Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Beyond tolerance


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The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, by Suzanna Danuta Walters (NYU Press, $29.95)

With all the excitement following the end of the military's DADT and the Supreme Court decisions validating same-sex marriage, it would seem the gay rights movement has succeeded. According to some commentators, we are now living in a post-gay era. Not so fast, argues Suzanna Walters in her engaging sociological analysis. LGBT people are in danger of settling for "an illusion of progress that is rooted in a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a deep claim for full citizenship, civil rights, and inclusion." In her nuanced examination punctuated with snarky wit and biting polemic, Walters critiques the idea of tolerance. The late Middle English origins of the word "tolerate" mean "to bear pain and hardship." The word implies something negative, so if we say we tolerate homosexuality, there is something wrong about it. Also, this leaves mainstream institutions and practices unchanged. The book aims to refute tolerance as the path to real change for LGBT people. Walters makes a convincing case that while there has been monumental change for LGBT rights in the last 15 years, we still have a long way to go.

Walters recognizes the complexities of our times. Yes, queer youth have sexual freedom, but gay teenagers are still being bullied. Why does anti-gay hatred still persist? If coming out is satirized as "so last year," why are so many gay people still in the closet? The glass is half-full and half-empty. Walters writes we are now in a period of "banal normalization, assimilation, and everyday, unmemorable queerness." But is that all there is? Do we want to be part of a straight society that is not as inclusive as it pretends to be?

Walters is willing to throw out uncomfortable questions, but won't settle for superficial answers. For example, she wonders whether LGBT kids are coming out younger because there now exist relatively safe places and access to information via the Internet. But is the Internet altering the very process of coming out? Does not being able to face the fears of possible rejection, familial displacement, and discrimination "strip us all of the need to develop vibrant public queer spaces, as well as social solidarity?"

Walters also raises concerns about biological determinism. Those who believe homosexuality is innate are more accepting of gay rights. Walters critiques this science for small sample size, unsubstantiated generalizations, essentialist notions of gender difference, and asymmetry, epitomized by the two most famous gay studies, those of Simon LeVay (an extra-large hypothalamus) and Dean Hamer (the gay gene). A religious version of this ideology, "God made me this way," emphasizes that homosexuality is not a choice. Yet don't we know many gay people who find members of the opposite sex attractive? Does this make them less gay? The implication is that sexuality is impervious to decisions we make to shape it. Should choice be central to discussions of civil rights? Even if the biological argument is used to promote civil rights, couldn't it just as easily be used to support eugenic policies, such as aborting fetuses harboring a gay gene? Why people are LGBT should not determine our response. Regardless of etiology, we deserve equal rights.

Walters characterizes gay marriage "as the perfect Trojan horse for the tolerance trap, sneaking in retrograde ideas in the guise of simple civil rights advances." Gay marriage dominates but also crowds out other battles in gay rights, such as ENDA, which arguably affects more LGBT people than marriage equality. Should one have to marry to have one's family supported legally? What about the nuclear family's sexual inequality and gender rigidity? There is the possibility that same-sex marriage might change the institution by providing an example of the equal sharing of responsibilities of married life. But if we "make marriage the brass ring of civic inclusion, we risk consigning a utopian vision of sexual and gender/power freedom to the dustbin of history," as well as ignoring new models of gay kinship, created families of choice, that challenge traditional heterosexual values.

Many of the questions Walters raises are thorny ones. At the root of these issues is the question of whether the purpose of gay culture is to reproduce the social features of heterosexual mores, or to provide a template that can challenge both LGBTs and straight people to imagine a more inclusive future. But even if we disagree with some of Walters' positions, perhaps we can usher in a "new paradigm for civil rights that champions authenticity over conformity, self-expression over both institutional and internal policing." At this critical juncture in LGBT history, we ignore Walters' stinging question at our peril: Do we dare deny the unique genius in being queer?

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