Brian M., who always makes useful and wise comments here has a lengthy discussion of my previous post, which I hope you will all read. I actually agree with much of it, and appreciate it. Where we differ is in our assessment of the power of individual action, and as I was composing a reply, rather rapidly since Yom Kippur begins at sundown, it occurred to me that I have never told this story on my blog, and should.
My mother and step-mother are lesbians. They have been together since 1979, when I was 7 years old, and my sisters and I grew up in their household. By the time my sister and I knew what lesbians were and this was something unusual, we were made aware in a whole host of ways that this was a dangerous thing in society. My mother and step-mother were very cautious about public evidence of their sexual preference, from necessity. We kept an empty bedroom that was my step-mother's "official" room, so that no one who visited would know they slept together. When my parents divorce was being finalized, both father and mother warned us seperately not, under any circumstances, to mention my mother's sexual preference to the judge who decided custody - because despite the fact that both parents agreed with and had a mutually acceptable arrangement, the judge had the right, power and precedent to take us away from our mother because of her sexual preference.
When it became known at school that my mother was gay, this was a matter of some great violence - my sister and I were both regularly assaulted by schoolmates who had strong opinions on this subject. We got in more than a few fights, and got used to running home from school. There were children not allowed to play with us, or come to our house. There were occasional and frightening acts of anonymous homophobia. There was danger that either could lose their jobs working with children if the circumstances were known. In our religious community, there were dark comments about the inappropriateness of their participating in religious rituals, and no effort to make these comments out of their children's hearing.
All of this occurred in Massachusetts, which was and remains probably the most comfortable state in the Union for gay people to live in - which at the time was the only state with a publically gay congressman and other visible gay public figures. Being gay was dangerous, physically, culturally. It had, to a large degree, to happen in secret.
All this was true when I was 8. By the time I was 18, my step-mother had spoken publically at my high school on being gay, and there was a nascent gay and lesbian student's association, sanctioned by the high school. The acts of homophobia, casual violence and threat and the muttering in church went away, as though they had never been. Responses were positive. Both mother and step-mother were out at work and everywhere else. My mother and step-mother were permitted to raise foster children, and were overwhelmingly praised for providing them with a good and healthy environment to live in. It is hard to describe the difference in the culture, and this is not merely my personal perception, or the difference between childhood and near-adulthood. I know dozens of people who confirm that their world simply, deeply, changed for gay people.
A little less than a decade after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, and a couple of years later, they were married in the city courthouse of their community, and their picture appeared in the newspaper. All of this in 20 years. It was not perfect. It was not pure - homophobia still exists, marriage is not legal in most places, there has been backlash and there is still violence. But the difference between today and 1979 is the difference between night and day.
Brian is certainly right, it would be every kind of hubris to imagine that I could change the world alone, or that any single individual action could be the lever that moved society. And yet, societies change, often radically and rapidly. It would be wrong to identify one single mover that made that change - was it Oprah and Donohue who put gay people on their stages? Was it the Drag Queens at Pride? Was it the slow opening up of people to their parents and families in ways that made them think, "Oh, I cannot generalize on this subject now - it applies to me?" Was it Barney Frank or Roseanne kissing a woman on tv? Was it political action and marches or everyday things people did in their daily lives, when they turned to a colleague and said, "Meet my partner, James." I don't know. But I do believe that every person my mother and step-mother came out to, every time they insisted that we are a normal family, every time I said "my Mom's a lesbian - so what?" that made a difference too. It is not the difference of heroics, or hubris, or single actors. It is the difference of small things, and it was all the difference in the world to me.
When I came out as bisexual in college, I experienced difficulty and challenge, but the overwhelming support of a community, and nothing like what it must have been for my own mother at my age. She, after all, lived in a society where she could literally not know that she was gay, because being gay was so alien and unacceptable that she, like many people of her generation, married a man. I, thankfully, never had to live in that society - and yet she's only 22 years older than I am.
This was more than just that people did, as Brian put, the best worst thing. This was people doing the *RIGHT* thing, and transforming society to make it far better than it was before, and quite rapidly, too. And because I've seen this, I believe it possible. It is not possible to stop all the effects of climate change. It is not possible to do it without pain and discomfort - there was pain and discomfort in the change of society around gays and lesbians. It is not possible for me personally to change the world by myself, except in the tiny and incremental ways that ordinary people do by doing, to the absolute hilt, all the ordinary things they are capable of doing.