by Tracy Hollister & Jacob Hess
As the plane descended above the lights of Salt Lake City, I thought, "what are these Mormons going to be like? How open would they be to me, as a gay person? What was I getting myself into?"
I (Tracy) was flying to Utah to co-host two “Living Room Conversations” between gay and lesbian couples and their Mormons neighbors, with a friend from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Jacob Hess. We had met through a workshop on dialogue about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. Since then, Jacob and I had developed an unlikely friendship and an interest in expanding our mutual understanding.
I admit having more stereotypes than experiences with “Mormons.” That word for me has been associated with being conformist, closed-minded and more obedient than smart - as well as being on the opposite side of one of our country’s greatest cultural divides – marriage for same-gender couples.
After years of working at Marriage Equality USA, I couldn't believe in this issue more. I remember losing sleep after seeing the documentary 8: A Mormon Proposition about how deeply this church was involved in providing funding against a cause for which I have made many sacrifices for and committed years of my life.
Yet, despite these stereotypes and misgivings - or maybe even because of them - I was joining Jacob in these dialogue experiments attempting to bridge one of our most difficult socio-political divides. Living Room Conversations is a self-guided dialogue model aiming to catalyze intimate, face-to-face conversations between people with profound socio-political differences, with a hope of building greater understanding between clashing communities over time. When I told my like-minded friend in North Carolina what I was doing with Jacob's Mormon neighbors, they would typically raise their eyebrows and say, “Wow. Good luck with that!”
I (Jacob) saw the same 'shock' in people's eyes when I told them about "my marriage equality activist friend Tracy." For many religious conservatives, "gay activist" has become synonymous with "angry" or aggressive" in perceived attempts to "to silence religious people." When I told people I had learned a lot in conversation with Tracy, found her genuinely open and curious, and enjoyed her so much that I was planning to spend a few evenings in conversation with her, the reaction I got was: silence. (Translation: "Good luck with that!").
On both sides, the question seemed to be the same: Why would you be spending more time with those people?
It turns out that some of the people we invited to participate were asking the same thing. One gay couple wondered if they were being “thrown to the wolves” - unsure of whether they could even show affection to each other like they normally do. Another gay couple, both formerly LDS, who offered to host a conversation talked about how unexcited they initially felt - with some trepidation about being judged in the safety of their own home: "I was actually dreading this conversation. I didn't really want to participate at all....after a lifetime of fighting to be true to myself I didn't want to defend who I am or my family to anyone." There was also some visible nervousness among Jacob's friends, one of whom later admitted some anxiety at how her "strange beliefs" would be received and whether they would “come out wrong and make me out to be an enemy."
Going for it. As participants arrived, Tracy and Jacob intentionally reached out to those the other had invited to put them at ease. Over chips, hummus and drinks, we took turns reading the ground rules for the Living Room Conversation model, including “be curious and open to learning,” “show respect and suspend judgment” and “be authentic and welcome that from others.” One person said, "It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that there was nothing to be afraid of."
The opening question focused on why people decided to participate in the conversation, with subsequent rounds inviting sharing around our sense of purpose in life, what makes us "tick," and some of our hopes and concerns for the longer term future.
Fairly rapidly, these initial explorations underscored a surprising sense of commonality. As one person remarked afterward, "We all come from different homes, different trials, different joys, but ultimately, we are all humans sharing this earth, experiencing human joys, heartaches, jobs, children, stress, family, bills, and worry....When we find that common ground with one another, it is easier to see each other as human beings rather than an opposing view."
After an hour of these “warm up” conversations, we turned to the topic at hand: marriage for same-gender couples. If we had started with that topic without learning about each other, the outcome may have been less positive. As one person said, "When we humanize one another, it’s hard to lash out." Another said, "Maybe the reason our disagreements become so difficult to deal with, is we don't have a human face - a way to attach those opinions to real human beings." As Tracy told a Mormon woman, "I can't demonize you, know you have back pain and love teaching junior high kids."
Each person was then asked, "When it comes to the issue of marriage and LGBT rights, what are you most concerned about?" One school teacher expressed concern with introducing sexual orientation to younger kids as "muddying" things during an already confusing period of life." As we continued sharing, a gay woman shared her own experience of confusion during her younger years and how knowing more about the diversity of sexual orientations might have made things easier for her at a younger age.
In this and other differences, we were able to work with and explore them with a unique level of curiosity and openness. One person said, "Not once during the evening did I feel the need to have to defend marriage equality with the group. That was a surprise."
In place of defensive posturing, the format allowed us to open up and be vulnerable. Personal stories about people's relationships and family members touched people, often moving them to tears. As one woman began to tear up, her wife came to her side and comforted her. She later said, "the members of the group didn’t bat an eye when I comforted my wife - this non-reaction is my most valuable experience from the evening."
One person reflected, "Prior to our conversation that narrative had only reached me on a political level - rather than a personal level." Another added, "Even if I'm right, there are human being on the other side of this - real people on the other side....The fact that these are human beings is more important than what we think or feel or want in this moment."
Rather than a dichotomy of "religious people" and "gay activists," striking nuances became clear: One gay woman was a "Jesus and God loving Christian" - another was a Unitarian Universalist. One Mormon was a triathlete clean air activist - and a Baptist woman was a constitutional libertarian Egyptian married to a Mormon.
One person suggested that perhaps "stereotyping was the enemy" and that "when we stereotype people, we give them two dimensional labels that diminish their humanity and complexity as unique people." Another remarked, "We are so much more than our religions, sexuality, where we live and so on." A third said, "At the end, I learned something that was obvious. These are all human beings, in three dimensions, with hopes and dreams, disappointment and grief, with a complexity of different experiences, thoughts and emotions – just like me."
A Prolonged Goodbye. By the time we were done with the formal questions, people didn't want to leave...staying around for up to an hour afterward to continue chatting, exchange contact information, and take pictures! The affection in the room was tangible. One gay woman said, "If I ever come in contact with either of them in the future, I will walk up to them, greet them proudly, and give them a hug!" One Mormon woman said, "If I saw someone say something derogatory to [the gay couple], I would deck them!"
We believe this outcome reflects more than mere 'warm-fuzzies' - and says something significant. Americans now realize that marriage for same-gender couples will be the law of the land soon. When that happens, doesn't a deeper work still need to happen - some way to help heal and “defrost” these cultural divides?
We think so. One gay woman said, "We didn’t all walk away jumping on board with the fight for marriage equality, but by the end of the evening, I think we all took some valuable insight from one another about how this world can be a better place for all of us if we can open up our ears and really listen." One Mormon said, "Coming away, I don't know that I changed my overall opinion or political view, but I came away with an understanding of how my beliefs impact other human beings, as well as how my opinions affect them as real people."
Convictions on both sides are strong enough that it's not likely core beliefs will always shift in the future. But what about the fear, disgust or anger? What would our relationships and communities look like if we could detox to some degree from these darker emotions?
As Tracy remarked at the end of one conversation, "We've been in a culture war." And like any war, there is a lot of woundedness and misunderstandings from anyone who has played a part. What will it take for significant cultural healing to happen?
Probably lots of things. But we learned that it could start with something simple: meeting face to face, hearing each other out - and seeing what emerges. The results might surprise you.
As one person said, "I found such a beauty of heart and mind and soul in everyone present - something that I know in my head, but don't often feel in my core." Another said, "These conversations left us feeling uplifted and hopeful that we could connect across differences, restoring some of our faith in those we had once stereotyped."A third added, "So much learning is possible across our differences if we come together with open, curious and nonjudgmental intentions. There are layers and layers of insights and richness that we can discover."
Tracy Hollister has worked for several years Program Director for Marriage Equality USA - with a focus on training people to tell their stories and give presentations about marriage equality to engage with those who don’t agree. Before joining Marriage Equality USA in May 2013 to assist with state marriage campaigns, she led North Carolina’s largest phone bank to defeat a ban on marriage for same-sex couples, took part in a documentary on it (oneloveequality.com), and shared meals with the ban’s leading spokesperson.
Jacob Hess, Ph.D. is co-author, with Dr. Phil Neisser (State University of New York, Potsdam), of a book on liberal-conservative dialogue entitled, "You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)" - featured on NPR's This American Life. Jacob is a long-time member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and a current partner with Living Room Conversations. He is currently seeking volunteers and resources to launch a new Village Square chapter in Salt Lake City.
If you'd like to self-organize a similar Living Room Conversation, check out www.livingroomconversations.org. If you would like to reach Tracy and Jacob to support dialogue events in your area, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org