Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tolerance

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To mark the long-overdue repeal of the repugnant “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy yesterday, I’m posting an essay that I’ve had in my “Draft” folder for quite some time.

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I am so glad that I have finally moved beyond my upbringing in matters of gender. I was taught that anything other than straight male and female people, and anything other than straight sex between a husband and wife was wrong, perverted, selfish, etc.

During my college years, I saw for the first time that there was more to sex than straight men and women, and that there was a whole range of expressive sexuality that I had not even imagined. It seemed interesting, but it had nothing to do with me. I was outside it, above it, not touched by it.

I recall with shame an incident from when I was about 18, around 1978. A college friend, a young gay man, was out and dealing with bigotry on all sides. I remember feeling all noble because I was so “open-minded” that I could be “tolerant” of his homosexuality. I actually said to him, “Well, of course I can't condone your behavior, but I can be tolerant of your lifestyle,” or some such shit. I couldn't understand why he was so hurt, especially when, considering my upbringing, this was a rather progressive stance on my part, and I was rather proud of myself for being so modern. He should have been grateful for my tolerance of his behavior!

Years later, my ignorant, self-centered remark to that young man still haunts me, and I actually blush with shame to think of it. Only years later, when I could accept and affirm that there is great variety in human sexuality, and that it is on a sort of continuum, and that (when there is joyful consent) there is no blame or fault or badness attached to any point on that continuum — well, then I realized how awful I had been. Of course, by then, it was too late to apologize. I’ve borne the burden of that regret and shame for more than thirty years.

Over the three decades since then, of course, I have had a chance to get to know a rich diversity of people. The scales finally fell completely from my eyes about six years ago, when I joined a richly diverse community, I did a lot more reading, and, most importantly, I did my best to guide a child through adolescence and into young adulthood. I was determined to raise her as a person who would accept and affirm people who are different than she is, and as a result, I had to examine my own attitudes and prejudices, and discard what is inhuman, and unfair, and selfish. She has developed into a humanist of the first order, and I continue to learn from her about the richness of life. (xo!)

And I also had to ask myself, as she approached adolescence: “What if she turns out to be gay? What will I do?” The answer came to me instantly: “Love her, of course!” And therein lies the truth: If I was ready to love and accept and support her without hesitation, why wouldn’t I extend the same affirmation to any LGBT person?

You know, I’ve grown to despise that word “tolerance” when it is applied to humans and human relations. We tolerate mosquitoes, and damp socks, and a slow computer. Tolerance is hateful and mean and narrow-minded and limiting. It caters to our own sense of self; we tolerate things, or situations, or people when they are inconvenient, or when they make us uncomfortable.

Though I have never, to my knowledge, committed any outwardly bigoted acts or said intentionally hurtful things, I realize now that I have enabled bigotry through my silence. I have limited my own life experience by failing to venture out of the narrow confines of my earlier ignorant mind. I’ve probably missed out on a lot of good relationships, and worse, may have hurt people or somehow limited their opportunities.

So Richard B, all these years later – I’m sorry. I’ve tried to make up for my ignorance and small-mindedness then, by speaking up, and speaking out, and continuing to learn, and voting properly now, to expand and strengthen and equalize human and civil rights, including marriage equality, for all people.

When we strengthen rights and opportunities for any segment of society, we strengthen them for all.

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Hmm... I guess I won’t discard that “tolerance” word altogether. We still need that word, as in “I will not tolerate bigotry, cruelty, or narrow-mindedness.”

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad that you took this out of your "draft" file and shared it! I think most of us have "Richard B" moments that make us cringe. Bigotry has many faces, and some of them we can only see in retrospect. But, like you, we can all learn from them and become more human.

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  2. Oh my - I have just discovered that you have started writing again! I have checked Quodlibet often, hoping, hoping, and now I have a great backlog of reading to catch up on!

    Regarding this post, I just read a fascinating book on the subject of sexual differences titled "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" - got it from the library, and heartily recommend it.

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