It's Not Enough To 'Tolerate' Transgender Rights

It is shameful that we think of human lives as merely “tolerable.”
Six Kansas students hold signs supporting transgender rights. One is waving a large rainbow flag.
Six Kansas students hold signs supporting transgender rights. One is waving a large rainbow flag.

Ever since the Supreme Court remanded Gavin Grimm’s case back to the lower courts, citing the Trump administration’s decision not to enforce Title IX protections for transgender students, there’s been a lot of dialogue around tolerance, on both sides of the political spectrum and everywhere in between. This discussion of tolerance has come in two forms: the first from the far right, which argues that their religious beliefs must be tolerated, and the second from the center and certain pockets of the left, who uncomfortably and half-heartedly argue that we should tolerate transgender people in our communities.

This lukewarm, quiet statement of tolerance is supposed to be sufficient evidence of their support for transgender rights. It is, however, paltry when compared to the seven transgender people who have been killed just in the first two months of this year alone, or the fact that one site has figures showing one transgender person murdered every 29 hours, on average.

As we come off of International Women’s Day, celebrated here in the US and abroad as A Day Without Women, it bears remembering that for the friends and families, created or biological, of those who have been killed, living one’s truth - particularly when it is so politically and culturally stigmatized - carries consequences that outlast a single day. They face lives without their loved ones, often uncomforted in their grief and greeted by hostility from opponents and cool detachment from supposed allies.

Perhaps I am naïve, or just an optimist, but I fail to see what is so threatening to people about the idea of a transgender person using the bathroom. If we are struggling so hard with this microcosmic issue - one single space in a whole world - it remains to be seen how we can ever come to grips with this macrocosmically.

This is where the limits of tolerance are most apparent. Tolerance, defined by Merriam Webster, is the ability or willingness to [allow] something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.

There are lot of things that we tolerate. We tolerate poor customer service from one internet company because that of its competitors is just as bad. We tolerate our friends’ or partners’ bad habits, like putting a drink on a table without a coaster. It is shameful that we should think of human lives as merely “tolerable.”

When we say it like that, of course, it sounds awful. But we’ve gotten very good at talking around tolerance. We proudly declare that we accept fundamental things, like a transgender person’s right to self-identify and choose their own pronouns. Sometimes we say this with a slight grudge, as if the idea of having to cede that much is spiritually costly.

It follows, then, that we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point that we are proactive in protecting the rights of transgender Americans and those around the world rather than reactive. If we’re this unabashedly awful at faking like we respect others, if we can’t even admit that we tolerate someone else’s mere existence without gritting our teeth, how can we be angry when we’re called to task for our inaction? Why are we so upset when someone points out that every time we’re asked not to be merely reactive we throw a mini temper tantrum at the prospect of having to do more than acknowledge someone has Constitutional rights?

I understand that tolerance can be hard. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with in this world, and if I had things my way people like the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan wouldn’t be allowed to operate in our country. But I know that because the Constitution treats racism and homophobia as expressions of personal opinion rather than systemic repression, I have to suck it up and learn to live with them.

The thing is, transgender people are in no way, shape, or form anything like a group preaching hate or inciting violence. And I made that comparison because if you can hear how stupid it sounds to compare the Ku Klux Klan to someone who just wants to pee without government regulation, you can understand why framing this as an issue of tolerance just doesn’t work.

If we expect to be showered with praise and prizes for inclusivity, acceptance, and community, we must do something to create that environment. It is not enough simply to choose not to lock the door or pull the blinds. Passively resisting the forces of change and justice is not the same thing as actively propelling them onwards. In this political climate, we can’t just tolerate people. We have to welcome them, support them, and uplift them. And we have to do that in a way that, while allowing for theory and praxes to shift and evolve, never forgets the humanity of the people living in our communities. Tolerance just won’t cut it anymore.