Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mere Tolerance

Over at Religion Dispatches, Cody J. Sanders, a Baptist minister and PhD student in Pastoral Theology and Counseling, explores the issue of tolerance.

What I appreciate about this piece is that he questions the notion that tolerance (as opposed to affirmation) is a benign alternative, compared to Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, for Christians to deal with homosexuality and gay people. He writes:

"Focus on the Family has even launched a project called True Tolerance to address sexuality (i.e. 'homosexual advocacy') and bullying (i.e. 'deceptive' anti-bullying initiatives) in schools.

All of this talk about 'tolerance' scares me. More than Westboro’s vitriolic speech that is obviously hateful (e.g. signs that read 'God Hates Fags'), these advocates for tolerance toward LGBT persons have me more than a bit concerned.

They concern me because people generally like this talk about tolerance—a lot. Practicing tolerance seems like a virtuous striving in our quest to 'get along.' But talk about 'tolerance' sounds different based on one’s position in the conversation. The talk takes on particular meaning depending on whether one is doing the tolerating or being tolerated. To queer ears, tolerance doesn’t seem like such a gift.

What exactly does it mean to be tolerated? Those who were once persecuted are later tolerated. Those who were once treated with violence are now allowed to exist in an atmosphere of “beneficent” tolerance. Tolerance says, 'You shouldn’t be here, but I’ll allow you to exist.' We commit ourselves to overlooking the offense, the annoyance, the violation to our senses caused by the things and people we merely tolerate. Indeed, toleration is no gift to the tolerated."

I am reminded of a conversation my partner had with one of her relatives. It went like this.

Partner: Pastor Bob thinks homosexuality is wrong. That hurts my feelings.

Relative: But Bob isn't mean to you or anything. So, just as he tolerates you, you have to tolerate him and his religious beliefs.

Partner: [stares, blankly].

When benign-sounding phrases like "tolerance" are used against us to perpetuate oppression, it can feel very confusing. This false moral equation continually obfuscates how religious organizations have the institutional power and moral capital to declare queer lives and lifestyles undignified and have that be accepted as Absolute Truth, a power that most queer individuals do not possess. Sanders continues:

"...[T]here are various levels of nuance to the message that LGBT people are unacceptable to God, and these often pass under the guise of tolerance. One of the most pervasive is the notion of 'welcoming but not affirming.' It is the pinnacle of the soul-destroying practice of theologized tolerance that says, 'You are welcome to exist among us, but we cannot affirm the goodness, value, or worth of your life(style).' This is a particularly popular discourse among 'moderates' who rest proud that they aren’t like Westboro and for whom tolerance seems virtuous."

This is precisely why I actually prefer the rantings of the Phelps clan to some of the less extreme opponents of homosexuality and LGBT rights. Although Phelps, like more moderate anti-gays, oppose homosexuality with the approval of their own consciences, at least most reasonable people accept the proposition that there's something abhorrent about proclaiming "God Hates Fags." The same cannot be said about those for whom tolerance means "I won't call you a fag, but you're still inferior to heterosexuals," and that makes the so-called civil anti-gays more dangerous.

As admirable as it may be that some anti-gays think Phelps is abhorrent, I'm not sure they deserve cookies for mere toleration of queer existences.

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