All of us working for social justice are seeking good answers to this question: how can we influence changes in attitudes toward values we hold dear, like love, community, family, freedom to be our best selves, and equal opportunity under the law?

The good news is that there is a way to tap into these values to increase acceptance of people who are part of an “out group.” The social science literature is clear: conversations in the context of friendship reduce prejudice. And it’s not just correlation; there is strong evidence that these interactions cause attitude change.

That’s the good news. The challenge is, these conversations aren’t always easy to have. They can be awkward, difficult, or risky. In the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, we have seen how difficult it is to engage people to have these conversations. As Matt Foreman of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund says, it’s like we’re working toward equality with one hand tied behind our backs.

The Haas, Jr. Fund engaged LightBox Collaborative to research these thorny questions. Together we wondered: how can we motivate, engage, and support gay people in having these conversations with their straight friends and family? And what are the results of conversations, not just on the straight person’s attitude, but on the quality of the relationship and the gay person’s well-being?

We dove deep into these questions and learned enough to create a model mapping the conversation path toward greater acceptance and openness. Here are just a few of the highlights of what we learned about the journey:

Many gay people are no more motivated or influenced by appeals to rights and public policy than “movable middle” straight people are.

Instead, strong motivations for gay people to have these conversations include:

  • Living openly and authentically
  • Having better relationships with the straight people in their lives
  • Concern for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning

The conversations may be easier than we thought. Not only are casual conversations about ordinary life as a gay person easier to have than conversations that make being gay a big deal—these casual conversations also work better at increasing understanding and acceptance.

We heard from gay people who have had these conversations that their relationships with the straight people in their lives are better than ever, and that the discomfort of potentially awkward conversations is well worth gaining greater well-being and the freedom to be yourself.

Holly Minch and I have just returned from Creating Change, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual organizing and skills-building conference for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their allies. While we were there we did a workshop on our research findings. What we heard back is that this line of research, learning, and strategy is necessary for creating the change we envision: a culture that is safe, welcoming, accepting, and fair for all people, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Several people told us how meaningful it was to see themselves and their experiences reflected in a study like this.

A 90-minute workshop—or a 500 word blog post—just scratches the surface of this research. We are grateful for the enthusiastic feedback we heard at Creating Change, and we are looking forward to the next steps: taking what we’ve learned and turning it into tools and strategies for action. If you are interested in reading the full report, sign up to have our blog delivered to your inbox. We’ll be blogging about our findings when the report is released.

(Image courtesy Flickr user Chris Blakeley, Creative Commons)
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Cynthia Scheiderer is a LightBox Collaborator who has high hopes for many more courageous, authentic conversations.