Is it possible to build relationships with people with whom we profoundly disagree on issues such as marriage and human sexuality? This is a marvelous account of how it can be done. Can we share the public space without seeking to criminalize people who have views that are offensive to us? Since we Christians are increasingly on the receiving end of being criminalized by the levers of state power, what kind of public square should we be fighting for?
For many this news of friendship might be shocking. After all, I am an out, 40-year-old gay man and a lifelong activist for equality. I am also the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and ally college students. Just seven months ago our organization advanced a national campaign against Chick-fil-A for the millions of dollars it donated to anti-LGBT organizations and divisive political groups that work each day to harm hardworking LGBT young people, adults and our families. I have spent quite some time being angry at and deeply distrustful of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A. If he had his way, my husband of 18 years and I would never be legally married.
Like most LGBT people, I was provoked by Dan’s public opposition to marriage equality and his company’s problematic giving history. I had the background and history on him, so I thought, and had my own preconceived notions about who he was. I knew this character. No way did he know me. That was my view. But it was flawed.
It is not often that people with deeply held and completely opposing viewpoints actually risk sitting down and listening to one another. We see this failure to listen and learn in our government, in our communities and in our own families. Dan Cathy and I would, together, try to do better than each of us had experienced before.
Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. Even when I continued to directly question his public actions and the funding decisions, Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective. He and I were committed to a better understanding of one another. Our mutual hope was to find common ground if possible, and to build respect no matter what. We learned about each other as people with opposing views, not as opposing people.
Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.
And in that we had great commonality: We were each entirely ourselves. We both wanted to be respected and for others to understand our views. Neither of us could — or would — change. It was not possible. We were different but in dialogue. That was progress.
In many ways, getting to know Dan better has reminded me of my relationship with my uncle, who is a pastor at a Pentecostal church. When I came out as openly gay in college, I was aware that his religious views were not supportive of homosexuality. But my personal relationship with my uncle reassured me of his love for me — and that love extends to my husband. My uncle would never want to see any harm come to me or Tommy. His beliefs prevented him from fully reconciling what he understood as the immorality of homosexuality with the morality of loving and supporting me and my life. It was, and remains, an unsolvable riddle for him, hating the sin and loving the sinner.
My relationship with Dan is the same, though he is not my family. Dan, in his heart, is driven by his desire to minister to others and had to choose to continue our relationship throughout this controversy. He had to both hold to his beliefs and welcome me into them. He had to face the issue of respecting my viewpoints and life even while not being able to reconcile them with his belief system. He defined this to me as “the blessing of growth.” He expanded his world without abandoning it. I did, as well.
As Dan and I grew through mutual dialogue and respect, he invited me to be his personal guest on New Year’s Eve at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This was an event that Campus Pride and others had planned to protest. Had I been played? Seduced into his billionaire’s life? No. It was Dan who took a great risk in inviting me: He stood to face the ire of his conservative base (and a potential boycott) by being seen or photographed with an LGBT activist. He could have been portrayed as “caving to the gay agenda” by welcoming me.
Instead, he stood next to me most of the night, putting respect ahead of fear. There we were on the sidelines, Dan, his wife, his family and friends and I, all enjoying the game. And that is why building a relationship with someone I thought I would never understand mattered. Our worlds, different as they can be, could coexist peacefully. The millions of college football fans watching the game never could have imagined what was playing out right in front of them. Gay and straight, liberal and conservative, activist and evangelist — we could stand together in our difference and in our respect. How much better would our world be if more could do the same?