Last month, Maryland's northern neighbor had a watershed moment for LGBT rights: U.S. District Judge John E. Jones ruled that Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and conservative governor Tom Corbett confirmed that he would not appeal the ruling, making Pennsylvania the 19th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to allow gay marriage. It is an accomplishment worth celebrating, to be sure, but it certainly doesn't mean Pennsylvania has achieved equality for its LGBT citizens. Far from it, in fact: The vast majority of the state lacks laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender expression. You can now marry your partner, but you can be fired for bringing wedding pictures to the office.
This limiting paradox that is the current state of gay rights in America is what Suzanna Danuta Walters, Director of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies and sociology professor at Northeastern University, takes aim at in her book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press).While some pundits already claim to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the gay rights movement, Walters argues that the battle is far from over—in fact, the current rhetoric of "tolerance" in the movement may be doing it more harm than good.
On its face, tolerance appears to be a positive thing: It implies acceptance, open-mindedness, empathy. And yet, as Walters wryly notes, "It doesn't make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it's wrong in some way. . . . We don't speak of tolerating pleasure or a good book or a sunshine-filled day. We do, however, take pains to let others know how brave we are when we tolerate the discomfort of a bad back or a nasty cold." The tolerance trap says that you can be gay, but not too gay; you can get married to your same-sex partner, so long as you look and perform just like a heterosexual couple; you can tell teens it'll get better, but you'd better not force heterosexuals to change their behavior in order to make it better. Tolerance happily embraces gay (male, middle-class, white, non-threatening) teens Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but sweeps Paris is Burning under the rug.
The Tolerance Trap is a sweepingly comprehensive summary of the gay rights movement, and the cultural perception of "gayness," as it currently stands in the U.S. Walters synthesizes her personal history as a gay woman with previous academic scholarship, criticism of scientific studies, and analysis of pop-culture items such as The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family to illustrate how the current rhetoric of the mainstream gay rights movement has de-radicalized queerness and painted the fight for equality into a rather heteronormative corner. Instead of cheering, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," she says, the current movement politely asks for recognition and assures straight people that, "We're just like you."
Walters particularly focuses on the fight for gay marriage and argues that the institution of marriage, which she says has a long history as an oppressive force against women, isn't exactly a club that the queer community should want to join. The gay community should be showing the heterosexual world what alternative family structures and support systems can look like, Walters argues, not remaking its relationships to fit into the marriage mold.
Walters makes a strong argument, but it's not clear who she is arguing with. She spends 59 pages making the case that the closet still exists, which is about 59 pages too many, if she's aiming her book at the gay community. After all, gay individuals don't have to be told that coming out can still be scary—they probably have more than enough personal experiences to tell them that.
Perhaps she meant to address straight allies of the gay rights movement, but she glosses over too many major issues for it to be particularly useful for educating straight people. For instance, she mentions, "As many historians and theorists have convincingly argued, the homosexual as a distinct category, a demarcated identity (rather than, say, a set of possible sexual acts or preferences) is a very modern invention, as is the heterosexual." This may be a self-evident truth to anyone who's taken a few gender studies or history classes, but if she's writing to someone without that academic knowledge, this deserves more than a brief mention–especially since she doesn't even include footnotes or references to back up this particular assertion.
By crafting the so that it addresses everyone, her argument loses some of its force.
One thing is certain: The Tolerance Trap was not written for bisexual people. Walters only grants them a cursory glance or a parenthetical aside here or there, even when their very existence could serve as the strongest piece of evidence in her argument.
For instance, the book's second section, "Do These Genes Make Me Look Gay?," argues that the obsessive focus on biological determinism of sexual orientation means that people only "tolerate" gayness if it's considered an unchangeable fact of nature and there's no choice involved. After all, why would anyone choose to be gay? In this frame of biological determinism, same-sex attraction is seen as an unfortunate genetic mutation that, since it is not a conscious choice, can be tolerated by sympathetic straight people. Walters picks apart the underlying rhetoric of the "Baby, I was born this way" argument—but does so without even acknowledging the elephant in the rainbow-colored room: For bisexual people, there is always a choice. Bisexual people experience attraction to multiple genders and can, in theory, choose which gender to pursue. Bisexual people do not have the luxury of claiming that their decision to date (or fuck) someone of the same gender is entirely unavoidable.
Had Walters included bisexuality in her critique of the search for the "gay gene," it would have substantially strengthened her argument. Instead, bisexuality is reduced to a throwaway rhetorical question in the conclusion of a chapter. Never mind the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more women identify as bisexual than they do lesbian. For Walters, it seems, the B is silent in LGBT.■