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Circles and Dress Codes

On the 1986 cross-country Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament there was a gay man, Dan, who occasionally wore skirts. He felt that by being "out" on the march, he represented the peace concerns of a lot of gay people -- and that, when they saw him, they would rally to our cause of global nuclear disarmament. But not all his fellow marchers supported his vision. Some feared that straight people wouldn't take us seriously because of the way Dan (and some other marchers) looked.

A group of older marchers proposed a dress code to be observed by all marchers.

The reaction to their proposal was swift and unexpected: About fifteen straight, tough male marchers donned dresses and skirts and walked out with all the other marchers marching that day onto the highway to Grand Island, Nebraska, muscles bulging, hairs bristling. That evening they held a fashion show.

The next day was a rest day, and two dozen people got together to talk about the dress code issue. Adeline wanted a debate and Polly wanted a talking stick circle [a.k.a. listening circle]. (We had learned about talking stick circles from a Native American marcher: We'd sit in a circle and whoever held the stick spoke from their heart and then passed the stick to the next person, who spoke and passed it on, and so on, round and round the circle until all the wisdom of the group had been gleaned.)

Ralph, the meeting's convenor, asked the group whether they wanted a circle or a debate. Most wanted a circle. We didn't have a talking stick but we did have a volleyball. So with quirky peace-marcher resourcefulness, we decided to use it, instead.

Adeline, the earnest older woman who'd wanted the debate, was first. Tolerantly holding the volleyball in her lap, she said, "We're doing a very serious thing here, trying to get people to face the nuclear threat.  Time is running out. Surely we shouldn't distract people with our appearance. Here's a farmer I brought with me from Grand Island to talk about this."

With a smile, she passed the farmer the ball. He was in his 60's, tanned, with a strong round face. "Well ... I would say that there are a few of you who, well ... the way you dress, it is strange to us here ... But mostly, you know, it's so wonderful that you're here and that there are so many different kinds of you ... doing what you're doing ..." He was having trouble sticking with the appearance issue. He passed the ball to Jerry.

Jerry, an L.A. insurance salesman with a New York accent, had not always been political. But he'd certainly developed strong opinions since he joined the march. He'd been quoted in a marcher paper criticizing other marchers -- "these guys with earrings down to their navels." Yet, to our circle he said: "I don't know what to tell you. I couldn't stand how that guy looked, but Polly got me to talk to him and he's a terrific person. I feel like I've totally changed. He wants to save the planet. How can I tell him what he should look like?"

We all looked at each other in amazement as the volleyball rolled to a well-dressed, neat older woman marcher, who shared this: "I walked all day in the march line yesterday with two men in skirts. I was very angry at them. I thought they were being very indulgent. Then, when I woke up this morning I felt it was OK for them to be like that. I can't explain it, I just don't feel the way I used to..." and she passed the ball to Peter, a young blond mildly-punk anarchist and serious artist.

Although none of us knew it at the time, Peter would soon be elected to our peace march Board of Directors. He said: "This is a hard issue... I've toned down my appearance so people will be able to listen to me." He paused, as if he might say more, but then passed the ball to a friend sitting next to him, a more punk-looking marcher, who silently passed it to the next fellow.

Now this fellow looked very strange. His head was half bald and half a mass of sprayed black hair with silver streaks in it, far-out black clothes, lots of eye make-up and subtle white-face... real punk. To everyone's surprise he said: "I'm from Grand Island." He sighed. "And I just want you to know that there are a lot of us out here and ... you know ... we're young and we don't want the world blown up. And there's something else you should know -- there are a fair number of liberals in this town, and they would probably have said, no matter what, 'Well, this march is a pretty nice thing ... and what shall we have for dinner?' But the fact that you all look so different has really gotten their attention in a way I don't think you really understand. They realize -- we all do, you know -- that there's something different going on here ... I mean, there's regular looking people and people like me all doing this thing together. I mean, something's going on here.... "

The ball moved on. There were people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. They all said their piece. The late morning sun was just beginning to heat up the cavernous storage building in which we sat, listening to each other.

Walter, a creative and egotistical marcher who'd been an activist since the 60s, had an interesting idea: "When marchers go out to speak to local groups, they should go in pairs, one straight person and one far-out person, so people get the message that part of what we're doing is trying to live together and respect each other."

The last person to speak was a very well dressed young blond woman, with careful makeup. She was not a marcher. She'd come in late and was clearly amazed at what she was hearing: "I came here because I wanted to find out about the march and nuclear war and what you people were doing. My mom said 'Don't go down to that bunch of gypsies' but I know she doesn't agree with what you're doing anyway and would stay away even if you were dressed up neat in L.L. Bean clothes. But what I really need to say is I can't believe you people are sitting around talking about clothes! I thought I'd find serious people talking about serious subjects!"

After months of walking and living together, we marchers knew that differences are serious subjects. Our lives were daily testaments to questions of peace: How do we have a peaceful world? How do we talk about what's really going on? How do we allow for the fact that we're all so different?

In the circle I've just described -- and dozens of conversations like it -- the march digested this conflict, learned new things, and turned its attention outward once again. We did do what Walter suggested. And Dan still occasionally wore dresses. And we were never attacked for it. Because we knew, together, what we were doing. We knew our mission was not to be in people's faces but to enter their hearts. And we did that, each of us honestly being exactly who we were.

-- Quoted from a report by marcher Karen Mercer

COMMENTARY: Diversity is a big issue in co-intelligence. Usually it gets in people's way. In co-intelligence it becomes a resource. The 1986 Great Peace March was a nine-month experiment in living diversity.

I have used the talking circle process over a hundred times in the last ten years. In co-intelligence terms, the process is powerful because it helps people use their diversity creatively. If people truly listen to people truly speaking, they can't help but generate creative, unanticipated ideas, alternatives, insights -- wisdom that would not have emerged in any one person's head, or even in isolated conversations. The folks in this peace march circle were more intelligent together than they were separately. And that intelligence went beyond ideas and logic. It involved the deep values and real life experiences of real people, who came to know each other and to share a larger perspective that embraced them all. Note that the participants in this circle weren't playing out stereotyped roles. The spirit of the circle evoked nuances that were often in stark contrast to the sort of responses we'd have expected from them in more formal or adversarial settings.