Dan Savage's column this week featured a letter writer who had been against gay rights in the past, but for the past fifteen years has been a supporter. He found himself in difficulty when new friends found out about his previous attitudes.
This is a tricky topic. We want to encourage people to change their minds and become more supportive of social justice causes, but what is the best way to do that? How should we approach the topic of people who come around on something - that is, what do you say about someone's checkered past?
I am certainly not blameless in this. For example, when I was young I never thought that being gay was wrong or destructive or anything of the sort but I didn't really get why activism was necessary and failed to grasp how I could stop being part of the problem. I hadn't ever met a gay person to the best of my knowledge (almost certainly I had met some but didn't know it) so it seemed like a very far away thing. In my late teens I would definitely have voted for marriage equality but I didn't understand the necessity of it all - as long as same sex couples had all the rights, who cares if they get the actual title of marriage? I thought that having civil unions with full rights wasn't necessarily right but I didn't get why that separation was so important.
Part of that was just my general disdain for titles but part of it was simply not understanding how reserving rights for specific groups perpetuates oppression and stigma. I talked to a lot of people, read a lot of things, began to understand why such distinctions are a problem, and now I won't put up with people who thoughts as I once did. I will happily spend time trying to make them understand and won't write them off right away... but if someone really does hold to their homophobia then they don't get to be my friend.
My record on trans issues is similar in that I was never a hater but I really didn't get it and a lot of my speech and small actions were definitely not trans friendly. I have educated myself and gotten better but there is still more improvement to be made.
Given these things I can't be too harsh on people whose attitudes haven't shifted to align with mine yet so long as they aren't being terribly destructive in the meantime. A person who thinks that a marginalized group ought to be treated fairly and well but who doesn't understand why particular legislation is necessary or can't figure out why their normal figures of speech are a problem is someone I can work with. That was me a couple decades ago!
I can't deal with the real hatred though. People that feel that being gay is a sin, or those that spend their time trying to crush trans people by making up ridiculous arguments about sexual assault in bathrooms enrage me and it would take some kind of Herculean effort to erase such atrocities from the ledger.
I suppose that I always felt like such a freak, such an outsider, that it never made sense to me to persecute others who didn't fit. The in groups that might perpetuate such things wouldn't accept me so why should I side with them against others? To be honest until I got to university I never felt like I had found a group that did accept me and I mostly just wanted to keep my head down and be ignored. Not everyone who feels like that responds the way I did - there are plenty of people who are persecuted who desperately punch down any chance they get - but that was certainly a part of the way I was shaped.
Who knows which of my attitudes these days will be considered regressive and cruel a few decades from now? I have heard speculation that my meat eating tendencies will be thought unacceptable within my lifetime but I don't buy it. Really all I know is that there is much more to learn and I will certainly have more changes to make to the way I think and the way I speak. I wouldn't have it any other way - complacency is a sad state.