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Guest Blog: How Civity Served as a Catalyst for LGBT Civil Rights

Updated: May 22, 2019

By Mariah Burton Nelson

​​Over the past 40 years, I’ve told whole hordes of people that I’m a lesbian. I now prefer to think of this as being out rather than coming out, since coming out implies a closet, and an announcement, and an expectation of surprise on the part of the listener. Being out is ordinary, like being athletic or artistic. Acquaintances might not know these things about you at first, but as they get to know you, they will.

In the beginning, though, I had to come out – which I started doing shortly after I fell in love with Stephanie, a Stanford basketball teammate. One of the first people I came out to was my brother. He was two years older and also in college. His reply: “I love women, too.”

That still ranks among my all-time favorite responses. It’s not tolerant or accepting; it’s understanding. We’re both people; we both love women. Why wouldn’t we? Makes total sense.

Inspired by the gay rights movement that was thriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in the seventies, I grew bolder and more radical, sporting a button that said, “Teenage Lesbian.” Part of its shock value came from its small size. You had to get up close to read it; the goal was to see who leaned in for a hug and who jumped back in horror.

Four decades later, no one is shockable – except perhaps gay men and lesbians ourselves. Many of us are still astonished by the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in June, which granted us the exact same marriage rights as my brother, for instance. Why did this happen? Legal reasoning aside, social scientists tell us that the swift cultural reversal in attitudes happened because while I was coming out to my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers on airplanes – (“Why are you telling me this?” one asked. “Because you just told me about your wife!” I explained, not very patiently) – so too were my gay sisters and brothers educating zillions of people one by one, explaining ourselves and answering the “how did you know” questions and the terminology questions and the sex questions until now gay people don’t seem so “queer” after all.

As I understand it, Civity is a process of deliberately bridging differences. When LGBT people say, “Frankly, this is who I am,” we give others a chance to hear our stories of love, sex, family, fear, courage, oppression, and liberation. We thereby strengthen relationships – not in spite of differences, but because differences are discussed. During those discussions – and during similar discussions among other people – listeners often find themselves identifying with speakers, since most of us have felt different, excluded, ashamed, or “other” in one way or another. Thus conversations about differences can paradoxically diminish the importance of differences. We can be freed to focus (not exclusively, but primarily) on our commonalities (“I love women too”) and our collective strengths.

In my deliberately-inclusive work environment, we are already benefiting from the Civity perspective. This lesbian Buddhist of European-American heritage works with a Pakistani Muslim, a Hindu from India, a New York Jew, an African-American widow, a Puerto Rican runner, a deaf biracial woman, and many others, each with their own story to tell. As we tell those stories, we learn about differences while perhaps more importantly being reminded of our shared humanity.

Mariah Burton Nelson is an author and athlete who now serves as VP for Innovation at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

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