Monthly Archives

March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m convinced many – MANY – will.

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

I hope that’s true.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misrepresenting LGBT/Religious Conservative Disagreements: Pleading for an Honest Conversation about What (Really) Divides Us

Elder David Bednar, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was recently asked a question about “homosexual Mormons.” As part of his explanation for why he’d prefer re-framing the question, Elder Bednar answered “We are not defined by sexual attractions.  We are not defined by sexual behaviors.  We are sons and daughters of God.”  He went on to suggest that self-identifying oneself as homosexual was an “inaccurate label” and not descriptive of one’s fundamental, eternal identity from the perspective of Mormon doctrine (thus, in this sense, there were no “homosexual Mormons”).

The public response to these comments has been predictably withering– and no surprise:  Elder Bednar couldn’t have picked a more socially/politically incorrect thing to say – not if he had been personally coached by Donald Trump himself: “Hey – I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.  We’re going to build a wall between the Mormon Faithful and all these pesky gay activists.  And mark my words, we’re going to make the Pride Center pay for it!!”

No, Elder Bednar chose to share something even less popular than the Rumored Wall:  “From a Mormon perspective, this is not who you really, fundamentally are….”

Say what?! The idea that sexual orientation is yet another basic category that centrally defines human identity has become so taken for granted that people hardly think of it as a perspective or ‘way of thinking’ anymore. It’s simply reality.

Little surprise, then, that it feels more than a little disconcerting and unsettling to have this directly questioned. As one progressive-leaning friend shared with me recently, “How would you feel if someone came to you and raised questions about whether you are really heterosexual…wouldn’t that be weird?”

It definitely would. And it definitely helps me understand how comments like Elder Bednar’s are experienced by people whom I know and love.

I’ve been writing about similar identity-related questions and have experienced for myself how sensitive and personal the associated language is.  And compared to other ways of making the same point, I agree that Elder Bednar’s delivery and tone were not super helpful.  [On this note, I think Kendall Wilcox is basically right about a greater level of empathy that we can all have for the lived experience of those outside of our community norms. Surely, this is something we can all develop more and more?] [1]

None of this, however, changes the core philosophical disagreements that would still remain in terms of the centrality of sexual orientation (or gender) to ultimate, eternal identity. For me, at least, this flare-up over Elder Bednar’s words underscores even more the degree to which these philosophical differences set us up for very different experiences in-real-life.

For instance, if I believed what my progressive friends do about identity in relation to sexuality, emotions and the body, yes – I totally get why Elder Bednar’s comment would be (especially) frustrating to hear.  As one mother wrote after watching the video, “Neither one of us found it helpful that a straight man was proclaiming the non-existence of my son.”

For a mother who has come to see her son’s core identity as centered (to some degree) around sexual orientation, how could Elder Bednar’s comments not feel grating and even harsh?

That doesn’t mean, however, that his teaching isn’t true.  And if we all come into the presence of God one day and find out that it was, in fact, true, then you can’t blame someone like Elder Bednar for deciding it’s important enough to share even if it’s hard for people to hear.  Think of it:  if you personally believed (really believed) that we are sons and daughters of God, and that because of that, everyone has the potential of ‘becoming like Mom and Dad’…wouldn’t it make sense that you’d want to protect and highlight the pathway that makes that possible?

And if others start to be persuaded that they are, in fact, fundamentally different in their core nature – this, in a way that doesn’t allow them to follow the path to ‘become like Mom and Dad,’ wouldn’t it make sense that you’d want to respond to that?

This is tough stuff – and something just begging for a serious, thoughtful conversation. My primary concern is not that the differences exist – but that we’re hardly even talking about them!  In lieu of the hard work of inquiring into our actual disagreements, it’s become a whole lot easier in American society to turn our dissonance into various insults about the character, sincerity or intelligence of those who don’t see the world the way we do. Hence, after one person lamented Elder Bednar’s “ego and hubris” online, social media friends piled on:

  • The lack of compassion astounds me and makes me sick. They’re awful, awful people.
  • Plain old arrogance.
  • He’s a serpent, a slick and calculating man, bent on destruction of anything contrary to his contorted and distorted world view.
  • I know he’s not a Christ-like person.
  • I am so sorry that bigots like this can actually claim to “speak for God!!!!!”….sigh #notafanofmormonbigots
  • I couldn’t have imagined in this day and age that Bednar could not only be so insensitive and cruel but so very out of touch with reality.
  • Bednar is a dinosaur… Hope he and others go extinct soon!

More than one person insinuated that Elder Bednar’s intention behind the commentary was literally to help encourage people to either take their lives or leave the Church – “those jerks trying to just purge the church of gays”/ “This sounds more like their goal/endpoint, whether by suicide, excommunication, or those who finally choose to leave.”


Listen – as I’ve pointed out, it’s not hard to understand why people are angry. What’s admittedly harder for me to understand is why (we) Americans have become so completely willing to let our darkest emotions to shape, control and yes, drive our public discussions about so many important things.

Like no event in recent memory, the psychology of anger and how it shapes our views of reality itself has been on horrific display in the current U.S. presidential race. Rather than logical beings that make choices dictated by pure reason, it turns out that human beings most often grab onto stories, beliefs and interpretations that fit whatever they most deeply feel.  And if that’s anger – well then gosh darn it…let’s build that freaking wall!!

As easy as it might be to recognize the role of anger in national politics, it’s much easier to overlook its influence on the things we care about more personally…which makes me curious to ask: What role is anger playing in the current LGBT/religious conservative conversation?

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.  My own answer:  a big one (and bigger than we realize).

Just look around! How many productive, heart-felt LGBT/religious conservative conversations have you seen recently about the many profound differences at play in how we see the body, choice, sexuality, identity and God? One of the best designed attempts to help that happen recently, the Circling the Wagons conference, was attended by a paltry 100 people (deserved at least 1,000!)

By contrast, the average American reportedly spends up to 40 minutes/day on Facebook, surrounding themselves with plenty of people to confirm what they already believe (sprinkled with just enough silly comments from ‘those other people’ to confirm their moral inferiority). No wonder many of my religious conservative friends are convinced that progressive individuals questioning their commitment to the church ‘just don’t have enough faith in God’ – while many of my liberal-leaning friends seem to take it for granted that conservatives ‘just don’t love people enough.’

And here’s the thing:  Am I exaggerating at all?  Don’t most of us actually believe that about each other?….as if this whole complex conversation could somehow be boiled down to measurable differences in love or faith (#ilovegaymormons vs. #Ifollowtheprophets).

And that’s why it really pains me to see us completely overlook fundamental differences in how we see identity (and how that appears to influence pretty much everything else) – instead preoccupying ourselves with ever-more-effective ways of portraying each other in night-marish ways. As summarized above, knee-jerk reactions to recent comments from Mormon leadership continue metastasizing online – each portraying “Bednar” and company as Secretly Hateful or Mere Aggressors – e.g., “fighting who people are” and “trying to erase them from their communities” – accompanied by hashtags like: #I exist & #Queermormonsexist….

And of course, we conservatives are plenty happy to reciprocate by reminding ourselves how much ‘those liberals’ or gay activists and for sure Obama himself are (knowingly) trying to destroy American – and lying about their intentions while they’re at it!!

Can anyone else see the madness in this all?…the way it not only forces us into endless mud-slinging, but also totally ignores both what people actually believe (and the powerful, rich conversation we could be having together)? [2]

Like a broken record, I’ve been doing what I can to point out the  ways in which fundamental differences in narratives seem to undergird this whole conversation. With the help of a diverse (and disagreeing) team of thoughtful writers – identifying as Mormon and non-Mormon, LGBT and same-sex attracted, liberal and conservative – we’re preparing broader, more refined and accessible resources for release later this year.

But why go to all this trouble?

Because our relationships and our community are worth it.  And because the truth is worth it. (And because we don’t stand a chance of holding on to much of either if our conversation stays in the mud-pit).

In sharp contrast, as both progressive and conservative friends in the dialogue world would attest, this kind of a generous, attentive conversation can take away fear and resentment in remarkable ways – ushering in life-long friendships that can change our lives.[3]

Although I’ve personally found this a refreshing and life-changing practice, I’m okay if others don’t. I’m no longer surprised when the latest rant on Facebook elicits hundreds of shares, while something like this hardly registers on people’s radars.  After all, the “terms of the dominant conversation” are typically quite advantageous to those with cultural power (e.g., the current conversation sure makes us religious conservatives look dumb!).  And why would anyone want to abandon such a strategically advantageous battle position?

Because it’s dishonest.  It’s a distorted and inaccurate reflection of actual disagreements.  And it’s hurting people.

Stories have consequences. Rather than just “tell stories,” we live them – every day.  Rather than mere semantics, I’m absolutely convinced there are life-and-death consequences to how (and whether) we talk about this stuff, not only for whether people hold on to their family or faith community, but whether they hold on to life itself.

So what could be done differently?  While a lot could be said about that, I would boil it down to a single question:  Can we start having honest conversations about our actual disagreements, rather than what we perceive or think or stereotype as the disagreements?

By actual disagreements, I mean language-describing-those-disagreements that both sides would sign off on – “yeah, I think that captures it.”  As the current conversation stands, hugely important issues are being framed in a way that almost universally overlooks nuance and portrays one side or the other (most often religious conservatives) in a profoundly unflattering way.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Rather than talking about the complex ways that choice is involved in identity development (for all of us) and how we (all) work with body sensations and emotions in different ways, conservatives continue to be portrayed as naively (and ridiculously) believing that people in the gay community are somehow “choosing” to feel same-sex attraction (I’ve never personally met any conservative who actually believes that, by the way…).
  • Instead of acknowledging how scientific understanding about the role of the brain and body in sexual experience (like all human experience) continues to evolve with different interpretations at play, regularly we conservatives hear someone else lamenting how much we are simply “ignoring the scientific conclusions” (for example).
  • Rather than at least acknowledging those who experience same-sex attraction and find fulfilling marriage relationships with opposite sex partners, many continue insisting that religious conservative individuals who experience same-sex attraction have only two options before them:  celibacy or same-sex partnership.
  • Rather than exploring very different meanings of love, support, compassion (and hate), religious conservatives are portrayed over and over as simply “less loving” and “more hateful,” as well as less concerned about rights, justice, freedom, equality, etc. etc.

Am I sounding defensive yet?  Let me finish.  (:

Please tell me how someone would ever want to have a conversation with THAT cartoonish image – e.g., someone who dislikes equality, freedom and justice; relishes a chance to control, judge and hate people and denies science just for kicks?! (Answer:  we don’t talk with that silly person).

But here’s the real point:  What if that portrayal is simply not true, my progressive friends?  What if that is your story of conservatives that you happen to be putting on top of us – and one that effectively brings to a halt any possibility of thoughtful conversation together?

And yes – let’s talk about when conservatives do the same thing.  Although dominant cultural narratives now lean decidedly progressive (hence my emphasis on these conversational correctives above), we conservatives have also framed the conversation in similar self-serving ways now and in the past:

  • Rather than acknowledging the happiness that people outside of our normative faith practices can and do experience (e.g., same-sex couples or people who have stepped away from our own faith community), we insist on portraying them as secretly desperate and despairing – e.g., ‘they just can’t be happy.’
  • Rather than acknowledging real, piercing questions that faithful, good-hearted people struggle within our faith communities, we too often paint them as ‘just not close enough to God’ or ‘not showing enough faith.’
  • Rather than appreciating the love and commitment that many gay couples demonstrate, we sometimes insist (or insinuate) that something else (like lust or demons) motivates these couples – and certainly not ‘real love.’
  • Instead of acknowledging real contextual, social and biological influences on behavior , we too often insist that human beings are free agents who can ‘just choose’ with relative ease to go another direction (even while most people’s experiences show otherwise – highlighting an abundant need for grace for any movement to happen in our lives).
  • And lastly, rather than acknowledging ways our own faith community may have fallen short in empathy or compassion or understanding at different points and periods (no, I’m not talking about Prop 8 or Mormon policy), we can too often insist on a tight apologist narrative that defends the faith-at-all-costs.

And again:  Tell me how someone would ever want to have a conversation with THAT cartoonish image – e.g., someone who hates God, has no faith, is driven by lust and anger and remains just-too-lazy to choose the right thing, all while secretly despairing inside but proclaiming their happiness nonetheless? (Answer: we don’t and won’t talk with that silly person).

In all these ways and more, we conservatives should also be held accountable for times when we throw our weight around or misrepresent the positions of our critics.

What then, if we agreed to something radical: representing each others’ views in a way recognizable to those who hold them?  And while we’re at it, maybe we can let each other tell our own stories? (yes, including gay-identifying and non-gay identifying individuals who experience same-sex attraction).

To be sure, that wouldn’t mean we needed to agree with each others’ stories or validate them – or frankly, even respect them.[4]  What it would mean is that we agree to respect each other on a fundamental level (more fundamental than life philosophy or stories).  Maybe, just maybe – that would allow us to have a legitimate conversation about what those philosophical differences are – actually hearing them, actually exploring them, actually comparing them, and then making choices on what feels right based on that.

By contrast, what happens when we make decisions based on the pseudo-conversations we usually have? People feel pressured and manipulated into making hard choices they may not otherwise make – choices sometimes contrary to their deepest faith convictions (and yes, sometimes contrary to current, deeply felt sexual feelings).

If those are choices someone is going to earnestly make, they at least deserve to make it with enough space to completely hear out their options…that, at least, is my argument here.

But what do you think?  Crazy idea?  Or pretty sensible?  I’m interested in your response.

Bottom line:  Instead of rallying people to our causes by depicting competing positions in a way literally un-recognizable to those who hold them, how about insisting on a principled public discourse that allows people to choose among fairly described alternatives?[5] Rather than advancing a conversation that inadvertently presses people away from what they used to love and believe, what do you think about insisting – together – on a conversation that allows people to choose freely (and in the light of day) between options-as-we-ourselves-would-describe them?

With hearts and lives and happiness at stake, the least we can do is have a fair, honest conversation.

The beautiful people involved (yes, on both sides!) deserve no less.



[1] Even the most articulate and careful delivery of the doctrine Elder Bednar taught would and will likely engender some of the same dissonance and push-back.  Furthermore, as Kendall often points out, empathy is not the same as philosophical agreement. And my empathy for the lived experience of same-sex attraction (and identifying with it as fundamental to my identity), doesn’t change the profound disagreements that exist when it comes to identity.

[2] All of this, of course, generates lots of attention – while completely overlooking the actual disagreements at hand. Even one harsh critic of the church pointed out his words are being taken out of context and framed as more dismissive than they were intended.

[3] How cool is it that people can disagree so profoundly, and still love each other so much?! I’ve had several people tell me that dialogue (with ‘those people’ that used to drive them nuts) actually reduced their depression symptoms… So can you blame me for being a little pumped?

[4] Both sides could end up saying something like:  “You believe that about identity…and obviously, I don’t.  I think that’s harmful and inaccurate – while you probably feel the same about my views.”

[5] So many interesting questions to take up!!  Among other things, this would allow us to get to all the honest and good and interesting questions in the space between us.  Who is anyone to presume to define another? My lesbian-identifying friend Tracy brought this up in our dialogue – ‘why would ancient writers in a book have more authority to speak about my life than I do?’  I think it’s a great question – and the kind that deserves more space.  And in the religious conservation about identity, it seems to me there are interesting differences in what it means to “be a son and daughter of God” – and especially what that means for our divine potential in the future.  Can we talk about that too?