American LGBT Tolerance

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


| July 2017



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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.