How Former Homophobes, Conflicted Christians & An Evolved Obama Reshaped the Debate on LGBT People

In the fight for the fair treatment of LGBT people, 2012 was the year of the journey story. This week, as I head to Atlanta for Creating Change , the annual confab hosted by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force that brings together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, advocates and allies, I plan to evangelize on the power of the journey story and how it was used to sway Americans previously opposed to laws that treat all of our citizens fairly.

If you read about President Obama “evolving” on his support for the freedom to marry, then you know the journey story. It goes like this: A person struggles to reconcile their desire to be fair-minded with a personal discomfort with supporting equal rights for LGBT people. Something forces the protagonist to confront his discomfort and in the process, he takes a small (or in some cases, a giant) step forward in support of equal rights.

This blog post isn’t just for folks working to advance the fair treatment of LGBT people. It has lessons for any advocate or activist struggling to make progress and reframe the debate on a tough social issue – whether gun control, immigration reform or climate change. While this post focuses on one very specific element that allowed advocates to rack up some amazing victories, many important elements – from coalition building to fundraising – contributed to each and every victory.

Stories are Uniquely Powerful

For decades, the LGBT rights movement has understood in its gut that stories are uniquely powerful in changing perceptions and building support. The first National Coming Out Day, held more than two decades ago (and now an annual event held every October 11th), was organized around the idea of LGBT people coming out to the people in their lives – and in so doing sharing their personal story. By coming out, we could humanize our struggles and foster empathy.

Now, brain and psychological research conducted in the last 10 years has validated the hunches of our movement architects. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall (high on my list for my favorite reads of 2012) convincingly makes the case that stories are singularly powerful in their ability to shape and influence people’s perceptions.

“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up,” Gottschall argues in his book. “We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

Research by leading psychologists like Keith Oatley and Melanie Green has shown that when ideas are communicated in the narrative form, it not only changes the nature in which information is processed in the brain, it also fosters empathy with the protagonist. In so doing, narrative makes it more likely that the person metabolizing the story will embrace the moral of the story.

In her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence (another of my favorite reads in 2012), Lisa Cron writes that “the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.”

Cron adds, “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution – more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.”

Discovering the Journey Story

While stories have what Gottschall describes as a “weird and witchy power,” it does not mean that one can simply tell a story in the hopes of hypnotizing an entire target audience into acquiescence. An effective narrative strategy matches a social moment in time and taps into the pre-existing values of your target audience.

LGBT activists, advocates and allies made great progress by spotlighting the personal struggles of LGBT people and showing specifically how the laws of the land personally and negatively impacted our lives. Those stories allowed gay people to come out to families and friends and to find greater personal acceptance in society. The stories also fostered a sense of advocacy fueled by outrage among our families, friends and allies. In the process, we saw support grow for issues like the freedom to marry.

But then we hit a wall. The movement found it difficult to break the 50% threshold on ballot initiatives when voters were asked whether gay people should be allowed to marry.

Enter the journey story.

Back in 2010, Auburn Theological Seminary hired me and Amy Simon of Goodwin Simon Strategic Research to develop a strategic approach on how to talk to conflicted Christians about the place of LGBT people in church and society. The strategy that we developed focused on what I call the parable effect, which I have previously written about.

The parable effect is the spiritual moment allowing a reader or listener to be transported into the mind of a protagonist – essentially turning on the empathy switch in our brains. Jesus understood the power of parable to change the minds of those who feared change.

We tested our strategic approach with white and African-American Christian voters in Michigan. These Christians were conflicted about the place of LGBT people in church and society. Many knew gay people personally, but they were also taught that “homosexuality was an abomination.”

In the focus groups, we showed them the most effective arguments used by those who oppose the fair treatment of LGBT people. We also shared journey stories featuring conflicted Christians who came to accept and affirm gay people based on our shared humanity and the Christian belief that “we are all children of God.” The pro-LGBT messages we tested swayed these voters because they could relate to the protagonists and their deep religious struggle on whether our laws should treat gay people fairly.

In 2011, I worked with More Light Presbyterians (a pro-LGBT group) to overturn the ban against openly gay clergy in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. We developed ads featuring the journey stories of clergy like Rev. Arlo Duba, a self-described “life-long conservative Presbyterian,” who once supported the ban against clergy before a God-inspired revelation added new meaning to Bible passages that he had read countless times before.

In the ad, Rev. Duba said, “I came to recognize that I was so certain in my beliefs that I never explored the true meaning behind God’s Word.”

On May 11, 2011, a majority of the presbyteries – the governing bodies responsible for amending the Presbyterian Book of Order – voted to allow openly gay clergy to serve. The vote came after 30 long years of work to change the Presbyterian constitution and only two years after the last unsuccessful attempt. There were many changed votes – and in some surprising places. Clergy in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia switched their votes in favor of gay clergy serving openly.

The Journey Story Stars in Marriage TV Ads in 2012

His evolution on the question of marriage for same-sex couples complete, President Obama’s journey story was probably the most well-known journey story to be shared in 2012. Journey stories also played a starring role in the notable marriage victories in 2012.

Amy Simon, who was a lead consultant in the amazing marriage victories in Maine and Washington, used the journey stories in many of the ads run in those states. One Maine ad features long-time married couple Paul and Jeanette Rediker. Paul volunteers that “we weren’t always so gay-friendly. We didn’t even grow up in an era where it was discussed.”

After their daughter came out to them, they went to see a priest. According to Jeanette, the priest told them this: “She is the same person who you loved yesterday.”

Conflicted voters in Maine and Washington saw themselves in these ads in a way that allowed them to resolve their internal conflict in order to vote the right way.

Hard and heroic work by campaigns and their state coalition partners in Maine, Washington, Maryland and Minnesota, along with the support of national organizations like Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign and so many other coalition partners, allowed these stories to go far and wide and contributed to unprecedented victories on the freedom to marry.

As we start 2013, the journey story continues to make headlines – most recently with news of a 20-year old college op-ed written by then-Stanford-student Cory Booker, who is now the mayor of Newark New Jersey. In the op-ed, Booker confesses that he once “hated gays.” He goes on to describe a transformative experience in which a gay peer counselor helped him “to realize that the root of my hatred did not lie with gays, but with myself.”

The moral of this blog post is clear: narrative, especially the journey story, can recast the debate on tough social issues. For those of us who care about issues like gun control, immigration reform and efforts to curb climate change, journey stories can transform the debate. We need to tell the story of the NRA member reflecting on the tragedy at Newtown, who now believes we need sensible gun laws. It could be the pro-business Republican who saw the damage of Hurricane Sandy and now believes we must now do something about climate change. Or perhaps a small-town resident can testify to how his views changed when he saw how immigrants helped to revive the abandoned downtown business district.

Lest the advice offered in this post seem like some sort of hocus pocus cooked up by campaign and PR Svengalis, I offer this: Our brains are hardwired for the survival of our species. When we are moved by stories, our brain is simply rewarding us for acting in a pro-social way and encouraging us to glean the moral lessons of life. So, go out and tell stories. The world will be a better place for it.