Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Yes, It Is So Gay

Back to The Tolerance Trap for a moment.  (That title annoys me; to someone of my generation, anyway, it's reminiscent of a Disney movie from the days when their live-action films were B-grade at best; or a Fifties sort-of sex comedy.  But maybe it's Just Me.)

I'm still bogged down in the introduction.  It occurred to me that, so far, Suzanna Danuta Walters hasn't actually quoted anyone who says that tolerance is the be-all and end-all of the gay movement.  I checked the endnotes too.  Maybe she will later, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that she give an example or two at the outset.  If "most gay people and their allies" are really putting tolerance first, at the expense of equality and rights, there should be plenty of quotations to choose from.  As I noted when I quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in the previous post on this book, "tolerance," "acceptance," "equality," "rights" and suchlike are part of the vocabulary of modern American movements for social justice.  To determine what role a given concept plays as a movement's goal, one must examine how it's actually used.  And as I also noticed, to claim that "rights" and "equality" have been sidelined by "tolerance" in today's gay movement is a bit silly at a time when "Marriage Equality" is so prominent a buzzword.

I notice too that Walters keeps linking "tolerance and acceptance" as though they were somehow equivalent.  (So does the sociologist Michael Kimmel in his blurb for the book.)  It seems to me that they're more like opposites.  As Walters also writes:
It doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it’s wrong in some way.  To say you “tolerate” homosexuality is to imply that homosexuality is bad or immoral or even just benignly icky, like that exotic food you just can’t bring yourself to try.  
That’s not quite right, though.  Rather, it’s to imply that you think homosexuality is bad or immoral, etc.  Quite a few people still do.
You are willing to put up with (to tolerate) this nastiness, but the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with.  We don’t speak of tolerating pleasure or a good book or a sunshine-filled day.  We do, however, take pains to let others know how brave we are when we tolerate the discomfort of a bad back or a nasty cold.  We tolerate the agony of a frustratingly banal movie that our partner insisted on watching and are thought the better for it.  We tolerate, in other words, what we would rather avoid.  Tolerance is not an embrace ...
(Oh? then why does Walters conflate it with acceptance?)
... but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust [4].
She has a point, of course; it's one that has often been made before.  (Walters quotes some rather famous lines from Jean Cocteau's queer novella Livre Blanc as an epigraph to the book, for example: I'm not willing just to be tolerated.  That wounds my love of love and of liberty.)  But I think she's missing the point of the appeal to tolerance in political and social life.  For one thing, it's about power, not morality: the less powerful asks the more powerful for tolerance.  As for acceptance, I'll return to that presently; remind me if I forget.

True, to ask to be tolerated is to accept, provisionally at least, a negative evaluation of one's condition, to concede that the persons from whom one is asking tolerance disapprove of one.  Sometimes that's the best one can hope for.  But it's not necessarily to agree that one's condition is bad.  Consider another case where toleration has historically been asked and counseled, namely religion.  It isn't realistic to ask for an embrace of unpopular religious beliefs and practices and affiliations, since one of the perks of religious belief in a pluralistic society is the right to look down on one's neighbor's religion.  We don't expect Catholics to embrace Protestants or vice versa, or Christians to embrace Jews or Muslims or neopagans or vice versa, or any of them to approve of atheists.  What we do expect and require is that people don't try to make different sects illegal, or discriminate in certain spheres against their members, or kidnap and forcibly baptize their children, or burn down their churches, synagogues or mosques with the congregations locked inside -- even though such treatment was claimed as proper and indeed obligatory in the days when people took religion seriously.  As I've argued before, today's religious freedom has made necessary (or perhaps been enabled by) a decreasing fanaticism, because in order to keep others from persecuting them, religious believers have been obliged not to persecute others.  You need not agree with your neighbor's beliefs, you may indeed abhor them, and you are free to denounce them privately or publicly, but you must tolerate his or her right to worship in peace.

While most people don't think of religion per se as a bad thing, like that nasty exotic dish you don't want to try, they still feel free to hate specific other religions, including other denominations or sects within the same main tradition.  Sometimes the bitterest denunciations arise from what seem to outsiders like trivial differences, but they aren't trivial to the principals involved.  (Remember that the young Israeli girls who were attacked by ultra-orthodox Jewish men for supposedly dressing like whores were themselves Orthodox, dressed much more "modestly" than most American girls their age; but that tiny difference was enough to inspire hateful fury, as if they'd said "nukular" or put an "h" where it didn't belong.)  In the US, formal religious equality and the prohibition of discrimination based on religion certainly don't require members of different religions to accept or approve or embrace or love each other; but they must tolerate each other.  The political philosopher Michael Neumann has written:
Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
I've quoted this passage to a number of people, most of whom don't seem to get it.  To many people it seems important to have someone of whom they think it's legitimate to beat them or put them in jail or drive them from their homes simply because of who they are.  They don't actually do this most of the time, for fear of getting in trouble, but they like to fantasize about it.  So tolerance in any meaningful sense is still, I contend, a worthwhile aim in many cases, and too often a utopian ideal.  I want a good deal more, or other, than mere tolerance, but it's certainly part of what I want, not only as a gay man but as an intellectual and an atheist.

Whether homosexuality is a case like religion, I don't know.  But when I was growing up, demanding to be tolerated was a good starting place for us: not to be attacked in the streets by police or by other citizens, not to be fired from our jobs, not to be thrown out of our families, not to have our meeting places and businesses raided or vandalized -- just to be allowed to live our lives without government persecution was a radical demand.  Times have changed, but toleration is more than many gay people get in the US to this day, as Walters admits.  She's very critical of what she says "most gay people and their allies" claim:
Most gays and their allies think that we have essentially won the culture wars and that gay visibility in popular culture is a sign of substantive gay progress.  Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced.  Most gays and their allies believe that if those who are anti-gay just got to know us as their PTA-going neighbors, they would love us.  Most gays and their allies believe that we are almost there, we can see the end of the tunnel, where a rainbow world of warm inclusion awaits us [4].
She then lists a number of stories that show just bad the lives of many American gay people still are, in contrast to what "most gays and their allies think".  But I heard such stories from the assimilationist gay movement Walters dislikes: the harassment, the bullying, the suicides.  "Most gays and their allies" may very well exaggerate for rhetorical purposes how much progress we've made, but they also, from what I see, stress how far we have to go.  I've argued before that the movement tends to romanticize gay youth suicide, and that the born-gay claim goes with a stance of suffering and martyrdom. (On the other hand, Walters seems not to have noticed that many anti-assimilationist gays claim that we were born this way too.  The claim itself is neither radical nor reactionary; it's just false.)

Maybe Walters will manage later in The Tolerance Trap to reconcile these realities with her caricature of the movement in the introduction, but it's obviously false as it stands.  When she writes, "This book takes on the illusion of progress that is rooted in a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a deep claim for full civil rights" (3), I cannot take her seriously.  Is it a "goal of tolerance and acceptance" (again, notice the conflation and confusion of two very different goals) or a "watered-down" version that she objects to?  But she herself acknowledges that progress has been made, that things have changed -- for the better in many ways -- for gay people in the United States in the last four or five decades; it is not an illusion.  We still have a long way to go, and we don't really know what the goal is, what a good society will look like, but saying that change has occurred is not saying that we have won everything we wanted or needed.  An intelligent, informed critique of the mainstream gay movement is always needed, but Walters is attacking a straw movement here.

The subtitle of The Tolerance Trap is How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality.  (Good intentions?  Oh noes!  We've got to get rid of those right away!)  "Equality" is as troublesome a word and concept as "tolerance," and it doesn't tell me much about what Walters believes the goal of the gay movement properly should be.  (That's leaving aside the detail that the gay movement already embraces "equality" as its goal.)  Many people confuse equality with sameness, just as Walters confuses tolerance and acceptance.  Political and legal equality, protected by Civil Rights acts, is a valid goal for a movement which demands social justice, but it's not the be-all and end-all any more than tolerance is, even if the Civil Rights laws are well-enforced, which they generally are not.  Civil Rights are themselves only a subset of legal rights, and what one can claim legally only is a small part of what a person needs for a full, satisfying life.  Equality beyond that narrow domain is even less clear to me.

I've been wrestling for some time with the issue of marginalization.  Many people talk as though they believe we could have a society in which no one was marginalized.  I don't think it's possible, as a logical or an empirical possibility.  Remember this story about a student who tried to block prayer at his commencement.  "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  I suppose I sympathize, but the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the right not to feel "like an outcast" -- rather the opposite.  Nor should it. I have the right to espouse and express unpopular beliefs, but I do not have the right to be agreed with.  As a social species, human beings are likely to regard eccentric or minority ideas or styles or behavior to be weird or uncool.  Some human beings like the idea of being different from the mass of "sheeple," though they often exaggerate just how different they are; others hate the idea of not being like everyone else, no matter how different they are, and there's no way to reassure them that they aren't different when they know (and everybody else knows) they are.

Whether a given difference is good or bad is a question for judgment.  Whether a difference should be tolerated or celebrated -- or excluded and punished -- can't be decided in advance: it can only be decided after consideration.  Walters recognizes this when she writes that "there are limits to tolerance -- as there should be.  Most of us are intolerant of brutal acts of random violence or equally brutal acts of state violence such as rape as a tool of war" (10).  This is, come to think of it, an odd remark: why only "rape as a tool of war" (which is a biblical value after all), and not the routine, official violence of shooting, bombing, and other destruction of life and property in war?  Maybe because many people are quite tolerant of state violence in war and peace, as long as it's directed at those who supposedly deserve it,

One proper function of a gay movement, like any other movement for social justice, is to advocate and argue for certain conclusions of these judgments: why tolerance, why acceptance, why celebration of our differences from the majority of from each other.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that as the gay movement grew, it aspired to mainstream positions and status.  (The professionalization of the movement, with its attendant stratification and corruption, seems to me at least as important a problem as "God, genes, and good intentions."  It'll be interesting to see what if anything Walters has to say about that, since as Director of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies and Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University, she's part of the phenomenon herself.)

I believe that acceptance is as valid a goal for the movement as equality, rights, and freedom from discrimination.  It must, of course, be distinguished from tolerance, which is also valid but is not the same thing.  There's been a great (though not total) increase in acceptance of gay people by families and American society as a whole, which has gone in hand with our increased visibility.  We stopped collaborating by pretending we weren't there, and demanded that our presence be acknowledged.   (Again, not all of us did this, and not all at once.)  Whether we brought this change about by our actions and speech, or whether it was a result of other changes like the changing status of women (also not complete), no one knows.  We don't know why or how cultures change, any more than we know why language changes.

It's also important to remember that different gay people want different things from their lives.  Some of us want to be included and valued by our families; others want to escape from them.  Some of us want to Be Like Everybody Else (even if we have some strange ideas about what Everybody is like); others are content to be different, to be outsiders or even outcasts, but you can't be an outsider without an inside to leave.  I don't think there's any one goal the movement should have; if we really want difference to be embraced, we have to embrace differences in the movement.  I'm curious to see if Walters has anything useful to say about these questions.  But she's off to a bad start.