Posts Tagged ‘GLBT’

The Conversations That Made Same-Sex Marriage Happen in New York

(Dear Reader: Yes, I have been absent from these pixels the past few weeks, and not by choice. Work and family obligations kept me away from stringing two thoughts together, let alone two words. Just before the interruption, however, I started work on the post below, so it seems a good place to pick up. My apologies for the hiatus.)

Almost two weeks ago, The New York Times printed a well-researched story by Michael Barbaro on the passage of marriage equality legislation in New York. “Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces” reports on the various maneuvers, lobbying efforts, and conversations behind the scenes.

As you might pick up from that last sentence, some of the effort was classically political. Governor Andrew Cuomo, according to the article, organized contentious gay-rights organizations to present a united front to the Legislature. There were postcard campaigns, phone calls to legislators, promises of political cover.

I was more taken, however, with other dimensions of the effort. Here are two:

1. The personal dimension. Barbaro’s story mentions many personal connections between the players in this drama and LGBT people. Billionaire Paul Singer, whose support Cuomo requested in an effort to persuade Republicans, has a son who is gay. Cuomo’s own partner, Sandra Lee, urged him to push through marriage equality at least in part because her brother is gay. The cantankerous senator Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) had watched his family come apart because of his no vote two years earlier: his partner’s nephew, a gay man, refused to speak to him thereafter. Constituents repeatedly approached the governor and legislators with their own stories.

Here’s my takeaway from this: I’ve long believed that the best way to clear away our stereotypes is to spend time with someone we’re stereotyping. In this case, some people changed their minds on same-sex marriage because they knew, or became acquainted with, GLBT people for whom same-sex marriage is a life-changing issue. This is one great advantage to dialogue across divides: it puts us face to face with people we misunderstand. As we hear their stories—and spend time with the human beings behind the issues—our preconceived notions give way to a more nuanced picture, and we begin to see our dialogue partners for who they are.

2. Then there’s the issue of confidentiality. Many of these conversations were held in strictest secrecy, and I believe that’s appropriate. Sometimes confidentiality can create a space for people to give and take, try out new ideas, suggest half-baked proposals, and generally fumble along, free from concern that any given line will be taken out of context in our always-on, media-saturated public square. In this confidential space, people get to put their heads together, and better ideas generally result. Clearly, secrecy can be miserably corrosive in other contexts—secret prisons, anyone?—but I think it serves a good purpose here.

There’s more to be said on these issues, but I’d rather hear from you. What lessons do you draw from the process behind this legislation? What best practices (or pitfalls) do you see that could make our dialogue better?

Dialogue by Being There

Can you start a dialogue just by showing up?

Miki Kashtan’s friend did. At a conference on reconciliation, this friend realized with despair that there was no exploration of gay issues on the agenda. On the third day of the conference, after praying and wrestling with the omission, she stepped to the microphone, announced to a conservative audience that she was gay, and simply made herself available. And people started coming. She didn’t try to change their mind; she just listened. (Miki puts this much more eloquently than I ever could; you’ve got to read the post.)

In short, Miki’s friend was present, in her attendance and her few words.

This past weekend, I attended the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany. Before us was a contentious resolution that touched tangentially on GLBT issues: the endorsement of a formal covenant for the worldwide Anglican Communion. For several weeks I had studied the issue, solicited opinions, reflected, and prayed; from that work emerged a position that could respect the covenant’s supporters while saying no to the covenant itself. On Saturday, I articulated these thoughts in 90 seconds from the floor of the convention.

In short, I was present, in my attendance and my few words.

And people started coming. One first-time delegate, who had no idea how conservative the diocesan leadership was, expressed relief at finding a kindred spirit. The head of a progressive organization in the diocese thanked me for speaking up. Yet so did the diocese’s conservative firebrand, who generally brooks no nonsense from “liberals.”

Experiences like these leave me with so much hope…and a few lessons. One involves the timeframe of dialogue. I have no illusions that one 90-second speech—or a boatload of 90-second speeches—will change the basic mindset of 400 convention delegates. Neither will they inspire all of us to listen respectfully and dialogue civilly all the time.

But each time we do something like this, we give people a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood on the “other side.” We reveal that we’re human, use logic, and come to our positions in good faith. Then, the next time we do it, our listeners might be a bit more accepting of us, a bit more willing to listen, whether they agree or not.

The other lesson is like unto it. It’s easy to think of dialogue as this intense, formal, sustained effort, with facilitators and flip charts and study circles and such. Those efforts are worthy of applause. But right in the midst of our daily lives, we can move dialogue in seemingly tiny ways, like presenting oneself at a convention.

When we do, people will come.

Have you ever started a dialogue just by showing up? Did simply expressing who you are draw people to you? What happened?  Please share your experiences by clicking on the Comments line below.

Surrender Your Values to Dialogue With Others?

Do we have to give up our beliefs before we engage in dialogue?

I thought about this when a Religion News Service article led me to the Civility Project. Co-founded by a Democratic consultant and a Southern Baptist adviser to Mitt Romney (that combination alone should get your attention), the project sprang from a frustration with the shouting that currently passes for civil discourse. Central to the project is the Civility Pledge: a promise to be civil in public discourse and behavior, respect others regardless of their position, and stand against incivility.

What a great idea. Others have worked on civility for considerably longer and explored it more intently—P. M. Forni’s Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins is especially notable—but it’s wonderful to see a call for civility from the grass roots. The more, the better.

Two items on the Civility Project website, though, brought the belief question to mind. One page states that the project does not involve “a surrender of personal beliefs, convictions or ideology.” Meanwhile, a poster comments that civil dialogue is impossible until fundamentalists stop preventing civil marriages for GLBT people. This expresses her personal conviction, and she has made it a precondition for civil dialogue.

Can you actually be civil and not surrender these things?

I think you can—but not by leading with “never surrender.” That orientation almost automatically puts us on the defensive, listening to the other not so much to truly understand her but to find the holes in her thinking. If the other person realizes we’re doing this, she’ll perceive herself as vulnerable to attack. She too becomes defensive, we learn little about each other, and the dialogue has no value.

So how do we go about this? I think the key is not to surrender our beliefs, but to set them aside for purposes of the dialogue. In doing so, we clear our mind to consider the other’s perspective from the inside out. We can hear her logic, her passion, her values more clearly. As a result, we connect more deeply, build trust, and open up an opportunity for deeper dialogue. This gives us a richer understanding of the other perspective, which we can then explore from our own value system. 

Imagine if we tried this with, say, gay marriage. GLBT people might find that conservative Christians are not necessarily homophobic, but rather trying in good faith to see the issue from their biblical worldview. Conservative Christians might hear the life stories of gay people and realize that being gay is not a choice, but rather who they are at their very essence. 

At the end of the dialogue, conservatives might still conclude that homosexuality is sinful, and GLBT people might still be frustrated with them. But they have understood the opposing perspective more deeply. More important, they have seen the human being behind the perspective, and that can lead to something bigger than dialogue—compassion and peace across the ideological divide.