As the plane descended above the lights of Salt Lake City, I wondered about the Mormons living below: "What was I getting myself into?"
I (Tracy) was flying from North Carolina into Utah to co-host "Living Room Conversations" between gay people like me and Mormons, with a friend from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jacob Hess. We had recently collaborated on a workshop at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation exploring how to work with diverging "sacred convictions" in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. Since then, Jacob and I had developed an unlikely friendship.
I admit having fewer experiences than stereotypes of "Mormons" -- including "conformist" and "closed-minded." After a decade of working in the marriage equality movement, I had often felt disturbed by the heavy Mormon involvement in opposing a cause I believed in so much.
Despite (or because of) these misgivings, I was joining Jacob in a dialogue experiment attempting to bridge one of our country's most difficult socio-political divides: the debate over marriage for same-gender couples. When I told my friends in North Carolina what we were planning, they would typically say, "Wow. Good luck with that!"
I (Jacob) got a similar response from my neighbors upon hearing of my plans to spend a few evenings talking with "my marriage equality activist friend." Tracy herself, as an enjoyable and insightful conversation partner, contradicted our own stereotype of gay activists as aggressively attempting to "silence" or "shame" religious people.
The question on both sides, then, was: Why spend more time with those people?
It turns out that the people we invited were wondering the same thing. One gay couple talked about how unexcited they felt, actually dreading the conversation: "After a lifetime of fighting to be true to myself I didn't want to defend who I am or my family to anyone." Another gay couple was unsure of whether they could even show affection to each other like they normally do. One of Jacob's friends admitted some anxiety at how her 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, we enjoyed some chips, hummus and drinks. We then took turns reading the Living Room Conversation ground rules, 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 no reason to be afraid."
Opening rounds of conversation focused on getting to know each other -- including our sense of purpose, and our hopes and concerns for the future. The sense of commonality was almost immediate -- and made it "easier" as one person remarked, "to see each other as human beings rather than 'opposing views.'"
After an hour of these "warm up" conversations, participants responded to the question: "when it comes to the issue of marriage and LGBT rights, what are you most concerned about right now?"
One school teacher expressed concern with introducing sexual orientation to younger kids as "muddying" things during confusing teenage years. A gay woman later shared the confusion of her younger years and how knowing more about the diversity of sexual orientations might have helped her.
Differences like these were explored with curiosity and openness. Personal stories touched people, often moving them to tears. As one woman became emotional, her spouse 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."
"Prior to our conversation," one person reflected, these ideas "had only reached me on a political level." Another added, "Even if I'm right, there are human beings -- real people -- on the other side of this."
Rather than a rigid dichotomy of "religious people" and "gay activists," nuances arose: One gay woman was a "Jesus loving Christian" -- while one Mormon was a clean air activist supporting marriage equality.
One person spoke of realizing, "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."
Prolonged goodbyes. By the end, people didn't want to leave -- staying around to exchange contact information and take pictures. One Mormon woman said, "If I saw someone say something derogatory to that gay couple, I would deck them!" A gay woman said, "If I ever come in contact with [these neighbors] in the future, I will walk up and give them a hug!"
So beyond a few 'warm-fuzzies,' why does any of this matter? As Tracy remarked at the end, we've been in a culture war. And like any war, the woundedness around us is real. As Americans increasingly realize that same-gender marriage will be the law of the land, is there a deeper work still needing to happen?
We think so. One 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 saw how this world can be a better place if we can open up our ears and really listen." Another participant spoke of "layers and layers of insights and richness that we can discover" -- adding that "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."
It's not likely core beliefs will shift from these conversations -- on either side. That's not even the point. But what would it mean to lose some of the fear, disgust or anger? What would that take?
As we learned for ourselves, conversation with "the other" in our own homes is a good place to start.