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Tolerance, not Approval

Published in The ADVOCATE magazine (October 9th 2001)

In early August, when The New York Times ran an article about supposedly controversial me, my parents were a little less than pleased. They were proud, of course, but a tad taken aback by the word lesbian appearing in big, black letters in connection with my name in the ‘paper of record’. As my father so indelicately put it, "It’s one thing to come out. It’s another to come out in Macy’s window." Naturally this meant, as they went on to tell me, that although they’d been nothing less than supportive of my sexual preference for the better part of a decade, they hadn’t told their friends that I was a euphemism—or at least not, as they say, "in so many words."

The interesting thing about all this is not that my parents are still a bit embarrassed by my lesbianism but that this doesn’t make them silent bigots. Deep down, they don’t approve, and that’s OK, because there’s a big difference between tolerance and approval, and I have no right to expect or demand the latter from anyone.

Let me explain the difference. Many queers insist that the rest of the world view them as peers and approach them in an "I’m OK, you’re OK" sort of way. This is understandable but neither realistic nor fair. Here’s the thing: it’s nice when people think you’re dandy just the way you are. That’s approval, and it feels good. We’ve all wanted that, especially from our parents, since toddler-hood. But do we have a right to expect it?

After all, are we just as willing to approve of everyone else, including, to pick a few obvious hot buttons, the Christian right, the NRA, or NAMBLA? Not usually. And why should we? In a free society there’s no such thing as mind control, nor should there be. But that’s exactly what we’re attempting when we try to impose approval of our lifestyle, beliefs and choices on other people. It’s invasive and it’s illiberal. It’s also a boomerang. You and I, for example, may not like the Christian right, the NRA or NAMBLA. But if we’re committed to fairness, we recognize their right to exist and express themselves freely. At the same time, however, we reserve our right to disapprove of them. With certain obvious exceptions—e.g. outlawing murder, theft, fraud, assault—we don’t get to tell anyone else how to live, and no one gets to tell us what to think. That’s tolerance, and it’s the most anyone is entitled to.

This distinction applies to discrimination and hate-crimes laws too. Every gay person has a right to equal treatment under the law. This means not being fired, evicted, etc., simply for being gay. That’s tolerance. But hate crimes get into mind-control territory: every crime is a hate crime and is punishable by law. Attaching special penalties to crimes committed by homophobes only reinforces the notion that lesbians and gays want so-called special rights—that crimes committed against them are somehow more heinous. It also communicates their apparent desire to police other people’s thoughts by penalizing the prejudices of the criminal rather than the crime itself.

So, you see, my parents, like most of the rest of society, tolerate me; they don’t approve of me and never will. And that’s fine. I’m an adult. I don’t need unconditional approval anymore.

If the gay movement is to grow out of its adolescence, it too has to move beyond the puerile need for approval and graduate to the more sensible appeal for and practice of tolerance.

If we can’t even tolerate disagreement in our own community—and The New York Times article on me, which spoke of the "rage" my opinion pieces provoke, is a pretty good indication that we can’t—then how can we expect the rest of the world to tolerate us, much less approve of us? If Dr. Laura or anyone else believes that we’re a biological mistake or that we’re sinners, so be it. That’s their belief and they’re entitled to it, just as we’re entitled to our belief that Dr. Laura is a charlatan. We agree to disagree. What’s more, in a pluralistic society, we learn to respect that disagreement, even cultivate it civilly.

There is a middle ground between adulation and homophobia, and unless you’re perpetually 12 years old, you can’t go through life believing that everyone who doesn’t sing your praises is out to get you.


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