It is humbling at times to realize that while we have to constantly fight for a better world, it is a better world we are going to get, not a perfect one. One of Barack Obama’s favorite recurring themes in his speeches and writing was the idea, expressed in the preamble to the US Constitution, of a “more perfect Union”, not a perfect one.
Many years ago, I was in a room of Christians who were discussing how to understand sexual orientation in light of the scriptural record, which was something very important to them. These people were not lightweight thinkers – some of them had marched at Selma, others were tax resisters because of their stance on war, and yet others had lived lives devoted to caring for the poor. Their faith was important to them and how they lived.
I noticed early on, however, that every time they referred to LGBT folks, they used the word “homosexuals”. I asked if they could stop that. I told them that I had many gay friends and that none of them used that term to refer to themselves. I told them that one friend told me that every single person who had ever called him a homosexual had wanted him to not be one.
“So, in order to be respectful, I suggest we not do that. There are many words used to generically describe this community, or more accurately, communities, but since you are mostly talking about same-sex attraction, why not just say ‘gay people’?”
And after that, they did.
An elderly man came up to me after the workshop.
“It’s a moving target, isn’t it? When I marched in the ’60s, we were asked to call Black people “Negros”. Then later, it was Afro-Americans, then African-Americans, and now most folks just want to be called “Black”. Which is fine – people get to decide what they want to be called – but the important thing, I think, for us is to make sure we are listening to them”.
I have thought a lot about that conversation over the years. The people who called Black folk “Negros” in the ’60s were on the progressive side of things. But if you were still doing it in 2013, you were a racist. Unfortunately, many organizations and individuals still hold the same views on a variety of issues they held in 1963. Things have changed, but they have not.
The sad thing, though, is that they still see themselves as the progressive person they were back then. They still have a self-concept that sees themselves as forward-thinking, even though they haven’t actually engaged the issue in question for decades, in some cases.
If we want to build a better world than the one in which we currently live, we will have to change. But tomorrow, we have to change again. We have to keep listening, keep engaging, keep thinking, keep building. Because the only constant in this world is change, and if we don’t pay attention, we will get left behind.