I don’t consider myself a strong debater, so I tend to avoid politically charged discussions. Even my horror about the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and my admiration for the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same sex marriage wasn’t enough to help me summon enough bravery to share my views about tolerance. That was before a recent conversation angered me, and compelled me to commit.
It was the day after the SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage. My parents had invited me over for dinner, and somehow the topic came up. One of my family members said this in response:
[Gays and lesbians] shouldn’t be allowed to marry. They’re not human beings.
OK. I understand that you and I might differ in opinion about the first sentence. But that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead, it’s the second sentence. I may be a straight woman, but I was so disgusted by that statement that all I could do was stare slack-jawed at the speaker. (Also, I apologize to anyone who’s offended by that sentence, and hope you understand I’m including it.) Because deep in my soul, I refuse to believe that gays and lesbians – or anyone else who’s different from me – aren’t human beings.
I also understand that, as human beings, our knee-jerk reaction may be to fear or judge people who are different from us. We may not agree with their lifestyles, religious or spiritual beliefs, or choices of romantic partner. However, that doesn’t give us the right to deny those individuals of their humanity. They each have limbs, hands, and feet. They have faces with eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth. They have beating hearts, functioning brains, and emotions as vibrant and real as yours and mine. In other words, they’re human beings just like you and me. We are all human beings despite – or maybe because of – our differences.
How did I arrive at this worldview? Why do I believe in tolerance strongly enough that someone else’s rejection of one angle of it rankled me so much? After thinking it through, I realize it was influenced by three forces: family values, a culturally diverse environment outside of home, and my choices of literature and music when I was younger.
A Kind, Curious Girl Growing Up in a Diverse School System
Growing up, my parents didn’t raise me and my brother according to a specific religion. My mother was a Protestant and my father a Catholic, and they didn’t want to force us to choose one way or the other. So, they gave us the option of following a specific religion or not, and taught us traditional values in a domestic / home setting. Honesty, nonviolence, loyalty, kindness, respect – the list goes on, and I still live by those values today.
School was one of the first places where I practiced those morals outside of home. It also presented me with my first experiences with racial and cultural diversity. Most of the students were Caucasian, but there were also large numbers of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern children. Cultural tolerance was part of the education curriculum, too, and it certainly worked on me. I loved learning about holidays, traditional meals, and other customs during Spanish class, and finding the differences and parallels between my practices and the lifestyles of the people who spoke the languages we studied. Maybe that explains why Spanish and history were my favorite subjects after English.
It doesn’t surprise me now that the friendships I forged during my school years were a result of subconsciously blending my personal values with my appreciation for the diversity that surrounded me. My three best friends at the time were a Buddhist born in Vietnam, a Catholic U.S. citizen, and a Muslim girl whose family had emigrated from Sierra Leone to avoid civil war. We shared common interests in movies, music, boys, and hobbies; and we were there for each other during all the ups and downs of high school and adolescence. Our differences in nationality and religion weren’t a big deal to us. In fact, it made our circle more interesting. I’d even ask my Vietnamese and Muslim friends polite questions about their customs and beliefs. Not only was it an honest and respectful way of getting to know them better, but it was my way of showing my appreciation for what made them and our friendships unique.
And then there was 9/11. I’ll never forget how terrified I was that day – not just about the terrorist attack, but for my Muslim friend. I was afraid that other students would start bullying or mistreating her; and I knew her family well enough to recognize they were generous and friendly individuals who vehemently disagreed with radical Islam. Thankfully, most of our peers and neighbors rallied around her family instead of turning on them, and I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to defend her if she needed it.
A Lifelong Appreciation of Diverse Books
School and friendship weren’t my only influences on my views of tolerance. The books I read as a “tween” also played an important role.
Before I became a fantasy lover, I was a huge fan of Scott O’Dell, who wrote children’s historical fiction set in Mexico, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the U.S. Most of his characters were Native Americans and other non-Caucasian races, and his stories focused on struggles that were unique to these cultures, including survival, freedom, and preservation of tradition. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sing Down the Moon, Black Star, Bright Dawn, My Name Is Not Angelica – I gobbled up these and other O’Dell classics, loving the protagonists (who were usually adolescent girls) as if they were real and rooting for them to succeed. These novels reminded me that the characters’ fears and goals weren’t all that different from mine – and that no one deserved to be treated cruelly because of the color of their skin, their beliefs, or a way of life that’s unlike mine.
Two best-selling novel franchises I adored also advocated tolerance and diversity. American Girl focused on a wide array of young girls at different points in U.S. history. (I owned all of the Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly books at one point, as well as the Addy doll.) Depending on the character and time period, the books dealt with topics such as slavery, immigration, and women’s suffrage. Yet the individual series also shared common themes like compassion, friendship, and racial and religious tolerance. As for the Baby-Sitters Club, that series focused on middle-school students who ran a local baby-sitting business. The club included characters of different races (Jessie was African American, Claudia of Japanese descent) as well as a Jewish girl (Abby). Despite their differences, the girls remained loyal to each other and were fantastic role models for young readers.
What intrigues me most about looking back on my reading choices is that some of the literary subjects that impacted me as a child still interest me now. Two notable memoirs I read as an adult were set during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement: James McBride’s The Color of Water, and Maya Angelou’s The Heart of a Woman. Both offer glances at the prejudice, segregation, and intolerance that each author, their families, and other African Americans endured at that time. The Color of Water also throws twice the punch; McBride’s mother was Jewish, and faced additional criticism for her religion and for being a white woman who refused to limit her capacity to love because of skin color. When I finished that book, I came away with complete admiration for McBride’s mother and a reaffirmed belief that treating everyone with compassion and dignity is the right thing to do.
That’s why I support the ongoing #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. I grew up reading books about characters who were different from me in myriad ways, and I still love those kinds of stories today. A number of YA fantasies I’ve recently read feature exotic worlds and cultures (Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn), LGBTQ characters and gender identity (various supporting characters in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale), or both culture and sexual orientation simultaneously (Alison Goodman’s Eon). Also, how about books that show characters overcoming prejudicial views? You can even count Gimli the Dwarf from The Lord of the Rings. He carried a long-standing grudge against the Elves when he joined the Fellowship, then learned to let go of his hatred and became Legolas’s best buddy. LOTR may not fall under the true #WeNeedDiverseBooks umbrella, but Gimli’s an excellent example of a character who learns to become more accepting of other races.
How a Teddy Bear and a Singer-Songwriter Changed My Views on Sexual Orientation
I needed to spend some time talking about racial and cultural diversity before returning to sexual orientation. Because if I hadn’t learned one form of tolerance as a child, I doubt I would have been willing to practice another form as an adult.
My parents sheltered me from homosexuality for years. They never discussed the topic in front of me and my brother when we were young, probably because they wanted to enforce the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. No wonder I was the last of my school-age friends to learn what it meant to be gay or lesbian. (*face turns red*) And when I did find out… well, if I had to repeat what the 16-year-old me thought back then, I thought it was “kind of disgusting.”
BUT. As I got older, I realized that differences in sexual orientation were already part of my life. One of my cousins came out as a lesbian. I worked with gay men at a grocery store during my college years. One colleague in particular was one of the funniest and sweetest people I’ve ever met. He would cheer me up when I was down, and once gave me a teddy bear he’d won at the toy vending machine at work. (The bear wore a New England Patriots uniform, and my co-worker remembered that I was a Patriots fan.)
Eventually, I realized how wrong I’d been to try to distance myself from gays and lesbians. Sure, it took time to feel comfortable around them, but I couldn’t deny that I had more common with them as a human being than not. They laugh, love, and cry, just as heterosexuals do. They feel physical and emotional pain as well – sometimes because of the rejection they receive from families, friends, and peers. Studies have shown that LGBTQ students are more likely than their heterosexual peers to feel unsafe as a result of their sexual orientation, and their lack of security can put them at greater risk for depression, substance use, and suicidal behavior. And as someone who’s experienced situational depression in the past, it breaks my heart to know that some people go through such hell because others refuse to accept them for who they are.
The real turning point for me and tolerance of sexual orientation came thanks to one of my all-time favorite music artists. When other girls at school were obsessed with the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync, my band was Savage Garden. Not only was their brand of lush, 80’s-inspired pop/rock unique compared to other music of the day (mid to late 1990s), but the lyrics – penned by singer Darren Hayes – touched me deeper than any others had before. I related to the loneliness of “To the Moon and Back” (see the above YouTube clip), and was comforted and reassured by “Crash and Burn.” That bond continued when Darren launched his solo career, and he wrote other songs like “Darkness,” “Good Enough,” and “Words” that spoke to every corner of my deepest self. And, um, yeah, I had a crush on him for years, too. (*blushes again*)
So, imagine my shock in 2006, when Darren announced his civil partnership to his boyfriend of 2 years. The first thought that entered my mind? “Ummmm… I… don’t know what to make of this.” The second thought, once I’d had time to digest the news? “Wait a minute. This man’s music has had such an impact on my life. He’s probably the happiest he’s ever been. I should be happy for him.”
If you think about, lyrics breathe and shimmer with emotions we all feel, based on our unique life experiences. How we arrive at that mutual understanding will differ because of those experiences, but that’s fine. Songs are meant for everyone – regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation – to enjoy in their own way. That’s what makes music and other art forms truly incredible: They have the power to bring together people of all backgrounds and remind us of how we’re alike.
Tolerance Is a Form of Compassion, After All
This brings me back to a point I made in February when I joined #1000Voices. When we witness, give, or receive the gift of compassion, everyone who’s involved benefits. It inspires us to help others and allows us to heal. It gives us a chance to learn more about the world, and open our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking or living. Most of all, it reminds us of what it means to be human. If we don’t choose compassion, we make the victims feel undeserving of their humanity – and we also show through our actions that perhaps we’re even less deserving of that right.
Why consider tolerance to be a form of compassion? If you look up “tolerance” at Merriam-Webster, here’s one of its definitions:
[The] willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own.
Do the same search at Dictionary.com, and you’ll find similar definitions, including this one:
When we choose tolerance, we show people that we’re OK with who they are. We accept whatever differences we may have and choose to treat the other individuals as equals. It can take loads of courage to practice tolerance, especially when others might not understand or agree with us. But shunning, insulting, or enacting violence against those who are different from us never leads to positive results. Besides, how would you feel if someone shunned, insulted, or harmed you because of your race, religion, or sexual orientation?
I’d like to end this article with a message directed at you, my reader. Yes, you. I want you to know that I accept you for who you are. I will never judge you because of how you’re different from me, and I hope you will not judge me in return. I only want to treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect, even if my actions create ripples in only one person’s pond. But one pond can lead to another, and then another, as we pay compassion forward. I may not be an activist, but it hurts me to see people affected by prejudice, hate crimes, and other forms of intolerance. It hurts me because I’m human, just like them. Just like you. And I don’t ever want to make anyone feel less than that.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a fitting song from Savage Garden.
I’m sort of at a loss for response questions today. However, please feel free to use the Comments section below to share any thoughts you may have on tolerance and compassion.