I recently had a conversation about acceptance versus tolerance. It was in relation to the often difficult task of self-acceptance that gay men have to engage in to conquer internalised hate and reach full self actualisation.
In her last album Songversations, India Arie stated that, “Tolerance is the seed and acceptance is the tree.” This, for me, perfectly contextualises the journey from tolerance to acceptance. Acceptance is much more intimate than tolerance and it is perhaps understandable why we often seek acceptance from close family and friends and tolerance from society at large.
But what’s really the difference? Tolerance means that one is willing to be open to opinions or behavior one dislikes or disagrees with. Legislation that’s been passed to decriminalise homosexuality is put in place to enforce regard for human dignity and to ensure that tolerance is applied.
Acceptance on the other hand is to fully recognise a condition or situation without the intention of changing it. The gentleman I was engaging with on this issue revealed a heartbreaking instance that defined his personal struggle for acceptance. It took place when he was only 10-years-old and his mother and headmaster came to know about his homoerotic fantasies.
The advice he received from them was to put his head under cold water each time those feelings came flooding in. After assuming a heterosexual identity to largely please the external world, he got married and invested a lot of effort in making it work. However, the marriage did not last.
When he came to a decision to live his life truthfully, he disclosed his feelings to his mother about what she had said all those years ago. He told her: “The advice you gave to me injured me.”
The first family member I disclosed my sexual identity to urged me to keep it a secret. At first I was thrilled to be sharing a secret with her, although I soon realised that she was actually refusing to grant me permission to be myself.
When my début album Boet/Sissy was released, another family member confessed his disapproval of the content, suggesting that I keep my sexuality to myself and instead sing about the beauty of nature (I strongly believe that my sexuality is another way in which nature demonstrates its beauty).
It’s a bizarre situation when a person has to persuade his family into accepting the package that he comes in. Family should be able to give the gift of acceptance, because theirs is (or should be) a bond closest to unconditional love. Most of my family members have worked themselves to the stage of tolerance, but for me that is still not enough.
Tolerance leaves room for hate and shame, and our mission should be to obliterate those. Ultimately, family needs to know that their “tolerating” our sexuality actually injures us.
Tolerance for homosexuality is no doubt rooted in the myth that it is a passing phase, and so the tolerance we receive is accompanied by secret prayers that we pass the stage as soon as possible. This despite anthropological studies continuing to unearth evidence that homosexuality has been in existence since time immemorial.
What we must also consider is that while society is becoming willing to tolerate “acts” of homosexuality, it may not be ready to accept lifelong connections within same-sex relationships.
Despite often being met with cold tolerance from close relations, we sometimes may find acceptance in places we didn’t even know existed.
We may find acceptance in church from a leader with the ability to interpret the Bible from a place of love as opposed to judgement. We may find it an institution of learning from a teacher who recommends literature that helps to shape our self-worth, or out in the streets from a stranger who bravely stands up for our humanity in the midst of verbal or physical attacks. We may even find this acceptance from a heterosexual friend not ashamed to share the same bed and blanket.
That is acceptance. It says you are as human as I am and deserving of love and respect without condition. This remains a dream in many homes around the world, where neither tolerance nor acceptance is understood.
As we settle into the information age, where the individual has space to thrive, we must consider ways to fight not just for tolerance but for full acceptance.
So, gay men, how do we win over society’s acceptance?