Op-ed: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Even Our Most Ardent Opponents

We've swayed the movable middle. Now it's time to change the way the right wing thinks about us.

BY Nathaniel Frank

November 19 2012 5:00 AM ET

To do this we may need an approach of greater engagement and understanding, and less confrontation. One of the lessons of “what worked” in the recent ballot initiatives was that an approach seen as demanding of rights was alienating while pointing out common values, such as love, commitment, and responsibility, created empathy and support. Opting for engagement over confrontation does not mean giving ground. Emboldened by recent victories, we should press on to demand full equality everywhere. But we may reach this goal more effectively if we, to take a principle from social work, meet folks where they are. This is what movement research has shown us, and applying that research was critical to our recent gains. Yet there is still too much we don’t know about what I call “the antigay mind,” in part because our research has focused on the movable middle instead. Some of our efforts (or nonefforts) are based on unhelpful stereotypes of religious and rural people.

How do we make deeper inroads into red-state territory? Some good work is already going on in this realm, and what works ought to be expanded. The Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress conducts outreach to religious communities to strengthen understanding about LGBT and other issues. The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University applies social work principles of “meeting people where they are” to increase acceptance among parents struggling with their children’s sexuality. Building on the clear but strained feelings of love these parents have for their children, the Family Acceptance Project shares research with them showing the critical importance of acceptance to their children’s well-being. The Campaign for Southern Equality is crisscrossing the former Confederacy to raise visibility there in southern accents. And the It Gets Better Project is partnering with a theater troupe that’s traveling to suburban and rural areas performing but also leading dialogues with the community.

Behavioral psychology is also offering new insight into belief systems that has yet to be broadly applied to antigay bias. Research is beginning to reveal more about what really animates — and could move — those who view homosexuality with irrational disgust. It suggests that an evolution-based moral bias against nonreproductive sex — born at a time when failing to reproduce could cost the tribe its survival — has hardened over time into a rigid homophobic ideology. People often attribute this to religion, but it’s more useful to understand it as a psychology that (some) religious communities have exploited. Martha Nussbaum, drawing on research showing that homosexuality triggers the disgust sensitivities of homophobes, proposes replacing a “politics of disgust” with a “politics of humanity” through a direct but empathetic confrontation with its sympathizers. This and other research on the psychology of moral belief can help us better understand the roots of the outdated, but, to them, quite “natural,” moral views of social conservatives — and how to transcend them.

We should not jettison what works. But we should adjust our approach as we research and learn more — and should expand the population we engage. I gladly participated in efforts to win the movable middle with sometimes confrontational tactics — including an insider-outsider strategy on repealing DADT that I chronicle in a forthcoming journal article. The road map of Freedom to Marry, to take another example of what works, includes a smart strategy to win more moderate states as a way of creating the right climate for a Supreme Court win. And a huge key to the tactics that delivered positive results on Election Day was the persistent, grinding work of holding endless, old-fashioned conversations with voters about the lives of LGBT people — another insight gained through research on what works.

Those conversations should be expanded. Focusing on movable-middle voters made sense; indeed, we’ve won many of them over faster than we thought. But too few of us ever thought we’d get the rest. Now it’s time to try.


NATHANIEL FRANK, author of Unfriendly Fire, is a visiting scholar at Columbia's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. A frequent contributor to Slate, he is currently writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind.

Tags: Politics

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