Whether you are lesbian, gay or straight, Suzanna Walters’s new book should make you wonder how the once kick-ass gay rights movement became so meek and humble. Walters, an American academic and political activist, invites you to question the very basis of contemporary liberal thinking on gay rights in the west.
More than four decades after its loud and uncompromising beginning in the US and the UK, the battle for gay equality is largely won – or it is according to the majority of lawmakers and LGBT activists and organisations. Certain US states allow same-sex couples to marry, adopt children and join the military. We are accepted and/or tolerated by growing numbers of straight people. But, as her title makes clear, the notion of “tolerance” is itself problematic for Walters. “No civil rights movement worthy of the name has banked its future on being tolerated or accepted,” she says. We tolerate bad wine and a boring film.
Taking in the “gay gene” debate, equal marriage, coming out and gender nonconformity, Walters’s book interrogates pretty much every popular assumption about lesbian and gay culture, tearing through both liberal and conservative shibboleths about the state of the gay nation today. She interweaves her well‑researched evidence with her own experience of living as a lesbian for more than three decades, and she skilfully complicates issues that on the surface appear to be straightforward. The popular It Gets Better campaign, for example, which compiles videos created by LGBT youths, is unfortunate, she believes, because it individualises what is actually a structural issue. Marriage, diminishing in popularity for heterosexuals, is a sop in order to make us all conform. And if coming out is “so last season”, why do the media go overboard when a sports star does so?
The idea that we are living in a post-gay society is pulled apart with humour and a little anger. “Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced.” There is no question that lesbians and gays are more visible these days, she says, but why can we still easily count the celebrities who have come out? Few major Hollywood movies have had gay storylines in the last 15 years. Cultural visibility is minimal. We have been used to nearly nothing for so long that when we get a little more coverage, it can be perceived as a deluge.
According to popular opinion, access to marriage and the military are the great prizes of gay rights and “once we have achieved these goals we will have moved into a post-gay America”. Walters looks at the origins of such beliefs, providing detail as to how they came to be, before dissecting them.
A portion of the book is devoted to what has become a familiar party line within the gay community and wider society – on the existence of a “gay gene”. Gayness is not a problem to be understood, or solved: why, therefore, do scientists insist on looking? More to the point, what is it that makes gays and lesbians cling to the notion of immutability or innate sexual attraction? Is it to appease the homophobes rather than because of a genuine belief in less-than-convincing science?
Arguments about so-called “biological” or “natural” differences have been used to justify exclusion and discrimination. Black people, Jews and women know only too well that using the “born that way” line has never protected them from violence and bigotry. And what if parents could be offered the option of aborting “gay” foetuses?
What depresses and angers Walters is the casual acceptance of the mantra: “Why would anyone choose to be gay? It is a dreadful life”, which she has had said to her at her own book launches. In the old days we would proclaim we were “glad to be gay” and “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Now we seem to be saying: “We’re here. We are forced to be queer, please help us.”
Coming out online is now possible, and offers some protection. But just like in the 1970s when both Walters and I came out, hate crimes still occur, schools are still sites of homophobic bullying and parents are still kicking their gay kids out of their homes. We still have queer bashing and discrimination in the workplace. (Though Walters does ultimately conclude: “I would far rather come out in this world than the one I came out in.”)
Equal marriage has been described as the end of the rainbow for gay liberation, but there is no pot of gold. Straight people can pat themselves on the back and say: “We are so gay-inclusive”, because they want to invite gay folk into this wonderful institution. Celebrities who talk about how much they support gay marriage are not heard speaking about the problems of young gays sleeping rough on the streets. We have put all our eggs in one basket and that basket is marriage equality. Yet the civil rights movement did not just rely on voting rights and the women’s movement didn’t rely on abortion rights.
The Tolerance Trap serves as a cautionary tale in a climate in which the majority of spokespeople for LGBT rights are mired in appeasement and assimilation, meekly asking to be accepted rather than demanding equality and respect. There has been a shift from angry radicalism to a whisper of gratitude. Walters will upset a great many folk who are invested in the softer, more conciliatory ways of today. But this book breathes vigorous life into a movement in danger of disappearing into a cloud of mollifying acceptance.