America has entered new territory when it comes to issues of sexual diversity: “Toleranceville.” Never heard of it? Sure you have! It’s that peculiar zone where individuals and organizations that formerly did not approve of a thing (or remained mysteriously silent on it) have experienced a rare moment of social consciousness and begin to express their support. Currently, it is the issue of same sex marriage that has become a surprise cause célèbre, bringing an interesting group of new advocates to the land of “Toleranceville.”
From President Obama’s landmark announcement that he supports same sex marriage to Beenie Man posting a video asking for forgiveness of his past homophobic songs, tolerance is in! However, tolerance is not justice. In fact, tolerance basically boils down to finding something unobjectionable. Tolerance is the lowest form of acceptance because it allows one to support in words but not follow up with actions. If we are not careful, our tolerance will only serve to maintain the status quo. If we want to move from tolerance towards justice, it will take more than not objecting to same-sex marriage, it’s going to take a commitment to fight injustice and create safer communities for all.
Tolerance is a needed step towards making sure different viewpoints and experiences are understood and accepted. It is a starting place, but not an acceptable destination. If African-Americans tale a look back at our history in this country, we will see that in many spaces our presence was merely tolerated, not welcomed. The difference is quite significant.
Recently, the country celebrated the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed legal racial segregation in public schools. While not everyone was against desegregation, tolerance translated to silence, which allowed racial hatred to persist and the progress made by desegregating schools to be reversed. If we are not careful, tolerance leads to neutrality and as the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire once said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
If someone has come from a long history of homophobia and recently affirmed that LGBTQ people should have the same rights and protections that they do, that’s great. Yet, if this person isn’t compelled to hit the polls and vote in support of candidates and measures that vow to provide that access and/or remains silent in the face of discrimination or brutality against gay people, then the new attitude is largely for naught. Surely it is better to release your hatred and ignorance than it is to remain committed to them, but to truly accept the need for these folks to live freely means taking it a step further.
Creating a just society requires much more than simply affirming the rights of a people to exist; we must also fight for them to have access to full rights. While I have not come to expect that many who have come out in support of issues like same sex marriage consider themselves advocates for the rights of same-gender loving people, it’s important that those of us who do consider ourselves to be allies understand that passive support is not the same as active support.
Additionally, we must be careful not to see marriage as the only or main challenge facing our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Too much emphasis on marriage amendments can blind us to the multitude of issues facing people and make us complacent in creating inclusive communities. Authors like Kenyon Farrow have been asking for us to pursue a vision of justice that goes beyond a single ballot issue and fully examines the realities that face Black LGBTQ citizens. This type of justice work means engaging in critical conversations and actions that build spaces for all folks to enjoy human rights.
Over the coming years, the depth of our collective commitment to justice will be tested. If you proclaim your tolerance, be prepared to explain what rights you will stand for and with whom you stand. Tolerance is a first step, but it is not the last step we must take in securing civil and human rights for all. We must remember a tolerant space is not the same as a liberated space. If we learn from past lessons of struggle, we will move toward active support of disenfranchised people—even if “the issues” seem not to have direct bearing on our lives. Because, as James Baldwin said to Angela Davis, “For, if they take you in the morning. They will be coming for us at night.”
Let’s depart “Toleranceville” and head towards the future.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website