A hug beats a nod

By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  September 14, 2011

Maine may be the whitest state in the country, but it certainly isn't the straightest. With 9.7 same-sex couples out of every 1000 households, only six other states had higher rates per capita. But you know what? That doesn't necessarily make it "gay and lesbian friendly."

I'm not saying Maine is a hostile place for same-sex couples, any more than it's hostile for people of color. Maine is actually a pretty tolerant place, I've learned.

But that's just it. Tolerance. That's not the same as acceptance. Acceptance versus tolerance is the difference between an embrace or warm handshake versus a polite but vague nod in your general direction. C'mon — "tolerant" and "tolerate" come from the same root. Would you rather your in-laws tolerate you or like (or even love) you?

Yet with the release of the same-sex couple statistics, the Portland Press Herald on September 5 declared our state a "mecca" for gay and lesbian couples. Sure, Maine has gay-friendly family-leave laws and allows gays and lesbians to adopt. But same-sex couples still cannot marry. Some mecca.

Tolerance sounds lovely on the surface. But to be tolerant means to endure or allow or not interfere. In other words, "Live and let live." It's a great start, but it's only a start. Let's not pat ourselves on the back too much.

Sure it's nice when people let you do your own thing. But a state like Maine is heavily dependent upon tourists — so one could argue a lack of tolerance is bad for business, especially in this world of social media and 24-hour news cycles. But too many times we confuse tolerance with acceptance. They aren't the same.

I am a member of an open and affirming church, and the 9/11 sermon this week spoke on what that means for our congregation and denomination. Because in the end, words mean little if you don't add action. As a minority — albeit not a sexual one — I have come to conclude in general Maine is a very tolerant state. In the nine years I have lived in Southern Maine, I have visited many parts of this state and rarely do people get in my face about my otherness. But tolerating me is not accepting me.

When we tolerate people we are decent and respectful. We follow the golden rule. But tolerating me doesn't help me befriend you, which is what I want. When we have true acceptance for people of difference we embrace them, get to know them, eagerly look to break bread with them.

Tolerance allows us to feel good (because we are not actively discriminating) while often letting us off the hook for fully accepting those who are different from us. Tolerance allows people to elect the first black president but still clutch their purses or wallets tighter when a black man walks by. Tolerance still gives us wiggle room to label someone of difference as automatically less than the rest of us, as long as we don't announce we feel that way.

To accept, however, is bold. It's scary because it takes us out of our comfort zone and we may make embarrassing missteps in our actions or words. Hell, after 16 years in an interracial marriage, mistakes are still made. But by embracing our commitment we allow ourselves to get raggedy and to learn from the mistakes.

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