Situational Tolerance

Few would contest that our society is more tolerant towards LGBT sexualities than in the past, but the acceptance of difference is by no means evenly spread. The way I have been seeing things recently is that there are little pockets of tolerance within most fields, and in most of these fields, it is perfectly acceptable – even expected – that participants might be gay. But this distribution, what I’m calling situational tolerance, allows the majority of society to remain unchanged and the status quo to be characteristically unerred.

I’ll give an example. I have elderly relatives who are painfully intolerant: they collect -isms with the voracious hunger of a 90s kid on a Pokemon card binge. When it comes to gays, they hold on to their essentialist stereotypes and prejudices at all costs. Having said this, they cannot get enough of camp comedians – Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Alan Carr, David Walliams and Matt Lucas for example. This particular gay identity is one that they feel comfortable with and they are happy to spend an afternoon watching the Carry On films; but if these men decided they wanted to become teachers, they would be seen as a corrupting threat.

The idea of a ‘tolerant society’ is over-generalising to the extreme – tolerance is not something fixed but relational, contextualised and, as I have stated, situational. It would be very hard to say conclusively that homosexuals are ‘accepted’ in society – what does this mean? There may well be a greater representation of LGBT identities on TV, the gay glass ceiling may be broken in many companies due to anti-discriminatory legislations but there are numerous other situations in which one’s homosexuality would be frowned upon, stigmatised and far less ‘tolerated’. Male homosexuality is tolerated in those locations – both spatial and social – where it has developed a rooting: art schools, drama schools, certain professions, certain degree courses. Female homosexuality, from what I have seen, is still far more stigmatised, and stigmatising, in society than is male homosexuality but is more expected and tolerated in sports clubs and among the younger generation. And of course, it is more tolerated to be gay in the metropolis rather than to be a talking point of a tight-knit community out in the sticks.

Situational intolerance can be found in the distinction between pop music and rap (although even gay pop stars tend towards remaining more or less closeted until they have a secure fanbase). The world of male sports remains a bastion of homophobic intolerance, and it’s status quo defends its vehement heteronormativity to the extent that gay athletes are advised to remain in the closet for their own sake. Most of you will know already that there has only ever been one out homosexual footballer, Justin Fashanu, and after coming out he suffered nearly a decade of abuse before committing suicide. He came out in 1990 and twenty years later, he remains the only one. An interesting piece in Saturday’s Guardian stated that Max Clifford is working to ‘keep the sexuality of “two or three big stars” secret’.

I struggle to see how a society in which footballers are compelled to employ a millionaire publicist in order to ensure they keep their identity hidden, ‘for their own sake’. Likewise, how tolerant is a society in which three in five young gay and lesbian pupils who experience homophobic bullying feel unable to report it, and of those that do, 63% report that the teachers in whom they confided did nothing. And in which 97% of gay pupils hear derogatory phrases such as ‘dyke’ and ‘poof” used regularly in school.

Situational tolerance – Alan Carr’s autobiography may have been a bestseller, but it is the prevalence of homophobic abuse in schools better illustrates the true colours of what remains a far from accepting society when it comes to homosexuality.


  1. Vicky Woolley

    This is something which has been on my mind of late as well. I watched an ‘Our World’ report on gay rights in Uganda on the BBC News Channel, presented by John Simpson. The spotlight he shone on the Ugandan situation was welcome and thought-provoking, but it made me very angry that he compared Uganda to ‘the West, where homosexuality has now been accepted’. Within the London-centric media bubble in which BBC journos move it may have been accepted, on paper at least, but that sort of blanket judgement can be nothing other than damaging, and simply offensive to the LGBT people suffering real harrasment and discrimination.

  2. John

    The bit about schools is such an unbelievably important thing and it receives almost no mainstream attention. There needs to be serious action to purge schools of homophobia. In my school, which was not particularly conservative or regressive, there was not a single gay person out in my year or the years below (comprising several hundered people). No one could be accused of homophobic bullying because there were no homosexuals to bully. The people who were gay were far too intimidated by the casual homophobia they heard everyday to come out. It was horrific, but nobody questioned it at all.

    Your point about situational tolerance is a good one and is exemplified by gay pride parades which are in many ways a vehicle for people to diffuse their guilt about their own intolerance. People see a parade, and they feel good about living in a tolerant society, but they don’t get involved, and they still don’t feel comfortable with gay people being involved in more normal or everyday parts of society with which they have to interact. (Obviously I’m not saying pride parades are a bad thing overall!!)

    Ironically, the reverse side of this is that when intolerant people do have to interact with the people they don’t wish to tolerate, they normally become more tolerant. When your fear, in this case “homosexuality”, confronts you and turns out to be perfectly agreeable, you become less afraid and more tolerant. Thus intolerance is vicious circle, in which people can marginalise their fear (i.e. be situationally tolerant) and so never take the step required to become more tolerant, namely, interaction.

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