Often, I see the words “acceptance” and “tolerance” being used interchangeably. The LGBT community often talks of building a tolerant society, but it is by no means enough. There a world of difference between tolerance and acceptance. Living someplace that is merely tolerant without acceptance is like an existence within a sensory deprivation chamber.
It won’t directly kill you, but it exacts a toll.
Living in a tolerant but not accepting workplace means walking on eggshells, talking around your history and being surrounded by people who keep conversations and relationships strictly professional. No one has a mean word to say, but then again, no one has a word to say. A nod in the hall as you glide by is the level of interaction you have come to expect. You eat alone, and no one bothers you while you do.
You don’t do work related social functions. No one calls you on it either, because both sides know that you’re not comfortable there, nor are people entirely comfortable with you being there. Discretely ignoring your lack of presence effectively side steps the real issues. What you do at work, those 8 hours a day, may be valuable, may be needed, but that isn’t sufficient to make you wanted.
You might be legally protected via Macy, Glenn, non-discrimination ordinances or corporate policy. Still, that isn’t sufficient to elevate you beyond being “those people who sue you.”
It’s not just work. In the absence of community you are a ghost in your life outside of work as well. People can be tolerant to the point of not saying **** if they had a mouthful, but that doesn’t mean they embrace you, or want you to be a part of their lives. You aren’t a threat to them, but you are alien, you are other. People smile, and nod, but they don’t see.
How often have we met someone from our past who does not recognize us? If they do recognize us, they give no hint. If they don’t, they look through us without really seeing. In line at the store, loading the kids in the van, in line to vote; they know nothing, they see nothing. And you say nothing to them in turn, because you realize their day is probably all the more pleasant if not confronted with your current existence.
Mere tolerance is a wraith with no past and no future, an existence out of phase with its reality. And by no future, I mean that this tolerant existence precludes the opportunity to build fully realized relationships. There is no starting point to discover commonalities, to build, to connect.
Or to love. To be loved. To be needed and wanted and have the full range of the human experience available to you.
If connection is the starting point to anchoring ourselves in the lives of others, we are adrift as ones merely tolerated without a community of our own. As survivors of a shipwreck are supposed to lash their rafts together for support and survival, so too are queer and gender non-conforming people.
But what if there is no one to tie yourself to?
We drift alone, unobserved, unknown, watching ship after oblivious ship glide past on the horizon. Surrounded by water, but not a drop to drink. Perhaps someday, somewhere, someone from our past asks where so-and-so went, but without any great desire to actually find out, because they already know.
Acceptance is an ocean littered with other survivors inviting you to tie yourself to their own rafts. They are people who are willing to share journeys, resources and fates regardless of where you have been and how you got here. All that matters is you are here now, and none of you are alone.
The difference between tolerance and acceptance is our spiritual survival.