Acceptance is not the goal

Gallup just released the results of its annual poll surveying Americans’ moral views on a number of hot topics, from adultery to polygamy to birth control. In general, respondents seem to have grown more progressive. According to Gallup, 59% of Americans believe gay and lesbian relationships are “morally acceptable,” up from 40% in 2001, when the annual questionnaire was first administered. Sixty-three percent of 2013 respondents are alright with teens having sex, compared to 32% 12 years ago. While only 45% of those polled in ’01 “personally believe[d] that in general it is morally acceptable” to have a baby out of marriage, now 60% do. Birth control got the “meh, ok” from 91%.

This is good news. In a country where kids are literally bullied to death for their sexualities, where a gay man was shot down last weekend in New York, where even those who survive often face inexcusable discrimination, the fact that an additional fifth of the country now think the queers shouldn’t all burn in hell is a big deal. A growing acceptance of teen sexuality, I hope, will allow for substantive, positive sex education. Unmarried mothers are unsupported by their government and, too often, their neighbors, so increased tolerance has real, positive effects on real women’s lives.

With that being said, I don’t like the question.

Obviously, if the choices are Americans finding queer relationships “morally acceptable” or “morally wrong”–as Gallup poses the options–I’d rather the former. But the poll’s frame is conservative and stigmatizing, regardless of the outcome. In choosing the categories and asking respondents to deliver ethical verdicts, Gallup reinforces the dangerous power dynamics of the tolerant and the tolerated, the normal and the deviant. Gallup’s choice to ask whether same-sex relationships, but not opposite-sex relationships, are morally acceptable may be explained as a reflection of current debate and law–hetero couples allowed to marry each in every state–but the question still reinforces the division between the default sexuality we will never doubt and the mutant forms whose moral acceptability must be determined.

Besides, I don’t think moral acceptability should be our goal. Let’s aim instead for celebration. This isn’t me griping that we haven’t progressed as far as I’d like: the standard Gallup tested and celebration are fundamentally different forms of engagement. Acceptance admits X behavior or identity isn’t bad. Celebration declares that it’s good. The tolerant are fine that there are gays in the neighborhood, while the celebratory are glad the world is queerWe find positive value where Gallup probes acceptability. We don’t think liberation is found in assimilation.

That difference substantively affects our lives and policies. Tolerance doesn’t disrupt the foundations of an unjust society. Someone might tell Gallup that he thinks gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable but still not want to spend time with the lesbian couple next door or see a man hold his boyfriend’s hand on the street. That’s a quiet homophobia, sure, but it’s still a homophobia that divides communities, isolates sexual minorities, and pressures queers to fade into a straight background. Similarly, a politician can think unmarried mothers aren’t necessarily bad people but, without a celebratory approach, not want to “encourage” that choice by offering supportive structures like state-sponsored daycare.

Gallup obviously doesn’t determine progressive American ideology or strategy, so there’s no reason to think one poll will doom our vision for a queer utopia with childcare and sex ed. But the framing of the questions worries me because it eerily reflects much of contemporary liberal politics. I’m reminded of a common sign allies hold at gay pride parades: “Refuse the hate.” I understand the motivation–there is, indeed, a hell of a lot of hate in this country, and we should reject it–but the sentiment always feels empty. “Ok, I won’t hate you” is miles and miles away from the celebration the street parties are meant to express. (The message is also uncomfortably reminiscent of conservative justifications of heterosexism that pretend that, so long as they promise they don’t hate the gays, their prioritization of straightness is blameless.)

The liberal belief that the height of civilization is to keep out of each others’ business, rather than to build true community, often infects pro-choice rhetoric, too. We declare that no one should interfere with another person’s right to an abortion or birth control (two issues tested by Gallup) without recognizing that reproductive justice requires an active commitment to providing accessible services. Bodily autonomy cannot just be tolerated; we need to assert its positive value and facilitate the fulfillment of reproductive choices.

We may live in a world where it makes sense to a lot of people to ask whether or not unmarried motherhood is morally acceptable. But we don’t have to hold ourselves to the Gallup metric of progress. As Kool & The Gang once said, “let’s celebrate.”

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