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Op-ed: Bridging Our Differences Peacefully

Op-ed: Bridging Our Differences Peacefully


"I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes the target or the potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed with themselves ... "

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, recorded this statement in the event of his assassination. As our LGBT history tells us, he was murdered by Dan White, a former colleague who disagreed ideologically with a stringent gay rights ordinance Milk had helped to pass during his nearly 11 months in office as a San Francisco city supervisor.

In many respects, Milk's prophetic words and White's murderous action capture the essence of the violent confrontation that all too often takes place when beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews collide. Take, for example, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's recent remarks regarding the Obama administration's decision to integrate the human and civil rights of LGBT people into U.S. foreign policy. He was not content to disagree with the foreign policy position defined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Instead, in a steady stream of violence-laden invective, the Texas governor articulated a sentiment few dare to vocalize in a more enlightened America: his belief that LGBT people are expendable, literally, meaning America need not intervene when countries such as Uganda threaten to execute men and women because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Combating violent human interaction is not a novel concept. Doing so was the central focus of peace-oriented advocates such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence aimed to melt the differences between individuals, countries, and continents. Gandhi advocated nonviolent communication as a means of engaging in civil discourse, especially when we disagree, cognizant of all those things that unite us, chief among them our common humanity. While he died at the hands of a political extremist, in his life Gandhi put into practice the theory of nonviolent communication adapted and reframed by various faith traditions, whose interpretation boils down to the importance of knowing another person's perspective as a means of creating an atmosphere for nondefensive exchanges of ideas.

Thankfully, at a critical moment in the LGBT community - one in which we are assailed by politicians and find ourselves in mourning over so many lost to bullying-related violence -- our community counts on a new generation of advocates. One such advocate is Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, who has weathered storms of bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance, the origins of which lie in values contrary to those of peaceful coexistence. And so, as he prepares to retire in 2012, he has declared a part of his post-retirement mission the promotion of nonviolent communication among and between what he terms "the churched, the un-churched, and the de-churched."

This particular aspect of his mission will be advanced out of St. Thomas' Parish, a small Episcopal church in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., which was itself the victim of violence over race and war issues that roiled the nation's capital during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For decades, St. Thomas' Parish has been at the forefront of engaging its own congregants and the community in challenging conversations. Whether the topic was racial integration, war, HIV/AIDS, or same-sex marriage equality, this congregation has been a prophetic leader in seeking justice for all persons. Together, we embrace deeply held welcoming, progressive, and inclusive ideals -- "radical hospitality," as my fellow parishioners and I like to refer to the way in which all are made welcome.

In a world torn by division, and as some among us seek political and other advantages by dehumanizing "the other," it is an opportune time for Bishop Robinson to work through St. Thomas' Parish and, with the citizens of Washington and those of our entire country, to engender dialogue with one another in ways that are centered in love, compassion, and forgiveness. With God's help, perhaps this work will have a "ripple effect" and will create ongoing and ever more influential ideas that will affect our country's social and political landscape for years to come.

JOE ZUNIGA is president of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care and the 1992 U.S. Army Soldier of the Year who came out as a gay man at the 1993 March on Washington. He resides in Washington, D.C., and was married at St. Thomas' Parish in 2010, where he also serves as a member of the vestry. Visit for more information about St. Thomas' Parish, its capital campaign, and its efforts to promote nonviolent communication.
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