The transformative theory of conflict describes the virtuous cycle that can occur when people who have been in conflict become more empowered and more responsive. The recent progress of marriage equality in the USA might provide an example of how this can work on a huge scale. Here’s my attempt to describe some of the dynamics of how such progress is made, according to the transformative theory of conflict.

At some time within the past 50 years or so, gay and lesbian people and those who cared about them started to gain clarity that they were entitled to be treated equally. By supporting each other and starting to speak out, gay and lesbian people’s sense of strength grew. By creating communities where they were welcomed, accepted, loved and celebrated, they helped encourage closeted gay and lesbian people to emerge and be more open about their identities. The understanding and acceptance that they gave each other and that supportive others gave them helped them continue to gain confidence and clarity that they deserved to be accepted by society as a whole.

That increased sense of strength, confidence and moral clarity allowed them to speak more clearly to those who hadn’t yet understood or accepted them. That clarity and confidence allowed lesbian and gay people to engage with others in a way that the others did not find threatening. That is, as the gay and lesbian community became empowered, it also became more effective at communicating in a way that was responsive to the fears and insecurities of the straight world. Those ever clearer voices from the LGBT community had an impact on the straight world. Some in the straight world reacted defensively and harshly, but many were able to make progress in understanding and accepting same sex couples, and in becoming aware of the parts of themselves and of their families and loved ones that were also victimized by lack of acceptance. As straight people were able to recognize the common humanity with and their connection to lesbian and gay people, the LGBT community became even more confident and clear in its purpose.

Strong and responsive lesbian and gay people communicated to straight people in a way that enabled their message to get across ever more clearly. Straight people became increasingly able to understand, accept and relate to same sex couples. Straight people who were able to recognize and accept gained strength and confidence, noticing that they were living up to their aspirations to be kind, supportive and connected to their fellow humans. Straight people started to see that the struggle for LGBT rights was not separate from the human struggle. Straight people became aware that their own desire for strength and connection required them also to take action. Finally, gay and straight people  were united in a cycle of strength and responsiveness that led to the change of society, including its laws. That’s how it works.

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By Dan Simon

Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.