When I was little I hated oranges, and not in the flippant way that people hate a TV show or a restaurant on Yelp. I detested them with every fiber of my moody being. I would refuse to eat food with orange zest in it. I would gag loudly whenever an orange-smelling cleaning liquid was used. I would spurn all orange-tasting desserts and perfumes. To me, oranges were enemy number one. It wasn’t a hatred that came out of necessity like an allergy or a dietary concern. My hatred was 100% irrational. I hated oranges for hatred’s sake.
Soon my hatred gravitated to the color orange as well. It was an ugly color, I told myself confidently, as I clung to any rationalization to justify my worldview. Orange was the color of inmates and scary pumpkins. Only people that had no taste used the color orange. I would judge people for liking a color on the light spectrum.
I had an orange this morning, and it was delicious.
I have enjoyed them for years now. There wasn’t a single revelation or argument that pushed me to abandon my orange-hating dogma. It was mainly my family. They all loved oranges. I was hungry one morning and oranges were the only thing left in the fridge, and I thought, why not? Everyone else seems to like them.
I ate one, and then another, and another.
Now I eat oranges.
We tend to think of people as static. Alex hates oranges. Jerry is a fundamentalist, Christian. Megan hates gay people. Michael thinks the poor deserve to die. People hold a lot of irrational beliefs over the course of their lives, and then one day, they abandon them.
We saw this with the acceptance of homosexuality in the United States. In 1994, only 46% of the US population was accepting of homosexuality. In 2017, 70% of the population was. Society changed it’s opinion on this issue pretty quickly, and while the debate is far from over, it’s safe to say that the normalization of the homosexuality wasn’t the result of a single, revelatory argument.
People changed their minds because they developed empathy with queer people, and, consequently, realized their worldviews were hurting those people. The transgender activist Paula Stone in her fabulous Ted Talk (that you should totally see) reiterated the following message from her father, who had previously rejected her after she came out as trans:
“Paula I don’t understand this, but I am willing to try…My father is ninety-three years old, and he’s willing to try. What more could I ask?”
Over the past couple of decades, Americans have met with queer friends and family, watched queer characters on TV, and saw their peers parent queer children. Through experiences both real and fictional, many former homophobes and transphobes have learned that queer people were not the sinful fornicators of conservative propaganda.
One study done by political scientists David Broockman and Josh Kalla found that a 10-minute conversation with a pro-transgender canvasser could positively influence a potential voter’s opinion towards transgender people for a period of at least three months. The method they used — sometimes referred to as deep canvassing — had the voters talk through their own experiences with judgment and prejudice and then to pair them with experiences faced by transgender people. In essence, they jumpstarted these voters empathy for trans people, and it worked.
If a 10-minute conversation is effective in building empathy, then imagine all the goodwill that has been gained over the course of the last few decades. Imagine how much more progress can be gained in the decades to come.
I don’t want to overstate the America we live in. We are still far from achieving an LGBTQ-topia. Queer people, especially transgender Americans, face an unfair amount of discrimination in our society. 2017 saw a small decrease in overall support for LGBTQ people as well as an increase in harassment. The gains we have made in America are by no means absolute.
The fight for equality, however, has taught us that people can change their minds very quickly— maybe not easily, or with the use of statistics — but the feat remains possible. Change does not move in one direction, and it is not final. The people that were our enemies last decade could very well be our allies in the next, and sometimes they might be both. In the words of GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis:
“Forward progress ebbs and flows in every social justice movement. Progress for marginalized communities is a pendulum that swings in both directions, and, when well-supported, ultimately lands on freedom.”
We are going to have to expand our fellow American’s empathy for each other. This will involve having difficult conversations in the months and years to come, and not just on the issue of queerness, but with race, wealth inequality, the environment, and a host of other substantive issues. These conversations will be hard, and the burden will not be shared equally, but they are not impossible. We can change American’s minds on issues they seem deadset on. We can overcome dogma and irrationality.
In the meantime, I am going to go snack on an orange.
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