Braving the Wilderness: People are Hard to Hate Close Up: Move In

  • January 31 2018

Telling your personal story is the most powerful tool in activism. Sharing our stories can heal our communities, our country and ourselves.

This is Part II in the series on Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness

In the spring of 2006 I was part of a nationwide tour to speak out against the US military’s policy on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. At that time the transgender community was not addressed by this policy. It was commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a compromise between incoming President Clinton and Congress.

Clinton wanted to remove the ban on gays in the military. The Democratic-controlled Congress revolted.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was an uneasy truce, designed to allow LGB Americans to serve in the military. The catch was that we couldn’t disclose our sexuality, engage in same sex acts, or attempt to marry a member of the same sex. In return, commanders would not ask us if we were gay.

In practice, the policy was capricious and discriminatory. Commanders did ask, and in the worst cases coerced subordinates into sex under threat of removal from the service. Women of color were disproportionately discharged under the policy. I witnessed DADT in action when nearly a dozen of my close friends, studying to be linguists, were kicked out in 2002.

Their crime? Having a member of the same sex in their room after visiting hours.

I decided to join a handful of veterans to tell my story. We spoke at colleges across the country but focused on the South and Midwest: our traditional opposition. The experience was extraordinary and life-changing.

But I never imagined it would be so relevant in confronting our current cultural crisis.

Share Your Personal Story

Here’s where my experience dovetails with Braving the Wilderness. One way to effectively re-humanize a marginalized group is to make the issue personal. It injects the debate with a heaping dose of empathy and perspective.

Or as a good friend of mine says, “Make it personal, don’t take it personal!”

At every speaking engagement, we would each take five minutes to share our experience under the policy. The remaining hour and a half was spent taking questions from the audience. We engaged them respectfully, regardless of the sometimes strange or off topic comments we received.

It worked.

After our presentation, people would come up and say “What you talked about tonight changed my mind on this issue.” Personal stories are a powerful tool for you as an activist.

Look for Common Ground

Not everyone is persuaded by the message of equality and fairness. Traditional conservatives were our main audience and were very receptive to arguments that allowing us to serve would promote national security. You only need one argument to resonate. Imagine yourself as an audience member. What line of reasoning might be most effective, based on your experience?

Our speakers hailed from every part of the country. Our diverse backgrounds allowed us connect to others with a different opinion, but a similar upbringing. This was particularly effective when we spoke in the South and the Midwest. It’s a lot easier to change your viewpoint if you see that someone just like you has a different perspective.

See Shared Humanity, Stop Dehumanizing

If you share your personal story, the issue is no longer abstract. Our speaking tour found a lot of success by simply being present. In front of our audience was a living, breathing human who had served the country honorably, and wanted to know why they couldn’t do so openly.

It’s a lot more difficult to dehumanize a group when you have connected with an individual from that tribe. The broader gay rights movement used this strategy to great effect. Hating a group yet understanding a member of that group creates cognitive dissonance. Your brain doesn’t like the conflicting messages, so the positive associations have a chance to overtake the negative stereotypes.

Keep in Mind

You are an ambassador for your group. You can create negative associations with your group just as easily as positive ones. This is toxic to the necessary bridge-building we’ve discussed.

Try to avoid soundbites or talking points when you speak. These can come off as inauthentic. Focus on your story.

Remember that the goal is to connect. No one likes to feel lectured to.

Stay on track. There are times when our speaking group was asked about distracting and unrelated issues. At our stop in Knoxville, TN, a group of students from the local bible college attempted to draw us into a religious debate on homosexuality. We kept the focus on the issue at hand, and told them we could speak further after the presentation.

Personal stories are our most powerful asset. But how do you keep your cool when the debate get heated?

We cover this topic in the next post:

Part III: Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil

Read the entire Braving the Wilderness series:

Braving the Wilderness: Introduction

Part I: The Quest for True Belonging

Part IV: Hold Hands. With Strangers coming soon

Part V: Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart coming soon

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