By Dalton Langdon, DCI Fellow
In the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative (DCI), we have focused our efforts all year on creating environments where everyone has the liberty to share their opinion, so long as we uphold the conversation agreements set to each other at the beginning of every forum. We have done this in the spirit of healthy conversation and to show participants it is possible to have productive discussions with individuals of differing opinions.
This sounds good in theory, and I believe we have often achieved this goal. Nevertheless, it is not at all easy, especially when either deliberators or facilitators have strong feelings about the issue in question. It is even more difficult when people come from radically different traditions and have worldviews that are critical of other people’s identities. Is it really possible, for example, to productively deliberate with someone who has deep problems with a part of you that is core to your identity?
In my experience, this issue often arises in discussions about gender and sexuality, which was the focus of our most recent D Team meeting. The topic of gender and sexuality is contentious for many yet so integral to how many of us conceive of our identities. For those of us who have been scorned because of our gender or sexuality, participating in a discussion about either can be particularly challenging. As a queer individual, on many occasions I have felt forced by convention, society, and my own upbringing to suppress and contain myself, thus causing a separation between my sense of who I am and who I present myself to the world. Hearing echoes of those conventions in conversations about gender and sexuality can feel like re-experiencing those painful occasions. This can happen especially when the conversation begins to approach the topic from a religious standpoint, which often highlights just how deeply integrated Christianity is in the morality of U.S. citizens. I’ve found that some people have difficulty compartmentalizing their religious beliefs when it comes to discussing policies related to gender and sexuality. Others don’t feel the need to do so at all, but for me, such compartmentalization is critical.
I strongly believe that we should uphold the concept of separation of church and state, and that we should not dictate decisions that affect others based mostly on personally held religious beliefs, especially when those affected by our biases may not hold those beliefs. I am a firm advocate that everyone has the right to believe in whatever higher power they want, but I cannot in good conscious back notions or policies that impose those beliefs on others. And for this reason, I don’t think gender and sexuality identity should be up for debate at all. These identities may seem like an abstract concept and may be hard to talk about, but for many of us, and particularly those of us whose identities have been marginalized, they are quite real and important.
But as hard as it is to do so, I also recognize that people’s religious identity may be as deeply held and important to some people as gender and sexuality identities are to others, including myself. They see the normalization of gender identity and fluidity of sexuality as threatening to their identities, just as perhaps I view their religious views as threatening to my identity. While I don’t see them as equivalent, part of the point of dialogue and deliberation is to engage with ideas and people you don’t agree with and first try to understand where they are coming from.
Like I said, none of this is easy, and it is probably impossible for any of us to do all the time. It is particularly challenging for facilitators to remain “passionately impartial” when they care deeply about the issue in question. But we should all try to openly engage with our differences at least some of the time, if we have any hope of bridging our divides. The DCI has made its mark on our community by encouraging tolerance and sound reasoning skills when it comes to deliberation surrounding sensitive areas such as trans rights. I would encourage us all to remember the DCI as we go out and discuss topics on identity with your family and friends. Remember to think critically about your own opinion, and that there is always a story behind the opinions you encounter. Try to understand why those stories mean so much to us and how we can find connections between them. Then we might be able to foster real understanding and real progress on these deeply contentious and important issues.