TALKING TO FRIENDS: UnMasking, Asking & Tasking

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Brown

It was mid summer in the mid-1980’s shortly after I graduated from law school, and I was driving to what might have been the 3rd or 4th wedding of the summer. My best friend from law school (I’ll call her Arlene), had flown into town (yet again) to attend. As Arlene and I drove from the ceremony to the reception, she haltingly expressed her mixed feelings. “I’m happy for David and Sarah,” she began, “but I have to admit that all these weddings make me a little sad…they remind me that even though Donna and I have been together for 7 years, no one is celebrating us as a couple – and no one is going to. My law school friends don’t even include her on the invitations.” I glanced over and saw that she was crying, and in an instant I gained some measure of understanding about how the world of commitment, weddings, and public affirmation of couples looked from her perspective. The law did not treat all of my friends equally. The bitterness of discrimination diminished the sweetness of that day. I count this moment as a turning point in my growth as an ally and advocate for marriage equality.

In that conversation, Arlene bestowed upon me a wonderful gift: insight. And that insight has helped to fuel my work for LGBT equality. Conversations can do that. That’s why, during Freedom to Marry week (which begins today!), you should make it a goal to have at least one conversation each day about marriage equality. Every day this week, people will share their ideas about how you can talk to friends, family members, legislators, and others about marriage. Today I want to focus on the conversations you have with friends.

There are three simple steps to talking with friends about marriage: 1) remove the mask, 2) make the ask, and 3) assign a task.

Remove the Mask

Share your story. Make it personal, authentic, and heartfelt. This is what Arlene did for me, and what I attempted to do at the beginning of this post. In a sense, Arlene was wearing a mask, concealing her hurt and ambivalence, suppressing the longing she felt to celebrate her love for Donna with her friends and family. She’d put on a happy face out of love for her friends David and Sarah, but for a few minutes in the car, she let the mask slip away. I learned something deep and abiding because she had the courage and the trust to show me the truth. Similarly, whatever your sexual orientation or marital status, when you tell a friend how you feel about marriage (particularly regarding the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage), you may completely transform your friend’s understanding.

Just a few weeks ago, another dear friend of mine (who is not gay and is a Christian) found herself in conversation with a fellow parishioner who seemed to assume that my friend shared his negative view of marriage for same sex couples. As if the conversation were happening in slow motion, my friend could almost hear the seconds ticking away as an internal debate began: “I have to tell him I disagree.” “But what if I screw it up and just end up alienating him? That’s happened to me before.” “He clearly assumes that I agree with him, and I don’t.” “But he’s such a sweet guy; what if I hurt his feelings?” “Am I articulate enough and clear enough about my views to tell him the truth?”

I am incredibly proud to tell you that my friend resolved this inner debate by sharing her true feelings with her pastor. She explained that in her view, marriage equality is no more than simple fairness. She told him about the many gay and nongay Christians she knows who find marriage equality entirely consistent with their faith. She also described some of the families she has known headed by gay and lesbian parents, urging her fellow parishioner to see that these families deserve the rights and responsibilities of marriage just as much as her nongay friends do. Her fellow parishioner was surprised – but he listened. My friend doesn’t expect that she persuaded him to change his mind, but her hope is that she may have planted a seed that will later bloom into understanding. And at the very least, she was authentic. She removed the mask.

Make the Ask

These days, it is not enough to share your story. Especially after your friends have heard about how important marriage equality is to you, they may want to help. You must seize the opportunity to make a new ally by asking them to get involved. People like to be asked. Especially if your friends are not members of the gay community, or if they have been uninvolved in work for LGBT equality, they may wonder if there is a place for them. Nongay friend may feel that it is somehow presumptuous for them to get involved in “gay politics.” They may feel embarrassed if they are married, even guilty for having enjoyed a right that is invidiously denied to others. If you ask them to get involved in marriage equality work, you will invite them and thereby make it easier for them to take the next step.

Assign a Task

If your friend has been moved by your story and has expressed a willingness to work for marriage equality, then you can suggest a specific, concrete action by which they can demonstrate their support. Many people support marriage for same-sex couples, but they just don’t know what to do to be of help. Suggest one good web site and ask them to visit it this week. Give them the name of one legislator they could write in support of marriage equality. If a local or state wide organization is organizing a demonstration, lobbying day, or other event, ask your friend to accompany you to it. But don’t let the conversation end before you ask your friend to take one concrete step in support of marriage. If they follow through and take this action, they will feel great, and as they see their views reflected in their actions, their commitment to the cause will grow.

Jennifer Gerarda Brown is a member of the Steering Committee for Freedom to Marry. She is also Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on Dispute Resolution at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and the Charles Mechem Senior Research Scholar and Director of ADR Programs at Yale Law School.