American LGBT Tolerance

Learn how today’s tolerance can sabotage the LGBT community's full civil rights of the future.

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The LGBT community is still fighting for full civil rights.

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The Tolerance Trap (New York University Press, 2016), by Suzanna Danuta Walters, explains we have settled for a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a robust claim to full civil rights. Walters shows how the low bar of tolerance demeans rather than promotes both gays and straights alike. The following excerpt is from the introduction, “That is So Gay!”

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Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ a little gay. Everybody’s a little gay. — Honey Boo Boo

At first glance, tolerance seems like a good thing. Really, who doesn’t applaud tolerance? What individual doesn’t want to be seen as tol­erant? It seems to herald openness to difference and a generally broad-minded disposition. Indeed, one of the primary definitions of “tolerance” concerns sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own. But it is a word and a practice with a more complicated history and with real limitations. The late Middle English origins of the word indicate the ability to bear pain and hardship. In fact, some of the first uses of the word can be found in medieval pharmacology and toxicology, dealing with how much poison a body can “tolerate” before it succumbs to a for­eign, poisonous substance.

In more contemporary times, we speak of a tolerance to something as the capacity to endure continued subjection to it (a plant, a drug, a minority group) without adverse reactions. We speak of people who have a high tolerance for pain or worry about a generation developing a tolerance for a certain type of antibiotic because of overuse. In more scientific usages, it refers to the allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity — the amount “let in” before the thing itself alters so fundamentally that it becomes something else and the experiment fails. So tolerance almost always implies or assumes something neg­ative or undesired or even a variation contained and circumscribed.

The Tolerant Mindset

It doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it’s wrong in some way. To say you “tolerate” homosexu­ality is to imply that homosexuality is bad or immoral or even just benignly icky, like that exotic food you just can’t bring yourself to try. You are willing to put up with (to tolerate) this nastiness, but the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with. But here’s the rub: if there is noth­ing problematic about something (say, homosexuality), then there is really nothing to “tolerate.” We don’t speak of tolerating pleasure or a good book or a sunshine-filled day. We do, however, take pains to let others know how brave we are when we tolerate the discomfort of a bad back or a nasty cold. We tolerate the agony of a frustratingly banal movie that our partner insisted on watching and are thought the better for it. We tolerate, in other words, that which we would rather avoid. Tolerance is not an embrace but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust.

This excerpt challenges received wisdom that asserts tolerance as the path to gay rights. Most gays and their allies believe that access to marriage and the military are the brass ring of gay rights and that once we have achieved these goals we will have moved into a post-gay America. Most gays and their allies believe that gays are “born that way” and that proving biological immutability is the key to winning over reluctant heterosexuals and gaining civil rights. Most gays and their allies believe that the closet is largely a thing of the past and that we have entered a new era of sexual ease and fluidity. Most gays and their allies think that we have essentially won the culture wars and that gay visibility in popular culture is a sign of substantive gay progress. Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced. Most gays and their allies believe that if those who are anti-gay just got to know us as their PTA-going neigh­bors, they would love us. Most gays and their allies believe that we are almost there: we can see the end of the tunnel, where a rainbow world of warm inclusion awaits us. These people are wrong.

The excerpt challenges this fantasy of completion and takes a hard look at the ways of thinking that allow us all to imagine that inclusion is at hand and tolerance is the way to get it. The tolerance mindset offers up a liberal, “gay-positive” version of homosexuality that lets the mainstream tolerate gayness. Its chief tactic is the plea for acceptance. Acceptance is the handmaiden of tolerance, and both are inadequate and even dangerous modes for accessing real social inclusion and change, as I hope to demonstrate in this book. The “accept us” agenda shows up both in everyday forms of popular cul­ture and in the broader national discourse on rights and belonging. “Accept us” themes run the gamut: accept us because we’re just like you; accept us because we’re all God’s children; accept us because we’re born with it; accept us because we’re brave and bereft vic­tims and you can rescue us; accept us because we’re wild and wacky drag queens with hearts of gold who can provide homespun advice to floundering heterosexuals; accept us because we can be your best girlfriend; accept us because then you can save us from our own self-hatred and vanquish homophobia in the process; accept us because we make you look hip and tolerant. The “accept us” trope pushes out­side the charmed circle of acceptance those gays and other gender and sexual minorities, such as transgendered folks and gays of color, who don’t fit the poster-boy image of nonstraight people and who can’t be — or don’t want to be — assimilated.

This excerpt takes on the illusion of progress that is rooted in a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a deep claim for full civil rights. The leap to claim we are “almost there” prevents all of us (gay and straight alike) from fully including lesbi­ans and gays into American society in a way that embraces — rather than merely tolerates — the rich traditions and differences they bring to the table. A too-soon declaration of victory hurts both gays and straights; it short-circuits the march toward full equality and deprives us all of the transformative possibilities of full integration.

The Stonewall Riots

Here is the conventional story of gay rights: We start with the Stone­wall Riots. As most Americans know, and as President Obama spoke of in his inaugural address in 2013, Stonewall is a triumphant story of gay citizens — long stigmatized and unfairly persecuted — standing up for themselves and fighting back. It is now more than forty years since the hot summer night of those riots. That auspicious event — when lesbians, gays, transsexuals, and queers erupted in street pro­tests — seems like ancient history, feels like the turbulent storm before the calm of a newly tolerant America. While at the time these Stonewall icons were pilloried in the press as pansies run amok, now they are lionized and heralded as the shot across the bow of straight America, even as their righteous anger looks as dated as the clothes they were wearing. American politics and culture were indisputably altered from that signal moment of frustration when those who were denied even the right to freely associate, much less share in the full­ness of American life, engaged in open defiance, voicing the rage that became a full-throated yell of social rebellion. Now, mainstream films like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right entertain moviegoers with their forthright gay themes and scenes. Obligatory (if still tokenized) gay characters dot the cultural landscape: the sur­prisingly gay character in a tedious romcom, the coyly queer older man in a star-studded indie hit, the incidentally gay sister of the lead in a serious drama. Where once a gay kiss on TV prompted religious groups to boycott and advertisers to pull out, now even the resolutely heterosexual Desperate Housewives indulges in an occasional Sapphic evening with barely a whisper of public opprobrium.

There are many ways to map this complicated and contradiction-filled history of gays in American society, but it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to say that there has been an enormous shift in the past fifteen years or so from a place of either invisibility or coded and bru­tally stereotyped images to a new place of an attenuated but nev­ertheless expansive new gay presence. When same-sex wedding announcements sit next to their hetero counterparts, gay American Idols are the toast of the town, and an openly gay TV anchor (Rachel Maddow) is the darling of the airwaves — inducing girl crushes from straight women and men alike, not to mention her adoring lesbian fans — we do get a sense that the times are a-changing. It is hard to pick up a newspaper, thumb through People, or click on a reality-TV spectacle without encountering some version (however limited, cir­cumscribed, tarted up, or dumbed down) of “gayness,” a minor note still within the cacophony that is heterosexuality but no longer just the sad triangle tinkling alone in the back of the high school band.

It is not just popular culture that has been touched by the fairy dust of gay inclusion. There is concrete social and policy change as well. Thousands of middle and high schools now have gay-straight alliances. Cities and states across the country prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and most of our major corpora­tions and universities include gays in their anti-discrimination rules and have in-house support and outreach groups. While full-on mar­riage is still limited to a few states, many more allow civil unions or some version of partner protections, and the Supreme Court decisions of June 2013, forty-four years after Stonewall, look set to eventually make same-sex marriage the law of the land. There are more out gay politicians in state and local government — we even have had our first openly lesbian senator elected in 2012! — and gays are assuredly a voting bloc courted by at least one of our political parties.

Beginning of a New Era?

Truth be told, this has all happened pretty damn quickly. Some observers argue, with no small amount of evidence, that “gays may have the fastest of all civil rights movements.” Recent polls bol­ster this claim, detailing dramatic shifts in public attitudes in just twenty years, while earlier polls indicate a much longer trajectory for, say, attitudes related to racial integration. Some change has moved so quickly that folks of my generation really do experience a “before and after” of gay life. Growing up as a gay kid in Philadelphia in the 1970s, I knew not one other gay youth my age, nor did I expect to. I was terrified and isolated, and I imagined this secret to be the nuclear detonation that would evaporate my family’s love. And I come from a family of progressive Jews for whom religious antagonism toward sexuality was nonexistent! I can’t stress enough the enormity of the shift, a shift evidenced in popular culture and political life but also in the self-understandings of gays themselves and the perceptions of gays held by heterosexuals. For those from even earlier generations, this new reality of visibility and inclusion seems truly miraculous. These changes are just the tip of the pink iceberg.

For many social analysts, this moment is surely a harbinger of a new era when sexual orientation matters little in how one lives one’s life. As longtime gay activist and sociologist Jeffrey Weeks argues, “The sharp binary schism . . . that has structured, defined and dis­torted our sexual regime for the past couple of centuries . . . is now profoundly undermined as millions of gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people have not so much subverted the established order as lived as if their sexual difference did not, in the end, mat­ter.” While many dismiss these changes as mere begrudging accep­tance or, worse, a kind of normalizing of radical gay identity, Weeks reminds us that we should “never underestimate the importance of being ordinary.”

While I am perhaps more skeptical than Weeks and more ambiv­alent about the depth of the change, I would be the last person to see these huge shifts in American culture as “homo lite” window dress­ing on an essentially unchanged body politic. Changes have been real and substantial; I would, without question, have preferred to emerge as gay in this day and age rather than my own. This is dramatically evident when the gains for American gays are situated in the broader international context, where in many countries movements for sex­ual equality are still largely nascent, openly gay anythings (activists, mayors, artists, campaigns) are rare, out queers are the victims of vig­ilante violence, and homosexuals are imprisoned and brutalized by regimes that officially declare them either nonexistent or criminal.

LGBT Persecution and Struggles

And yet despite all the undeniable progress, the fact is it’s far too early to declare the end of American homophobia. In recent years, two thirteen-year-olds hanged themselves after anti-gay harassment at school. A college freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously filmed him making out with another man and streamed it over the Internet. 6 Three Bronx men were abducted and tortured by a youth “gang” whose only appar­ent motivation was “punishment” for their perceived homosexuality. A man was shot to death in the heart of gay New York — Greenwich Village — by a gunman shouting homophobic bile. A young trans woman was brutally beaten in a Maryland McDonald’s as she tried to use the female restroom. This is a drop in the bucket. The stories of violence to self and others are myriad.

There may be gay-wedding announcements and the Supreme Court may have gone a long way toward marriage equality in repeal­ing key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, but same-sex marriage is still illegal and unpopular in the vast majority of states. President Obama moved to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” but took it painfully slowly, commissioning studies that dragged on for a year or more, keeping discriminatory hiring in the military the law of the land. Violence continues to flourish (2011 was a record year for anti-gay hate crimes), and gay youth are still disproportionately suicidal and homeless.

Even the new visibility of gays in our public square of pop­ular culture is limited in numbers and delimited in terms of race and class. Too often, in our film and TV images, gays are narrowly depicted as either desexualized or oversexualized, making of gay sex­uality either the sum total of a character’s identity or, alternately, the unspoken absence. Gay characters are squeezed into these and other simple oppositions, shown as nonthreatening and campy “others” or equally comforting and familiar boys (and they usually are boys, not girls) next door. Needless to say, this new gay visibility is largely white, monied, and male.

So which is the real America? Is it Modern Family (beloved by both 2012 presidential candidates) and blissfully united gay couples surrounded by loving kith and kin? Or is it kids jumping off bridges, pushed to the brink by a callous culture? Or, yet again, is gayness now so “post-” that it has morphed into that ultimate sign of hipness: mockery? Now pro-gay comedians such as Jon Stewart can say “that’s so gay” on The Daily Show, and his hip audience laughs knowingly because homophobia is seen as firmly rooted in the past, as archaic as those angry queers resisting arrest at the Stonewall bar in 1969.

The answer is all of the above. Would that it was clear-cut and simple, but the trajectory of gay visibility (and gay rights more broadly) is not a singular and linear narrative of progress and vic­tory. Nor is it a depressing story of no movement at all. As the late British literary theorist Raymond Williams wrote, the new or the current always maintains “residual” traces of the past, not simply as “the past” but reformulated and refigured through the structures of the new. In other words, it’s a complicated story.

So perhaps we can broadly characterize it like this: the first stage of gay visibility (really up until the explosions of the late 1960s) was marked either by absence, coded and subterranean images, or the pathos of abject stereotypes. The second phase, in the late ’80s and early ’90s — spurred by social movements, Hollywood niche market­ing, commodification, and disease — irrevocably brought gays out of the closet but into the problematic space of public spectacle, a space to finally be seen but not necessarily to be known in any meaning­ful way. And now, it might be that we are in a third phase: a phase of banal inclusion, normalization, assimilation, and everyday unre­markable queerness in which tolerance seems finally achieved. But is a tolerant America what we — that is, gay and straight alike — really want? Or, put another way, is it all that we want? Is mainstream­ing — acceptance and tolerance — the beginning of the march toward true inclusion? Or might tolerance be its premature end? And what does tolerance mean? Does inclusion mean the end of “gay culture” itself? Is tolerance not the benign endgame of liberal societies but instead the trap that keeps those same societies from becoming more deeply liberal and more truly inclusive?


Reprinted with permission from The Tolerance Trap by Suzanna Danuta Walters and published by the New York University Press, 2016.