LGTBQ+ Pride Month: Why Tolerance Isn't Enough

Understanding is key to respecting and sensitively connecting with people.

Posted Jun 22, 2018

June is LGTBQ+ Pride Month. Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual, and Queer communities around the world have been gathering at local events to celebrate the freedom to be true to themselves and their sexual orientation, personal expression, and/or gender identity. Many Pride events also commemorate the struggles and progress made in overcoming prejudice, discrimination, and persecution. The flagship event, The March in New York City, is happening this Sunday, June 24.

Why June? And why is New York City the epicenter? Because on June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising made national news, and six days of demonstrations in NYC put a spotlight on the unfair persecution of and discrimination against the LGTBQ+ community. One year later, NYC saw its first Pride March, promoting openness and equality. Since then the March has become an annual civil rights demonstration, inspiring Pride events the world over. 

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

During the past 50 years, even though most societies still have a long way to go, progress has been significant and widespread. Even conservative countries, towns, and religions are moving from persecution (detain them) to tolerance (ignore them) to acceptance (acknowledge them). But even better, and a higher calling, is understanding, which is to know them.

Understanding cultivates many positive attitudes including kindheartedness, curiosity, awareness of our biases, listening, empathy, respect, and sensitivity, all of which enable us to make connections across our differences.

Tolerating and accepting are a great start. But, for example, "tolerating a choice" or "accepting a lifestyle" only requires nonchalance, whereas understanding requires dedication. Tolerance or acceptance allows us to remain ignorant of people's emotionalsocial, and legal struggles, whereas understanding enables us to recognize, support, and appreciate these struggles. Tolerance or acceptance lets us lump "those people" together in a separate box and treat them as "other," whereas understanding helps us see each individual as as a full-fledged, unique, complicated human being, "just like me." Tolerance or acceptance cultivates "live and let live," whereas understanding cultivates inclusive communities where we can all thrive together as equals.  In short, understanding helps us realize we all inhabit the same box. When understanding is absent, awkward moments often ensue because we tend to get caught up in our differences rather than meeting each other on our common ground.

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

To illustrate, a reader shares her experience  with a well-meaning person who is accepting but lacks understanding. She asks for feedback on her reaction, which caught her by surprise:

I was at a local gym when an acquaintance from my apartment building approached and loudly said, "Well! How's our favorite bisexual neighbor today?" I awkwardly laughed it off and walked away, as I didn’t know how to respond. But I was mad–and that doesn't make sense to me. He’s a nice enough guy and he was probably trying to show his support and acceptance…though in a heavy-handed way. Plus, I am out and proud. And yet it really upsets me that he broadcast this. Why am I so bothered by this? And what can I do next time?  —Jen

Dear Jen— Great questions. First, I can understand your confusion. Why would his greeting would feel so irritating and bothersome when you're out and proud? After all, it’s not like he was revealing a deeply held secret.

But here’s one way to think about it: What if you were straight and someone approached you and said, "Hey, how's our favorite heterosexual neighbor today?" I’m guessing that wouldn't go over well either, precisely because it's reducing you to your sexuality. If he’d simply said "favorite neighbor," you’d feel warmly greeted and appreciated, right? But by mentioning sexual orientation, he turns it into an awkward, irritating encounter with sexual overtones. 

He may have even intended a public display, perhaps to show the world how cool he is, that he can be so "accepting."  Unfortunately, he also put the spotlight on you and your sexual orientation, essentially outing you to people for whom it’s none of their business. While you might not be worried about being outed because you’re already out, he’s still outing you. That’s simply never his job, and his lack of boundaries with you means that your boundaries have been breached, which can be upsetting.

An analogy—If you were a lung cancer survivor, you might not be particularly worried about people knowing it. But what if someone casually shouted out your private medical history in public? “How’s our favorite lung cancer survivor today?” Even if you’re not ashamed or embarrassed about the cancer per se, you might still feel vulnerable and invaded by someone else’s sudden and unexpected public pronouncement on this private, personal detail. Other inappropriate greetings include, “How’s our favorite full-tax-refund neighbor today?” or “How’s our favorite recovering-addict neighbor today?” or “How’s our favorite newly-single neighbor today?” or "How's our favorite hoping-to-get-pregnant neighbor today?" Let alone, "How's our favorite transgender/gay/lesbian/queer neighbor today?" 

Finally, this kind of comment serves to set you apart, in a separate box. It casts you as “other,” the member of a minority group, instead of inclusively greeting you as simply, “our neighbor”.

I concur with your generosity, giving him the benefit of the doubt, that he was trying to be friendly and demonstrate acceptance. But without a foundation of understanding, his behavior demonstrates his insensitivity, ignorance about your experience, and inability to first and foremost see you as a human being. This results in him being unintentionally disrespectful. And it’s reasonable for you to feel that burn.

Is it possible that, in hindsight, he can't believe he said that out loud? If he's someone you want to make amends with, you could bring it up—just tell him that his greeting made you feel uncomfortable. Broaching the topic gives him an opportunity to apologize or realize the error of his ways, and clear the air.

What if his response is incredulity? Then ask him, “What if I were straight? Would you greet me with, ‘Hey how’s our favorite heterosexual neighbor today?’ How do you think that would go over?” Perhaps he can reflect on how that's a bit weird, invasive, and inappropriate; so maybe greeting someone with the term "bisexual" is too.

While it’s not necessarily your job to teach him manners, it is your job to stand up for yourself and be clear about your boundaries, by expressing your displeasure at what’s not okay with you. To get more flies with honey than vinegar, instead of stressing “what not to do,” try stressing “what to do.”

To answer your second question about what to do next time you encounter a similar situation, try something warm and encouraging like, “Hey you. 'Favorite neighbor'? Awww, that's nice. But pointing out my sexual orientation feels too intrusive, you know? I do like being the favorite though—I’ll keep that. Thanks!” 

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

If you can see these situations as a friendly teaching moments, you’ll focus on spreading the light, instead of sentencing others to darkness. Realize also that understanding is a two-way street. It’s equally important for L, G, T, B, Q, + folks to recognize that many people are treading on new ground, and some stumbling will happen. When you hold out a helping hand instead of raising a fist, you are building bridges. Bridges further social progress and promote positive values like collaboration, kindness, and big hearts.

Also, note to self for next time: whenever an interaction is bothersome, pay attention. Your discomfort is a sign that you feel threatened, and your stress response has a foundation in physiology, brain chemistry, and survival instinct. Therefore, your reaction is not frivolous. See it as an opportunity to review whether your safety (physical, social, emotional, or psychological) is in danger, and take steps to address the danger and clarify the boundaries. And sometimes, perhaps you’ll realize that indeed, you’re safe and your boundaries are intact, and maybe you’re just tired or stressed by other aspects of life right now, which can make you extra vigilant or sensitive. Either way, pay attention to “feeling bothered” so you can address whatever is amiss.

Finally, it’s awesome you're using this incident as an opportunity for introspection, deeper self-awareness, taking responsibility for your part, and practicing what to do next time. This kind of growth is always great progress!