All the talk on the internet about the Prop 8 trial here in California got me thinking about intolerance. Some people talk about how LGBT people want to “re-define marriage” as though we’re interested in destroying the very institution that we want so badly to be a part of. We’re accused of being intolerant towards the religious views of other people, or as my brother calls it being intolerant of intolerance. That’s a disingenuous turn of phrase, because it tries to lump all these disparate behaviors under a single umbrella and brand them intolerant. It tries to make everyone appear intolerant because the prop 8 supporters believe we’re all intolerant of something*, so they try and paint LGBT people as being intolerant of religion.

They try to paint us as hypocrites in order to level the playing field—if everyone in the fight is a hypocrite, opposed to the rights of their opponents, then that makes LGBT people seem less like the right side of history and more like just another special interest group.

The appropriate deconstruction of the intolerance of intolerance starts with first identifying ourselves: are we hypocrites? The LGBT community is trying to resolve the dispute between moral conflict and liberty by erring on the side of LGBTs. In that sense, we are requesting to place some restrictions on religious belief and practice—that a justice of the peace could not decline to marry a homosexual couple even if it offended their conscience. But does that make us hypocrites?

To answer, I’m going to crib from a post by someone else from somewhere else (Special thanks for all involved in this quote’s chain of custody. You know who you are). Glaucus at Ars Technica recently said:

I propose the notion of higher order intolerance. First order intolerance consists of rejecting people for their attribute or traits. Second order intolerance is rejecting people based on their first-order intolerance of others. So, that line about “where the intolerant aren’t tolerated” is really a statement about 2nd order intolerance towards the 1st order intolerant.

If we look at our behavior that’s being called intolerant, it falls under Glaucus’ second order: in other words we are intolerant of certain actions, but not necessarily the beliefs that inform those actions. As evidence, let me offer up the text of any anti-discrimination law that says regardless of race, religion, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. That law unequivocally grants the same protections to religious people that it does to gay people. If you can’t be fired for being gay, you can’t be fired for being a Christian, either.

But antidiscrimination laws don’t touch on the issues at hand in Peter Vadala’s lawsuit against Brookstone. He lost his job for expressing anti-gay sentiment on the job, which is a good bit different than losing one’s job because of being a Christian. An out and proud gay person could have just as much difficulty on the job were they outspoken and offensive enough. Indiscriminately blasting religion in front of religious co-workers should earn one as quick a trip to the HR penalty box as Vadala received for expressing anti-gay sentiment.

I am not intolerant of Vadala’s opinion. He’s entitled to it. But the line is drawn and crossed when that opinion gets expressed to a co-worker and that person feels uncomfortable or threatened or demeaned. That’s the difference: Vadala was criticizing the action of the co-worker marrying her same sex partner which looks like second order intolerance on its face. What he’s really attacking however, is the underlying relationship and attraction that might lead two women to get married in the first place, which is an attribute, and thus first order intolerance.

The fundamental difference then, between the religious right and the LGBT community seems to be a conflict between actions and beliefs, deeds and words. When the LGBT community speaks out against discriminatory actions directed at LGBT people, the religious right decries that criticism as hypocritical intolerance.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to expand on my brother’s refusal to accept me as his sister. When I try to tell him that his behavior towards me is intolerant, he tries to turn it around on me. At one point in a conversation last year, he said to me “What gives you the right to take away my brother and change everything I know?” The answer, aside from what I said (“Because I’m a transsexual”) is really “Because I transitioned.” It’s the action, the thing that I did, that really made me different.

My protestations affirming my gender identity or his protestations against don’t have much impact on the discussion. I transitioned, and as a result I have changed**. When I talk to my brother though, it’s what he says, in his eyes, that really matters. He may not let me in his house, but as long as he reaffirms his love for me, in his mind, that makes it all okay. My experience is drastically different than his. What I see is that he claims one thing, while his actions are saying something completely contradictory. This is a difference between us that runs very deep, it goes deeper than religion and hits at the very core of who we are as individuals***.

But religion does factor into this. The differences between us, I believe, could most easily be summed up as a conflict between faith and works. My brother places a lot of emphasis on what he says, which indicates what he believes about his faith. I place a lot of emphasis on treating people with dignity and respect, on letting my actions speak for my faith. The lines between us get crossed because I don’t understand his words without the context of consistent action: I don’t feel loved by my brother because the way he treats me is the antithesis of loving one’s neighbor regardless of what he might say, or how he might try to make it sound like he’s doing this for my own good.

He doesn’t understand me because I emphasize what I do, how I want to be treated, and how I might treat him, while completely disagreeing with and rejecting his words, beliefs, and faith interpretation. To him, that feels like I’m being intolerant of his beliefs when what I’m really expressing is intolerance for his actions. He is free to believe whatever he wants about me, but not to treat me in a way that is void of dignity and respect for my identity.

He thinks that I’m being unfair, that I’m lumping him in with a bunch of people that he’s not necessarily similar to and he’s right about that, at least to the extent that I categorize him based on his actions. The reason I do that is because the things that he says and does are hurtful to me, and are similar to other hurtful experiences I’ve had. I am emotionally distancing myself from a relationship that doesn’t have any affirmative value because divorcing myself from that hurt is better for me at this point.

I’ve tried to explain this to him, and tried to get him to understand. I talk about how we go around in circles, but the truth is that we’ve done no such thing. I’ve gone around in circles with others and I’ve seen how so much of that is just so much wasted time and logical fallacies and differences in Bible interpretation. As the kids say, “You can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.” With my brother,we’ve discussed how he views my transition, that he thinks transition is the wrong decision and at this point, I can’t talk to him anymore.

The problem with naysayers like my brother is that they don’t have alternative treatments to offer, they don’t have any special insight into my condition, and the truth is that they just don’t know what it’s like to have a cure in reach and have people tell you that it’s a morally compromised decision to take hold of it. Before the description was removed from the title, Gender Identity Disorder used to be referred to as Gender Dysphoria, literally a depression caused by one’s gender. This isn’t some bullshit that trans people make up so we can mutilate ourselves. Those feelings and the depression are real, and when things are at their worst, the finger waggers aren’t the ones that deal with the pieces that we break into. As far as I’m concerned, trying to make people do what you want and absenting yourself the rest of the time isn’t an attempt to do the right thing or help someone avoid a grievous mistake. It’s an attempt to be a watchman, except there’s none of the action you might expect. In this case, the watchman blows the trumpet to cover his own ass and then, rather than helping people get to shelter, or rallying the army, he runs and hides, his duty having been fulfilled. While I might respect that the watchman at least stands by the conviction to speak the truth, I don’t respect the further actions that are informed by those beliefs. In other words, I don’t believe our obligation to others ends once we have sounded the alarm.

To people that fancy themselves modern day prophets I reply that it’s not my place to be the punching bag for other people or their religious beliefs. Transition was a hard thing, and more stressful than I would have liked. But I made it, my job is still here, my wife is still here, my home is still here. But it hurt me. I’ve been hurt. And now I feel like I want some peace. If people don’t want to accept me as I am, then I don’t want to go through the emotional wringer for them. That they may be unaware that they’re being rude doesn’t absolve them of their guilt. The things they say hurt and I’m not interested in being hurt anymore, for any reason.

Late last year, I asked Christine to talk to my parents. I’d had enough of them, I didn’t want to deal with the pain, and I’d have given anything for it to stop, even if it meant never seeing them again. The day she called, Christine phoned me, crying. It took several minutes for both of us to calm down enough for her message to come out cleanly—my parents were acting completely different.

They were apologetic, sorrowful and desirous to make amends with us. I was flummoxed. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen them a few times, and while I’m not certain that this represents a certain change on their part, they are treating me like a human being again. I’m not certain how they really feel about my transition, but they’ve said that they realize that they have no place to judge my actions. It’s short of a statement of full and complete acceptance, but it’s a lot better than the position we were in for most of last year. Assuming that the visceral reaction, the internal belief of my parents hasn’t changed, then we’re agreeing to disagree. If I am a sinner, then they are succeeding at loving me while hating my sin and that makes them one of the best examples of Christianity that I’ve seen in a long time.

I think if you want people to be tolerant of your views, then you have to be tolerant of theirs. That’s something that the religious right fails to do, something that only a very few people are able to get right. That is where second order intolerance comes in: when the majority fail to get it right, the minority appeal to the courts to overturn the tyranny. That’s not disrespectful of the beliefs of people who think that being gay is a sin, it’s an attempt to re-establish the dignity and worth of every human being, regardless of race, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity, to exhibit a little second order intolerance. In short, by challenging the constitutionality of Prop 8, we are decrying the way we are treated, not what other people believe. While the supporters of Prop 8 are defending their first order intolerant actions by claiming to have friendships with gay people, they’re working to disenfranchise those same friends****. That’s intolerant and duplicitous, not being in the right.

Being intolerant of intolerance is a mature understanding that there are some restrictions to liberty when living in a society. We work for the greater good and respect the dignity of all people, whether they’re like us or not. First order intolerance is the insistence of having it our way, which isn’t always possible.

The petulant thing for Prop 8 supporters to do would be to insist on upholding Prop 8 and then to work on getting similar bans passed in other states. The mature thing is to realize that they can just not get a gay marriage while leaving others free to live their lives as they see fit.


* The supporters of Prop 8 believe that there are more people who are intolerant towards bestiality, polygamy and inbreeding than people who are intolerant merely of gay marriage. If the pro 8 side can convince people there’s a slippery slope link between gay marriage and these socially unacceptable relationships, it’s possible to rally a lot more people to the pro 8 cause. I’m not sure how effective these tactics actually were at getting out the Yes on 8 vote, but the fact that these things even come up during a campaign seems like nothing more than a smear attempt.

** It’s weird when people say that transition doesn’t change who you are. If I wasn’t going to change at all, then why on earth am I going to all this trouble, spending all this money, using up all this time, jumping through all these hoops just to be the same person? It’s inconceivable. It’s not a case of Jekyll and Hyde as much as it is a metamorphosis. Like any chrysalitic organism, there are some traits that remain consistent between the pre- and post- metamorphic forms. If you look at those two photos, there are drastic differences but there’s also something weirdly similar about them, too. At least, I always tend to think so. And I think it’s kind of the same thing with anyone who undergoes a drastic life change: they’re going to be wildly different than what you remember but you will still be able see underlying parts of the person that you knew. I hope that at least the Dr. Who fans that are reading this will have a clear understanding of my clumsy words.

*** As a transsexual, I experience my gender in an action-oriented way: I perform various gender roles, not necessarily expecting my proclamation of being female to be sufficient to convince people of the fact that I’m a woman. That’s something I was trying to get at on my “About” page—if I wanted people to really see me as a woman, I had to transition. It was the action, not the words, that would make it real for all of us. And it has. Being female is different than feeling female or wanting to be female.

**** When I hear members of the religious right say that they have gay friends, I feel like replying, “No you don’t. No one treats their friends like that.”