It's easy for some people to avoid coming into contact with people and ideas they disagree with. There are liberal and conservative news sites, neighborhoods with different political leanings, and organizations and houses of worship that make clear their views on controversial issues. In the past year, this has increasingly extended to where we shop and eat, as people decide where to go based on a company's position on LGBT rights. Those in favor of such rights are boycotting the likes of Chick-Fil-A, The Salvation Army and ExxonMobil, while those against them are pledging to avoid Amazon.com, JCPenney and Oreo-maker Nabisco. There's nothing wrong with voting with the wallet -- I wouldn't want to support a company that advocates for things I strongly disagree with -- but while boycotts and events like Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day garner media attention, they serve to further separate, rather than bring together, people with opposing viewpoints. For this reason, we ought to be pairing these political statements with a conversation.
Last week, several hundred thousand people flocked to Chick-Fil-A outlets in support of company president Dan Cathy's statement against marriage equality while countless others reaffirmed that they would 'eat mor chikin' elsewhere. Despite the abundance of strong opinions, there was a dearth of dialogue between people on the opposing sides. A mass statement in support of or against Chick-Fil-A might affect the company's bottom line -- though I'd guess that the supporters and detractors cancelled each other out -- but it doesn't address the larger cultural divide over LGBT rights. The lines hundreds of people deep contrasted with the thousands who have sworn off the chicken chain show how polarizing of an issue this is.
If we started more dialogues about LGBT issues, hopefully we could find more common ground with the people on the opposite side of the table. Perhaps we could agree that the government should get out of the marriage business as a way to protect the sanctity of marriage for religious folks while providing equal treatment under the law for LGBT people. Maybe we won't agree on marriage, but we can come together to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a law that would protect most people from hiring and promotion discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity yet has stalled in Congress numerous times. It's possible that we won't agree on anything, yet the personal story of a loyal scout asked to leave his troop for being gay or a small business owner who was legally required to not discriminate against a lesbian couple's wedding, going against her religious beliefs, can lead to a better understanding of where someone else is coming from.
So long as both sides stay respectful, a conversation can only be a good thing. A discussion between people with opposing viewpoints can help to humanize those on the other side and foster acceptance of LGBT people.
By discussion, I mean actually sitting down in person and having a conversation; anonymous discussions in internet comment sections are of limited value here. Frankly, people are more respectful to someone's face, and a discussion means more if the person one disagrees with is someone they know and care about.
Many who support LGBT rights and marriage equality do so because of dialogues with LGBT people and allies. People who have an openly gay coworker, relative or friend are nearly twice as likely to support marriage equality as those who don't (though part of this difference may be because LGBT people are more likely to come out to people who support equal rights). When people understand the discrimination and harassment that LGBT people face, along with their goals, it's harder to say that gays and lesbians lead a reckless lifestyle or don't deserve equal treatment under the law. I doubt that the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney and Washington State Representative Maureen Walsh, a Republican who gave a passionate appeal for same sex marriage in February, would support LGBT rights if not for conversations with family members and friends about what these rights mean to them.
Talking with people on the other side of the issue doesn't mean we should stop standing up for what we believe in. I'd be joining the Chick-Fil-A boycott if I weren't a vegetarian living in rural Washington (not exactly the chain's home turf). If we only surround ourselves with like-minded friends and fast food, though, it's hard to do anything but preach to the choir.
Those of us in support of LGBT rights can skip eating at Chick-Fil-A, and those against LGBT rights can stop ordering from Amazon.com, but as we vote with our wallets, we should be talking, too. When we sit down with the people we disagree with and have an honest, respectful discussion, we can accomplish more than we may think.
Follow Josh A. Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joshagoodman