“We tolerate, in other words, that which we would rather avoid”

Suzanna Danuta Walters in The Chronicle Review warns against “rose-colored” triumph narratives about the acceptance of homosexuality. “Tolerance,” she reminds readers, used to mean “the ability to bear pain and hardship.”

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. 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.

But here’s the rub: If there is nothing problematic about something—say, homosexuality—then there is really nothing to tolerate. We don’t speak of tolerating great sex 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, that which we would rather avoid. Tolerance is not an embrace but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust.

We should also, she cautions, be honest about what gay marriage portends for children. Dismiss anodyne assurances that these marriages are the same as straight ones:

Shouldn’t we argue, instead, that our progeny would/could grow up with more expansive and creative ways of living gender and sexuality? Shouldn’t we argue that same-sex marriage might make us all think differently about the relationship between domestic life and gender norms and push heterosexuals to examine their stubborn commitment to a gendered division of labor?

“Expansive and creative” is a rather bland phrase too. I’mm reminded of a sentence from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: “like” and “equal” are not the same.

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