First published at 365gay.com on August 15, 2008
“Why do you need other people’s approval?”
The question came from an old (straight but gay-supportive) friend, as we sat over breakfast discussing progress in the gay-rights movement. He meant it sincerely.
“After all,” he continued, “if you like rap music, and I hate rap music, you don’t need my approval to pursue your tastes. Indeed, even if I think listening to rap music is a mind-numbing waste of time, so what? Live and let live.”
That’s true. But when it comes to gay rights, “live and let live” may no longer be enough.
The difference between what he describes and what I seek is sometimes described as that between tolerance and acceptance. Roughly, “tolerance” involves leaving people alone to live as they choose, even when you don’t approve, whereas acceptance involves somehow affirming their choices.
But even “acceptance” seems too weak here. Acceptance sounds close to acquiescence, which is scarcely distinguishable from tolerance. Gay people don’t want merely to be tolerated or accepted, we want to be embraced and encouraged—like everyone else in society.
The shift from tolerance to acceptance is apparent in the movement’s goals. When I came out in the late 1980’s, we were still fighting to make gay sex legal. As late as 2003, homosexual sodomy was criminal in over a dozen states. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning Bowers v. Hardwick. Suddenly, tolerance was legally mandated.
Then things changed—rapidly. Just a few months later, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Gays and lesbian Americans began legally marrying the following year, and marriage became the predominant gay-rights issue in this country. Now California’s doing it (despite the threat of an amendment overturning that decision), and a handful of other states have civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Legally speaking, when it comes to marriage, “tolerance” may be enough. A marriage is legal whether people approve of it or not. Socially speaking, however, marriage requires more.
That’s because marriage is more than just a relationship between two individuals, recognized by the state. It’s also a relationship between those individuals and a larger community. We symbolize this fact by the witnesses at the wedding, who literally and figuratively stand behind the marrying couple. Marriage thrives when there’s a network of support in place to reinforce it.
Beyond that, marriage is a life-defining relationship that changes those within it. This is why the claim “I accept you but I don’t accept your homosexuality” rings so hollow. When my relationship is life-defining, rejecting it means rejecting me. “Tolerating” it is better, but not by much: nobody wants their life-defining relationship to be treated as one would treat a nuisance, much less “a mind-numbing waste of time.”
And so the rap-music analogy falters in at least two ways. First, listening to music doesn’t require the participation of others (beyond those who produced it), but marriage does. At least, it does in order to work best. Marriage is challenging, and it needs community support. Second, no one wants their life-defining relationships to be merely “tolerated.” Ideally, they should be celebrated and encouraged.
Obviously, not everyone will approve of everyone else’s marriage. You politely applaud at a wedding even if you think the groom is a jerk. But the ideal is still one where others’ participation is crucial. I’ve even been to wedding ceremonies—straight and gay—where the minister turns during the vows and asks, “Do you pledge to support Whosie and Whatsit in their marriage?” and the audience responds “We do!”
That’s one reason why same-sex marriage is so contentious. We are not simply asking people to “tolerate” something we do “in the privacy of our bedrooms.” We are asking them to support and encourage something we do publicly. We are asking them, in effect, to participate.
We should not be ashamed of asking for that. We’re social creatures, and it’s natural for us to seek others’ support. It’s especially natural for us to seek it from our friends and family. But insofar as we desire such support from people not ready to provide it, we need to make the case for it.