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The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good…

The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay… (2014)

by Suzanna Danuta Walters

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In terms of style, this book would get about three stars. (But be suspicious of nonfiction writers who think there is ever an occasion to use an exclamation point; be dismissive if they reserve them only to indicate mock shock at ideas of which they disapprove.) You definitely walk away thinking this is someone you'd enjoy having a few beers with. But on the substance, the book is largely unoriginal, and frustrating in its dated perspective.

Walter's theoretical perspective is a throwback to the seventies. Relying upon unnuanced social constructionism (by default; she never actually defends the theory but as she ridicules the alternatives it is the only one remaining), she sees no differences between males and females, and finds the data that sexual object choice has some roots in biology to be risible. At this stage we should be striving for a more textured interplay between social and endogenous factors to get closer to the truth of the matter. But she'll have none of that. In its main thrust this book is indistinguishable from what was being written by feminists thirty or forty years ago.

At the least she could have recognized the corner she paints herself into. If sexual orientation is nonbiological (i.e., a "choice" in some sense of the word), and therefore suggestions of an essential core should be dismissed, how does she respond to transgenders who describe their own sense of being discordant between physical body and psychological self in just those terms? Is that too a "choice" (in some sense of the word)? Or does she have a wholly different theory of gender identity than she argues here for sexual orientation? She either has to tell them all that they are wrong in describing their own experiences, or accept their accounts and explain how gender identity has a material basis but sexual orientation does not. Good luck with that.

It doesn't help either that, despite being a sociologist, she offers a surprisingly shallow understanding of the function of marriage within societies. And a grounding in legal history wouldn't have hurt either. Here too she echoes the anti-marriage posture of an aging feminism. Marriage of course is not the entirety of gays' rights, but much else that is needed flows from that initial recognition; it makes sense both culturally and strategically that this right became the predominant issue. Her worry, though, is that the prominence of marriage will ostracize those who prefer more "wild" and nontraditional arrangements, those, in other words, who cannot or will not take on responsibilities and duties of legally recognized marriage, but want to claim the rights and privileges thereof. Certainly an argument unlikely to generate much sympathy, and rightly so, something she might understand better if, as mentioned earlier, she had a grasp of the work marriage is intended at the cultural level to perform. Perhaps most odd, though, is how her skepticism about marriage tends to favor those with power and money who can flit from one liaison to another without incurring loss or penalty -- not the segment of society one feels has her general favor. But her reflexive myopia overlooks such things as what happens to those who invest in the welfare and success of another, only to be left with nothing when the partner moves on to a new conquest. Without marriage, the one left behind is (generally) entitled to nothing, but Walters seems comparatively unconcerned about these people; her attention is on how marriage can impede the freedoms of the powerful. The legal defaults built into the institution of marriage lean toward protecting the disadvantaged member of the couple; when unmarried, all the cards are held by the other one.

While unremittingly critical of the current trends and successes of the contemporary gays' rights movement, Walters is evasively vague about what should take its place. Here and there she gestures broadly toward some different kind of social reality, but doesn't describe it with any particularity, certainly not so as to lead us to think her skepticism is deserved. She mentions a "more vibrant queer way of life," but doesn't tell us precisely what that might be (although she attempts a few sketched scenarios in the final chapter), or why we should want that alternative other than the fact that it wouldn't be modeled on the heterosexual way of doing things. If she wants to underscore a "queer difference," she must first tell us what that is, what it looks like, and how that would play out in real life.

The population is vastly heterosexual, so it makes sense that social defaults build around that reasonable starting point. If those assumptions unjustly disadvantage us, we need to identify those and seek correction, as has been done with striving for the marriage rights she disdains. She appears to feel that we are different in all ways, and that society should weigh our differences fully on par with the modal patterns of straights. She admits she is feeling nostalgia for the more radical agenda of the sixties and seventies, which sought to revolutionize the whole of society. Not going to happen, and I don't think most gays and lesbians share her desire that it should. And between that gap between the hot-blooded agitations of her youth and the more pragmatic but more achievable goals of today's youths, this book falls flat.

I was drawn to the book because of the title's promise that we'd find here a discussion of the need to keep the pressure on for full equality despite the seductive recent victories. If that's your interest, Michelangelo Signorile's It's Not Over Yet: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality is the better choice. ( )
  dono421846 | Jun 22, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0814770576, Hardcover)

From Glee to gay marriage, from lesbian senators to out gay Marines, we have undoubtedly experienced a seismic shift in attitudes about gays in American politics and culture. Our reigning national story is that a new era of rainbow acceptance is at hand. But dig a bit deeper, and this seemingly brave new gay world is disappointing. For all of the undeniable changes, the plea for tolerance has sabotaged the full integration of gays into American life. Same-sex marriage is unrecognized and unpopular in the vast majority of states, hate crimes proliferate, and even in the much vaunted “gay friendly” world of Hollywood and celebrity culture, precious few stars are openly gay.

In The Tolerance Trap, Suzanna Walters takes on received wisdom about gay identities and gay rights, arguing that we are not “almost there,” but on the contrary have settled for a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a robust claim to full civil rights. After all, we tolerate unpleasant realities: medicine with strong side effects, a long commute, an annoying relative. Drawing on a vast array of sources and sharing her own personal journey, Walters shows how the low bar of tolerance demeans rather than ennobles both gays and straights alike. Her fascinating examination covers the gains in political inclusion and the persistence of anti-gay laws, the easy-out sexual freedom of queer youth and the suicides and murders of those in decidedly intolerant environments. She challenges both “born that way” storylines that root civil rights in biology, and “god made me that way” arguments that similarly situate sexuality as innate and impervious to decisions we make to shape it.

A sharp and provocative cultural critique, this book deftly argues that a too-soon declaration of victory short-circuits full equality and deprives us all of the transformative possibilities of full integration.Tolerance is not the end goal, but a dead end. In The Tolerance Trap, Walters presents a complicated snapshot of a world-shifting moment in American history—one that is both a wake-up call and a call to arms for anyone seeking true equality.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:26 -0400)

Argues that the current climate of tolerance regarding gay rights demeans both homo-and heterosexuals alike, asserting that a too-soon claim of victory undermines full equality and true integration.

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