The 1990s brought forth a bastion of political correctness. All at once, we were forbidden from saying “black,” “retard,” and “fag,” in lieu of the more acceptable terms African-American, mentally-challenged, and homosexual. The politically correct terminology was so successful and so thorough that the words looked weird written on the page. It was uncomfortable to even write them. That’s because I’m a product of those nineties. If you miss a good racist joke, you can blame it on Bill Clinton.
In high school, we held assemblies in the auditorium and painted posters around the school to bring to the forefront what it meant to be tolerant. Tolerance was the term of the nineties and the platform from which the politically correct language would spring. We were actively taught in our liberal arts-led public brainwashing education, that in order to heal society, we had to tolerate people who seemed different than us. But tolerance as a term never sat quite right with me. I never wanted to be in the company of someone who was taught to merely tolerate my existence. But we had to start somewhere, right? And that start was with the accepted vernacular.
Civil Rights comes in waves in this country: in 1920 white women won the right to vote and later, “African-Americans” were awarded the same; progress was made in the way we looked at and treated the handicapped among us. And the word “gay” was maligned as a derogatory expression when we used it to mean “stupid” or “weak.” This week, marriage equality is rearing its head as the Supreme Court examines Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.
When I started ninth grade, AIDS was a full-blown threat with some high profile public figures falling ill. We learned that Elton John was homosexual, and that our suspicions about Boy George were spot on. Four years after I left high school, Matthew Shepard was slaughtered by someone who was decidedly intolerant.
Something Maya Angelou once said has always resonated with me. She spoke about how we demonize the people around us, to call murderers or pedophiles, “monsters.” Not people. The words serve to separate and to alienate us from each other. We can’t call people like that “people” because that’s what we are. But no person is a monster, she said. If one human could complete a heinous act, it is within the realm of possibility for each of us. The Latin phrase she quoted was, “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’
In a similar vein, she continued, we have within us the possibilities to accomplish what the greatest among us have: “If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you.” All of us, each of us, human.
No matter what the courts decide, marriage equality is on its way, just as the times before them had come to cast aside our base judgements and remember the humanity that makes us hold more in common than we oftentimes like to believe. In time, “gay marriage” will simply be called “marriage.”
Beyond that, can we graduate from tolerating our differences to something else? I don’t mean love. I don’t believe we could love everyone we bump into. Respect? No, I think I could learn to love all human beings around me before I could commit to offering indiscriminate and undeserved respect. Coexist brings me to a bumper sticker on a hunter green Subaru, the paint peeling and rust flaking from the bumper. Coexist sounds like tolerate to me – a life lived next to someone else. It’s better than annihilating that neighbor, but I think we can do better. Celebrating our differences is way more than we can ever hope to realistically expect.
I watched a documentary about Matthew Shepard in my first psychology course in college, undoubtedly meant to foster awareness of others, their conditions, and how we react to them. In this psychology course, I learned about transference, a term that meant hating the part of someone else that was something you perceived to be a deep-seated trait of your own. Sort of like how I can’t stand judgmental people. I remembered that Matthew Shepard’s killer was discovered to have been homosexual. That he butchered another human, calling him “fag” while he did it, not because he was intolerant of that boy, but because he hated that part of himself. He couldn’t bear to see it displayed so blatantly by another.
As I watched Rob Portman change his views of marriage equality after he’d discovered that his own son was homosexual, I thought about ownership. How if we could all own the things we don’t like in ourselves, we could stand up to our parties, our peers, and ourselves and voice our collective humanity in words that seek not to alienate, but to connect.
What would this country look like if we could learn acceptance?