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Separate and Unequal
Toxic Tolerance

Lawrence King, murdered in February

I’ve been thinking about Roger Williams, Lawrence King and Sarah Palin.

I didn’t know anything about Roger Williams beyond the fact that he was the founder of Rhode Island. Reading a reappraisal of him recently, I was left with the sense that if there is a candidate deserving of Mount Rushmore—more deserving than Teddy Roosevelt, who’s already there, or Ronald Reagan, whose fan club wants him there—it’s Williams. We could use his thinking.

After resettling from England to Plymouth Colony, Williams got into trouble for condemning Christians’ arbitrary seizures of Indians’ lands and—a first on this continent—for publicly opposing oaths of loyalty (no “right” and “wrong” America for this guy). Tipped off about his imminent arrest, he fled and founded Rhode Island. For the first time in America, a European colony recognized the humanity of Indians and blacks (slavery was abolished in Rhode Island in 1652) and explicitly forbade their persecution. When the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony invited Williams to return, Williams wrote back: “I feel safer down here among the Christian savages along Narragansett Bay than I do among the Savage Christians of Massachusetts Bay Colony.”

Williams is the inventor of liberty as a celebration of dignity. It’s liberty that goes beyond mere tolerance. It wasn’t enough for Williams to define freedom as the Puritan colonists did—as a set of rules beyond which your freedom became a crime. The same respect and protection had to be extended equally to one’s neighbors, however different they might be. It sounds obvious. It wasn’t then: Dissenters were punished or executed. In some respects, it still isn’t today.

I didn’t know anything about Lawrence King, as most of us didn’t, a 15-year-old middle-schooler in California, until a few months ago. At 10, he declared to a friend that he was gay. By the time he was 15, he was dressing as a girl, wearing makeup, and flirting with boys no differently from girls who flirt with boys, or vice versa. Last February, he asked a 14-year-old boy to be his valentine. The next day the boy got up from his seat during class, took out a gun and shot Lawrence twice. Lawrence died. The 14-year-old is going on trial as an adult for first-degree murder and may spend the rest of his life in prison. I don’t know what’s more insane: the murder or the punishment, considering that neither boy is at fault for his fate nearly as much as the bullying prejudices immersing both.

The reactions, so many of them hinting at Lawrence inviting his own end, have been revolting. Lawrence is being blamed for wearing his sexuality on his sleeve, though no one would dare blame heterosexual boys or girls from flirting with each other as clumsily and aggressively as they sometimes do at this age. He’s being blamed for wearing girls’ clothes and therefore being “disruptive,” as if a boy wearing girls’ clothes should be any more disruptive than a girl wearing jeans or a boy wearing “boy” clothes. His school is blamed for being both too permissive and too ignorant of middle-schoolers’ identity issues. Lawrence came from a broken home, so did his killer, so social conservatives are blaming those factors, too.

For all the progress that has been achieved, American society remains collectively bigoted toward gays even as it pretends to be tolerant. It’s the kind of tolerance that, when Sarah Palin was asked in a debate whether she supported extending Alaska’s same-sex benefits to couples to the rest of the nation, she replied: “Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And, unfortunately, that’s sometimes where those steps lead.” She then claimed she would not be “anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners.” To be fair, none of the presidential candidates supports gay marriage. But none of them relishes reviling the notion as Palin did in her answer while so degrading the notion of tolerance: She’ll do you the favor of tolerating you as long as you don’t cross the line she draws.

It’s the kind of tolerance that draws more on the country’s toxic Puritan strain than on Roger Williams’ idea of liberty—the kind of tolerance that extends civil rights but not equal rights, acceptance but not inclusion, forcible respect but not warmhearted dignity. It’s the kind of tolerance that reminds gays at every turn what’s “normal” and how they’re not. It’s tolerance that breeds judgments of moral superiority. Those judgments’ worst expressions make constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage acceptable, and horrors like the killing of Lawrence King possible. That’s where not taking those steps Sarah Palin is so worried about lead. With tolerance like that, intolerance is one trigger from the next bullet chamber.

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