January 2012 | On My Mind

In “Ask Rhee Gold” this month (page 116), there’s a letter that’s given me lots to think about. People write to me for advice on an enormous range of issues, and I usually feel that I can offer something useful because I’ve been in the dance field for a long time in a lot of different roles. But some letters, especially the ones that make me really feel someone’s pain, leave me asking myself: What do I say to this person?

The letter is from a woman who’s gone into partnership with her son and opened a dance studio in a small town. The school is doing well and everything seems to be fine until she hears a couple of moms gossiping about her son, who is gay. They’re worried about the “perversion” he’s supposedly bringing to their community.

The woman who wrote to me handled this situation admirably. She didn’t say a word and didn’t even acknowledge that she’d heard their gossip. She could have challenged them, taking them to task for their narrow-mindedness, and the encounter might have ended with her saying a permanent goodbye to two (now former) customers. Telling those women what she thought about them would have felt great—for a little while.

But then, once she cooled down, she might realize that every one of her customers would be sure to hear about the harsh exchange of words. Many would probably feel the need to take sides, and by raising a fuss in public, the school owner would have made that choice harder for them. She would have put them in a position of having to take sides—and siding with her might mean going against the beliefs of women they see at church or at work or at their kids’ school. A public outburst like that would likely make it harder for her other clients to do what they know, deep down, is right.

Attitudes about sexual orientation across the country are changing. People are becoming more tolerant. When they learn that their gay neighbor worries about the same things they do—the crabgrass, the missed garbage pickup, the foreclosed houses down the street—suddenly gay people don’t seem so foreign and threatening. But when we make choosing tolerance harder to do, for no good reason, nobody benefits.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that gay people (or their moms) should put up with insults or injustice without complaint. Nobody wins respect by being a doormat. But between the bigots on one side and the nonjudgmental people on the other, there are a lot of others who aren’t sure what to do. They can be won to the side of tolerance. Sometimes all they need is a nudge.

You can provide that nudge, by practicing tolerance, hiring with diversity in mind, and making sure that everyone—everyone—feels welcome in your school and in your classrooms. It’s that “lead by example” thing. And little by little, slowly but surely, it works.