Misrepresenting LGBT/Religious Conservative Disagreements: Pleading for an Honest Conversation about What (Really) Divides Us
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
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 was 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 Jacob 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 may help conservatives understand how comments like Elder Bednar’s are experienced by other people they know and love.
On this note, we 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?
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 us, 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 those who embrace progressive thought about identity in relation to sexuality, emotions and the body, for example, it’s not hard to see 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?
Sometimes, however, truth can hurt, right? And for those who believe the doctrines taught by Elder Bednar and consider them central to eternal happiness, it’s understandable why they would want to share it. Indeed, 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 you saw 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. Our 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:
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 we’ve pointed out, it’s not hard to understand why people are angry. What’s admittedly harder to understand is why (we) Americans have become so completely willing to let our darkest emotions shape, control and yes, drive our public discussions.
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 raises this question: What role is anger playing in the current LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
What do you think? Our own answer: a big one (bigger than we even 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 in early 2016, the Circling the Wagons conference organized by Jay Jacobsen was attended by a paltry 100 people (deserving 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 our religious conservative friends are convinced that progressive individuals questioning their faith ‘just don’t have enough faith in God’ – while many of our liberal-leaning friends seem to take it for granted that conservatives ‘just don’t love people enough.’
And here’s the thing: Are we 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 us to see people 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. For instance, knee-jerk reactions continued 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 some heart-tugging hashtags: #I exist & #Queermormonsexist….
And of course, many conservatives are happy to reciprocate by reminding themselves 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 all this?…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?
Like a broken record, Jacob has been doing what he could 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’ve preparing this broader, more refined and accessible resource for release more broadly.
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 generous, attentive conversation can take away fear and resentment in remarkable ways – ushering in life-long friendships that can change our lives.
Although we’ve personally found this a refreshing and life-changing practice, we’re okay if others don’t. Neither of us are surprised any more 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 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, the authors are 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?
Practicing Disagreement, Achieving Disagreement. While a lot could be said about that, we would boil it down for now 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, we mean language describing those disagreements that both sides would sign off on – “yeah, I think that captures it.” Reaching that point is no simple task, which is why David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rausch call it “achieving disagremeent” – something that presumably happens (sometimes) only after long periods of what Phil Neisser calls “disagreement practice.” Mahatma Gahndi himself once is reported to have said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
And yet, as the current conversation stands, hugely important issues are often 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:
Please tell us 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, dear progressive readers? What if that is your story of conservatives that you happen to be putting on top of them – and one that effectively brings to a halt any possibility of thoughtful conversation together?
You’re not off the hook, conservative readers – since you do the same darn thing. Although dominant cultural narratives now lean decidedly progressive (hence our emphasis on these conversational correctives above), conservatives have also framed the conversation in similar self-serving ways now and in the past:
And again: Tell us 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, conservatives should also be held accountable for times when they throw their weight around or misrepresent the positions of their critics.
What then, if we all agreed to something radical: representing each other’s 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. 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 typically have?
Our answer: People are engaging in the conversation, and making hard choices about their lives (or the lives of their loved ones) with limited understanding, perspective and options.
A religiously conservative-identifying person may feel the only way to respond is through dismissiveness, or outright relational rejection of a loved one. An LGBT-identifying person may 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 deeply felt sexual feelings).
If these are conversations and choices we’re going to earnestly make, we should at least do so with enough space to have broader understanding of all our options.
Our answer: People (on all sides) are sometimes feeling 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 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…
But what do you think? Crazy idea? Or pretty sensible? Tell us below (we really are interested to know!)
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? Rather than advancing a conversation that inadvertently presses people away from what they used to love and believe, what 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?
Instead of some people “accepting reality” – and others not – we might also start to acknowledge meaningful differences in how that reality is interpreted.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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?
 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.”
 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?