Differentiating Between the What and the How
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I won three different strength-of-character awards in grade school, which has always fascinated me because during that time I was always lying. I lied to my dentist, my orthodontist, the mechanic and anyone grasping for human connection through small talk when they asked if I had a girlfriend. Despite living in a liberal town, with supportive parents, I lied in deeper ways to close friends, teachers, my parents and myself, all to hide and protect myself from a world that told me I did not belong.
Yet I remember how God reached me through the Episcopal Church, imperfections and inconsistencies aside, with a message of belonging. I do not remember what Father Bill said 20 years ago, but I most certainly remember how he made me feel when he supported the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson. Father Bill ran toward dissent and confronted it, lovingly, on behalf of others. Since that time, the Episcopal Church has repeatedly reminded me that I belong.
Building a church – and a world – for all God’s people
While there is much to admire in our church’s message of belonging, renewed homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and actions in our country are a chilling reminder that we cannot be complacent. We still have much work to do in building a world where all LGBTQ+ people can thrive.
And in a culture of hasty critiques, with myriad public audiences at our fingertips, we must take care not to tear each other down as we use different strategies to build more welcoming communities. To do this, we must differentiate between what and how.
The what is easiest. I can imagine most Episcopalians proclaiming, “Of course, we support LGBTQ+ people!” And yet we cannot stop at proclamations—we have to act. We also have to acknowledge the connection between politics and the individual—every political action impacts someone somewhere.
This makes the how less clear. Building a welcoming world can be tough, murky work, but it is work I have seen the church do well. In fact, I draw from experiences within the church as I write this very piece. With a better understanding of the plurality of approaches needed to succeed, we can become more adept at overcoming the challenges before us.
The question is: How?
How do we add tools to our toolbox so that our actions fit the context where we live?
May we explore our local town culture, learn about current and proposed state laws, and research our congressional representatives to examine any unique leverage they may have in Congress. May we not overlook the fact that the success of many who wish to silence LGBTQ+ voices comes from informed, detail-oriented, effective advocacy. May we be savvier in leveraging systems for justice.
How can we help others learn just as we ourselves learn?
I certainly was not born with the vocabulary to talk about being gay, much less lesbian, bisexual or transgender. I am still learning. May we take care to remain humble and distinguish between willful malignant ignorance and the ignorance that comes from lack of exposure and understanding. May our own vulnerability be the steel frame on which we can build lasting relationship, trust and reciprocity. May we understand the grace required from someone who takes time to educate us. May we seek to learn by reading, listening and watching queer-produced media and entertainment, so as to alleviate the burden on others to teach us directly.
How can we take risks, leveraging our privileges for change?
While I do not know if Father Bill used the word privilege at the time, I imagine he saw himself as someone in a position and of an identity likely to be listened to. I have tried to channel that approach as I’ve built an uncanny (if occasionally harmful) level of patience for talking to people with whom I disagree. May we be so bold as to avoid existing purely in echo chambers and instead be a presence in places where the gap between where we are and where we want to be is greatest. May those of us of identities less at risk understand our responsibility accordingly. In doing so, may we indeed leverage our privileges as the Episcopal Church to build stronger, more diverse communities.
How do we measure success?
Incremental progress is a reality of our world, yet when it comes to recognizing humanity, increments are particularly fraught to push for and celebrate. May we not allow perfect be the enemy of the good; may we maintain our focus on larger goals even as we take smaller steps to realize them.
How do we consider differences in threats to and needs of each part of the LGBTQ+ family?
We have greater knowledge today of the intersectionality of injustices, something that works in our favor, but only if we put that to use by being more proactive particularly for transgender people and others who face disproportionate discrimination. May we take care to listen to people within each identity and use this understanding for precise action.
How do we consider international contexts, while respecting and heeding other cultures?
May we hold progress on LGBTQ+ rights in the context of a global push for justice while remembering there may be other ways of understanding humanity unfamiliar to ourselves, but learned through genuine engagement with others.
Hearing and being heard
As difficult as it may be sometimes, making a statement is easy. What we say is important, but it is not a strategy for fostering genuine belonging. We must also communicate in a way that is heard by those who need to hear it, and we must act in a way that is effective. That’s risky work, and it looks different depending on who we are and where we are, but the reward is quite literally life-giving. May we first seek to ask someone why they take the approach they do, so that we may learn from one another.
Alan Yarborough is the church relations officer for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations. He also conducts dialogue trainings through Habits of Discourse. The views expressed are his own.
- Advocacy Resources from the Office of Government Relations
- Make Me an Instrument of Peace: A Guide to Civil Discourse