by: Jacob Hess, Living Room Conversations & Kendall Wilcox, Empathy First Initiative. 

To those who support the World Congress of Families as it arrives in  Salt Lake City, Utah next week, it may seem strange and even malicious to witness such relentless opposition to the conference.  And to those who find the messages promoted by the World Congress of Families to be hostile, any pushback from WCF supporters may seem callous and threatening to their very existence.

Although legitimate concerns have been raised by all sides, the atmosphere has come to  resemble more of a political campaign than a constructive conversation, with offensive and defensive maneuvers – and exceedingly scarce levels of curiosity and inquiry.    

As two friends who hold different views on the World Congress of Families, we share a strong belief that the WCF in Salt Lake City could be a great opportunity to have meaningful, productive conversations about significant things that get lost in the rancor – even seemingly simple questions such as, ‘What does it actually mean to be anti-gay?’   

We often use this term and other similar words (“bigoted” or “hateful”) as if we all have a common understanding of what they mean. As illustrated by the WCF debate, clearly this is not the case – with very different meanings of “anti-gay” and “hate” at play.

If that’s true, it might be helpful to map out the various ways these words are being used.  In partnership with Living Room Conversations and various members of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, we are finalizing this fall a Red Blue Dictionary in time for the 2016 Presidential Election season that will help clarify these kinds of different meanings across many contested words.

In the case of “anti-gay,” the word is most commonly used to describe anything that condemns or critiques homosexuality.  For instance, one commentator recently stated: “Let’s just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”

By contrast, one gay journalist, Brandon Ambrosino, wrote in response, “I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay.” He went on to quote another gay colleague who said, “if it’s ‘anti-gay’ to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word ‘homophobic’ is exhausted on…polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them?”  

We think that’s an important question – especially in light of a tendency (on both sides) to over-apply hot-button words like “hateful” or “perverted.”  Gay journalist Jonathan Rausch has similarly cautioned about, “throwing around charges of bigotry promiscuously.”  

By contrast, a more bounded sense of the word “anti-gay” emphasizes the presence of tangible animus or hostility. From this vantage point, someone might disagree about gay marriage and other aspects of gay rights without being anti-gay.  

But is that fair?  Many object to this narrowing of the term ‘anti-gay’ – seeing any opposition or questioning of gay rights as an inherent expression of hostility.  As they put it, ‘how would you feel if someone questioned the legitimacy of your family and opposed your civil right to legal recognition of your most intimate relationship?’  

Supporters of WCF, of course, would describe their efforts quite differently – describing the desire and effort to share a message about man-woman marriage as an innate expression of faith – one that can and should be done without overt hostility toward the LGBT community.

This can be difficult to believe for those in the LGBT community who experience the term “natural family” as inherently prejudicial toward their lives and families.  From this place, it’s not hard to understand why they view efforts to share this message around the world as harmful.  

So what to do at such an impasse?  Call us crazy – but we still have a thing for serious listening – like we recently did by co-hosting a Living Room Conversation earlier this summer.

It wasn’t easy.  But it totally beats the alternative!  Chronic resentment sucks the life out of so many of us.  By sitting with the embodiment of ideas that make-us-mad, by encountering that very person face to face and hearing their truth (and sharing our own), we are together pressed in more productive directions, such as exploring questions like:  

  • What are the appropriate cautions to take when ‘pro-traditional marriage’ groups are involved in parts of the world where violence against the gay community is common?  
  • To what degree (or not) might the gay community more proactively support the freedom of religious conservatives to disagree with them?  
  • Is there any common ground between liberal and conservative groups on limits to free speech – or on criteria of “hate speech” that we can all accept?  

Our purpose here is not to resolve or settle these big questions – and certainly not to settle once and for all the “true meaning” of a given term like “anti-gay.”  

But we do believe these kinds of questions deserve our attention and our best thinking.  If a reasonable conversation with ‘the other side’ feels impossible, then we throw out this challenge – using the World Congress of Families as a starting point.  

For those in support of the World Congress of Families, stretch your willingness to seek understanding by spending some time reading this account of how gay individuals were brutalized by a community, while asking yourself, “is there anything here that helps me better understand the gay community’s concerns?”

And for those concerned about the World Congress of Families, stretch your own willingness to seek understanding by reading the WCF’s own responses to what they experience as unfair and exaggerated critiques, while asking yourself, “is there anything here that helps me better understand where they are coming from?”     

Then when you run into that person on the other side, you’ll be ready.  Not with talking points…but with honest questions:  “Hey – can you help me understand…”

We’ll be rooting for you!   


Jacob Hess is a liberal-loving conservative guy – proud to be a partner of Living Room Conversations and enjoying the opportunity to direct Village Square, Salt Lake City.  He co-facilitated the nation’s first college course on liberal-conservative dialogue at the University of Illinois – publishing research on class outcomes and the larger contrast in socio-political narratives. He later co-authored You’re Not As Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) with Phil Neisser and a discourse analysis on romance entitled, Once Upon a Time, He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore. Coming out of recent dialogue work with Tracy Hollister and other colleagues at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, Jacob is currently launching a blog to help promote more understanding between religious conservatives and the gay community.  

Kendall Wilcox is a gay Mormon filmmaker who once produced media content for the World Congress of Families and is currently producing the documentary Far Between about what it means to be LGBTQI/SSA and Mormon as well as the upcoming documentary The Kitchen Case: Utah’s Battle Over Same Sex Marriage. Kendall has helped create several platforms for dialogue along the divisive issue of sexual orientation and the Mormon Church with such efforts as the Empathy First Initiative, Mormons Building Bridges, Circles of Empathy, and the ongoing partnership with the Utah Pride Center called Utah LGBTQ Stories. Kendall is also a co-organizer of the Utah Commission on LGBT Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Kendall will be attending the WCF, inviting fellow attendees to engage in dialogue and will be live-tweeting the experience.