I had a friend who as a young man was a macho, hard-drinking World War II hero. The surprise of his life came when he learned that his son was gay. The scene was every bit as awful as you would imagine, with hateful, scarring words uttered on both sides. But by the time I met him in his old age, my friend was a proud PFLAG member. At his funeral, his son offered a moving remembrance of the father he loved and the relationship they had managed to repair over many years of hard work.
The struggle my friend had with his son was painful and long-lasting, yet it was rooted fundamentally in their love for each other. They cared about each other enough to fight, and to persist through emotional agony and confusion until they re-forged their family bond. In some sense, to be deeply critical of another person’s private life is possible only if you are deeply interested in that person’s private life to begin with.
I would like to think that the aggregation of experiences such as my friend had with his son is a major reason why heterosexual Americans have grown collectively more tolerant of gay people. I am sure it accounts for some of it, but I worry that there is a less noble explanation for some of the new open-mindedness. Let me give an example of the sort of interaction that troubles me:
An undergraduate declares “I don’t get hung up on whether the guy living next door to me is gay”.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because his sex life isn’t my business. I just don’t care.” He responds, with a note of pride.
“Would you care if your gay neighbor were unemployed, or had cancer, or were depressed and lonely and needed a friend?”.
After a pause: “No. That’s his business too.”
At my worst moments, I wonder if we are producing tolerance on the cheap as a byproduct of our increasing, technology-fueled self-involvement. Certainly, narcissistically-driven tolerance is better than activated bigotry: If you don’t care about your gay neighbor at all, you don’t care enough to spray paint hateful messages on his house or take a knife to his car’s tires. But I don’t think the tolerance that emerges from not giving a damn about other people generates the growth and understanding that can emerge when people struggle to know and to love each other over what at first seems an insuperable divide of difference.