These words are often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., who was paraphrasing 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker when he spoke them. Whoever first came up with the concept, it has given comfort to many activists and freedom fighters over the years. Be patient, it says. This will be a long fight, but we will win; not just because we're right and they're wrong, but because this is the way the world works.
The good news is that the arc of the moral universe still seems to be bending in the right direction, and the better news is is that it doesn't seem to take as long as it used to. Or at least that's what everyone's saying about the most recent battle for equal treatment under the law: the gay rights movement.
Specifically, when it comes to attitudes about the right of same-sex couples to marry, the change seems to be fairly rapid, especially when you compare this right to the right of women to vote, or the right of people of color to learn and work and live alongside their more traditionally privileged -- white -- fellow citizens.
It's happened so fast, in fact, that many wonder if the shift is reversible -- more of a whim than an actual sea change. Of course, none of us can predict the future, but I'll put my money on the table with Theodore Parker. Things will go our way, mostly because we have the truth on our side. But even I've been surprised - albeit pleasantly - at how quickly this is all happening.
While there have been a number of social movements for equal treatment under the law on behalf of disenfranchised groups of people, the three that stand out the most in my mind are the suffrage movement which aimed to get women the vote, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's, which led to such victories as the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (among others), and the LGBT rights movement of today, which has yet to result in a nationwide ENDA or full marriage equality for all Americans - but it will, I'm confident.
And sooner than we thought. And I think there might be a couple of reasons for that.
1) Civil Rights for White Guys
The most obvious difference between the three movements is, of course, visual. When we think of the most prominent leaders in the quest for equality under the law for LGBT persons, the images that most of us conjure up are of white gay men like Harvey Milk, Larry Kramer, or Dan Savage. Sure, there were others - Bayard Rustin was a gay rights activist before anyone knew what that meant, and I dare say that Ellen DeGeneres has done as much for the LGBT community as anyone in our history.
And yet, the picture that most people have in their minds when they think of the "gay community" is a group of well-groomed, manicured, athletic white men with perfect hair and shiny teeth. And whoever is responsible for that image is certainly up for debate; many within the LGBT activist community point the finger squarely at each other for sidelining the contributions of women and people of color in our struggle, while others blame the media, and still others say that society at large still allows white men to be more visible than anyone else. And there's probably some truth in all three of those scenarios; they're not mutually exclusive, and in fact, probably symbiotic.
But it helps when those who are being treated differently look the same as those who have traditionally held all of the power. The "look, we're just like you" tactic goes a long way when we do actually look just like you, and you just happens to be the group with the most power. Also, having a lot of white guys in our movement allows us to be angrier. One need only look so far as how Rosie O'Donnell was perceived once she came out as a lesbian and dropped the "Queen of Nice" persona to see how difficult it is to be a) pissed off, b) anything other than white or male, and c) listened to and taken seriously. And we need to be angry if we're going to get anything done. White guys can get angry and still be listened to. Shouldn't be that way, but there it is.
2) Will Portman
If you don't know who Will Portman is, it's okay; he's not exactly a household name. He is the son of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who recently became the first sitting US Senator from the Republican Party to endorse the right of gay people to marry each other. And he did it, he said, largely in part because his beloved son, Will, is gay.
|Will Portman (l), Sen. Rob Portman (r)|
And I get it, I really do. But I also believe that this is how change happens. Harvey Milk once urged all LGBT people to come out of the closet, to their parents, to their friends, and co-workers, and neighbors. He stopped short of asking people to come out to total strangers (it was the 1970's, after all), but he knew intrinsically that it was much more difficult to hate gay people if you know gay people. And that everyone knows gay people; sometimes, they just don't know they know them.
So is Senator Portman a hero? Maybe, maybe not. But Will Portman is a superhero in my book. It was tough enough for me to come out to my father, and my father was not a Republican Senator who had publicly opposed gay marriage in the past. Will is the personification of Harvey Milk's words, and one of the reasons why we'll eventually win this thing. Because not only does everyone know us, everyone's related to at least one of us. And it's hard to hate your flesh and blood. It's not impossible (I'm looking at you, Newt & Phyllis), but a little more difficult than hating someone you'd never met and would cross the street to avoid.
But, I hear you say, what about women's rights? All men have mothers, and many have daughters and sisters. And it took a freakishly long time for women to secure the vote, and they still make 78 cents to the dollar. And you're right. And even though I've singled out Will Portman to make my point about all of us in our (mostly) straight families, I did so on purpose. Because until Will came out to his dad, he was a young, white man, raised in economic privilege and headed to Yale University, of all places. It's likely that our friend the Senator had a very clear picture of who Will was and what he was going to become, and was therefore shocked to learn that, in the eyes of the law, he is not an equal citizen of this country he serves. Will wasn't minimized from birth the way so many women have been (and yes, continue to be), and the injustice was therefore a little more galling. Shouldn't be that way, but there it is.
3) The Twitter Machine
And this, I think, is the biggest differentiator yet. Imagine what might have happened if Susan B. Anthony had a Twitter account. Or if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a blog.
Dr. King spoke some of the most inspirational words we Americans have been lucky enough to hear from one of our fellow citizens, and yet - unless you were lucky enough to attend one of his speeches in person - every word we heard was filtered through our media. A white man somewhere - or, more likely, a room full of white men - decided that his words were newsworthy, or decided that we didn't need to hear them. In contrast, the struggle for LGBT civil rights is being fought in the age of the internet, and the differences are startling.
If you want information these days, you can get it yourself. There are 31 billion searches on Google every month. In the age of radio, it took 38 years for a single piece of information to reach a market of 50 million people. The invention of the television reduced that time frame to 13 years. The internet allowed this to happen in 4 years, and the introduction of Facebook reduced time to market to 2 years.
|Facebook is totally gay.|
And that, I believe - more than any other reason - is why the LGBT rights movement has moved faster than anyone ever thought it would. It's not a whim, and it's not entirely because we're still a bunch of racists and sexists (except that we kinda are, still). It's mostly because the whole world just moves a lot faster than it used to, and the struggle for equality under the law, regardless of sexual orientation, just happens to be a beneficiary of that. And funny cat videos. But that's another topic for another day.