Listening Well

Last weekend Eternity News published this article by Nathan Campbell that I contributed to. Our article explores how the church might respond differently to things like the Victorian Change or Suppression Practices Prohibition Bill if we formed habits of listening better… listening to stories of gay and trans people, the kind of stories that led to this legislation being written. We asked the questions:

“How might we respond differently if we believed stories that shaped the Bill?

What if these stories are blinking lights on the dashboard telling us something is wrong?”

“We could start with the stories shared with the Victorian Government. It’s easy to dismiss those stories, or downplay the numbers of them, and so minimise those individuals and their trauma – or to turn these numbers into ‘objective data.’

What if we committed ourselves not to objectivity, and thus, the objectification of these individuals — but a subjectivity that sees these people as subjects; people made with their own dignity? People who are tellers of their own stories.”

Over the past few days since that article went live, I’ve been reflecting on what it actually means to listen well: to really hear and engage these stories. I felt like there was more to say, so I’ve thrown together some of my own thoughts on the kind of listener I aspire to be (with full acknowledgement that I am not there yet!). Reading some of the commentary in response to that article has shown me both my own blockages in listening to people well and has also highlighted my discouragement at heterosexual Christians who seem not to ‘hear’ us LGBTQIA+ folk even when we are talking ourselves hoarse trying to share our stories.

One of my favourite musicals follows the lives of two young men grappling with their faith and sexuality as they navigate being in love with each other. A friend pointed out to me this week that one of the central motifs in this musical is the theme of “hearing.” Throughout the story, different characters keep revisiting the question “Did you really hear me?” as they navigate the unsettling experience of being viewed but never really ‘seen’… being listened to but never really ‘heard.’

That story resonates so deeply with me because so much of my life as a gay person has felt like I’m not really heard – even when I share my story. For the first 19 years of my life, I wasn’t fully ‘seen’ because I had to hide in the closet where not being known was the safest way to survive in a predominantly Christian world. Even now as I share more of my story quite transparently, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m not always ‘heard’ especially when it comes to heterosexual Christians who think they know how my story is supposed to go.

So. I’ve been reflecting on the times I have felt truly heard and working out what made those conversations meaningful, and I’ve thrown together a few things that I think have been really helpful:

Talk to real people

When I talk about listening to stories, it’s not just a metaphor for reading more books on sexuality, following more blogs, or thinking more deeply about these topics. I mean real people. Real stories shared face-to-face by a real embodied person. This probably involves investing in ongoing relationships as well, not just doing one-off interview-style coffees where you quiz someone about their experience for an hour and then go on your way. Those one-off conversations can be valuable (and I have them regularly) but they are no replacement for investing in real-life, ongoing friendships with people you are committed to journeying with for the long haul and seeing how their stories play out in the unfolding terrain of their life.

You’ll probably find that the really deep stories are shared only after you show your deep commitment to journeying with someone. Look at your close friendships. Do you have trans friends in your inner circle? Are any of your best friends gay? If not, you don’t have to feel guilty, but you might want to humbly recognise that there’s a good chance that you aren’t in a position to be hearing the really deep stories. And if you aren’t hearing those stories yet, it would be worth engaging in conversations on sexuality with all the humility and sensitivity of someone who is self-aware that they haven’t yet been trusted with those stories.

Ask questions

As I’ve written about before, one of the most powerful things you can do to show your support for LGBTQIA+ people is just to take an interest and ask good questions. We love it when people sincerely want to know us, and it’s rare that a well-meaning question would ever feel too personal for me to appreciate. I hear of so many closeted same-sex attracted Christians who have come out to a close friend only to have the friend never bring it up again and act like the conversation never happened. If we’ve shared a personal story with you, we probably want to talk about it, so please feel free to ask follow-up questions… and keep asking in the weeks and months that follow.

Some examples of the kind of questions that might invite deeper conversation could be:

  • “Hey, I know there’s been a lot of public discourse on that conversion therapy bill, and I just wanted to check in with you. How are you feeling about it all?”
  • “I’ve been thinking about the stuff you shared with me earlier, and I’d love to hear more. What was it like growing up in the church as a gay person?”
  • “I’ve realised that I talk to you about my crushes/dating life/marriage all the time, but I’ve never really asked you about your experience of attraction. What’s it like for you to experience a crush? Do you have a type?”
  • “You mentioned being in love with another man when you were younger… that must have held a lot of different emotions for you. Did you want to share more of that story?”
  • “I don’t really understand the whole gender thing, but I want to know you better… I would love to hear what being trans is like for you if you feel comfortable sharing that with me?”

The actual questions don’t matter so much. The sincere desire to know people as people is what we care about, and if you show that, you can’t really go wrong.

Listen to the words we use and the way we use those words

This should be generally true of listening to anyone, but it especially bears mentioning in the context of sexual and gender minorities. What I mean when I use the word “gay” might not be what you expect it to mean, and even if you think I’m using the word ‘incorrectly’, it’s still a good rule of thumb to listen carefully and make sure you understand the intent behind our word choices.

It’s worth saying that in an area as complex and rapidly-developing as sexual orientation and gender identity, different people can and will use the same words in different ways. This is true of language in general (like how Christians use words like “encouraging,” “convicting,” and “identity” in different ways to the general population), and it’s also true of sexuality and gender. I might self-describe as “gay” by which I mean I experience attraction to the same gender, while another person might identify as “ex-gay” who still experiences attraction to the same gender but chooses to identify themselves differently to distance themselves from particular people or beliefs. In this sense, a person could theoretically be both “gay” and “ex-gay” at the same time, depending on whose meaning of the word we use. That’s why it’s so important to listen to each individual and carefully hear the way they use their words.

You can honour our stories by describing us with the language that we choose to describe ourselves. It doesn’t have to mean you agree with all the reasoning behind those language choices, but it does communicate that you have heard us and chosen to honour our stories by telling them the way we would tell it ourselves.

Keep listening when the story changes

Our stories will change. Like everyone else, we are living, breathing people whose stories are still being written every day, and we need you to keep hearing us even/especially when they take a direction we didn’t expect. Sometimes the new stories don’t fit into our narratives so conveniently and it’s easier to hold onto the old version.

I struggle with this myself. When I hear stories of people becoming “ex-gay” who describe a shift in their sexual attraction, it’s very easy for me to dismiss these stories that don’t fit into my own framework. These stories can be inconvenient to the narratives shaping my own life and beliefs, and they are often weaponised against people like me, but I still need to listen well and seek to honour the dignity of the person sharing that story, no matter how inconvenient it may be for me.

Another example is the way we change language choices over time as we keep seeking the words that resonate most with our experience. Like when a teenager comes out as “gay” and then realises he sometimes has crushes on women too, so he decides to self-describe as “bi” before considering whether “pansexual” may be a better description for what he feels. In time he may even end up deciding that he is labels-agnostic, and may choose to tell his story without using any of these words. We need to keep listening. There is nothing to be gained by either a) pressuring queer kids to have all the right words before they can speak, or b) pressuring them to keep silence on their sexuality and/or gender until they have it all figured out. We need to normalise exploring thoughts and ideas out loud with trusted people, and we need to keep listening when our friends later find new vocabulary that resonates more deeply with their stories.

It’s not just about word choices either; actual experiences can change too. I have several friends who are gay men who, against all odds and contrary to their expectation, found themselves falling in love with a woman (and not through any sexual orientation change efforts or desire on their part to become straight!). When someone like this enters an opposite-sex marriage, it doesn’t automatically invalidate the stories they’ve shared of their experience as a gay person, but neither do the stories they’ve shared up until that point cancel out the very real shift in their experience that occurs. When people unexpectedly enter these marriages (called “mixed-orientation marriages”), it’s easy for Christians to assume they are no longer gay now that they’re married, while on the other hand the secular queer community may assume they’re just repressed and in denial and may disbelieve that they experience any real attraction towards their spouses. We need to keep listening. Even if someone is the expert of their own experience, they still can’t see their future, so it’s reasonable and humble to expect that our stories will take turns we didn’t anticipate. When they do, please listen, and keep listening.

Connect stories together

We want to be known as whole people, not just our sexual orientation or gender identity. My sexual orientation intersects and integrates with so many other areas of my experience, as it should do for all healthy, integrated people. Healthy lives shouldn’t be dis-integrated existences with a box over here for sexual orientation, a box over there for faith, and a box over in the corner for family… they should be deeply integrated together.

I love it when someone hears part of my story and connects it with another story they know about me… like when they hear about my childhood growing up in a small country town and have a better understanding of what it was like for me to be a gay kid in that rural context. Or when they piece together the ways that anticipating long-term singleness have influenced my career decisions and all the places I’ve been able to move to as I’ve pursued a career in music performance. Then of course there are much deeper insights where my faith, sexuality, family of origin, and even cultural heritage all intertwine intricately. These things together all make up my story, and you wouldn’t fully know my story if you’ve only heard the sexuality bits or just the faith bits. (This could be a much more profound discussion of intersectionality and how it allows us to see people in 3D instead of as one-dimensional labels, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.)

Part of this is committing to journeying with people over time (see point 1), hearing their stories over months and years as we walk alongside them in a variety of contexts. It might mean focusing on connecting deeply with a few people rather than hearing surface-level one-off stories from a lot of people. Or it might mean practicing humility and not presuming to know someone’s story, and therefore approaching conversations about things like conversion therapy bills with the appropriate meekness to listen well to the people who are most affected by it.

I’m hastily hitting “publish post” now because I am running late for coffee with a man from church who has been a great ally and friend and who wants to listen to more of my story this morning. By some coincidence or providence, it happens to be the same Paul who Nathan mentioned at the end of our last article, and I think that is some beautiful symmetry. I am so thankful for people like Paul who show me what it looks like to listen well. To me, it stands as an encouraging example of the care and friendship that leads to transformative communities, and that is a thing worth celebrating when it happens. May it happen more.

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