Exposure Breeds Empathy
Pride Month has just come to an end, and I was thinking about the way LGBTQ issues have been in the news in a big way over the last few years.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 for equal rights for those in same-sex marriages.
The fight for transgender rights has helped make the term “transgender” a household word, and helped many people to come out as transgender.
I just watched Believer, a powerful HBO documentary that follows Dan Reynolds, frontman for the band Imagine Dragons, as he explore how his church, the Mormon Church, treats its LGBTQ members. “With the rising suicide rate amongst teens in the state of Utah, his concern with the church’s policies sends him on an unexpected path of acceptance and change.”
I also recently heard an interview with Jackson Bird on the TED Radio Hour. “Bird was born female, but identified as male and transitioned in his twenties. He says compassion can help us become more comfortable talking about issues that affect transgender people.” As I have written, exposure breeds empathy and compassion, which is one of the reasons everyone should watch Believer.
As more and more people come out as transgender, Bird’s had a suggestion for how to communicate as people change their names and the pronouns they identify with.
“…because our transitions are slower and steadier than historic misconceptions can lead people to believe, there can be some confusion about when to call someone by their new name and pronouns. There’s no distinct points in physical transition at which a trans person becomes their true gender. As soon as they tell you their new name and pronouns, that’s when you start using that name and pronouns. And I know it can be difficult to make the change. You might slip up here and there. I’ve slipped up myself with other trans people.” He then goes on to say he thinks if we can change from calling Puff Daddy to P. Diddy, we can make the same effort for the people who are part of our lives.
I was born in the early 1960s. People who were gay were rarely out of the closet when I was a kid. When I was in my high school, I didn’t know anyone who was gay—the first time I met someone who was “out” was during college.
One generation later, being gay in my kids’ high school was no big deal. One story I have told many times illustrates this: My son is a drummer and was active in many high school music activities. Each year, he went on his high school’s band trip. I was a chaperone for those trips. During his senior-year trip, as he and I were talking in the lobby of the hotel, I saw a young woman named Amanda coming down the hallway, holding hands with a young man.
I didn’t know the young man, but I had known Amanda since she was in kindergarten. I asked my son, “Is that Amanda’s boyfriend?” He replied, “Oh, no. That’s David. He’s gay.”
Casual. No big deal. Something no one in my high school would have ever said.
My other favorite story is about my daughters, twins who are now 24 years old. When they were little, perhaps age seven or so, we were at a get-together with my cousins. One of my cousins is gay and he was at the event with his then-boyfriend. One the car ride home, one of my daughters asked why my cousin was kissing the other man.
I relished the opportunity to explain it to them. “Most men marry women,” I started, “And most women marry men. But some men marry men. And some women marry women.”
One of the girls quickly asked, “You mean like lesbians?”
So much for the “teachable moment”. My kids, as with their whole generation, were way ahead of me.
After college, I lived with my parents for a year, until I could find an apartment I could afford in Manhattan. Then, for a year, from mid-1985 to mid-1986, I lived in a sublet in an absolutely wonderful Manhattan neighborhood, the West Village. The West Village is home to many LGBTQ people. A few times during that year, friends would ask if I had been “hit on” by any men. I hadn’t, until the very last week I was living there: after work, standing on a corner waiting for a light to change so I could cross the street, a man next to me asked, “Can I buy you a drink?” I simply said, “No, thanks” and went on my way.
I remember afterwards I was saddened as I thought about how much nerve it had taken for that man to approach me and what a huge risk he had taken considering all the hate crimes gay people experience. No doubt, the West Village was one of the best places to take that risk, and maybe that was part of the answer. But I felt for him: exposure breeds empathy.
Now, more than 30 years later, a couple of people near and dear to me are transgender: my recent-college-graduate cousin is a transwoman (in case you are unclear what that means, she transitioned from male to female, in her case, four years ago, as a college freshman).
My best friend’s pre-teen daughter transitioned to female this past year, and she’s not the only transgender child at the school she attends.
Politicians who, for their whole careers, had not supported gay rights issues, have become gay rights advocates after their children have come out. Many politicians are hypocrites. But this is not hypocrisy. This is exposure leading to empathy—politicians putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, enabling them to rethink their position on the issues. Empathy is the natural byproduct of exposure, and that also makes exposure the antidote to hate.
Yes, things are much better, but they are not even close to being all better. We can all help make the world a better place by being open to people living differently than we do and by realizing while we are all different, we are also all the same in the most important ways.
We all want to lead happy, meaningful, fulfilling lives and the best way to ensure that happens is to help other people because helping other people is one of the great secrets to happiness.
What are some ways you developed empathy by being exposed to people different than you? Please join the conversation with your comments…