Words Matter – or – Why I Won’t Be “Tolerated”

18 Nov

Words are a big part of my life. As a librarian, a husband, an avid reader, a state government manager, a board member (three times over), and an occasional writer I spend much of my time carefully choosing my words and paying attention to the words chosen around me. As a gay man, I find myself confronted by other people’s word choices on a daily basis. One word gets frequent use by the well-meaning ally and the crafty foe alike: Tolerance.

It sounds like such a good word. After all, we certainly don’t want to be intolerant. But when it comes to how we interact as human beings, is it really enough to tolerate one another? The Oxford Compact Dictionary defines tolerate as “to endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with forbearance.” Can I really feel like an equal citizen if the attitude toward me is forbearance of my unpleasantness? In the public sphere, this is not enough. In the law and in civil interactions, people need acceptance.

To accept is to “receive as adequate, valid, or suitable,” something palpably different than to tolerate. Settling for tolerance establishes a framework where double-standards and second-class citizenship are the norm. As a citizen of this country and a fellow human being, I demand more.

The most frequent application of this language goes something like, “I don’t mind what you do in private, but why do you have to rub my face in it?” Why should my humanity depend on anyone else’s likes or dislikes? I’ve written before about the absurd double-standard employed by this kind of statement. My simply saying “my husband” identifies my sexual orientation; that’s all it does. It’s no different than my brother saying “my girlfriend.” But for those who live (barely) in the realm of tolerance, that simple phrase is loaded with horrific agenda.

Another great example is the old saw, “I love the sinner but I hate the sin.” I understand that for many who say this, it’s meant as a great equalizer: we’re all sinners and need forgiveness. The act of tolerance is based from the purported sin. Every person has a right to the faith (or lack thereof) of their choice and to hold dear the beliefs that come with that faith. I am, however, not asking to join your church. I am asking to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, health care, and basic civil rights. Once you’ve told me you hate something that is an integral part of me, I can’t feel the love you assure me exists.

Here’s the big one: Marriage. It’s not enough that the well-meaning hold their noses and arrange for civil unions or domestic partnerships. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that Oregon provides me with the benefits of marriage, but this arrangement is very separate-but-equal. The word “marriage” matters. It is broadly understood in language both casual and legal. Without the right word, I’m left with a relationship that is defined as second class.

I know this is a tall order, but a just and fair nation needs to accept all its people, not merely tolerate them. The only way to move the law forward is to move the thinking of the people forward. That path is paved with careful choices in language. I do not have a homosexual lifestyle nor do I have a gay agenda. I lead a productive, meaningful life; I have hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I am your neighbor. I will not settle for being tolerated.

(Thanks to Lesbian Cliché for inspiring this post.)

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5 Responses to “Words Matter – or – Why I Won’t Be “Tolerated””

  1. Mary Sauve November 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    Michael, Is this Robert’s voice? I see him when I read this post and I think it’s brilliant. Whenever I’m around Robert I know he pays close attention to the words chosen and spoken around him. I know you do as well. Thank you both for taking us into your lives and for loving us even though there are times we don’t choose quite the right words. Thank you for sharing these words…

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt November 18, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

      Mary,
      Yes, this is Robert’s voice. We are so grateful to have you and John in our lives! Even though y’all have chosen to be heterosexual and live that lifestyle, we still love you. :)

  2. rhulshofschmidt November 18, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    Thank you, Mary. I’m so glad you liked my essay and that you are such a part of our lives. Your words are always ones we want to hear.

  3. Lesbian Cliche November 19, 2010 at 5:04 am #

    Wow, I had no idea I had actually inspired a blog post. Eloquently written, and it hits the nail right on the head. The problem with “tolerance” is we’ve built it up to be the pinnacle of “acceptance” when it is really just a step above “intolerance.” Now we just need the rest of the world to get on board.

    • rhulshofschmidt November 19, 2010 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks for your kind words. I’ve had the tolerance/acceptance dichotomy rattling around in my head for awhile. It took your wonderful post to crystalize my thoughts. Agreed, by the way, now the work really begins…

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