First appeared in Empathy 3.1 (1992): 107-108.
© 1992 by Empathy ; © 2004 by Louie Crew
Years ago, a dear friend who is a sensitive psychologist shocked me when she told me of her upbringing in an environment that I would never have predicted. Her rigid fundamentalist parents routinely thundered Perfection and Sinlessness. Their religious community taught her to stifle creativity and spontaneity, the very qualities which as an adult she manifests abundantly.
"How did you ever re-wire all those circuits?" I asked her.
"I didn't, Louie. That would have been impossible. I simply walked into another room."
Nicodemus in the bible story misunderstood in the same way that I did: "Do you mean I must re-enter my mother's womb again?!"
"No," Jesus replied, "That which born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the spirit is spirit."
Few of us can be argued into radical change. Real change is at once simpler and more complex than argument: we move into another room, we must be born of a new spirit.
Not all exclusion is evil. Sometimes we exile those whom, knowing well, we judge likely to bring grave harm to us or to themselves--such as, murderers, thieves, and the insane. Sometimes, however, we cast out those whom we do not know well, those whom we have simply been taught to fear. We have not shaped the ideology of exclusion, but merely received it. If we exclude those whom we do not know, those about whom we have no objective evidence of evil besides the obvious fact that society does not like or value them, we do not protect society; we protect only our own status. That is one reason why we can rarely talk ourselves out of a received ideology of exile: we do not ratify or maintain the ideology for the reasons we think we do.
It makes little sense to debate our ideology piece by piece, verse by verse. We can far more efficaciously move into another room, into empathy -- the marvelous space in which we suspend our own point of view, our own judgments, and try for an extended season to experience the world from someone else's point of view.
When I work with groups of heterosexuals, I think it is important not to let argument define the terms of the discourse. Argument will and should arise naturally, on its own, but I want the argument to arise out of a fuller context of human beings reacting to each other as whole persons, not as pieces of a verbal puzzle.
Formal studies consistently show that those who know lesbians and gays as friends and family members are far less likely to be afraid of them than those who have gotten their views from impersonal sources. Since I cannot personally stand in for all lesbians and gays, I structure exercises to bring them into the discussion.
I share here one such exercise. It puts participants into the context of lesgay need, regardless of where the participants are ideologically. Here lesgay persons appear where most heterosexuals encounter us everyday, albeit not knowing that they do--in the context of working together. In this particular version, the lesbians are a clergyperson and her beloved who have graciously received strangers as guests in their home.
I prepared this exercise when I met at the Seminary of the Southwest as a consultant for the Task Force on Human Sexuality of the Diocese of Texas (August 1989), a group with members chosen to represent diversity of point of view. A lesbian and a gay male were members of the Task Force, as was a graduate of Exit (for "ex-gays") and the clergy son of one of the most outspoken of bishops in opposition to lesbians and gays.
The exercise would work just as well with parish groups, perhaps as a session of a Lenten series on evangelism.
It is easy to modify the exercise for other settings. If you use it in staff sensitivity session, you might identify the host couple in the exercise as a gay or lesbian couple who work in the same profession as your staff. If you use it with high school students, you might identify the couple as two lesbians or two gay males who come out to a group of friends at school.
It is important, I think, to have at least one openly lesbian and one openly gay male person working with you in the project, preferably as members of your workshop. They could provide an important check if empathy breaks down.
Even in the Diocese of Texas, which is on record for fairly hostile views about lesbian and gay people, the mix of heterosexuals and lesgays on the Task Force kept the participants honest, with an added surprise. The "ex-gay" who had gone through Exit, became so intrigued by the process that he volunteered to be Mary in Phase 2, and he stayed in character extremely well even when his Exit ideology could have made it easier for him to cut corners.
The exercise occurs in four phases and can require as little as one hour, though the discussion in any phase, especially Phase 4, can expand dramatically if time permits.
I found that one of the major benefits was that the exercise kept me a listener. I used it after several other sessions in which the group had gotten to know me, so my presence as a gay eavesdropper added to the pressure to keep the dialogue real, not artificial.
The exercise restrains those more likely to monopolize the process: they usually volunteer as leaders, but then discover that the "leader" must listen as a reporter. This process draws in those who often wait for others to lead. Given the chance to speak, they often speak quite cogently.
For Leaders Only:
Open the envelope marked "Group Members" and give one of the sheets inside to each member of the group, without comment. Do that now, without reading further. After you have given out the slips, turn to the next page and read the rest of this packet while the others respond to the assignment you have given them.
If people ask questions of any kind, seal your lips and point to the slip of paper which you have given them. Let the group dynamic produce its own "leaders."
Do not tell anyone else what is going to happen until the appropriate times, as indicated.
At the back of this packed you will find a copy of the sheet which you have given out, which begins "You have all arrived at a Church convention." Read it now.
You need to observe carefully and possibly will want to take notes. Even if silence occurs, let it wear itself out; do not intrude to break it.
Phase 2 (about 10 minutes)
Interrupt by knocking on the desk as if you're knocking on a door. Then say, "Karen and Mary coming back to hear your answers. Who will volunteer to play Mary and Karen. Both males and females can volunteer to play those parts. We must have at least one volunteer, preferably two....."
When you have your volunteer(s), instruct them to complete the drama. Again, observe and take notes, but do not otherwise participate.
Phase 3 (about 10 minutes)
Stop. Now assume that you are a parent with an 18- year-old child who is having problems with sexual identity.
Having observed the members of this group as we reacted to Karen and Mary, which person would you choose to advise you and you child and why? If you could not choose any of us, say so and also tell why.
If you have any reservations about your first choice, share those."
Call on each person by name to identify a first choice and explain why. If an answer seems too general, ask the person, "Can you be more specific?" Since you have had the greatest freedom to observe, you should also tell which person you would choose, and your reasons.
Return to the main session. I will ask you to report on your group.
[This new page is what the leader hands out in Phase 1]
You have all arrived at a national church convention, where local hosts provide housing. The Convention has put you up in a huge rectory connected with a parish in this city. The rector, Mary Todd, has feted you to marvelous late-night tales of the history of this grand Victorian structure...... You're intrigued, especially by Mary Todd's charm; and you like a house guest who is not a part of the convention, Karen Wheeler.
The convention has set aside the third morning of your visit for you to "get to know the community." When you come down for breakfast, Karen has prepared a feast. She explains that Mary had a minor emergency at the parish office, but will join you later. Karen then shares some fascinating details of her work as a nurse in a children's hospital, in a burn center.
Another guest asks Karen if she is married and has children.
Karen answers, "Yes, to both. My one son is now at the University of Texas and my one daughter practices law in Charlotte. Several years after their father died, Mary Todd and I became a couple. That was nine years ago. We committed ourselves to each other. We're confused by why so many heterosexuals cannot accept people unless they mirror heterosexuals' experience to the nar rowest details. We don't expect heterosexuals to model after us. Why do most heterosexuals demand us to be like them? We can understand a person's objection to us as a matter of faith, but why do such people almost always assume that we have not come to our own commitment as a matter of faith?"
At this point, Karen answers the phone and then explains, "Mary needs help next door. It won't take me more than 15 minutes. Please help yourself to seconds. Mary and I both will return to have coffee with you and to listen to you answer the questions I have raised."
Your leader will not say a thing for the next 10-15 minutes, but will take notes. You need to talk among yourselves to prepare what you will say to Karen and Mary when they return.
Please sign my guestbook and view it.
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