« Unlearning Helplessness | Main | Feedback »

May 25, 2007

Tolerance Before Comfort

The distinction between being personally comfortable with gay people and being publicly supportive of their political rights is an important one. As Whippersnapper Zeitlin puts it, "we should try to cultivate [the idea] that someone can be 'uncomfortable' with gays in the private sphere, yet in the public sphere, he can advocate policies he knows are fair and promote social and legal equality, because he thinks these values are important." Comfort with a lifestyle you don't understand cannot be legislated, it can only be learned. But equal rights can be legislated, and it would be powerful indeed for the ideal of tolerance to be judged inviolable enough that it is upheld even by those who haven't yet arrived at a place of personal acceptance.

May 25, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

If you start off from the premise as you have set it up, then you start from the premise which is doomed to fail. Politics is as much about passion as reason. Trying to divorce the two seems like a recipe for why the GOP beats the Democrats. The best approach is to not frame this as "well you can dislike them personally, but still respect their rights" and instead make it about a different set of moral imperatives than have been the structure of public discourse thus far.

Posted by: akaison | May 25, 2007 10:05:12 AM

"we should try to cultivate [the idea] that someone can be 'uncomfortable' with gays in the private sphere, yet in the public sphere, he can advocate policies he knows are fair and promote social and legal equality, because he thinks these values are important." Comfort with a lifestyle you don't understand cannot be legislated, it can only be learned.

All one must do is substitute the perversion of choice for the word "gay" in this exerpt, and you have the position of many, many other groups.

Here's NAMBLA's mission statement:

building understanding and support for such relationships;
educating the general public on the benevolent nature of man/boy love;
cooperating with lesbian, gay, feminist, and other liberation movements;
supporting the liberation of persons of all ages from sexual prejudice and oppression.

They, too, believe that they are unjustly reviled and want in the club. Of course, there's always zoofiles who have been in the news lately and the ever popular Polygamists.

What is amazing is that Zeitlin is able to circumvent his common sense and gut feeling concerning only the homosexuals, but not the other groups 'yearning to breathe free'. He, and others like him, wish to open the door, just enough, to let in the homoseuxals, and then slam the door on everyone else. It makes no sense. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

What possible reason can he put forth that would grant homosexuals privileged status, but not polygamists? That is the question that has not been answered and why this argument is a crock.


Posted by: Fred Jones | May 25, 2007 10:11:51 AM

I wish more people would make this point, actually-- there are tons of [non-coercive and/or -abusive] proclivities, decisions, and general cultural preferences of which I disapprove, but that doesn't mean I'm so self-absorbed that I expect society to protect me from having to deal with them, either. Any discomfort I feel is my problem, not others', and my job is to be a grownup and learn to deal with the larger world on its terms, not mine... it wouldn't hurt us to note that public tolerance is not really meant to wipe out discomfort in individuals so much as it is to keep those feelings at a rational distance from their objects.

Posted by: latts | May 25, 2007 10:25:55 AM

I didn't finish my last post- here is the full version:

If you start off from the premise as you have set it up, then you start from the premise which is doomed to fail. Politics is as much about passion as reason. Trying to divorce the two seems like a recipe for why the GOP beats the Democrats. The best approach is to not frame this as "well you can dislike them personally, but still respect their rights" and instead make it about a different set of moral imperatives than have been the structure of public discourse thus far. When you begin to attack the underlying moral imperative- as groups like Soulforce and Truth Win Out- are doing- you begin to win the public policy debate. This is what the lessons of visibility of the last few years have been. The more Americans who know or are used to gays, the more they accept them.

By the way- if people want to have a good discussion on this please ignore Fred.

Posted by: akaison | May 25, 2007 10:31:13 AM

Discomfort with gay people is generally a sign of ignorance (as in not really understanding how many people are gay and in fact you most likely know some)and insecurity (often a trait among young men who are establishing their sense of masculinity). After college I moved to DC, which has a vibrant gay community (and no, not all of them are closeted Republicans)and I ended up having openly gay people as neighbors and work colleagues which completely demystified the issue of gayness. As I got older I met numerous gay people in deeply committed relationships, who were good people, good neighbors and friends, and in several instances, wonderful and committed parents.

Gay people are not looking for special rights. They are looking to be treated like the rest of us, who can own property jointly with our spouses, receive the same tax breaks, cover our spouses under our medical insurance, give survivor benefits under our pension plans, make medical decisions when our partners are unable to, and so on. There are so many instances under law where married people are privileged that it would be impossible to list them all. But gay people run into these obstacles in their lives on a very frequent basis. Witness the inability of the Vice Presdient's grandchild to have two legal parents in the State of Virginia.

Some day we will look back on the treatment of gay people and as a society feel foolish and ashamed in the way that most normal people now feel about segregation and anti-miscegantion laws. But of course there will always be ignorant clowns like Fred and the party of closeted gays, perverts and meth fiends we call the GOP. Probably not much hope there.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | May 25, 2007 11:05:56 AM

i continue to be shocked at how many people profess to be entirely free of prejudice and racism, and when their veneer is scratched, there it is, like a blister, rising to the surface.
...it is hard to know, how in this day and age, we cant see beyond orientations and skin color, and look beyond that, to the character and heart of a person.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 25, 2007 11:20:05 AM

In all fairness, Jacqueline, character and heart are both invisible -- unless you've done some serious violence to a person.

But I digress. I think this perspective is, in the shadows, already fairly popular. It's the argument I use with most people I know -- and in Indiana, this definitely comes up with some regularity -- and it's been fairly effective. My mom wouldn't watch Brokeback Mountain because she was icked out by the possibility of gay sex -- which, in all fairness, I didn't enjoy tremendously myself -- but she supports gay marriage in spite of her otherwise sterling conservative credentials. I managed to convince a Catholic friend to look at it the same way -- with some help from our liberal university system, of course.

It's the classic challenge of society. How do I put up with things I don't like?

Well, you get over yourself.

Posted by: Mike Meginnis | May 25, 2007 11:55:37 AM

In all fairness, Jacqueline, character and heart are both invisible -- unless you've done some serious violence to a person.

But I digress. I think this perspective is, in the shadows, already fairly popular. It's the argument I use with most people I know -- and in Indiana, this definitely comes up with some regularity -- and it's been fairly effective. My mom wouldn't watch Brokeback Mountain because she was icked out by the possibility of gay sex -- which, in all fairness, I didn't enjoy tremendously myself -- but she supports gay marriage in spite of her otherwise sterling conservative credentials. I managed to convince a Catholic friend to look at it the same way -- with some help from our liberal university system, of course.

It's the classic challenge of society. How do I put up with things I don't like?

Well, you get over yourself.

Posted by: Mike Meginnis | May 25, 2007 11:58:43 AM

Ezra -- being gay is not a "lifestyle" ... living in the suburbs is a lifestyle ... it is a life. Until our friends GET this fully, we are never going to reach the mushy middle-- forget about the rabid right ... they can't be reached until someone important in their life is gay, e.g. Dick Cheny, who manages to carve out some compassion in this one sphere of the civil rights movement ... beneath contempt! Come on Ezra, you can do better.

Posted by: WestCoast Wizard | May 25, 2007 12:22:07 PM

Legally, yes, this will have to be, just as miscegenation laws were struck down long before much of the public was comfortable with the idea of interracial couples. But I've seen my own parents go from discomfort with gay people to more or less comfortable acceptance (and no, neither I nor any of my siblings is gay), so I know it is possible and should not be abandoned as a cultural project. Twenty-five years ago it was still more or less culturally acceptable to be weirded out by interracial couples; in another twenty-five I expect gay couples to be just as unthreatening as interracial couples are now.

Posted by: Antid Oto | May 25, 2007 12:24:13 PM

I fully agree with Ezra that a moral/philosophical position that supports equality (with no special preferences asked or given) in the face of personal lack of understanding or comfort is the preferred and nearly-required in a diverse society, but I suspect through personal experience that without some personal contacts and experiences that people just can't raise above their base of feelings.

A key issue here is that without legal underpinning (job and housing non-discrimination, anti-violence laws, etc) many people don't get that personal experience because the minority community just withdraws into the closet or the background - thereby removing a potential enlightening set of encounters. So in some sense, the laws (and even exposure on TV and public places) is needed for folks to confront their established reactions and move to a different understanding based on human acceptance of difference.

Another way of thinking about this is to examine just one facet of the issue: job and housing non-discrimination. Without the law saying you can't discriminate, people can and will say 'homosexuality is a personal decision and I won't tolerate that 'immoral' choice'. The result is no contact with gays and lesbians on the job or in the community, unless the gays hide. And therefore existing attitudes never get challenged by the human contact that all so often changes perceptions. With laws and workplace policies in place that forbid discrimination, people are exposed and quite often find that their misperceptions and ingrained beliefs were unfounded.

Bottom line: both personal experiences and the law are mutually reinforcing. One without the other just doesn't work in most cases. Now, I recognize some people will never accept people with a sexual orientation that they can't bring themselves to understand - and that's fine, as long as that doesn't become the basis for public policy or private hateful or violent acts.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 25, 2007 12:45:55 PM

mike meginnis....
sorry to continue the digression, but what a strange statement you have made.

character and heart are invisible unless you have done serious violence to a person?
...i can think of multitudes of simple acts where character and heart reveal themselves everyday.
....and they dont include inflicting serious violence on another person.

maybe thinking that a person's character and heart are invisible unless you do serious violence to them is part of the whole problem.
if that is the case, i suppose we would never get a sense of others. and i dont believe that we cant sense the heart and character of other people.
that seems to me, how a reasonable person chooses their friends, mentors and forms their opinions and trust in others.
...do you have to inflict violence on someone before you make a decision as to the heart and character of an individual? how would you ever chosse to become close to someone if that would be the case?


Posted by: jacqueline | May 25, 2007 12:47:06 PM

See, 'cause a heart is in your guts.

Anyway I wrote a response to Fred Jones, who accidentally said something interesting, but it was too long, so it went here: http://mikemeginnis.com/wordpress/?p=614

Posted by: Mike Meginnis | May 25, 2007 12:52:02 PM

Is the opposite true as well? Is it possible to be personally comfortable with gay people and have nothing against them but feel that certain social institutions (such as marriage) shouldn't be trifled with?

I fully accept that a lot of people who don't like gay marriage don't like gays, and I also expect that a lot of people who don't like gays don't support gay rights. I am troubled though with those who use one position a 'proof' that the other position is held as well. Even if it is true in any given example, I doubt it is very productive.

(Just to be clear, I personally support gay marriage and also don't have a problem with gay friends)

Posted by: Dave Justus | May 25, 2007 1:05:53 PM

I think Ezra's right. There's no need to choose between promoting greater subjective comfort with gays, including insisting that it should be sought after as the normal feeling, and recognizing that we don't have to wait for that to make further progress through a more objective tolerance.

He, and others like him, wish to open the door, just enough, to let in the homoseuxals, and then slam the door on everyone else. It makes no sense.

Fred what makes sense to you is only what you want to make sense. This has been clearly explained to you many times. Every point you raise has been flatly refuted many times with no response from you but to switch to another point that's also already been refuted. You're unable to give any rational basis for your stance against homosexuality. Until you can, your position remains mere prejudice. That's a fact you just don't want to face. You'll just bring up another point that has already been refuted, or ignore it.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 25, 2007 1:11:59 PM

Part of the problem is the entire framing of the issue as one of "tolerance". This is a holdover from the days when the anglo-saxon, protestant domination of the US was openly accepted as normative. Back in the day, the plea was that we "tolerate" the presence of Catholics, Jews, Italians, Asians and Africans. Now we see this malicious and pernicious concept being saddled on the Gay community.

Citizens of the US have a right to more than a mean, degrading "toleration". They have a right to civic respect as equal members of the polity. Any limitation of their rights or dimunition of their status and dignity is impermissable absent overwhelming proof of its necessity. The onus for providing such proof lies with those who seek to degrade the status of their fellow citizens and deprive them of their dignity as human beings.

The blather about "tolerance" implies a privileged magnaminity and condescension repulsive to a free society of equals. Members of such societies have an absolute duty of respect towards the rights of their fellow citizens.

"Toleration" is simply a "kinder, gentler" bigotry.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | May 25, 2007 1:12:34 PM

Is the opposite true as well? Is it possible to be personally comfortable with gay people and have nothing against them but feel that certain social institutions (such as marriage) shouldn't be trifled with?

Sure it is, though more unusual, it seems.

WBR, that's a good point, but "tolerance" doesn't have to have those connotations.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 25, 2007 1:20:58 PM

Is the opposite true as well? Is it possible to be personally comfortable with gay people and have nothing against them but feel that certain social institutions (such as marriage) shouldn't be trifled with?

Yes, it's possible in the short term. In the long term, however, that hypothetical voter will have to choose between "trifling" with "certain institutions" and simply handing more political power and support to anti-gay bigots.

It's one of the reasons that gay-marriage advocates have time on their sides. As this drags out, those who might not be totally comfortable with gay marriage are going to want to avoid making common cause with the loud anti-gay bigots.

Posted by: Tyro | May 25, 2007 1:27:46 PM

Ezra said publicly supportive of political rights, which is an important distinction. There are plenty of voters and politicians who feel "personally comfortable" with [name a minority group], and don't really feel they should be denied rights, but aren't willing to stand up for them if there's anything to be gained or avoided by not doing so.

Rudy Giuliani, for instance, keeps getting credit for being "personally comfortable" with gay people, which makes him theoretically not a social conservative. And he stood up for their legal rights in state politics, where he had nothing to lose, and in NYC, where public opinion was with him... except for the St. Patrick's Day parade thing, where he risked directly confronting a constituency he wanted to hold onto. All of a sudden, banning gay groups was an inconsequential matter of personal belief and Rudy had no problem marching in the parade. He isn't particularly terrible in that regard, it's just sadly common political behavior.

Posted by: Hob | May 25, 2007 2:33:40 PM

Ezra is absolutely right that "it would be powerful indeed for the ideal of tolerance to be judged inviolable enough that it is upheld even by those who haven't yet arrived at a place of personal acceptance."

Yet in an ideal world I would rather support and vote for politicians who are enthusiastic about gay people and their (our) rights. But it is counter-productive to the gay rights movement to dismiss those, like Edwards, who come to the right policy conclusions despite their personal feelings, since an awful lot of Americans (unfortunately) share them. That doesn't mean I'm going to be gung-ho about Edwards, and gay Americans do deserve better.

Incidentally, I'd also rather support a presidential candidate who supports marriage equality, which none of the frontrunners do. But if the eventual Democratic nominee came out in favour of gay marriage, they would be less likely to win the presidency, thus putting a Republican in charge, which would be a significantly worse outcome for gays and straights alike on a host of gay and non-gay issues.

Posted by: moo_cow | May 25, 2007 3:05:09 PM

a presidential candidate who supports marriage equality, which none of the frontrunners do.

An interesting observation, moo. Here we have multiple candidates of the arguably liberal party and yet none of them advocate queer "marriage".

Considering the fact that no major politicians (of either party) advocate what you are advocating, how can anyone consider your position anything but extreme and fringy?

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 25, 2007 3:56:37 PM

I know the point of this post is to argue that Edwards should not be eyed suspiciously by progressives for his statement of 'discomfort'. And of course attitudes cannot/should not be legislated.

But, how would we react if he had said he was uncomfortable with African Americans? Jews? If I felt some degree of discomfort with people in either of those two demographics, it would be a matter of personal shame. I'd sure as hell make sure that I got to know enough good people in those demographics until my own discomfort was gone.

And Edwards is a politician??? And freely admits to this discomfort?

I don't know if he actually said it or not...but if he did, we sure seem to be bending over backwards to excuse it.

Posted by: kchiker | May 25, 2007 5:22:09 PM

The last post is exactly right. There was a recent skit on a comedy sketch show in which two actors, one black and the other white, refused to kiss each other because they claimed they were uncomfortable kissing the other actor. Both actors were of the same gender. When the one actor said "I can't kiss you because of the" gay issue. Everyone looked relieved, but the other actor sighe as well by saying "thank god because I couldn't kiss you because are black. thank god we both dodged that one based on our convictions." or something like this. therein lies the flaw in the conversation. I remind people that there are still massive race issues in this country because people have never dealt with the underlying issues rather than throwing their hands up as if there is nothing tha can be done about it. we changed because it became unacceptable.

Posted by: akaison | May 25, 2007 5:32:24 PM

I think this would be one reason that perhaps we shouldn't start with the opinions of a 17 year old... we were all young once. P_art of what we're discussing here has to do with life experiences, and with maturing into an understanding of human nature we are not, necessarily, born with.

Unfortunately at this late stage of my life and this game, I don't have the time to wait. As a gay person, the discussion is of no use to me, absolutely none. I'll agree to whatever we need to, if it will get the job done... but all of this is beside the point - like it or not, there are gay people in the world. They are probably people around you that you may or may not know, and your "acceptance" or "tolerance" of them (NOT, as someone points out above, a "lifestyle") or not, doesn't make them go away.

As with women's issues, I think liberal straight men often want credit for not being quite as skeeved about gayness (or not as terribly chauvanistic) as, well, some trog right wing type (Hi Fred!), but no, that's not good enough. Either you're getting these things, or you're not. If you've got issues with gayness, yours or others, you need to work that shit out. Mouthing platitudes about "I can tolerate this, but not, you know, accept it" or some such, is largely nonsense. I'm sorry you're uncomfortable. That issue, unfortunately, is yours. And I don't - if we're talking about the political concerns of the gay community - really have time to make you more "comfortable."

And again, I don't know that we can reasonably expect a 17 year old to have the life experience to really understand what he's dredging up here.

God, I start to sound like those old rad fags I met when I first came out. Now I get it. :)

Posted by: weboy | May 25, 2007 6:36:46 PM

Weboy, how do you relate your comments to what Ezra was saying? Are disagreeing with him?

Posted by: Sanpete | May 25, 2007 7:06:31 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.