Progress is Hard Work

How does change happen?

Too often, we think of broad cultural changes as part of an inevitable sweep of history,  sort of like the process of maturation we go through as individuals: as we grow up, we understand more. This analogy conveniently overlooks the people who grow older but do not grow up. And it overlooks the role that parents, peers and educational institutions play in molding individuals.

Cultural change does not come about accidently either. A lot of blood was spilled in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans—and by forcing legal change, the civil rights movement began the lengthy process of changing attitudes. The evolution from “a woman’s place is in the home” to a society in which working women are a commonplace didn’t begin with bloodshed, but it did begin with suffragette marches and continued with the establishment of feminist organizations like NOW and NARAL. Similarly, the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians has been the product of hard work by gay civil rights organizations.

I mention that because, in my city, it is the time of year for Lambda Legal’s big fundraising dinner. On September 16th, members, supporters and supportive public officials will gather in downtown Indianapolis to hear Zach Wahls, a remarkable young man whose speech to the Iowa legislature went viral a few months ago. At 19, he is representative of a generation that symbolizes the changes in attitudes about gay families—changes that have occurred largely because of the work done by organizations like Lambda.

No organization of which I am aware has been more important than Lambda, although there are certainly many organizations doing great work on behalf of the LGBT community.

The reason I raise the importance of civil rights organizations is that there tends to be a “trajectory” of support for any cause. Early in the movement for equality—whether for African-Americans, women or gays—there is generally a dedicated, even enthusiastic, core group that supports and funds the organizations that have been formed. As those organizations experience successes, as they see progress, and as time passes, the early support dwindles and the enthusiasm flags. (Most recently, you could see this in the fight against AIDS; as new medications were developed and discrimination lessened, so did awareness. The sense of urgency abated.)

It’s well to remind ourselves that winning any battle, let alone the battle for equality, requires persistence above all.

It can be difficult to constantly pump ourselves up, to attend yet another fundraiser, yet another rally. We all get tired of emailing and calling our elected representatives, writing yet another letter to the editor. That’s why organizations are so important—they do the day to day work that absolutely has to be done if a movement is to be successful. Through our donations, we are paying others to be persistent for us. Writing a check is a lot easier for most people than doing the necessary nitty-gritty work.

Writing that check is the least we can do.