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By Abby Dees
Thinking Out Loud
While my home state of California is still wrestling with whether allowing gay marriage will send us floating into the Pacific, other states have seen the light and are moving into the 21st century. If voter initiatives don’t ruin it, Maryland and Washington are set to be the seventh and eighth states to recognize same-sex marriage.
Thus it appears that we are generally moving forward, however much the fear mongers are trying to stop us. This seems right, of course, and how things often evolve: in a gentle, steady climb upward, punctuated by a few setbacks but thankfully more victories in the end. Sooner or later, fairness will prevail. It just takes time.
The idea that positive change will always happen “in time” might be the most self-destructive idea there is. It’s a ubiquitous American history trope, and how I learned (or failed to learn) history in high school: The past was mired in myth and darkness, but we evolved steadily in an upward journey toward enlightenment. Cultural progress is a foregone conclusion. When we imagine that thirty years from now we’ll all be wondering what the big deal was, way back when, about LGBT rights, we are invoking this same idea. It’s sort of like saying, “Can you believe we once had segregation?” Sometimes, remembering our ancestors’ ignorance can make us feel good about ourselves now. For example, and with all due respect to amazing actresses in The Help, I felt like that film was supposed to make me feel good about not being a racist without me actually having to do anything.
That’s all right to an extent – such tales about our past can remind us of our shared values. The problem with this kind of thinking, though, is that Time is suddenly the main character in our story and the primary agent of social change. All the choices our forebears made, to be brave or cowardly, to be generous or mercenary, to take action or to indulge complacency, don’t seem to matter much when progress is inevitable either way. And we still get to feel good about the future.
The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’ve been struggling lately to understand why people I care about support candidates who have crappy civil rights records. I haven’t understood how someone could look me in the eye and declare her support for Santorum or [fill in your favorite homophobe] because she’s worried about her taxes, or socialized GodzillaCare, or whatever. I finally understood last week, when my partner reminded me how perplexed her parents were by the fact that we donated a big chunk of money to defeat Prop 8, cash that we could have eaten for all the good it did. Why do we always have to push so hard, they wondered, when things will get better in time?
They might, but not because of time. Time doesn’t care if we spend eternity throwing mud clods at each other. People, on the other hand, have a big stake in the outcome.
Any cultural progress we’ve made has been hard won, and most definitely not a steady climb upward. A few people made a choice one way instead of another and we moved forward – or nearly as often, back. Think of the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson that kept Jim Crow alive for 60 more years. Or the millions lost in the Holocaust – we’ll never know what they would have given the world had they lived. And then there are those chance moments that changed everything: Alexander Flemming was a slob, I’m told, which led to the accidental discovery of Penicillin.
It’s the cumulative effect of all of our choices that moves us along. Everything counts. A donation to the losing side, or a momentary decision to turn left, not right.
Last month in Maryland, Republican delegate Wade Kach, an opponent of same-sex marriage, found himself seated next to a number of same-sex couples testifying at a committee hearing: “I saw so much love,” he said. “When this hearing was over, I was a changed person in regard to this issue.” He voted for progress the next week.