How gay men can help themselves, and lead others, to repair fences in a divided world
By Mike Fleming

According to your social feed, you are so right so often that you must have the world by the tail. But with all the dissent that you hear about later, there must be a kink in that system somewhere.

Amid the preaching to the choir and affirming feedback when we log onto our social networks, why are we as a society so sharply polarized? And more importantly, what can we do about it? How can we affect positive change if we are unwilling to even see opposing opinions, much less discuss them?

The most recent presidential election is a prime example. How can a good solid half of your fellow Americans get something so wrong when you are so, so right so, so often? Are they that different from you? Surely they aren’t stupid, are they? Brainwashed? Are they just plain evil?

Of course not. Maybe. Well, most of them. Probably.

Closer to home, look at the runoff for Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District between espoused gay ally and Democratic dream boy John Ossoff, and the mixed bag at best, fair-weather Republican that is Karen Handel. Campaigns get ugly, lies disguise as truth, conversations get heated, and battle lines get drawn. By the time one of them wins, neither looks like an appetizing option, and you can’t even look at the neighbor or family member who dared vote for the “other” candidate.

Now, choosing your friends and associates based on beliefs, values and opinions isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s good and natural to keep the support of like-minded people in your life. What may be new is how convenient it is to avoid dissenting opinions.

Hide someone’s profile from your newsfeed, and avoid conflict. Unfriend them, and forget them. Block them, and you can virtually steer clear of them forever. That kind of digital distance allows us to vilify any opponents as “other” and build nearly impenetrable emotional walls against them, and their uncomfortable, irritating and infuriating opinions.

One nagging issue, though: Avoiding a problem doesn’t solve it. It perpetuates it. Ask generations of gay men who were unable to live openly. We know as much or better than most about ignoring a problem and building psychological walls against the pain. Railing against the opposition without engaging meaningfully with your detractors in the conflict yields nothing but philosophical masturbation that’s more whining than resistance.

Our gay forbearers lived life that way, until one by one, group-by-group, organization-by-organization, idea by idea, they started standing up for themselves. In the tiniest ways at first, and then in growing number and frequency, we learned to work within and against the system to come at the problem from all angles.

Over time, confronting issues is what works to effect change.

Boys in the Bubble

Of course the polarity goes far beyond politics. For gay men, what’s political is certainly also societal, but it’s also quite personal. Discrimination based on outdated opinions affects our lives, and evading dealing with it is even more personal, because it’s actually bad for us to avoid conflict and live in a vacuum.

If you live in a bubble – and so many of us do on curated social media over the real world, in Midtown over living outside the I-285 Perimeter, on Atlanta’s blue island in the red sea of Georgia – it’s jarring to realize that you’re not in the majority. It hurts to realize that you don’t speak for everyone, or even for most people.

When you’re self- protected from the opinions of outsiders, seeing everyone’s views as equal and valid feels like oppression. Nobody wants that feeling. But psychiatrists say we just might need it.

Discourse with those who would oppose us, and engaging respectfully in dissent over issues that matter, is uncomfortable, but in our best interest. It’s ultimately how we change hearts and minds. That holds true, even if it takes time and patience – a lot of both.

Break the Cycle

Something wonderful happens when we try to see issues from someone else’s point of view. It irritates the senses, but it also allows us to figure out ways to communicate with those people. Even if it doesn’t work in the moment, even if we have to come at it from different angles over and over, maybe, just maybe, we can finally reach them with an opposing thought.

And – gasp – maybe they can gain access to our carefully constructed walls and change us too, for the better. Maybe there’s a grain of truth that we can rescue from the bottom of their pile of opinions.

You’ve heard absolute power corrupts absolutely. The same is true in a world where we get everything we want. Life is ultimately about getting some of what you want and a lot of what you need. That way, you find balance, and both you and the world around you benefit.

Yes, life is more cozy and less scary in our little bubbles, but consider this: Engaging in the discomfort a bit at a time may be more effective, and it beats the hell out of the full-tilt culture shock when the reality of a polarized society slaps you.

We can vow to think about that the next time a “surprise” verdict is read, or the outcome of an election night shatters our expectations. What could we have done to expose ourselves to parts of life that make us uncomfortable, expand our understanding, and ultimately move the conversation forward?

And this goes for conflicts within our own community. Whether you engage in societal discussions as an agitator or an assimilator, your engagement is valid. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s needed its peaceful MLKs and it’s resistant Malcolm X’s. The AIDS crisis needed the sad honors of The Names Project and the coffin-carrying rallies of Act Up. In the same way we engage with our biggest detractors, we can listen to each other better as well.

Bursting our bubbles may feel like a monumental task. That’s OK. Daunting is good, and due to our collective experience in the still-evolving LGBT rights struggle, our community may be uniquely suited to lead the way in reaching across the aisle to mend fences. 

Rules of Engagement

The unknown is scary, but it can also be just as exciting. Treat it like an opportunity. Once you steel yourself for the adventure, the next step is to remind yourself – early and often – that people are more alike than they are different, even if someone initially strikes you as your polar opposite.

Next remember that bursting your bubble is for your own good, and whatever resistance you overcome, both internal and external, will be worth it.

Here are a few tips, tenets and tricks to engage in productive conflict.

Perspectives Change Perceptions

Ask yourself: ‘If I thought about this from their point of view, would I still agree with myself?’

My Needs and Our Needs

Conflicts aren’t a competition. There are no winners and losers. There are two parties, and there is their relationship. Agree to argue from the “side” of the relationship. It takes practice and trust to allow other people to share their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and perspectives with passion – and for us to just let them be.  

Power and Control

Conflicts can sway to the person with the most authority. Instead, ask ‘Is one person giving in too much? Does holding your ground come at the cost of insensitivity? Are we discussing who has the most power, or what the conflict is truly about?’

Embrace ‘And’

So often we get caught in either-or thinking that diminishes credibility on both sides. It’s sophomoric and limiting by nature, and doesn’t allow us to see or hear anything other than what we already ‘know’ to be ‘true.’

Make Peace with Ambiguity

Based on our fears and a desire to stay in control, we naturally resist uncertainty. Become comfortable with it and allow yourself to hang out in ambiguity. It’ll give you a sense of openness, patience, and perspective that allows creative solutions to emerge.

Seek Higher Ground

In a desire to escape conflict as fast as possible, we sometimes rush to come up with “solutions” or “compromises.” It works on the surface, but it doesn’t address the deeper issues. Actively look for higher-level solutions by remaining open instead of simply trying to “win” or end the argument.

Discern Intent

With issues that cut the core of sacredly held beliefs, we often vilify those who don’t agree with us. Once they become “those people,” they’re nearly impossible to connect via meaningful dialogue. Look for the positive intention and real fears of the other person to find the core of what’s really true, not just what our ego wants to argue about.

Elevate Others

We can and do have impact on other people. Elevate the conversation by focusing on being real, vulnerable, and honest. Focus on appreciating and empowering the other person. Acknowledge them and practice being grateful for who they are, no matter how difficult it is. When you manage to lift them up despite obstacles, you lift up yourself in the accomplishment and create the higher-level solutions you truly want.

The Truth Triangle

Remember the three parts of truth: Your truth, their truth, and the real truth (solutions).