This post is part of a small series of vignettes, which comprise an overview of some of the ideas and content of the book that I’m currently writing. This section reflects a portion of part II of my memoir, which focuses on sexuality. Read more about the project here, and my post on part I here.
Summary: In Wayne County, there is a group of individuals who are invisible, at least in one way, and the general community’s response is apathy. These individuals are the LGBTQ citizens of the County. Apathy may be relatively preferable to persecution, and it may look like tolerance, but is not the latter, and has many of the same effects as the former. Even for social conservatives, net benefits lie with only tolerance or acceptance.
Our culture recognizes three possible verdicts from the social judgment of LGBTQ people: acceptance, tolerance, and rejection. The coastal cities are known for the first, a mixed variety is known for the second, and the South is known for the third. But Wayne County and the rural Midwest, of which it is constituent, do not cleanly express any one of these. Each of these three verdicts is the result of a judgment, which implies a conclusion drawn from and based upon contemplation of the facts of reality. The fact of the case is the existence of LGBTQ people; they all assume and agree with this fact, even as they judge it differently.
Wayne County culture presents a fourth option, apathy, which avoids judgement and a consequent verdict, because it does not seriously inquire as to the fact of the case. In the minds of many people in the County, the cultural status quo regarding gay people is fine. It is a vague disapproval that is not sufficiently strong to provoke any attention-grabbing acts of persecution. Although this could be mistaken for tolerance, apathy and tolerance are completely different, with apathy generating a net negative in comparison. It is time for Wayne County to move beyond apathy regarding LGBTQ people.
As far as I can discern, the apathy that Wayne County culture has toward LGBT people is the result of the convergence of two separate social trends.
(1) First, the evolution of social norms in any arena is usually slow, especially in the absence of a group demanding change. The LGBTQ citizens of the County are not socially visible. They are a relatively small portion of the population, many are closeted or fear coming out, and there are not many (any?) County-wide organizations that aggregate their presence and voices.
(2) Second, norms are slow to change absent any emergency or event that demands attention. Although LGBTQ people face prejudice, it is more often insidious, rather than overt, and therefore easy to ignore. In general, LGBT people aren’t calling attention to themselves, and nothing else is either. Apathy regarding their lives is understandable, even as it is unfortunate.
The cultural apathy is further sustained by Wayne County’s preference for the status quo, blended with its aversion to overt bigotry. The latter means that contemporary Wayne County will not reject LGBTQ people, but the former means that they will also ignore them to preserve the current social status quo. To not ignore, and to recognize, requires that one judge LGBTQ people and render a social verdict on them. Acceptance and tolerance break the status quo, which is undesirable, and rejection requires the commission of acts that Wayne County culture could not abide. The County is stuck: it will not sink to rejection, but it will not rise above apathy either.
This situation is bad for everyone. Because being apathetic means never actually sitting down and thinking out what one thinks about LGBTQ people, one never chooses a verdict: acceptance, tolerance, or rejection. For non-LGBTQ people, this means implicitly endorsing and allowing the remains of the past verdicts of others to prevail as the status quo (which means: endorsing the remains of bigotry and rejection). For LGBTQ people, this means that one is never sure of how one will be received socially. For the whole County, it can mean economic and brain drain. The LGBTQ people who grow up there compose a brilliant, talented group of individuals—and they are leaving in the face of this solid wall of apathy.
Even if one is a social conservative who disapproves of LGBTQ people, one’s best option is still to recognize their existence, dissuade others from rejecting them, and civilly welcome them as members of the community: or, tolerate if one cannot accept. Consider the recent example of the state of Utah: although its conservative government unequivocally disapproves of LGBTQ people, it chose to pass a bill that increased civil rights protections for them (with exceptions for religious institutions). This bill was approved by the ACLU, various LGBTQ rights groups, and the Mormon church. By choosing tolerance, Utah ensured civility and a steady social path forward—and avoided what Wayne County’s Indiana did not with its intolerant Senate Bill 101, which injured the reputation and treasury of the state.
When I observe the culture of Wayne County, I am optimistic, especially compared to when I was growing up there as a closeted gay man. I am asking the County to move away from apathy regarding LGBTQ people, and I think that most will embrace either tolerance or acceptance (as many already do). But this venture is not just the task of non-LGBTQs. Lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and trans individuals should, if they want visibility, become visible. Discuss your life and its unique challenges and rewards with those around you, and become models for other people, yet closeted, who are wondering how they will survive coming out. Engage in civic processes, and draw courage from one another. To move away from apathy, everyone must first realize that it is a problem, and that rewards lay in the verdicts of tolerance and acceptance. And then, one must act.
 These are cultural averages, which is to say that you will find some of all judgments in every area. Unless otherwise specified, the use of “acceptance,” “tolerance,” “apathy,” and “rejection” all refer to the average of individual judgments in a culture. Furthermore, an accepting person can perform actions that are not accepting, a tolerant person can perform acts of rejection, &c.