I think about tolerance versus acceptance quite a bit. Tolerance is putting up with something we disagree with while acceptance is embracing a thing as right and proper. Both tolerance and acceptance are a continuum, not a yes/no, on/off, right/wrong. We can barely tolerate something or we can feel that in theory the “something” is fine and proper; it’s just not our particular cup of tea. Same is true of acceptance. I accept everyone’s universal right to view the world as we each see fit but I tend to embrace more fully views that parallel my own.
I also focus frequently on intellectual acceptance versus visceral. I find that the things I grew up believing are ingrained in my viscera; they are a part of my “gut feeling.” Intellectually, I reject many precepts and assumptions from my childhood but I understand that even though I recognize that the world view that my parents handed me is outdated and in opposition to how I think it still greatly influences how I feel about things. (“You can take a boy out of the country but you really can’t take country out of the boy. “)
For me, these two themes, tolerance versus acceptance and intellectual versus visceral knowledge, come into play frequently, especially in relation to sexual mores. My father defined as promiscuous anyone who had a sexual union outside of marriage; a value that, for biological, self-serving reasons, my adolescent self rejected as too restrictive.
I came of age before the scourge of HIV/AIDS was an international threat and I “knew” that STD’s (Or venereal diseases as they were known back in the day.) could be cured with a shot of penicillin. (Yet another example of outmoded thinking!) I accepted that “sleeping around” was bad both ethically and physically, but I rejected my parents’ ultra-conservative standard. By my father’s standard I was promiscuous but in the USA of the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties I was sexually conservative. (My marriage is traditional and I have been a monogamist for over thirty-five years.)
If the expectations I was exposed to concerning sexual relations between opposite sex couplings were conservative then those concerning same sex pairings were medieval. Homosexual actions were against the laws of God and nature and preventing these pairings from occurring was a legitimate arm of human law enforcement. Homosexuality was barely less destructive than pedophilia and, in fact, the two were intricately and inescapably tied to one another. How could it be otherwise? People come into the world as heterosexuals and it is only through predation by old queers that young boys are transformed from moral, upright, heterosexuals into sexual deviants that are gay. (And if you think that I exaggerate the conservative view toward homosexuality that pervaded the USA of my youth I assure you that I do not.)
These were the spoken and unspoken expectations that I learned as I lapped up Mother’s milk. I grew up in a world of intolerance, open bigotry, hatred and condemnation and I can assure you it left me scarred. Did I reject many of these “values”? I did. Am I free from them? Please refer to paragraph two.
For the record, I am still sexually conservative. I think the world would be a better place if a lot of us tried keeping it in our pants more. I “tolerate” the actions of those who have indiscriminate sexual encounters, (Though always with the caveat that I hope people are taking care of themselves and neither hurting nor lying to their partner(s).) I do not embrace those actions. Do I think that what two consenting adults do to and with one another in privacy is any of my business? No, I do not. Do I wish folks would show some restraint? Well, now we’re back to tolerance versus acceptance. What you do with your private parts is your business, not mine. I accept and embrace this idea but only tolerate the reality.
The area where I have made the most progress is in accepting same-sex couplings. The lowest level of tolerance is that “we” should leave “those” fags alone. The fact that men and women were (and still are) subjected to violence because homosexuality was deemed a capital offense (The term “fag” is a holdover from medieval times when homosexuals were burned at the stake. A faggot is a bundle of sticks; kindling with which to start a fire.) is unconscionable. Fortunately, I was never exposed to the idea that killing or beating homosexuals was an ethical action.
But I did have so many underlying prejudices against gays that it would take pages to enumerate them. To be gay was to be a pariah. To be labeled as gay a most terrible and egregious fate. I started from a position of bare tolerance and have slowly risen to acceptance and embrace. My reasons were intellectual, the need to treat others fairly and to act ethically: To live my life in accordance with the precept that all lives are worthy and that each of us must walk his own path. Head stuff that laid the groundwork for loving my gay friends; and I have a lot of them.
One of the greatest blessings of my life has been my involvement in theatre. Theatre has enriched me like nothing else and the cliché that theatre is filled with homosexuals is not hackneyed; it’s just true. (There’s also a lot of young people in theatre and here’s a news flash for you- young people tend to be both sexually active and unmarried.) When one works and plays side by side, arm in arm, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with “them” one tends to understand that love is love. I’m sounding pretty good now, ain’t I? Better stop here if you want a happy ending.
But I still feel that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality. I don’t “think” it, I “feel” it; and the reason I know that I feel this way is because when Savannah Ward, age twelve, made national news when she “came out” in front of her LDS congregation I thought, “Are you sure? Maybe it will pass. Just, give it some time,” a response I fear a lot of people had. And why did we, why did I, have this response? Because we have a basic, underlying feeling that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality.
Let me repeat, we, society as a whole, have a basic, underlying feeling that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality. If we didn’t feel that way then why would we want her to wait? Not wait to become sexually active, that is both an ethical and biological imperative, but rather to identify as gay.
If a child were born from two parents, one black and the other white, and she said that she viewed herself as black, as white or as mixed race few would question her feelings but with sexual preference, with something that is real and not merely a man-made construct such as race, many of us are uncomfortable.
In reality, we, the vast majority of old, bigoted, “allies” want children to be heterosexual. We have largely worked our way from bare minimum toleration of homosexuals to harmonious toleration and acceptance but until we view as normal a child’s realization that he is attracted to boys and she is attracted to girls as no different than boys being attracted to girls or vice-versa then we are not accepting and embracing, we’re just tolerating.
Even as we embrace the LGBTQ community in our heads we must also love them with our hearts. Not as second-class citizens, not as damaged goods, but as equals, because that is what they are and how we all should be perceived. I may have made a lot of progress in the preceding half-century but I sure have a long, long way to go.