How to be a Good Listener, Especially When You Don’t Think You Should Have to be

The other day, this story came across my Facebook feed.

From that link:

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Gender non-conforming model Rain Dove gave a masterclass in how to handle transphobic hostility after an upset mother contacted them on social media and accused Dove of making her child “sick.”

Instead of responding back sharply, Dove walked the mother gently through her feelings, validating her emotions along the way, and led her to a place where she was willing to show the support her child needed.

In a nutshell, Rain Dove is a model. They are non-gender conforming. A mother sent her an angry, ugly message online. Her daughter asked for a breast binder for Christmas — and the mother accused Rain of making her child ‘sick.’

It would have made sense for Rain to respond with anger and outrage. Instead — they asked questions. They let the mother know that what they saw was a frightened woman who is a good mother. She must be, for her daughter to feel comfortable enough to ask for a binder. She shared resources and information.

By the end, the mother has gained understanding and is less afraid.

The whole exchange is a masterclass in patience and listening — especially when it’s hard. Especially when you have every reason not to be patient or listen. Especially when no one would blame you for responding with your own fear and anger.

Rain advocated for this woman’s child. She found a way to help a mother wrap her head around a situation she didn’t understand. As a result, maybe this is one less LGBTQ kid who will become a sad statistic.

This morning, another story came across my Facebook feed.

This one. A video of Elizabeth Smart’s father, Ed Smart, speaking about his experience coming out as gay earlier this year.

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom when she was fourteen. She was rescued and returned to her family nine-months later, after being repeatedly raped. Her kidnapping and, especially her return, were national news.

Speaking publicly for the first time after coming out as gay, Ed Smart, the father of Elizabeth Smart, says opening up about his sexuality “has been more difficult” than living through his daughter’s kidnapping and abuse “because it not only affected Elizabeth but it affected my entire family, too.”

And the response on Facebook was — predictable.

People were angry. They accused Ed Smart of overstaying his 15-minutes of fame and could not understand the urge to compare his daughter’s trauma to the fairly mundane, very personal experience of coming out.

Something about reading these two stories (the one about Ed Smart and the one about Rain Dove), one right after the other, gave me pause. What kind of questions would Rain ask Ed, I wondered? How would they get to the heart of what Ed Smart had to say?

To understand what’s happening here, you have to step back and try to understand what it means to be the head of a Mormon family.

Ed Smart was raised to believe that being gay was a sin that would separate him from God and from his family for eternity. His daughter’s kidnapping likely drove him closer to his faith, because Mormonism was such a large part of the story and because her return felt so much like a miracle to the whole world.

I am certain that Ed Smart, his wife, and their children believed that they were destined to spend eternity together. (And, if Smart’s parents were sealed, then he would have believed that he was sealed to them as well and would spend eternity with them, too.)

Mormon marriage isn’t ‘until death do us part.’ It’s eternal. Ed Smart was raised Mormon. He raised his family in Salt Lake City. He had a Mormon marriage. Being gay is considered a sin by the Mormon church and, until very recently, was cause to be excommunicated.

Coming out ended the Smart’s marriage. Ed Smart left the Mormon faith in August 2019. He and his wife are divorcing. It is almost certain that they had a ‘celestial marriage’ — meaning that they were sealed together in a Mormon temple, so that their marriage would continue after their deaths. Children born into a celestial marriage are sealed to their parents, so that they can all be together in the afterlife.

That isn’t a metaphor for observant Mormons. It’s what they believe to be the truth.

From Wikipedia:

A man may be sealed to more than one woman. If his wife dies, he may enter another celestial marriage, and be sealed to both his living wife and deceased wife or wives. Many Mormons believe that all these marriages will be valid in the eternities and the husband will live together in the celestial kingdom as a family with all to whom he was sealed. In 1998, the LDS Church changed the policy and now also allows women to be sealed to more than one man. A woman, however, may not be sealed to more than one man at a time while she is alive. She may only be sealed to subsequent partners after she has died.

All of which means that coming out meant, to the Smarts, that Ed Smart was causing a significant amount of havoc with his family’s afterlife. Painful havoc. And probably not a small amount of havoc right here in this life, too.

Ed Smart comparing his coming out with his daughter’s kidnapping was, at the very least, unfortunate. And it sounded even worse to ears that didn’t share his faith (even if it is a faith he doesn’t find solace in anymore.)

But it’s at least possible that he was referring to something that isn’t immediately obvious on hearing a clip of his speech. And that he spoke with the assumption that everyone shares his experiences and knows what he means when he talks about how his coming out affected his family.

Maybe practicing listening skills and compassion, instead of responding with a knee-jerk reaction, isn’t a bad thing. That’s what I’ve learned from Rain Dove this week. And I’m incredibly grateful.

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