Friday, March 27, 2015

Personalizing the Public Narrative

shane huntWhen I look at the LGBTQ and Christian communities, they seem to be at opposite ends of a chasm. It’s difficult to escape the narrative that LGBTQ protections are Christian suppression and Christian protections are LGBTQ suppression.

This dichotomy goes back to at least the 1970’s, when Anita Bryant’s famed Save Our Children campaign threatened that Miami’s sexual orientation antidiscrimination ordinance would cause discrimination against Christians, leading to the ordinance’s overwhelming repeal. And the story hasn’t changed. Just this month, the Georgia Senate approved a law that would grant religious-based legal exemptions in certain circumstances that one outlet characterized as “anti-gay” and even cited one account calling it the “Turn the Gay Away” bill, despite its similarity to the federal and other state religious exemption laws that only affect actions by a government or government official.

These public players—politicians, advocates, and the media—treat gays and Christians as issues rather than as people. That’s not surprising. Public figures, whether Oprah Winfrey or President Bush, are more ideas we contemplate than actual people we know. They play a role in a public narrative and sometimes need to cast supporting characters to maintain it. Those swept up in their stories become public figures themselves, and instead of paying attention to each lived experience, each individual witness, we have opinions of them without ever meeting them, often based entirely on stories others have told about them. Here, the public tale of culture war has coopted two important areas where we regularly must build bridges across ideological differences: market negotiations between non-intimate relations and personal relationships between our friends and family. Instead, we should do the reverse—start with personal stories and relationships, and build those up into the public discourse.

To see this process, take a quintessential market interaction: contract negotiation. Nearly 20 years ago, San Francisco required its contractors to give health benefits to same-sex domestic partners. The then-Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, negotiated a compromise where each employee could name one household beneficiary, regardless of relation. This situation was even more complex than traditional contracts, since city and church are both private parties contracting for services and public players with a voice in the public debate. Yet 20 years ago, a solution was possible. In contrast, the current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, recently instructed the teachers at parochial schools that public support for, among other things, same-sex marriage (including, of course, getting one) is grounds for termination. In response to the subsequent controversy, Archbishop Cordileone insisted he run Catholic schools “faithful to their mission” and compared Catholic school teachers to political campaign managers. Not only did Archbishop Cordileone buy into the public narrative that a pro-LGBTQ statement hinders the Church’s mission, but he transformed teachers themselves into public symbols whose independent, off-the-job behavior had to support the Church’s narrative. 80% of the teachers objected, and there is no rapprochement in sight. I don’t mean to suggest that the marketplace must be a values-free zone. But by transforming individual market players into public figures, we threaten the market with the paralysis that has recently so defined Washington.

It doesn’t stop there. The public narrative has eclipsed our personal relationships. After I came out in college as gay and Catholic, the LGBTQ and Catholic Centers both welcomed me. But when I got to Law School and threw myself into advocacy with an LGBTQ organization, I woke up one morning to notice that I had almost no Christian friends. After years of having stubbornly held onto both identities and having developed fruitful friendships in both worlds, the thought of a conversation with an unfamiliar Christian put me on edge. By some point last year, I had drunk the public narrative’s kool-aid. The Christian was the Other, alienated by a chasm full of talking heads telling me who she was and what she said. As instructed, I cast Christian as Inquisitor and myself in the opposite role. And when I filtered Christians’ words through the lens of hate, the resultant rift made dialogue impossible.

The fissure between the two communities widens because we are doing it backwards. We need to start with the personal narrative—our lived experience, our individual witnesses—and build that up into the public one, instead of letting the public narrative dominate the private and personal narratives and place us into rigid roles we then act out. For me, I rejected the public culture war narrative and threw myself back into Christian circles neither covering my other identity nor forgetting the charitable active listening taught in the Negotiation Workshop here. Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy reached out to Campus Pride’s Shane Windmeyer—whose organization had led numerous campus protests in response to Chick-Fil-A’s support of anti-LGBTQ organizations— kicking off several months of relationship-building and exchanging personal stories, and both the donations and the protests stopped. And consider what happened in Utah. After the Mormon Church faced off against the LGBTQ rights movement in passing Proposition 8 in California, Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis characterized the two as “at war.” After seven years of painstaking conversations, this month Utah passed an LGBTQ antidiscrimination law endorsed by both the Mormon Church and HRC, balancing religious liberty and anti-discrimination interests. And while it’s maybe not the exact balance I would have personally struck between those interests, the bigger theme is how Christian witness and queer lived experience intertwined to build up a community of persons that could, even in difference speak, live, and apparently even legislate together.

Utah worked because the LGBTQ and Christian communities let their personal narratives transform their public ones, rather than letting roles in a public narrative define their private and personal relations. I don’t want to downplay the very real tension and pain between many in the LGBTQ and Christian communities, and there’s clearly a lot of healing to do. But until we set aside the narrative of the public—of advocates, the politicians, and the media—and we start with the stories of the gay or Christian person living next door, the public narrative will drown out our own witnesses, our own experiences. Instead, let’s replace the symbolic with the personal and the theoretical role with actual experience, and begin to close the chasm between the LGBTQ community and the Christian.

Shane Hunt ’15 is a 3L at Harvard Law School. During his career here, he has taken the Negotiation Workshop and the Negotiation & Mediation Clinic (HNMCP).