This article is a reflection of my personal take on the topic and is not representative of the views of any organisation or community that I’m associated with. Please take what you think is useful and filter out the rest.
The world has never been more united yet divided at the same time.
Social rights movements bring people together, but they also seem to tear people apart.
Why is that? Have we missed the plot? Isn’t the end goal to be at peace and to be happy?
I’ve been pondering over these questions for years, and the same is true for the LGBTQIA+ movement.
It’s painful to witness so much distress amongst opposing parties. In the name of justice and equality, people hurt and get hurt, intentionally or unintentionally.
For a long time, for the fear of being entangled in fiery feuds, I chose to unplug myself from controversial conversations. While I frown upon discrimination, I’ve never felt a need to actively or publicly speak up for the LGBTQIA+ community. I thought it would fuel hate and I want no part in that. Not until recently, I realised how my inaction can be contributing to the problem itself.
The onset of riots and protests in various countries was a sobering reminder that social issues cannot be swept under the carpet. The undercurrent of prejudice has already resulted in irreversible harm such as suicides, violence, and even murder in some countries. There is a tipping point before the issue snowballs into more serious damages.
Without speaking up for LGBTQIA+, silent discrimination remains rampant and goes unreported, affecting their work, relationships, and mental health.
A silent killer, some would say. LGBTQIA+ members suffer in the dark, believing that they are less than themselves and that they are unloveable. Explicitly expressing our care for them can make a positive difference. It might even save a life.
Having said that, to me, speaking up on this topic isn’t about taking sides. It isn’t about fighting for or against LGBTQIA+ because fighting only breeds tension. It is about bridging the divide between groups and fostering mutual understanding.
Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world;Dhammapada Verse 5
through love alone, they cease. This is an eternal law.
We can tackle this issue fourfold:
1. Recognise that beneath the differences, fundamentally, we are all the same.
At some point in our lives, we would have felt that we don’t belong.
Perhaps everyone else seems smarter or more talented than us.
Perhaps everyone else shares the same interests except us.
Perhaps everyone else thinks differently.
We may try hard to fit in and to live according to others’ expectations, only to be unhappy for pretending to be someone we are not.
We may question our self-worth, discount our own good qualities, and berate ourselves. Or we may size ourselves up to overcompensate for the deep-seated insecurities.
Not being able to feel accepted and to be loved for who we truly are can be painful. To have others criticise us for being ourselves hurts even more. No place would feel like home, no place would we feel belonged.
LGBTQIA+ struggle to feel belonged more than straight and cisgender folks. They are frequent targets of bullying and often suffer in silence, thinking that there’s something wrong with them.
According to a research study, “Sense of belonging displayed a significant relationship with depression and hopelessness and is likely to play a critical role in both the development of and recovery from depression.”.
This is a serious global pandemic affecting 264 million people and affects LGBTQIA+ at a higher rate than those who are straight and cisgender.
Showing acceptance and kindness towards the LGBTQIA+ has the power to reduce the numbers. If we see ourselves in them, we wouldn’t bring ourselves to inflict pain on them. We would even want to protect them.
Shifting the perception of “you versus me” to “us” erases any divide that caused us much agitation, and it would foster much-needed harmony in our society.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.Dhammpada verse 131
2. Transcend the rights and the wrongs
How many times have we hurt others and ourselves while trying to be ‘right’?
Just because someone else thinks or acts differently doesn’t make him/her wrong.
Right and wrong isn’t all black and white, as seen in the trolley problem. Our perception of what is right or wrong has been influenced by various causes and conditions since we were young. Our environment, faith, knowledge, etc, shape our beliefs, which colour the lens we use to see the world.
The moment we hold on too strongly with our ideals, we start to project them onto others unconsciously. We unwittingly try to fix those who possess a differing opinion just to fit them into our reality, and rationalise why it is okay to do so (even if it hurts others).
But in the process, we are likely to be far from rational. Think about the last time when your ideals were challenged. How did you feel? Probably angry or lousy. I too would feel the same. Clinging to our views creates an emotional load in us, clouds our judgement, and can cause us to react to others unskillfully. We might be right in fact, but wrong in Dhamma.
To foster harmony and understanding, we first must drop the need to be right all the time.
We don’t have to agree with each other to respect and accept each other. Even if we cannot accept, we don’t have to hurt each other.
When the mind doesn’t grab hold of things,Madhupindika Sutta (MN 18)
when you don’t find any “thing”, any opinion, any fixed position to delight in,
then that is what brings about the end of quarrels,
the end of disputes, malicious speech,
the taking up of weapons and of argument
– that’s where contention comes to an end,
where the mind doesn’t relish taking hold of “this is my position!”.’
2. Overcome discrimination by overcoming irrational fears
Discrimination often stems from irrational fear. When not understood, our unconscious fear can cause us to instinctively inflict harm on others.
I saw this first hand as when my 2-year-old niece screamed at the sight of a flying ant. She was so fearful that she smacked it while in tears (thankfully it flew away). The ant was just minding its own business. Why, at such a young age, does my niece feel a need to hurt the little ant?
Do we carry similar reactions towards people — carrying fear or ill-will towards LGBTQIA+ members or towards society who seemed to be against LGBTQIA+?
Some researchers theorised that our primal instinct is to protect ourselves from perceived danger, and to give us an evolutionary edge. Fear can also be learnt. For example, if our parents demonstrate their fears of spiders in front of a child, the child is likely to develop the same fear.
The piece of good news is that these fears can be unlearnt by shifting our perception.
Learning that the little ant has a father and mother, and wants to be happy, my niece stopped crying in fear. Eventually, she apologised, looked out of the window and said: “I want to see the ant find its mummy and daddy.”.
Faulting others or ourselves for being fearful is like punishing a child for being scared of insects.
We all have our implicit biases and prejudices, but acting on these unskillfully is not okay.
A constructive approach is to educate ourselves about the opposing views in hopes that our perspectives can be shifted, and that misconceptions can be cleared.
Fearful or negative feelings that can sow the seeds of conflict need to be understood in order to be let go of. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to widen our perspectives:
- What caused me to feel this way towards (X)?
- What assumptions have I made about (X)?
- In which instances could my assumptions be wrong? How can I validate it?
- What are the admirable qualities in this person/community?
He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth,
that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.
Dhammapada verse 257
4. Collaborating to create a safe space for all
As a democratic society, we have our rights to speak freely. However, freedom of speech comes with great responsibility. Free speech doesn’t mean hate speech. Words have the power to heal or to hurt.
All of us can do our part to join efforts in creating a safe space to communicate our feelings, and to establish mutual understanding so that we can co-exist harmoniously. Many times, we speak with good intentions, but how we say it and when we say it can burn or build bridges.
The teachings on Right Speech come in handy here. The Buddha taught that a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken:
“It is spoken at the right time
It is spoken in truth
It is spoken affectionately
It is spoken beneficially
It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
– AN 5.198
The following are examples to illustrate how these factors can be applied in real life.
John does not support LGBTQIA+ due to his own beliefs.
Lydia identifies herself as a lesbian.
A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable for them.
– John Stuart Mill
We all have a part to play to put out the fire of ill-will in this world.
If we see someone discriminated against, speak up for them rather than watching from the sideline.
We can proactively advocate kindness and compassion through healthy dialogues.
For myself, I’m making a commitment to:
- Engage the LGBTQIA+ community, to understand ways I can make them feel included in society.
- Start conversations with friends who are non-supporters, seek to understand their point of view, and brainstorm on ways to unite despite the differences.
I invite you to join me in this journey to plant the seeds of harmony.