“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”- Rumi
A man who identifies as both gay and Mormon, John Gustav-Wrathall shared recently how invalidated many currently feel in the LGBT/religious conservative conversation and the practical impact it was having. Some were walking away from long-held faith convictions and communities they used to hold as precious, with “so many people,” John said, “feeling hopeless beyond words.”
What are we missing here? What’s leading to so much discouragement? Laying aside the usual commentaries (primarily) targeting inadequate characteristics or mindsets inherent to 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?
To quote Kendall Wilcox, the creator of Circles of Empathy: “What the situation requires is the healing and revelatory power of empathy.”
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., demands for shifts in philosophy, policy or theology as a condition of ‘true’ acceptance.
If only it were that simple! Unless everyone will eventually just come to think the same way when it comes to God, identity, sexuality, the body, choice, change, happiness, eternity (don’t hold your breath…we might need another practical way forward.
What if – barring some cataclysmic or apocalyptic event – these disagreements are here to stay? If that’s true, would it change how we’re relating to each other?
As most long-term couples know, chronic efforts to change each other are a quick ticket to lasting misery. But what happens when we agree to let our spouse be where they are, exactly as they are?
Ironically, that’s the moment when things start to lighten up for many couples: ‘Hmmm, okay – maybe my spouse is always going to think and act a little (or a lot) differently than me…and what if that’s okay?’
We believe that’s what we need in this country: deciding to allow our political opposite (in this case, either LGBT or religious conservative) to be exactly where they are – and get curious, instead of merely frustrated and anxious.
What would that look like? And what could it mean for us all?
An example from beautiful ‘crazy people.’ In early 2016, Jacob attended a training from the Hearing Voices Network (HVN). 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, the two women providing the training (who also experienced hearing voices) 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 been extremely hard to come by for both women. Rather than listening and empathy, time and time again they encountered people who insisted on imposing their own story upon what these women were experiencing.
And no wonder! If someone told you the CIA hired him to protect your neighborhood from terrorists, wouldn’t you have a hard time just hearing him out?
And that’s just about as crazy as we religious conservative and LGBT communities sometimes see each other: ‘You believe WHAT about identity? Can’t you see how you’re destroying society? You think you can be happy in THAT relationship?!’
[Note: All metaphors and analogies have limits, and this one between sexuality and other mental/emotional experiences has plenty of meaningful differences. That being said, it’s hard to overlook how deeply both groups, indeed all communities discussed (LGBT, religious conservative, hearing voices) have been stigmatized as sick, broken, dangerous, etc – and how problematic this has been for every one of these communities].
In contrast to the usual approach of having to fix or force or manage people, everything about the HVN approach aims at opening the space. And once that happens, it turns out that this kind of space-for-human-connection, listening, respect and dignity, multiplies something else: Insight. Healing. Affection. Community.
What would happen if we brought this same kind of super-spacious mind-set to our ongoing LGBT-religious conservative back and forth? 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 many other dialogue practices, like Circles of Empathy):
1. Not assuming others’ experience reflect illness.
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 these guidelines look like in the exchange between LGBT and religious conservative communities?
Calling for a Third Space (as “an Idea that Most Everyone Could Get Behind”?!!)
In moments where we feel hamstrung 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 – with a compelling need for a third way?
In this moment when it’s so maddeningly hard to find any shred of common ground (or possible next steps forward), we’re curious about exploring with others the possibility of a THIRD SPACE. Jacob and a friend, Mark Foster, have been exploring what this Third Space might look like for the Mormon-Post-Mormon conversation. Another organization called “Third Space” offers guidance for a new kind of space between the LGBT and religious conservative communities. They describe:
• A SPACE distinct from those we usually live our lives (our separate 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.
Describing one LGBT/religious conservative dialogue effort, a participant said, “What this organization is doing is bridging a cavernous gap between two groups of people who have struggled for years to find any common ground.”
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 expand that space between us – in a way that enfolds our greatest disagreements.
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 others to come over to their position – e.g., ‘see the truth’/’come to their side.’ And that is okay!
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 conviction and passion is articulated (by you) 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 becomes something else: connecting and (really) hearing each other out. In this, a Third Space will always be distinct from the mission-oriented communities it seeks to serve (on both sides of the conversation).
This kind of a space thus sets itself apart from both the institutional LGBT and religious conservative communities – since, of course, neither can be expected to dramatically change their own efforts to advocate, defend, persuade or convince others of their views (and unify people around one side).
We fully expect both communities to be resolute in their positions for a long time – even indefinitely. And that’s what intrigues us about the potential of Third Space and similar efforts to offer something besides a no-man’s waste-land between the different communities (maybe even an oasis?).
That’s also ironically what scares both communities away from these spaces – with people from different sides sometimes seeing dialogue as an invitation towards relativism and away from success in their missions. Perhaps the significant resistance from both religious conservative and LGBT communities toward this kind of a space could be reduced as each side understands (a) there is no formal, primary agenda to change either side’s philosophy and (b) that there are other kinds of payoffs simply from participating in that space.
To summarize, then: Rather than remaining mired in an obsessive practice of trying to change either community directly, the idea would be to intentionally create and offer another kind of space between communities where we can do something different.
Is there more for me to understand? 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.
After years in the conversation ourselves, we feel like we’re 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.’ We 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 or fears, and unable to see past them.
If that’s you, then our invitation will not have spoken to you. For the rest, we’re again asking – even pleading with you – to hold onto the possibility of humanity across this divide and to not give up on what the intimacy of real, heart-felt conversation could mean for all of us….
A radical act. And 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 (at least temporarily, at least here and now) with not trying to CHANGE each other…but instead, stopping long enough to deeply hear each other out?
It’s here – between the various communities and positions – that we’ve come to believe some really exciting work can start to happen. 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 all hear each other out –without any kind of subtle pressure to adopt each other’s 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 – in a way that allows all of us to reveal what’s really on our hearts and minds.
In this place, everyone is heard – Side A and Side B people, LGBT-identifying and SSA-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 is that even possible? If we (Arthur and Jacob) hadn’t experienced it for ourselves, we may not believe it either. This is where Tracy Hollister, John Backman, Wendy Heller, Kendall Wilcox, Jay Jacobsen (and many others…including Arthur!) – all of whom identify as LGBTQ – have deeply impacted Jacob’s life in positive ways. And this is where John Williams, Patricia Whittemore, Jon Garate, and Raymond (and many others…including Jacob!) – all of which identify as religious conservative – have deeply impacted Arthur’s life in positive ways
Third space pioneers. Although it’s been personal experiences with dialogue that have inspired our own thinking in this area, these experiences 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.
The Marin Foundation’s “Living in the Tension” gatherings, to illustrate, were inspired by Martin Luther King’s teachings – with an aim of helping “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.”
One participant in the Marin Foundation dialogues said the following: “What I found was a group of gay and gay supportive Christians, dedicated to nothing more than creating a dialogue between the LGBT and Evangelical Christian communities. They occupy a very tricky space – but it is a space that is missing from the ‘cultural wars’ – a space where people with differing viewpoints can come together for respectful discussion on controversial social issues. Period. They transcend the shouting and the pedantic in order to attempt to bridge what is thought to be an impossible divide. I find that a noble effort.”
Trust as central to raw, honest, powerful conversation. This kind of an open vulnerable space would and could and does take real trust of each other – a trust to be vulnerable and honest with each other, and even a trust that allows for mistakes.
Furthermore, it invites a trust in each other as we bring our passion, conviction and feelings, without using them as cudgels or weapons. This allows the asking of tough questions and sharing of our strongest arguments, without diminishing others’ space to disagree fundamentally.
We would also trust each other’s 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 Wilcox’s own writing about this space of empathy, he makes this point explicit: “this transformation does not inherently mean [those involved in the conversation] would necessarily change the doctrines of the Church to accommodate same gender relationships” (nor change their lives to align with the doctrines of the Church).
While some can and will scoff at a space not centrally focused on persuasion, we wish they could this kind of a space in action. I (Jacob) had never before experienced such a powerfully persuasive conversation in my life (and in both directions, with strong arguments openly and vulnerably heard from all directions)…Tell us: Where else does this happen?
Clearly, this goes well beyond warm fuzzies or simply ‘connecting with people.’ Our own experience (Arthur and Jacob) mixing it up in “one big unholy uncomfortableness” has been personally and practically impactful. Our 6-member SEXTET dialogue group (bringing together gay, lesbian, queer, straight, Mormon, evangelical, atheist, Marxist, conservative, liberal) has renewed our optimism for what is possible in the space between us. My (Jacob’s) dialogue with Kendall Wilcox has done the same –with each conversation rich in power and learning.
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 (more on this in the next chapter). It reveals the humanity of The Other.
If that was the only thing people glimpsed in this space, it would probably be worth it…but there’s much, much more. Above and beyond everything else said above, there’s yet another powerful reason that draws us 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 each of us wants, this kind of space insists on people being met 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 simply to bless and encourage what people are choosing, but instead, to defend, protect (and even increase) the space in which they can explore their options and make 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” (whether outlined by liberals or conservatives).
That does not mean, of course, that we cannot believe that such a path exists – nor talk about what that looks like. But it does mean that we proactively work together to create an environment that ensures no one view dominates to such a degree that people lose the freedom to express their choice and agency in charting their own course.
Rather than a high-pressure space of trying to change other, this would be a space of openness and curiosity – where our unique experiences (and interpretations of those experiences) could be openly described and explored together.
Among other things, this would underscore a variety of options that thoughtful people explore and decide upon.
That’s the kind of Space we hope people on all sides of this issue might come together to support.
Clearly, not everyone will. But we’re convinced that 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.”
We hope that’s true.
 With some license on my part in broadening the referents.
 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!’ 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 a believe what we are saying – or even believe us to be ‘sane’)…
 All metaphors and analogies have limits, and this one between sexuality and other mental/emotional experiences has plenty of (big) and meaningful differences. That being said, it’s hard to overlook how deeply both groups – LGBT folks and religious conservatives – have been stigmatized as sick, broken, dangerous, etc – and how problematic this has been for both communities.
 If Mormons and Post-Mormons Can Talk Productively, then Anything is Possible! It’s been as powerful and moving a conversation as I (Jacob) have ever had across the religious/secular divide. I’ve deeply enjoyed time exploring contrasting perspectives with Mark, 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 (directly or primarily or explicitly) 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 Coffee & Camomile Tea: More Thoughts on the Third Space).
 We say no “formal, primary” agenda, because as we also said, it’s okay to “still retain the desire, hope and commitment to inspire others to come over to one’s position – e.g., ‘see the truth’/’come to their side.” In other words, it’s okay to have a secondary hope and interest to see others have an awakening – as long as it doesn’t become the first and primary and only objective (allowing the primary and driving motive to be seeking understanding of the other).
 Charles Taylor described “pseudo-questions” as something designed to make a statement and assertion, rather than to sincerely inquire.
 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.”
 Jacob’s wife Monique and he 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!”
 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
 Experience, after all, comes initially without a story…what if we approached it together without evaluation…just as is. Then considering which interpretation or narrative feels right or makes the most sense.