12/18/2012 05:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Two Cheers for 'Tolerance'

As I've traveled around the country talking about Oddly Normal, a memoir about raising a gay son in the age of Glee and Tyler Clementi, there's a word that keeps coming up. And every time I hear it, it works its way a little deeper under my skin.

The word is "tolerance" -- as in, "What can we do to promote greater tolerance for gay kids in our schools?"

Now on the surface, that's a great thing, right? Any sensible person wants to fight the cultural laziness that allows bullying and hateful language to flourish in the hallways and cafeterias of our schools. And so part of me feels that I should be grateful to any school that puts tolerance on its agenda.

But there's something about that word, with its connotation of forbearance and gritted teeth, that sets my own teeth on edge.

Tolerance, to use an annoying term of my son's, is meh -- a word that doesn't do much. And it might even do some harm.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. My niece, who came out to her mom a few years ago, recently corrected her mother when she used the word in a conversation in their car. My niece had complained about unequal treatment -- that gay people seem to be required to declare their sexual orientation by coming out, while nobody expects straight people to announce their sexual orientation to the world. My sister-in-law recalled, "I commented that unfortunately society defines 'normal' as being straight and people have to learn to be tolerant of those who are not straight."

That set my niece off -- the word "tolerate," she said, "means you are just one step above 'hate.'" It took my sister-in-law aback: "It really hit home to me that my 17 year-old had to point that out to me. "

The word isn't going anywhere any time soon. For one thing, there's the very worthy group, Teaching Tolerance, formed by the Southern Poverty Law Center back in 1991 to help teachers combat bias and hatred. They have done great work, and published "Responding to Hate atSchool" in 1999; it's a step-by-step guide that can instruct help administrators, counselors, and teachers to respond quickly and effectively to incidents. But the group's name puts it in a position a bit like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; a name with historical resonance that unfortunately also harkens back to an older attitude and vocabulary.

Over at PFLAG National, the leading organization for families and allies for the LGBT community, the communications director, Liz Owen, cautioned me about throwing out a word that, while troublesome, still has its uses. In some parts of the country, she said, "at this point, tolerance is the best place for us to start -- because that feels achievable for people who are new in this process." In places where anti-gay sentiment still runs high, "for some people, that is the first step," and "we don't want to shut the door on that conversation." Instead, "it's a huge step forward for some people" who might otherwise reject a family member who comes out to them. "Tolerance is a good place to start," she said. "It's just not where we want to stop."

I called Ellen Kahn, the director of the Family Project for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading group on gay equality issues. She told me that the word irritates her, too. "'Tolerance' means you hold your breath and get through something," she said, like getting a cavity filled. "You 'tolerate' the obnoxious uncle who only comes once or twice a year for visits," or "mosquitos on a summer night." A word like that, well, doesn't get us where we need to be. "It's not about moving, or evolving or growing," she explained.

The underlying problem is this: merely tolerating gay kids -- or any kid who is different -- tends to be a kind of quiet, polite state of mind in which we don't really discuss what's going on, and don't reach for improvement. It's a state that ill serves those kids who might not be bullied by others, but haven't yet come to accept or love themselves. These kids hear the messages that their classmates send when they say that something they don't like is "so gay" and feel it like a bruise. Plenty of gay kids are resilient, but the more emotionally vulnerable ones who take the prejudiced messages of knuckleheads at the lunch table and on their televisions to heart need to hear a countering message that can quiet their bully within.

Our Joseph is one of those kids. He knew he was gay, he's told us, since the age of eight, and being different weighed heavily on him. His mood tended to be dark, and at the age of 13 he tried to take his own life with an overdose of pills. Joe is doing better in high school, where he is happily out and accepted by his community of students in his high school and other activities. He's a regular participant in group discussions at the LGBT Community Center in New York City, which has teen programs that bring kids together and help them understand that they are fully part of society, too -- not kids on the outside looking in. Not kids who are simply being tolerated.

There are better words, better attitudes, Ellen Kahn told me. "We're looking for something a lot like acceptance, affirmation, even respect, celebration." That's the kind of message that helps our kids grow up strong and confident. That's the kind of world we want them to grow up into. Vocabulary alone can't fix our problems. But being mindful of what words do is a great start to making the world the kind of place that will embrace these kids so that they can embrace the world right back.