ian Kerner, “How porn is changing our sex lives.” CNN (2011, Jan 20).Susie Orbach, Bodies (Bodies. New York: Picador, 2009),Maggie Hamilton, What’s Happening to Our Girls? Too MuchToo Soon – How our Kids are Overstimulated, Oversold and Oversexed. (London:  Penguin Group, 2009).

[8] Simon May, Love:  A History (London:  Yale University Press, 2011),  237.

[9] Ana Barrón López de Roda, et al. “Romantic beliefs and myths in Spain.” The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 2(1), 64-73 (1999).

[10] Simon May, Love:  A History (London:  Yale University Press, 2011),  12. The idea began to spread across Europe – with the French population by the mid-1800s beginning to speak of “marriage by fascination.” In one man’s letter to his lover in the late 1800s, he wrote, “I breathe by you; I live by you.” New Orleans lawyer Albert Janin (as cited in Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking Books, 2005). 147, 178). As reflected here, in the intimacy of romance we came to expect answers to some of our deepest, most profound needs. In addition to bringing people together, this kind of intense love was understood to be unchanging over time, with couples expected to “maintain their ardor until death do them part,” writes historian Stephanie Coontz. Regarding these “unprecedented goals for marriage,” she continues, “Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable.” For many, then, falling deeply in love has come to be anticipated as the central transcendent experience of life, an “all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life”[10] – the very questions, Coontz continues, “that the previous generation had sought in religious revivals.”[10] This was “what we had always longed for,” Johnson adds – namely, “a vision of ultimate meaning and unity – suddenly revealed to us in the form of another human being.”

[11] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), 72, 100-101, 129.

[12] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), 44.  184-185.

[13] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), 67, 72, 100-101, 129. “Unfortunately,” Johnson continues, “it is exactly at this point in our evolution, where our possibilities are richest, that most people miss their opportunity…and jump to the wrong conclusions.” One or both partners begin talking about breaking up “in order to ‘find themselves.'” At this point, we decide that “it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or ‘true’ love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after [or separate].”[13] “In order to be true to the inner ideal” Johnson writes, individuals may feel compelled to walk away: being “faithful” to their ideal – by betraying their current partner.

[14] Simon May, Love:  A History (London:  Yale University Press, 2011), 237.

[15] Arthur responded: “Are you sure it was The Story that [your friend’s experience] didn’t measure up to?  Ask yourself why, after having a wonderful conversation with, say, [a good guy friend], and after enjoying the comraderie and the brotherly love—that is, after going on a bromance kind of date—why you wouldn’t want to take it further, to maybe hold hands with [him], or kiss him, or meld your heart with his… Is it because your feelings didn’t measure up to The Story?  Or is it simply because the “it” that was not there was whatever ‘it’ it is that makes you heterosexual and your SSA friend, well, gay?”

My answer would be – they’re both relevant!  Certainly those physiological distinctions are also a big part of the conversation, and something to be explored in a future post as well.

No narrative researcher (including me) believes that narratives are the only thing at play – rather, that they are a neglected element in the intricate co-creation of experience in complex interactions with physiology, socialization, values, etc. For that reason, I raise the question here regarding the role of narrative here – starting with the Story- that tells us what we ‘deserve’ to feel and who is or is not an acceptable partner in our path to true love and happiness.

[16] I have talked with friends in gay relationships about this challenge – and it seems fairly universal. I would be happy to add stories and examples for how the Story pushes apart gay couples as well – send them my way!  [Part of the attempt to illuminate common ground is also highlighting examples in both mixed orientation relationships – and the gay couple at the beginning.  Additionally, while gay and straight couples have more support, so called “mixed-orientation” marriages are arguably especially vulnerable due to the very clash of narratives outlined in this paper].

[17] Saraceno, The Italian Family, in Antoine Prost & Gerard Vincent, eds., A History of Private Life:  Riddles of Identity in Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass.:  Belknap Press, 1991), (Coontz, 2005, p. 487).

Arthur raises a concern worth mentioning in this section:

I suspect that for many gay people who have been told that they should not even be feeling the attraction in the first place, that any whiff of trying to limit or underestimate the importance of those feelings and attractions might seem subtly manipulative.  I don’t think you are, in fact, being manipulative, but it might be worth some thought about how any attempt to put limits on SSA “eros” can be seen as simply more of the same kind of anti-sex, anti-pleasure, anti-gay, conservative agenda.

I’m grateful to Arthur for raising this point, which makes a lot of sense given the history of persecution the gay community has received.  I will leave it to readers to judge the merit of these dialogue-facilitating questions.  I certainly don’t pursue the writing with an “agenda” to crusade against sex, or gay people, or pleasure, for heaven sakes…If anything, my goal would be to make more space to deeply understand and receive all these things – adding my voice to contribute to a conversation where we have more clarity together on all the above.

[18] Nancy Etcoff, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott and Heidi D’Agostino, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being” StrategyOne, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (2004), 1, 5, 35-36. “The great majority of women” concludes Susie Orbach, researcher at the London School of Economics, find mainstream standards of beauty “too narrow, as inauthentic and as insufficient” – with an aspiration for something much bigger and broader. As a result, there is a growing movement to “democratize and make accessible to all the idea of beauty” she writes – involving a “redefinition and expansion of the ideals…away from the limiting, narrowed and restricted body shapes and sizes.” Orbach concludes, “For the idea of beauty to become truly democratic and inclusive, then beauty itself must be revitalized to reflect women in their beauty as they really are rather than as portrayed in the current fictions that dominate our visual culture.” Speaking up “for the beauty of the un-blonde, the un-tall and the un-anorexic,” one author writes that “confidence and beauty come in many forms…even the ones our eyes have been trained to forget.” “Our results” one research team summarizes, “demonstrate the need to present a wider definition of beauty than is currently available to women. “As we used to know, beauty is so much more,” writes lead author Nancy Etcoff from Harvard University:

It is time to “reclaim” beauty…time to lift the quota system on images of beauty. The diversity of human beauty has been strained through a sieve of culture, status, power and money and what has emerged is a narrow sliver of the full panorama of human visual splendor. Ethereal weightlessness and Nordic features are not its only incarnation. Let the discussions and debates begin and let us reclaim and rejoice in authentic, diverse human beauty once again.

[19] Gary Zukav, Soul Stories, (Free Press, 2000)Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), 107-108.

[20] M. Scott Peck,  The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 118-119.

[21] Italics mine. M. Scott Peck,  The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 88, 119.  I would add that this very moment in which you see this imperfect human being by your side, in which maybe you are not getting everything you want from a relationship – this very moment, rather than a crisis or a tragedy, could actually be the moment you get to start loving them for real – not because you’re driven to, but because you choose to be there. Rather than a crisis, this is an opportunity to begin practicing real love.

[22] One of my conservative friends recently claimed that everyone in the gay community is inherently selfish and prioritizing after the needs of the flesh.  That’s simply not true!  My own experience confirms a potential for profound, real love in gay relationships – reflected in all the gay couples I know – Tyler & Michael, Jolene & Colleen, M.J. & Wendy – seeking to practice true self-sacrificing love in being there for their partners.