At Stork’s, my favorite coffee meeting place in Wilton Manors, two friends talked about cataract surgery.
I offered that I’d heard great things about how easy and successful it was.
“I know a guy who had it, and he wrote an apology to his friends about how dirty his house was, which is something he never saw,” one of the men shared.
Sight, in this instance, is a cherished sense, and it provides us with a good metaphor for “perspective.” We see what we see, regardless of what others do. If that changes, we can change our perspective, but others can’t change it for us. They can make suggestions, such as, “Have you considered getting cataract surgery?” but shaming the person with statements such as, “Your house is really dirty. Can’t you see that?” wouldn’t be helpful. Nor would saying to others, “The man you admire is a monster.”
Coincidentally, Ray and I have been watching an Apple TV series called “See,” a dystopian fantasy in which the few million humans, who survive the near destruction of civilization, are blind. The handful who are not are thought to be witches, and/or are executed. Sighted people are blamed for the demise of culture and beauty. The dominant perspective of the culture is that sight is dangerous and evil. Obviously, the few sighted people don’t see it that way.
Our beautiful, highly cultured country is deeply divided by competing perspectives. We each think the other side is blind. We demonize one another. They’re all crazed Nazis, marching goose-step behind a mad man who thinks only of himself. People like me are all socialists, atheists, child molesters who steal elections, murder babies, and defy the will of God on what it means to be born male or female. They are the American Taliban, hoping to enshrine fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-personal conscience, white Christianity as the militant law of the land. People like me are turning the country over to criminal, non-white, non-Christian, free-loading illegal immigrants.
How do we help the blind see? How do we help them comprehend that it’s their house that’s in disarray, not ours? What is political cataract surgery? I think it’s through loving example, in which we listen, and take inventory of our own perspective, of our own shortcomings and failures. But that doesn’t exclude effective arguments from us, successful court rulings, executive orders, voter turnout, prison sentences for wrongdoers, and protecting ourselves from the physical intimidation of others.
If we do have our colored lenses removed, and are able to clearly see our shortcomings, it’s important to acknowledge them. The truth sets us free. If our brothers and sisters ever do what it takes to help them see more clearly, I don’t need from them an apology. I will be so happy for them and for us that I’ll only want to look and move forward. I will hope to do so with a clear perspective that requires an open heart and mind.
Working for many years as a corporate diversity trainer on LGBT issues, I have some experience with effective strategies for creating understanding, and on changing behaviors as well as perspectives. When I began such work in 1986, after many years as a gay speaker on college campuses, there was little if any understanding of how the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people were a business imperative. It was my job to build the case, and then to help equip workshop participants on how to create a safe and productive work environment for all their colleagues.
Shaming people for their bad behaviors is a poor strategy, regrettably employed by some trainers on affirmative action and sexual harassment. When we feel attacked, our defenses go up and we are unable to listen openly to what is being said. Calling conservative white Christians in the U.S. “the American Taliban,” may make us feel good, but it does nothing to stop Christian medical workers from denying service to LGBT people in need. In the eyes of the religiously conservative EMT or emergency room nurse, me being gay was a choice that they can’t accept. Perhaps they think that healing my wounds would only make me more of a threat to the theocracy they envision for the United States. Treating my needs might also cause trouble for them from similarly conservative colleagues and friends. Early studies on homophobia showed that fear of loss of community was a primary cause of anti-gay behaviors.
From the perspective of the person in need of medical attention, their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression should have no bearing on whether a doctor or nurse does the job they are being paid to do, any more than if they were Black or Jewish. They’re bleeding or in severe pain. Can they truly be sent elsewhere because of who they are naturally drawn to emotionally and physically?
We Americans don’t see eye to eye on a multitude of issues, so how do we manage the different perspectives? In most instances, it doesn’t matter that we disagree unless one or both parties insist that it does. When that happens, we need help in reconciling differences. Sometimes that help comes from the government and courts, sometimes from our employer, and sometimes from social and economic pressure. Boycotting the wedding planner, the photographer, or the baker, for instance, is one way to help resolve different perspectives.
The corporations who brought me in to train on LGBT issues hoped I could help change the culture by providing the information and emotional experience necessary to alter bad behaviors and possible beliefs. There was no gauge to monitor changes in behaviors, and certainly none for beliefs. Post-workshop surveys and anecdotal reports on an improved workplace were our only immediate means of measuring success. Yet, it is easy to witness today what huge strides have been made in the workplace for LGBT people and their allies since 1986. The primary evidence comes from the numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees, including senior managers, who are willing and able to come out, and by the number of these employees who want to stay with their company.
The key to enabling the sighted and the blind to “see eye to eye,” is to first eliminate the labels that separate them. What is it that they have in common? With the uncivil war taking place in the U.S., we can begin by reminding everyone that they are citizens who love their country. Another key ingredient of sharing perspectives and finding common ground is to create space in which each and every view can be shared respectfully in safety. Guidelines for discussion need to be created. Goals need to be established so that everyone knows that they are working for something tangible. And, most importantly, people need the opportunity to learn how others feel, without specific reference to the behavior of others.
The “sighted and the blind” may never see eye to eye, but we either learn to live together or we live in never-ending witch hunts from the environs of a dirty house.
Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” – Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.