Coming Out 2.0
All of us who are LGBT and have come out to someone know how powerful it feels to tell our story. Intuitively, we believe we can change hearts and minds.
Now we have proof: our stories do have that power, with a bit of a twist. It turns out that our willingness to listen as well as talk -- a combination we can call Coming Out 2.0 -- not only affects those who are conflicted about LGBT people or prejudiced against us. It also keeps their hearts and minds changed for a long time. At least a year -- and apparently for good.
That's the provocative discovery of the Vote for Equality project of the Los Angeles LGBT Center reported in the December 12 issue of Science.
The Center's serendipitous journey began only weeks after California voters rejected same-sex marriage in 2008 with Proposition 8. In the wake of shock and despair at the loss, our team wanted to seek out those who voted against us.
Thanks to the election results, we knew where to go. Our volunteers, half LGBT and half straight, chose neighborhoods where the LGBT community was crushed on Prop 8.
But what to say? And would these people who voted against us even want to talk with us?
Our first surprise: they were eager to.
Our second surprise, which stood out even in our early attempts to persuade: we were more effective when we broke all the rules of a conventional canvass. No two-minute quickie conversation. No spinning the issue as somehow not really about gay people. No wagging the finger, telling the voters how wrong they were or how wronged we felt.
Instead, we learned that it helped immensely if we began by asking the voters why they voted as they did, and what they thought they knew about LGBT people. When we demonstrated genuine curiosity, they had a lot to say.
The result: our team and the voters had honest, compassionate and yet pointed two-way conversations. We talked about what lesbian and gay people are really like, in real life. That meant we came out at every door. We asked voters about their own real, lived experiences with LGBT people. For the greater part of the conversations, which often ran 20 minutes, the Center's hundreds of volunteers listened.
It turns out that the combination of listening and sharing broke down anti-gay prejudice on a scale never before documented in social science. At the same time, our conversations immediately and dramatically raised voters' support of same-sex marriage. That's what the paper in Science documents.
Just as importantly, our results have lasted. Studies of other voter treatments find rapid decay: impact disappears in three to five days. But, among the voters with whom our LGBT canvassers spoke, decay has not set in even a year later. The change we stimulated appears to be permanent.
Of course, having face-to-face conversations with voters is time-consuming. Scary to some of us. Irritating to others of us. Listening to a completely different point of view is sometimes upsetting.
For our volunteers to succeed, they needed intensive training so that earning trust, listening and candor would become second nature. Our whole team needed coaching. And we needed each other -- we needed a team -- because it takes a team to boost confidence and performance when we were going so far outside of our comfort zone.
Yet here's what turns out to be true.
First, for anyone who wants the world to be a less prejudiced place: a 20-minute dialogue has the potential to pay off not just for the next election -- not just on one issue -- but in the long run.
Second: if victory for the LGBT community is not just about being able to get married, important as that is -- if it's also about respect, and the ability to live our lives without being dogged by prejudice -- we shouldn't wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to act on our behalf. Instead, we should seek out those who are prejudiced against us and begin the conversation.
Third, for even the cynics out there: the study suggests that it is possible to create a society with less prejudice -- and we at the Los Angeles Center are wondering how far that can go. For what if a gift that the LGBT community can give the greater progressive movement is new insight into how to reduce all forms of prejudice?
We've already begun applying what we've learned, to see if we can reduce prejudice against transgender people and the stigma against women who have had an abortion. Our results, though preliminary, are encouraging.
We won't solve the problem of prejudice overnight. Conversations take time. And they aren't a panacea. Some of our fellow human beings will cling to prejudice. Also, our knowledge of how to do this is imperfect. We are still learning.
But it's not just the data published in Science that makes us optimistic. Our experience talking with voters has reminded of some of Abe Lincoln's best advice. He said, "what most people need is a good listening to."
It turns out that Coming Out 2.0 may offer us a critical next step forward. For now we know that "a good listening to" helps prejudiced voters become less prejudiced and stay that way.