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A life more tolerable
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What do you call two hundred gays, lesbians, African Americans, old people, deaf people, people in wheelchairs, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Ba’hai gathering in the Civic Center?

The Tolerance Summit of course. What, you were expecting an inappropriate punchline?

Intolerance, of course, is no joke. (Unless we’re talking about gasbag politicians and certain types of cheese.) Life is pretty serious when another week brings another massacre and the conversation about civil rights has been reduced to a fast food chicken sandwich. Maybe we all need a refresher on the concept of “liberty and justice for all.”

The first of its kind, the City of Savannah hosted summit brought together every shade and stripe of Savannahian: Shmoozing in the third floor ballroom were folks from the local chapter of the NAACP, Savannah Pride, the Savannah-Chatham Fair Housing Council and the Chatham County Association for the Deaf, the latter signing vivaciously up front.

Rabbi Robert Haas shook hands with Imam Maajid F. Ali and Reverend Billy Hester. Eldercare nurse Barbara Dunn hung out with the kids from the Chatham County Youth Commission. Mayor Edna Jackson doled out hugs like free candy.

This was no mere tolerance summit, this was a lovefest.

But can a convergence of Savannah’s micro-cultures actually move things further towards the civil society most of us would like to inhabit? Or is this just the choir preaching to itself?

“Let’s face it, no one just wandered in here,” admitted organizer Pam Miller. “A lot us have spent most of our lives working to end discrimination in some way.”

An offshoot of Miller’s collaboration with local police that began in 2007 in response to concerns in the LGBT community, the summit was conceived as a jumping-off point for community organizers, city officials and police officers, who in turn can figure out “best practice” models in the schools and on the streets. It might not achieve world peace tomorrow, but it did finally—if I may borrow a phrase—“bring everyone to the table.”

“Be patient. This is simply a place to start,” explained Miller to all the different kinds of humans in the room, who she implored to “listen for the things that make us the same.”

After a spread of fruit and cookies (chocolate chips are always a strong centralizing force), the summit began with an education panel about hate crime legislation mediated by U.S. Dept. of Justice community relations specialist Suzanne Buchanan. It was enlightening—and frightening—to learn that the federal umbrella that makes it illegal to discriminate based on race and religion does not extend to gender identity or sexuality, nor are there any such laws on the state or local levels. (The city does extend full partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees and expressly includes gender identity in its non-discrimination clause.)

While Savannah’s crime stats contain a fairly low incidence of hate-based incidents, they still happen: The 2003 fire of the Islamic Center has long suspected to have been the work of anti-Muslim perpetrators, and though the two Marines who beat Kieran Daly unconscious in Johnson Square in 2010 were not prosecuted under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, many in the LGBT community still feel this was a “miscarriage of justice.”

But it’s those quieter instances of prejudice that happen between people all day long, in restaurants, at work, in the apartment manager’s office and in the classroom where the work needs to be done.

As Miller put it: “There’s a lot in Savannah that goes unsaid.”

Perhaps the most useful element of the summit was to provide a big room for all the disparate groups that have been separated, judged, underrepresented and vilified to come together to make a single point: We are all full and meaningful members of this society and want to be treated as such, and we believe everyone deserves the same. No exceptions.

“It doesn’t mean we have to like each other,” reminded Marsha Ibsen, representing the transgender community.

It seems to me that as hard as the blacks and the Jews and the gays and the poor have had it, transgender folk are by far the most misunderstood and maltreated in our society. Ibsen’s appeal that “we’re not as different from you as you think” rang true as she described a life centered around family and work. As I sat listening to this woman who has risked so much to bravely express her authentic self, a thought began to nag my brain.  

Is the term “tolerance” really good enough? Doesn’t it imply some kind of munificent suffering, as if you’re doing a person some great favor by acceding to their right to exist?

Tolerance is not the same as acceptance, which in turn isn’t the same as respect. And while it’s on the right path, respect isn’t the thing that will finally heal the community and maybe this whole world. That is going to take compassion. Lots of it.

But I don’t care how committed to human equality you are, after three hours, sitting in a room talking about tolerance starts to get, well, a little intolerable.

Somewhere during the second panel long after the cookies were gone, Imam Ali cleared his throat to say he had been fasting during the day for the month of Ramadan and excused himself to go eat.

Shortly thereafter, the older gentleman behind me crankily whispered to his wife that he was “never letting you drag me to one of these again” and clomped off with his walker.

The mood got loopier as the dinner hour came and went. Mayor pro tem Van Johnson was pacing the back of the room, carrying the mayor’s purse. I commented it matched his shoes, and he struck a pose. “Hey, I’m being inclusive.”

I hope he’ll bring the same sense of playfulness in addressing the issues brought up at the summit. Maybe instead of more task forces, the city will throw more parties where everyone is invited. Two hundred people came to the tolerance summit, but I bet 2000 would have shown up for some live music with one of Savannah’s fabulously diverse bands, like Word of Mouth or the superfunkalicious Soap. Let’s get local percussionist David Pleasant to teach us how to make music together. Let’s dance under the rainbow of our city’s glorious diversity.

We can do better than to simply tolerate each other. We don’t have to like each other, but if we keep talking and laughing and dancing, we might find out we actually do.