Don't Worry, It's Coming!

By Larry Sheber

Today's topic is entitled "Don't Worry, It's Coming," or as we say here in north Georgia "Don't Y'all Fret None, It'll Be Here Straightaway."

Probably most of you are thinking: what is coming and why should I worry if it doesn't? All humor aside, what I'm speaking about this morning are equal rights and the sometimes unequal distribution of civil and political rights in our country; specifically the rights of women, African Americans, Gays and Lesbians. I chose these groups because their struggles have been well documented. But it is important to remember that when we talk about equal rights we should include everyone, not just the minorities we identify with or the groups we have friends in. My thoughts in this direction were intensified after the November election when the majority of voters in our country and the state of Georgia supported laws denying Gays and Lesbians the right to marry. Most of us, and by that I mean Unitarians, supporters of Gay rights, and liberal thinkers, were upset, to say the least. By the way, we should never be ashamed to use the "L" word. However, as Coe so eloquently pointed out, we need to remember that being a liberal does not only include having liberal attitudes and thoughts. It also embodies the responsibility of having a liberal understanding of others' beliefs, no matter how different from our own. This is something I've neglected to do on a number of occasions, including this last election. In an emotional sermon given last November 14th by Randy Blasch at UUMAN, the Unitarian church in Roswell, he discussed the fallout from the elections; the heartbreak it caused many of us and how we should continue our battle for Gay rights. Now that months have passed, maybe we can gain some new perspective on the situation. I've always defined myself as a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist; but I was so distraught by the outcomes of the November election I couldn't hear my own mind. Time has ameliorated my panic and allowed me to think more clearly. I personally feel less alienated from a government that seemed to only care about white, God-fearing Christians and a country that supported a war with a reckless regard for human life. George Bush has entered his second term with the lowest approval rating of any president in the last 50 years and the anti-Gay marriage laws passed in California and Georgia are already being challenged in the courts. Life goes on and maybe now we can step back and look at a bigger picture of where we are in our country's history. Americans in general are known for their short-term outlook; this " What have you done for me lately?" attitude. I find myself constantly falling into that mindset. But if we study the historical perspective of equal rights in this country we can see that social change usually occurs with two steps forward and one step backward; progress followed by backlash, then more progress.

Let's look at women's rights first. Less than a century ago women didn't have the right to vote. That may seem like a long time ago to some of you, but it's only a nanosecond on the timeline of human existence. Only a few decades ago women were earning less than 60% of men's income for the same work. Today it stands at 80% and climbing. For me, the single event that defines the new status of women in our society occurred in the 1980's at a "pro choice" rally in downtown Atlanta. A contingency of Unitarians, led by Reverend Edward Frost from UUCA, myself included, joined 7,000 emotionally charged women (and a few of us males) to hear feminist Marlo Thomas, the mayor, and many others, including Edward, encourage women to fight for the right to control their own bodies. I positioned myself in the very front of that rowdy crowd. As I listened to speaker after speaker I heard a roar come from behind me that still sends chills up and down my spine when I think about it. It wasn't just the sound of 7,000 women that I heard, but the voices of millions of women in all 50 states demanding what was rightfully theirs. Never had I been so proud to be a Unitarian, and never so insecure in my gender. I knew on that day that women in this country had "come a long way baby."

Black civil rights took a strong foothold in the United States with Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech; an invocation that touched our nation's conscience. Those of us who live in the South are painfully aware of the way African- Americans were treated as late as the 1950's and 1960's. But we have clearly seen the progress that has taken place since then. One needs only to look at the Black political power structure in Atlanta to see the changes that have occurred, again, from a historical perspective, in a relatively short period of time.

Last fall when 60% of the voters in Georgia chose to deny Gays and Lesbians the right to legally marry in our state I took it very seriously. As an educator and a supporter of Gay rights, I have spent years trying to pass on to others what I know to be true in my mind and my heart; that we are all located somewhere on that continuum that starts with straight and ends with Gay, and we should never be judged because of where we are on that scale. Being Gay is an orientation, not a decision that can be reversed with therapy, prayer, or willpower. Homosexuality is not a new invention; it has always been part of the human condition. Many people are born Gay, but no one is born married. Marriage is a socially constructed institution, created to fulfill a social need for the entire population, not any particular segment. There was a time in this country when African-Americans could not vote nor legally marry. Have we not learned anything? If we can deny rights so arbitrarily why not withhold the right to marry from short people or those with freckles. Sound ridiculous; think about it!

While searching for answers after last November's disappointment I revisited the question: What is it about our country that allows advancements such as those that have occurred in the areas of women's rights and Black civil rights? For years, and especially since 911, it has been my contention that the institution of capitalism has overwhelmed both our society and the rest of the planet; that it is the powerful force that has shaped our country's history and destiny, the force that eventually sets the stage for social changes. What was the basis for this belief? In my studies as a sociologist I was greatly influenced by the theories of Karl Marx. For Marx, the economic structure of a society was the foundation for its social consciousness. Even though I don't consider myself a Marxist or a capitalist, I bought into that general philosophy. The fact that Marx viewed capitalism as just "a passing historical phase" is not relevant here. What is important is that in my mind our economic system was responsible for bringing world communism to its knees, contributed to the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union, and is now infiltrating another superpower, China. It was my opinion that the tentacles of capitalism were also the main cause of the 911 terrorist attacks. After all, wasn't it the multinational corporations' invasion of the Middle East with Coca Cola, McDonald's hamburgers, and miniskirts that struck fear in the hearts of many Muslims in that part of the world? Wasn't the hatred of the United States caused by the evils of greed and exploitation running rampant in our capitalistic society? But with all its flaws, it seemed to me that under our system the opportunity was there, maybe not equal, but it was there; whoever had the ability, the intellect, and sometimes the proper family background got the money and the power, even if you were a woman, an African-American, Gay, or Lesbian. After all, didn't we have a Black Secretary of State, women senators, and openly Gay Congressmen? It appeared to me that the powerful institution of capitalism was the driving force behind changes, both internationally and within our borders.

One of the great things about the human mind is its capacity for change. Here's what happened to me. Surprise, surprise! I was at the movies watching "Ray," the biography of music great Ray Charles. You knew I couldn't get through the morning without mentioning at least one movie. How many people saw it? Great flick! There was a scene where Ray Charles was going to give a concert in Augusta to a segregated audience. As he was entering the concert hall with the white promoter, a young Black man convinced him that he had an obligation to refuse to support this racist situation. He declined to perform, and the next day newspaper headlines in our state read "Ray Charles banned from Georgia for life." For life?! I couldn't help but laugh out loud, because I knew that less than 20 years later Mr. Charles would be given a public apology in front of a joint session of the state legislature and that his version of "Georgia on My Mind" would be made the official state song. It was at that moment that the lightning bolt struck me. It wasn't capitalism that was responsible for social change in our country, but freedom. Helloo! Freedom isn't a by-product of capitalism; capitalism is a by-product of freedom! As Bill Clinton would say: "It's freedom stupid!"

How could I have been so wrong?! The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We are not born as capitalists… but a spark of freedom exists within all of us; in our minds, in our hearts, in our souls. Even animals need to have freedom, but very few are capitalists. We've all seen captive creatures try to escape the confines of their cages. But when was the last time you saw a squirrel try to sell its extra supply of stored acorns at an inflated price to a fellow squirrel who was starving at the end of a harsh winter? Communism failed because no individual or country can reach its full potential without freedom. Now I don't kid myself. I know that the real world we live in is far from perfect. Human beings, by definition, are… well… human, and some forms of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice will probably always exist. However, the United States, in spite of our lack of sensitivity to other nations and our frequent inability to be "kindler and gentler" to each other, is still the freest country I know of. This freedom brings out the best and worst in all of us. Along with the freedom to be selfish and greedy comes this eventual side benefit of equality. The combination of minority groups freely voicing their demands for rights, together with enough guilt from the dominant majority, inevitably produces results. It's a slow, difficult, and often painful process, but just look at our past. History can teach us so much if we only take the time to study it carefully. Look what happened to Ray Charles! There's nothing new in those headlines that proclaimed last fall that marriage could only be legal between a man and a woman; we've seen them in this country before; different words, same message. But make no mistake about it, Gay and Lesbian marriages will be legalized in this country: not because of a few pockets of liberal thought or because the Unitarian Church embraces Gay rights. It will happen because equality of opportunity is part of the natural progression of a free society. Does this mean we should stop our efforts in this endeavor and let history follow its natural course? Definitely not! Freedom is like marriage: It needs continual attention, it demands a lot of work and energy, and must have open communication to advance. Fear and ignorance are the obstacles we must overcome. The more we educate and enlighten our conservative friends, neighbors, and family members, the faster we accomplish our goals. In the early 1950's, when I grew up, there were no Black faces in commercials on television; women were expected to stay home and raise their children. A half century later the social changes are obvious. Today we have Pride Weekend, "Will and Grace", "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"--- another cycle of freedom is under way.

As long as there are people of conscience, individuals who know that equal rights for everyone is the only way a free society can exist in a healthy state, our fight will continue. We are not asking for a country with perfect equality…yet. We are not only idealistic, but realistic. We will accept 2 steps forward and one step backward as long as we see progress on the horizon. All the intolerance we encounter will not deter us. We are a small but vociferous group and we will never go away; history tells us that we are the future. So, to our sisters of all ages and all backgrounds, including my own daughters: look around at the increasing number of women CEO's and the Hillary Clintons and the Condolisa Rices. To our brothers and sisters of color: see the growing Black middle class and the Colon Powells and the Barack O'Bamas. To our Lesbian sisters and our Gay brothers who look forward to the day when they can legally and openly marry, and to all of us who strive for equality: take heart, but be patient, and don't worry-it's coming!