Consider just a few 21st century facts, and then try to project them back 50 years: Openly gay and transgender people serving in our government and legislative branch as we fight for marriage equality. America’s last two Secretaries of State? Women, one of them black, one of them a serious contender for the White House. Black man in the current White House. Well-known and well-respected women publicly and often angrily expressing women’s right to bodily autonomy; well-known and well-respected men supporting them, publicly, and often angrily.
I know I frequently say some version of “Hey, look, things are so much better than they used to be,” but I’m not saying that here. I’m not comparing today to the day I was born. I’m comparing today to every single moment of human history. And we’re recreating ourselves.
Because every single one of the items mentioned above was effectively unimaginable once, and not at all long ago either. If we consider the entire expanse of human history, and then look at the changes wrought in Western society in the last four decades alone, it’s actually quite startling.
Each of the examples I’ve provided (and many, many others that are not reducible to a single sentence or sentence fragment) represents in turn the hopes and dreams and literal blood and tears of uncounted, uncountable people. People who died dreaming only of the vote. Or of a life lived without violence. Or of the freedom to make decisions based on internal truths, rather than external pressures. People who died never, ever imagining the world as it looks today.
What we’re doing today has never been done before. Sure, there was that thousand year stretch when dudes who were brown (roughly and metaphorically speaking) ruled the known world (starting with the dudes in the Arabian Peninsula and eventually leading to the dudes in Istanbul), and one would be hard-pressed not to notice that Asian dudes ruled the Asian Empires — but: a) DUDES, and b) in each of those cases, one had to be of the right clan/color/faith system/what-have-you to wield power or even personal autonomy. The kind of radical, universal equality that so many of us have begun to see as the default of human existence has literally never existed in human history.
And so my point is: That’s why it’s hard.
That’s why it all moves in fits and starts and we have fights about words and about who gets to say what about whom and every two steps forward serve as but a precursor to one step right the hell back. Because we have never, ever done this before. We are creating something New, and we don’t even, really, know how to imagine it yet.
I’m not saying that the battles have be won. They haven’t. They’ll never be won. Every time that something Gets Better, we’ll uncover something else we didn’t realize we had to do. There are questions that my grandchildren will face that I cannot even imagine in 2012.
And having said that: Wow. Think about it. Think about the fact that gay men and lesbians got married before God and family in Washington state this weekend, and then think about the entire rest of human history.
Update: Speaking of which…. Just look at these pictures from Seattle’s City Hall.