Tony award winning theatre producer Seth Greenleaf discusses his own diversity story and how that led him to be able to negotiate differences and build bridges between individuals and groups. Seth shares his perspective as a Broadway producer on the benefits of diverse casting in Broadway theatre productions and speaks about his journey of finding himself as a straight man playing in a gay football league. Discover the lessons that Seth took away from his football experience, and what led him to direct an award winning documentary about the National Gay Flag Football League. Finally, Seth shares his wisdom about how we can reject the ideology of intolerance while finding compassion and understanding even for people who hold misguided beliefs.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Seth’s diversity story which led him to bridge gaps and become a communicator (3:00)
- Which iconic Broadway performer helped inform Seth’s thinking about LGBTQ issues (6:30)
- Seth’s thoughts on diverse casting in Broadway theatre (10:03)
- An effective approach for creating systemic change (20:24)
- How Seth found himself as a straight man playing on a gay football team (22:45)
- What Seth did to gain the trust and respect of his football team members (24:50)
- The lessons that Seth has learned as a straight ally (28:30)
- The importance of safe spaces and closed communities in the healing process (31:50)
- How to move beyond our comfort zone (39:30)
- What allies need to keep in mind when dealing with marginalized communities (43:15)
- How to move past judgment and anger towards understanding and insight (47:00)
- How to begin to close the divide in the United States (48:00)
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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change. This is Jennifer Brown.
My guest today is Seth Greenleaf. Seth is a Tony Award winner for his work on the 50th anniversary production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A graduate of UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, he was bitten early by the entertainment bug and has worked in theatre and film his entire adult life.
Some of his favorite highlights include producing 9 to 5: The Musical on Broadway with Dolly Parton, co-producing the Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, and Helpmann Award-winning Matilda the Musical, co-financing the Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon, and directing the award-winning documentary F(l)ag Football.
He is the president and artistic director of Greenleaf Productions, and heads the Broadway division out of New York City.
Seth, welcome to The Will to Change.
SETH GREENLEAF: Thank you, Jennifer. Nice to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m glad that you’re here. We share a couple things that are near and dear to our hearts, which is the theater world. But we’re also going to talk about F(l)ag Football today and allyship. Just in terms of connecting all of those dots, we’re going to do that today. I’m excited to get your perspective here on the podcast.
I’d love to jump into your background. I know that you had some powerful examples growing up in your experience in your theater community of diversity and diverse role models and how it shaped you as a young, white, heterosexual, cisgender man —if I can say. What did that mean to you? How has it actually informed yourself as an adult and how you show up in the world?
SETH GREENLEAF: Wow. I don’t think I’m particularly quirky anymore. I think, happily, more and more every day, we see straight, white, heterosexual men, women, defending those who are in need of defense, support, or allyship.
When I was younger, I got it for sure from my mother, who was a ’60s hippie mom. We were the first people that I knew who were recycling cans. We used to collect them and bring them to this place one town over once a month. She was part of the peace and love movement that came from that time period, and they were very genuine principles to her.
My father, on the other hand, was a normal businessman, I would say probably more of a republican than a democrat, so it was a very interesting balance between the two of them. I would see him and his perspective and would, certainly, come to understand that it was not necessarily evil in its nature, although it could very easily be disconnected from the experience of others. And then I had a mother who brought an infinite amount of compassion and open-mindedness, and was very quick to defend anyone and everything that she saw as being in a weakened position —whether rescued animals, cultures, religions, creeds, whatever it was.
As a result of that odd, polarizing balance between the two of them, I had a natural inclination to bridge the gaps and to act as a communicator between different groups of people, which I often did for my parents, too. For me, that’s where it started. As I went forward in life, whether playing sports, which is an environment where very diverse personalities come together to work through their differences, to become a unit, or the theater, where you do the same. People can come from all different walks of life, but they work towards a higher purpose, and the need to understand other people and their experience, and to respect it even if you’re different, somehow, I got a lot of that training from a very young age. Undoubtedly, it informed the way I approached life and my work now.
JENNIFER BROWN: I couldn’t agree more. The theater is such a unique and special world, especially to be exposed to that as a child, to feel you have a theater family as well as a biological family.
Your theater family was full of diverse characters. You grew up idolizing people who, as you say, might be otherwise marginalized in communities and in the world in general. The theater world is full of people who maybe feel like they don’t belong anywhere but the theater.
How did that impress upon you and lead you to be understanding, in particular, of the LGBTQ experience in terms of who you saw in your adult life in the theater?
SETH GREENLEAF: Sure. Yes, my father started producing theater when I was about eight and a half years old. I was already interested in theater arts and acting from an even younger age. I was really excited to be involved in that process with him and to observe. Being there, exactly as you stated, you meet some diverse people. The theater has always been a kind of safe haven for those who might not feel safe in every other environment.
I was introduced to many gay people from a very young age, and had a great affection and affinity towards them. The first one that I remember consciously was Tommy Tune. My father was producing the musical Nine, and that was the first thing he got involved with. I was eight and a half years old when that process began. I always remember Tommy Tune. Not only is he six-foot-six or taller, he was the tallest man I had seen at that point in my life. But he was elegant, articulate, handsome, and he ran the entire show and the company. There was a wonderful reverence around him constantly. My first experience of even knowing a gay man was this kind of god-like figure. I think that Tommy Tune, in his own funny way, made me think that.
As a kid, every experience you have becomes the total of your experience with that group or culture, whatever it is. I guess in my mind, gay people were better, more elegant, and even taller. So I remember that was my very first experience. I don’t even remember how, why, or where, but my father explained that he was gay. It just seemed very normal. You wouldn’t have that judgment as a kid, so the only association I had with it was him.
It started right there. I’m so grateful for the experiences that I had growing up. This is a dicey subject to get into because, as a Buddhist, I’m always trying to have compassion, if not at least the smallest amount of understanding for every person on the planet regardless of how despicable I can find their behavior. I do think that there was a great benefit to the way I grew up, and the influence and experience that I had with different kinds of people from a young age.
I feel fortunate. Would I be a different person if I was influenced with some of the same hateful and ignorant forces that some of the people that we see represented in the media would be? I don’t know. I’d love to think that my soul is beyond that, but it may very well be influenced by my environment.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, you know what? You have really paid it forward, though. I would look at your producing record and the fact that now you are a success. Fast-forward in your life, you made diverse casting a priority not just once, but multiple times. You’ve been making very intentional choices, and it has opened up so many new audience members to the world of theater. It has allowed people in the audience and in the world to see themselves reflected in roles that they never would have seen otherwise.
Tell us a little bit about how you came to take this on as a professional commitment, ensuring that diverse casting protocols are followed for whatever bears your fingerprints? What have been some of the results that you’re especially proud of?
SETH GREENLEAF: It wouldn’t just be my singular decision to do those things. I’m lucky, when you work with the Broadway community, we are one of the most diverse, and one of the better examples of diversity in action. Even we are criticized constantly for not being diverse enough. Some of that criticism is fair, and maybe some not.
I’m fortunate that this is the world that I work in. I’m not necessarily a trailblazer by saying that I think it’s an important agenda for all of us to make sure we’re opening doors and opportunities to everyone. Sometimes you have to force that by specifically saying, “We want to have this many people in the cast that are multi-ethnic.” In a perfect world, you’re really just casting the absolute best person for every role, but we’re not there yet. Sometimes you have to swing the pendulum the other direction and break ceilings and show people that the world is not going to end because you’ve done something unconventional or taken risks.
Certainly, producers like Jeffrey Seller and Lin-Manuel and their insistence on Hamilton broke new ground and made it easier for people like me to follow through with our agendas.
I say that only in that I’d love to tell you that I am the lead in my industry, but I’m grateful that I work in an industry where this is an agenda for many, if not most of us. That is always happening.
In terms of some of the examples of it, in Groundhog Day, which is based on a beloved film, which means there’s already a character association with audiences who love the source material, Matthew Warchus, the director, felt that we should be very open minded in our casting. As producers, we were 100 percent supportive of that. The results were wonderful. Our leading lady, Barrett Doss, who played the Andie MacDowell role, is an African-American woman. She is phenomenal, and was the best person for the role. I don’t find that there was one drop of resistance from audiences or anyone to seeing her with Andy Karl in their respective roles together.
In The Play That Goes Wrong, when we recast the original opening company that brought the show over from London, who were also the creators, again, we went very open-minded. We have a multi-ethnic cast, which in some ways is maybe even more of a stretch because this is about an amateur English theater company, but there’s no reason that two of the four members of the cast and ensemble wouldn’t be African American. And it plays brilliantly and there is no reason for anyone to have those fears or intimidations about doing it.
I wish I had a more profound answer than if you don’t know people who have worked their whole life to have opportunities in this industry and are every bit as good as anybody else, and who are not being seen because of the idea that a white person on page or from source material or anything else can’t possibly be something else —it’s just an idea that needed to deteriorate, dissolve, and go. I think that we’ve taken great steps and strides towards that.
I wish I had a more brilliant answer to express it, but it’s just something you have to do. That’s the kind of thing that the arts do in general. It’s always our job to push those kinds of agendas forward, to do it creatively, and to balance that against the risks that you take on because we’re also a commercial industry. That’s the line that you have to tow because the biggest pushback to anything will be, “Well, maybe it won’t succeed, or maybe it will sell less tickets, maybe we’ll, potentially, close because we’re pushing this particular social agenda.”
I don’t think that that’s the case any of the times I have been involved. There is no test to show that it absolutely is or isn’t, but I don’t believe that it’s ever inhibited any show from being successful. You can turn around and say the greatest example of that —and I hate to sell another person’s show again and again —but Hamilton. You have George Washington and some of the forefathers being played by multi-ethnic cast. I certainly don’t think that it “unsold” any tickets.
JENNIFER BROWN: No, indeed. It did not. None of us can get in, in fact.
Didn’t you have a wonderful conversation with Audra McDonald about the power of seeing different casting in different kinds of roles, and the broadening of the kinds of people, regardless of our background and ethnicity, playing a variety of roles and the power of that? What did she say to you?
SETH GREENLEAF: Well, not to me, but she said it in an interview. She talked about having seen Groundhog Day with Barrett Doss and what a powerful experience that was. Now, here’s someone like Audra McDonald, who’s as established as one can possibly be, but within her comments, you get a sense of the importance of being a young, black girl who has interest in the arts. The importance of going to a show and seeing yourself represented is monumental.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this. This has been a conversation for many years. Should there be African-American Barbie dolls? Should emojis be multi-ethnic? All of these kinds of things. The answer is a resounding yes. They should be. They need to be. Children need to look up and not feel that they are two steps removed from the people that they admire in the industries and careers that they dream towards.
Obviously, there is no greater example on earth than having a president like Barack Obama. I mean, I cannot imagine the impact that has had on generations of African Americans in this country. This is the presidency of the United States. There is no higher office —although, now it’s a slightly different proposition. But pushing that aside for one moment to go back to its idealized version, I can even, as a white person, feel the power of change that comes with that. I can’t even imagine what that is like.
We have to do things like that. That’s our point as human beings. That’s what we’re here for. We have to find our own success, we have to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, and we have to help the other people that we can on this planet together to the best of our abilities. That is our purpose.
JENNIFER BROWN: When you have the power and the platform and the artistic license that you have, I think it’s leadership. It’s someone in the position of calling the question and making the requirement. In the corporate world, in the workplace, we always say, “Was a diverse slate of candidates interviewed for this position?” It’s amazing to see the shock that people go through to say, “I didn’t even think about it, it didn’t even occur to me that we were interviewing ten white guys or ten men for this advancement opportunity or this global assignment.” It plays out. It’s not a bad intent often, although we could argue that on a separate podcast, but it’s largely just that it didn’t occur to people.
Who are the first people that are going to be awake and lead the conversation and stand forward and say, “This is not going to hurt us commercially. In fact, it’s going to draw more audiences and more diverse audiences to the theater,” which is always needed. We always say, “She needs to see it to be it.” You are creating an environment where that role model can be seen. It is hard to put a value on something like that. Hats off, and I hope we see a lot more of that in the theater and film world, and hopefully in the workplace, too. We’ve got some major issues in the workplace around a lack of diversity in the top third of most management teams. Those are the ones call us, wringing their hands, and say, “What do we do?”
SETH GREENLEAF: Can I say one thing about that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
SETH GREENLEAF: I want to go back and address something you said, “Why doesn’t it happen? Is it really just an oversight?” I think that there is a truth to the fact that it is harder. When you have people from diverse backgrounds, it means that it takes more work to find common ground between them. There is a hesitance because, let’s be honest, if I want to be understood more easily and quickly, finding a Jewish, white, heterosexual guy from Rockland County might be the shortest distance between two points. The bigger question is: Are we going to produce the best results together?
One thing I never forgot listening to —I can’t remember who came up with this, it was Hal Prince or somebody, but they went through and talked about some of the more successful collaborations in the theater world. And while your first instinct might be, “Oh, it was people who have worked together before and have really great working relationships.” A lot of the most successful properties that have been developed, or at least a really impressive cross-section of them, came from creative teams that did not get along at all. They fueled each other’s fires and there was competitiveness and huge differences of opinion. As a result, the art excelled.
I always remember thinking that you can surround yourself with people like you and it keeps you in your comfort zone, but the beauty of diversity and the untapped resource that takes the second level of looking into is that people from different backgrounds are going to challenge one another in different ways, and I am only capable of coming from my own perspective. And it’s not until my perspective meets a different perspective that I’m going to be forced to learn, expand, and understand where that person is coming from. And that’s going to change the way I think. As a result, we will probably at least have a chance of producing fascinating results that bring in more perspectives than just people like me would have created in the first place.
I think that’s where the resistance is. And just like we do when it comes to “greening” —because I’m a big greenie guy and the Broadway Green Alliance is an organization that I was in from the very beginning, we worked to green Broadway. We couldn’t just go to theaters and producers and say, “You should do this because it’s the right thing to do.” We showed them the benefits of doing it. We showed them where we could save money long term by creating this dialogue with audiences, they were going to bring more people.
Sometimes people have to see why there is a positive outcome to it, because we’re all a little self-interested, but we have to move those people, corporate, whatever it is, past that initial stage of saying, “This takes me out of my comfort zone.” Outside your comfort zone is where great things happen.
JENNIFER BROWN: I couldn’t agree more. We always talk about “creative abrasion.”
SETH GREENLEAF: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s that clashing.
SETH GREENLEAF: I love that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, and the pressure to make something work, galvanizing something. One plus one equals three. All of that possibility. I agree with you that we’ve got some powerful workplace norms and some powerful unconscious bias going on in a lot of organizations, the way that things have always been done, the way that we define leadership and what leadership looks like, the lack of role models, all of that.
In particular, it’s harming women, people of color, LGBTQ people, particularly as they travel up through this hourglass and go through the really narrow part as they’re trying to move up into leadership. They get really squeezed, because at that moment, you’re under a lot of pressure, you could be an executive, but are you willing to hang into a pretty tough situation where you may be the only one that looks like you? You may not have anyone pulling you up from the other side who looks like you or understands or has compassion and commitment to you. The isolation is intense, and that’s what we work really hard to fix.
Switching gears a little bit, but it’s actually related, tell us about walking by a football team one day and saying, “Maybe I’ll jump in on this game that’s going on.” Speaking of differences, take us to that day. What happened, and what did you discover about the team that you ended up loving and adoring and making a movie about?
SETH GREENLEAF: Sure. I’m a football fanatic. I have been since I was a young boy, and I cannot walk past a football game or football toss without acting like a puppy and making a beeline.
I was passing these guys in a park one day as they were starting to warm up and organize some kind of a football practice or game. I went right over and started giving them my resume, because I’ve played my whole life, asking, “Can I join?” and this and that. They were a little bit standoffish at first, told me that they were practicing part of a national touring league and they were a team. I said, “Okay, well, I can do this, this, and this.” I tortured them until they eventually let me join in. I did, and I played with them for quite a while. I’m a quarterback, and when you’re a quarterback, you have a different kind of a value. And once I started throwing the ball and quarterbacking, their energy towards me changed a little bit and they become a little more intrigued.
After about an hour or more of playing with them, a couple of them came over to me and said, “Hey, would you ever consider quarterbacking a gay football team?” When they said that to me, I was stunned because up until that point, I had no idea that these were gay men. Of course, having tons of experience with gay people in my life, I think I have a pretty good sense of it, except most of the gay men that I know are from the theater, and they behave slightly differently. I was kind of shocked by these guys.
It was so funny for me to feel like this was, if not a bias, kind of a blind spot in my mind. I thought about this for so long afterwards. I thought, “Yeah, why would I be surprised by the fact that these were gay men playing football? Why should that be such a shocking issue to me?”
I realized that even from my own experiences, I had fallen into the same trap of feminizing gay men and putting them in a particular kind of category in my mind, instead of seeing them as completely wide spectrum and diverse as anyone else on the planet. You can have a theater guy who’s extremely feminine and wants to play a Cagelles in La Cage aux Folles, and that’s his world. Then you have someone who is a tough-as-nails, vicious linebacker football player who could kill me. Why wouldn’t that exist?
But I was surprised by the fact that my mind hadn’t thought of that, and I was so surprised. I thought, “Wow, this is fascinating.” That’s the kind of artistic curiosity in me. I joined this football league, and I had amazing experiences with these guys, some of which brought up a very subtle homophobia inside of me which I couldn’t believe existed, and some of which was an education towards something that I felt I needed to share with the world, which led me to making the documentary F(l)ag Football.
JENNIFER BROWN: And we’ll get there in a moment. Wow. You shared with me that you encountered some resistance along the way in integrating into this group. You supposed the core issue was around trust. I loved what you shared about the community I’m a part of, the LGBT community, and the difficulty of trusting within the community for so many good reasons. You shared with me the experience of being an ally and the toughness that you need as an ally to be resilient and standing firm as an ally saying, “I am not going away. I’m here, and I’m committed to you.” And the gradual trust-building that occurs.
It’s so relevant for a lot of us. There is a lot of pressure on allies and self-pressure as well to get it right from the first moment, always say the right things. There’s a reticence that keeps people away from engaging. Whether it’s somebody giving you a hard time or somebody reprimanding you or worse. You might have gotten hazed in a way on the football team.
But you stood firm. And I loved the way you described what it took to stick in there and what you saw on the other side of that whitewater period in terms of building relationships which are now deep and meaningful.
SETH GREENLEAF: Wow, you make it sound really smart, and I can’t remember what I said now. I’m sure I’ll bludgeon it.
There were a lot of experiences that went into that. What was interesting is we’re in such a different space now. Since that happened, and I don’t even remember what year it started, we’ve seen gay marriage rights, we’ve seen the coming out of gay athletes, we’ve seen so many really big shifts.
This all started before that —before there was a language that was established, before there was a sensitivity that was established. I was just doing the best I can very imperfectly.
You make a great point when you say you expected right out of the box to know exactly what to say and how to be incredibly sensitive to every person’s feelings. I wasn’t, I couldn’t be, and I didn’t know.
Part of what I realized along the way in our clashes, and we did have clashes, and there were times where I thought about walking away and saying, “Why am I doing this?” I’m really trying to bridge gaps here, and I feel like I’m treated as if I’m the enemy. Part of what I realized is for some of the guys that I was playing with, this was the first opportunity that they had to express some of their anger and disappointment towards my community. I may not have been the one that inflicted at the injuries, but I was the first person that they could discuss them with, and certainly some of that expression came out with a lot of energy.
I had to realize that at times I was just going to need to show consistency, love, patience, and not take things personally. I had to be clear about mistakes that I made and realize that there was a way in speaking and communicating and many other things that I had to evolve, but that a lot of it was not going to be about me. It was not going to be about anything I did. That helped me. Over time, the consistency of being there, showing up, and receiving some of that pain formed bonds, formed trust, and was healing. It also gave me insight to another person’s experience that I couldn’t possibly understand without having lived their life. I could understand a piece of it, and that was helpful to me.
It can be intimidating sometimes for straight allies because there is all this backed-up energy. There is a lot of rage and a lot of pain. You do have to be able to receive some of that. Even if you didn’t cause it and you can’t cure it, part of the gift of being there is sharing it. It won’t kill you, it won’t hurt you, and it will even make you a better person, but it’s your initiating into understanding the pain of another person. There was that.
When you’re playing sports, and this was probably my biggest motivation in making the documentary and hanging in there and the thing that I realized that affected me the most emotionally, my own emotions, not theirs, was that it is criminal to hold back or to push away or to intimidate the experiences that happens on sports teams from LGBT or from any community. I, as a person, probably learned half of what I did from sports teams and from playing sports and working through obstacles with teammates.
The idea of learning with these guys and their story, the fact that very few of them played organized sports, or if they did, they had to hide who they were. It really bothered me. And I thought, “Who would I be if I didn’t have sports?” And we have to really work hard to make sure that we tear that all down, tear that all back, and make sure that sports are as accessible to any young LGBTQ member as they are to any other ethnicity, gender, or anyone and everyone. We cannot deny people fundamental building blocks of community and relationships, then judge them when their community or relationships are difficult.
Part of what I realized is one of the reasons that the teams were so volatile and there was so much pain being brought up and there was so much pain that I seemed to bring out of people was that they grew up not trusting organizations. They grew up not trusting any kind of group mentality. I’m generalizing, and I apologize for that. But for the people that I was having confrontations or issues with, they grew up not being able to trust groups in general. That started from the family, it moved into religion, school, and sports teams. Almost any community that you can think of made them feel bad about themselves, different, rejected, unwanted, or sinful. As a result, I understood the resistance, to push back away from anything that was asking you to trust and become a part of the unit.
When you play football especially, or you play any sports, you have to bond and mesh with the rest of the team. I was asking for the absolute opposite of what had become a defensive comfort zone for so many of these guys. But I also knew it was the only way we could be great as a football team and win championships, which we eventually did. That battle, breaking down, earning trust, it was all fascinating and amazing to me. It made me a better person. That’s something I take away as a straight ally in my own life. I think that it helped and touched the players that I was with. I wish I had made a documentary of all of that from the very beginning.
I think that’s what you were indicating, and hopefully I spoke on it with some kind of intelligence or clarity.
JENNIFER BROWN: You did, Seth. That was gorgeous. Just gorgeous. I loved your play by play —if you’ll pardon the term —experience of the toughness that is required and the consistency to being an ally saying, “I’m going to love you even if you’re working your stuff out on me and it has nothing to do with me. I’m going to remain. I’m going to persist, and I’m going to show love, caring, and kindness to you.”
What you talk about is the gradual healing that happens in a group like this. It’s intense. We do a lot of what I call “single identity” leadership work in corporate America. We get to work with LGBTQ leaders, high-potential leaders in a bank, for example. We have several days together. Literally, their shoulders go down and they breathe differently. They relax into the group and say, “This is the first time I’ve ever talked about my career amongst people whom I feel completely comfortable with. I’m not managing what they think of me, I’m not concerned or putting energy around stereotypes or not being listened to fairly.” Lots of these scripts go through our heads. They are so moved by the experience. They’re open, they learn faster, they build trust quickly.
In corporate America, we talk about, “Is it time to banish the exclusive groups? Is it time to get rid of groups that are gathered by affinity?” I don’t know what your answer would be to that, but I would imagine it’s the same. How many more leagues are needed like this that are a safe space? We’re still at a point in our history, unfortunately, where people cannot have that same depth of experience in a heterogeneous group.
I’m a fan of the safe space. I’m curious what you think about that. I know that the league has actually grown many more teams, it’s spread, there are other kinds of teams. Clearly, this whole idea has really caught fire and resonates with people. I wanted to hear a little bit about that, but do you think these are still unique and important closed groups or communities, if you will, because that safety is so rare and important?
SETH GREENLEAF: Yes. It’s a great question. It’s an ever-evolving line which mirrors the healing process in general.
When you have what amounts to emotional PTSD, those kinds of issues, that kind of pain from childhood, one of the first things that’s needed is that safe space. When these leagues originally popped up, it was about finding safety in people that were more like them, or at least would understand and accept what had become the most painful part of their existence, which was their sexuality.
That was the inception of the league. You didn’t have to play with straight teammates or in a straight league, which meant either hiding who you were at the risk of being discovered, or being who you were and being at the risk of God knows what might come from it. I think that those were the first initial steps of it.
When that got established and they were able to use their own rules to negotiate a safe environment, then an introduction of what could be the most uncomfortable stimulus for some people, the straight guy, the outside, or whatever else. That then becomes the next stage of going back, confronting, and dealing with some of the psychic terrors that happened to you in your development and your upbringing.
I’m not the only straight person who has played in the league, and there have been more who have joined. Now, of course, what’s great is we’re monitored. We’re controlled both in numbers and intention to make sure that we’re the right kind of person to be involved in that environment and handled with a certain amount of sensitivity.
Just like the conversation we had about some of the greatest theater pieces being created by people who had adversarial, diverse, and challenging relationships, the introduction of these issues allowed them to come up, get discussed, and for both sides to really learn. I think that’s the ideal.
Someday, there may not be a need for that. There may be no need at all to quarantine a certain kind of group —that’s probably bad word —to separate and create that safety with the specific likeness, and that there’s full integration. We’re not there yet, but we can’t just stay in our own comfort zone either. In my opinion, I think that there was a time in the development and the security of gay culture where the need to be secular really existed, it was very direct, and very much about safety. It has become more and more about integration and being able to say, “Hey, you will treat me with respect, or a thousand other people are going to be here protesting your business.” And then also saying, “We want to understand and integrate you because we don’t want to hate our straight brethren and allies. We want to integrate and become part of a larger community, and it’s time for that.”
I think you see all kinds of people in different stages depending on their background. It’s beautiful. I know this interview will air at a different date, and I hope by the time it airs, Donald Trump will have been impeached. But the likelihood with a republican congress is that he hasn’t been. One of the benefits to someone like him in our world right now is that he’s brining these things to the surface where we can actually address them. I’d like to think that maybe for the first time in a long time, we are a conscious enough, strong enough culture, country, world where we can see and hear what thoughts there are out there so that we have the opportunity to address them. We have safety in numbers, and we have the ability to say, “Whoa, this is wrong, this has to change. I’m really happy to hear it because now I have a chance to heal you, and you have a chance to face me at my worst.”
It sounds awful, and I would never put a man like that in office, but I almost appreciate the fact that he is pulling the pus up from under the skin where we have a chance now to clean the wound, I hope, and move forward. It may be generations before we really heal the scar tissue on the deepest level, but if we don’t get that pus up and we don’t get that pain out, and someone from a gay football team can’t have a moment of realizing that some of the pain that they’re feeling is no longer being caused by the world or the family that they grew up in, but now is something that they’re still carrying. It could be time to let go of that, bring people in again, and trust again.
There is some great benefit in that. I can’t put it into a perfect little sentence, and it’s a messy process with all kinds of different stages, but we should never stop working towards that. We should never stop bringing that stuff up. We should never go to our corners and stay there, separate from one another, because it’s more comfortable.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. A couple of images come to mind. I don’t know if you know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but food, shelter, and water are at the bottom. Those are our basic human needs. Community is the next need that we have.
What you’re talking about, I’m envisioning that we have to gain our strength. We’ve got to put ourselves back together. We’ve got to realign our hearts, and we’ve got to do healing that can only uniquely happen in community. You need to be around people who say, “You’re not crazy. This is happening to you, it’s happening to me. There is a common, shared experience, and we see each other on this level.” But then what you’re talking about is don’t rest in that place. We have a lot of work to do. Once we gather our strength, we have to go forth.
Robert Putnam writes about the difference between “bonding capital” and “bridging capital.” Bonding capital is our desire to hunker down in our community. It’s the sense of belonging, you look like me, we share this commonality. Then, the bridging capital is, “How am I going to reach across the difference?” When do we need each? You describe it as an evolution, and I totally agree. Once we get our basic needs in order, your point is we can heal on that part, but then how do we go forth? I especially think about LGBT allies and gay people who can go forth as role models for what allyship looks like more broadly.
We have been the living example of the power of this collaboration. There are two sides of the coin of change —those of us who need support, and those of us who can give support from our relative degrees of privilege.
Living in this world now in August 2017 with so much happening in the news, have you thought about your allyship more broadly? You’ve learned so much from being on this team. You feel incredibly activated. You are because you’re just awake. How do you think about utilizing or exercising your allyship on a much broader scale in the future given what’s needed?
SETH GREENLEAF: I’m attempting a completely different challenge for myself. Actually, I want to take one step back to what you were saying in a question you asked me before. What do allies need to learn in this process also?
There was something that took me a little while to understand. When you’re dealing with a community that is carrying a great amount of pain, regardless of how much we understand what they may have gone through, we have not felt or experienced what they’ve gone through. There is a big difference between understanding a problem, which happens from the neck up, and experiencing a problem, which happens really from the neck down.
One of the mistakes I think that we can make as allies, and I have certainly made it multiple times, is to believe that the advice that we’re giving or the perspective that we have is helpful to someone who is still in the “feeling” phase of their process of healing.
I won’t do justice in explaining this, but if I as a straight, white guy —granted, I’m Jewish, I’ve had my own experiences, but they don’t come close to what African-American or LGBTQ friends of mine have experienced growing up. It’s tempting for me to project my experience onto them and say, “Hey, listen, we’ve all had that, it’s time to move forward.” That’s not helpful. For me, it’s an understanding, or maybe they’re feelings I already processed, but when someone is in a feeling phase, regardless of whether or not the clarity and the articulation and the final course, action, and plan is in place, those emotions need to be received, honored, and heard. They may not make all the sense in the world, it may be a messy process, but you’ve just got to let people feel their pain.
We just have to be clear as allies that we will rarely have experienced what the people that we’re talking to and trying to help have experienced, and if they’re in that feeling place, sometimes the greatest gift you can give is just to hear them and receive them. There may be a time and place to say, “Well, okay, what about this? What about that? Maybe they’re not all racists trying to get you. Have you tried this? Have you tried that?” There may be a time and place, but not while someone is active in hurt and is bringing up things from their past that just need to be received.
That’s the best advice I can give to allies wanting to help. Hopefully that makes sense.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Seth.
SETH GREENLEAF: To answer your question about where I’m at with it, I am realizing that the divide in this country, and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I am furious with Trump supporters. I am furious with people I know —I don’t blame Donald Trump for what’s happening right now, I blame the millions of people that could put someone like that into a position of power. He is who he is. He’s an idiot. And if you can’t see he’s an idiot from a million miles away, then I’m tempted to say you’re an idiot or worse.
All of my natural inclinations go towards judging and even hating those people, the worst part of his base, the people who are even moderates, and the people who can say, “I voted him for economic reasons and I’m not a part of all the rest of that crap.” My feelings are so strong towards them.
The practice that I am working on is to try to hear and understand where they’re coming from, what they’re saying, so that I can do my best to communicate with them and try to bring some of my experience and the experience of others into their life so they might see how damaging some of their thinking is. Where some of their connections to one another and their base is creating consequences that I don’t think are what they really mean. And if they are what they really mean, to find out where that pain stems from.
I just don’t believe people are evil at their nature. They’re certainly not born that way, and underneath all of this atrocious behavior is fear. It’s very hard and uncomfortable to see that when you’re dealing with someone who is claiming to be a neo-Nazi or can even use the expression, “make America great again” as a dogmatic mantra. But we, who are maybe more educated or awake, or have had more experiences that have created diversity and inclusion, we have to now start to receive them also. If we can’t and we don’t, then we can’t bridge that gap, and we stay on opposite sides. That’s not going to serve anyone.
Now, that is completely different than accepting unacceptable behavior or leaving unchecked the advancement of agendas that are totally inappropriate and don’t have place in our society. But beyond that, beyond protecting ourselves, beyond banding together against these agendas, beyond voting people out of office and even getting into fisticuffs with neo-Nazis who want to march down the street giving hateful messages, beyond that, we still have to reach into that pus, wound, and psychic tear to say, “Where is the humanity on that side and where is my humanity that can endure it enough to build a bridge between us?”
I loved what you said about bonding and bridges. Those of us who have strong bonds and strong centers, we have to take steps towards bridging. It’s not comfortable, it’s not easy, but we can’t leave our country in the state that it’s in. We didn’t separate after the Civil War, we are one country, as cheesy as it sounds, and we really have to try to understand one another. In a funny way, I know an LGBTQ person or African-American person will hear what I say and say, “There’s no way to compare me and my pain and receiving me towards receiving someone like that.” There isn’t. One is more attractive to me, and anyone who feels like a minority or a victim or someone that I have a natural compassion for is much easier.
Somehow, we still have to see the worst parts of ourselves and our fringes and we have to try to bring them in, understand them, or try to at least receive them, not by giving voice to their awful ideas, but to try to connect with the pain underneath.
I’m trying to do it, and it’s difficult to the point of impossible, but that’s where I’m trying to put my compassion right now because I hate the divide that exists in our country. It’s not going to come to the angry, hateful people to resolve, it’s going to come to the peaceful, loving people to try to be compassionate.
I’m sorry, I hate rambling, but I’ll just finish with one last thought. I was listening to an interview with an ex neo-Nazi white supremacist who now is a convert who preaches against them and that mentality. The reporter asked him, “What did it take? What changed? What happened?” And he said, “Sometimes it requires compassion from the people you have the least right to expect compassion from.” And I said, “Wow.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, boy.
SETH GREENLEAF: What a sentiment. And I thought, “Yes, that’s partly my goal to the best of my ability as an imperfect person.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Seth, that is the biggest truth bomb. I’ve been closing my eyes and praying listening to you speak because that call for love, kindness, and seeing the humanity in others, especially across the most difficult divides, is what’s going to bring us forward. That’s where I think we should be spending all of our emotional, psychic, and physical energy. It’s so hard to do what you’re talking about because our survival instincts kick in. And, yet, we must transcend those things.
SETH GREENLEAF: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And we must focus on what really matters. Nothing less than the survival of our beautiful country, founded on so many beautiful ideals, is at stake.
SETH GREENLEAF: Not just us. It’s vital that we get this right. When you talked before about the responsibility of being in a leadership position, we are leaders of this world. We have to get our stuff together, and we have to start getting it right because there are countries with behavior —you look at Africa, you look at ethnic cleansing. Talk about gender inequality, oh my God, look at India. Look at the stories that come out of India. It’s impossible to fathom. We’ve got to get our stuff together because we are leaders of this world, and we’re doing a terrible job while we have all of this going on. We need to heal our wounds so we can go out and help others that are much further behind us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Seth Greenleaf, thank you for coming on The Will to Change. This was profound.
SETH GREENLEAF: It’s my pleasure. Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you for your work.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.