This Saturday was International Day for Tolerance, dedicated by the United Nations. So, let’s talk tolerance, shall we?
Tolerance—as you may have guessed—is the act of tolerating opinions, views, practices, etc. of things that differ from yours. What it means to tolerate something, that’s where things get foggy. When you google the definition of “tolerate,” your results probably return something you’re familiar with. “Allowing the existence [of something one does not necessarily agree with] without interference.” The United Nations’ version of the word steps it up a notch.
In 1995, the United Nations adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, which defines tolerance as, “respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human” (source). Now, so long as we neglect the lack of a necessary oxford comma in that statement, I’m really liking the implications here. You might be more familiar with this definition attached to a different word: acceptance. I’m not totally sure what made the UN think swapping out definitions would be a great idea here, but when I first heard we have a day for tolerance, I groaned. I didn’t want (traditional) tolerance; I wanted acceptance.
Before I came out to my parents, I didn’t worry about intolerance too much, but I did worry about acceptance to some extent. Certain they wouldn’t kick me out of the house or any other unforgiving extremes, I still wondered about acceptance and what their limits might be. At what point might my existence make them uncomfortable? Would they care if I hung my bi pride flag at home?
I discovered, in small ways, that my parents’ love had no conditions, and I didn’t need to worry. Through the years, I’ve overheard both of them talk about “Jesse’s girlfriend” more than once. My mom wears a shirt with Snoopy holding a Pride flag often. My dad occasionally asks questions about which actions or words of others I might find offensive. They accepted me.
After that, I hadn’t been too concerned with the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. If people tolerated me without accepting me, I didn’t care. I appreciated the lack of conflict and carried on. Until suddenly, acceptance did matter, something I realized after the 2016 election.
I shared a post on Facebook about the burning of Pride flags sometime after Trump’s election, but before his inauguration. After coming out on Facebook a year prior, I didn’t really shy away from sharing LGBTQ-related articles, and I never ran into any issues from it on the timeline. Post-2016 election though, that changed. People I knew from high school made comments about how they hated seeing the American flag burned—an action I never commented on, let alone promoted. Yet, just at the mention of anti-LGBTQ actions, the situation broke into an “us versus them” dichotomy. And in that frustration, I found that “tolerance” coded silent oppressors or bystanders.
I interpreted “tolerance” as no-conflict, even when views opposed each other. Tolerance, then, meant that even if people didn’t like that I was gay, they weren’t going to say anything about it. They would be cordial. They would pretend that part of me didn’t exist. And that was okay with me. I’d heard plenty of coming-out horror stories. Homeless, ostracized, beaten, dead. It conditioned me to set the bar at this tolerance, at thankful for not being homeless, ostracized, beaten, or dead. I’d been grateful—certainly—but I reasoned that asking for anything more meant I was asking for too much.
I didn’t know then that what the “tolerance” I’d experienced actually meant unspoken intolerance. A family friend watched someone tell me I should expect the oppression that came with the choice of my identity without standing up for me. People I loved called my existence sinful when I couldn’t hear them. I thought that was tolerance. I thought it was the most I could ask for.
The UN’s day for tolerance isn’t for this kind of hands-off tolerance. It’s for acceptance and celebration of differences, not just allowing the differences of others to exist with hushed judgement. The best way to check your tolerance? Ask yourself if you are a tolerant person, and not just about the differences of those around you. Are you tolerant of yourself? Tell me about the ways you have accepted your differences from the “norm” in the comments!