It seems we can’t make it through a week without some new allegation or image from the past coming forth on the media to condemn some public figure. The most recent are the images of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in blackface alongside a person dressed in KKK garb. The photo is sooooo offensive, I cannot believe that it could have possibly been acceptable to publish in a 1981 college yearbook, but apparently it was. The other involved Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring who wore blackface at a Halloween party in 1980. Both men have publicly apologized for any offense they may have caused by their actions. Whether or not they are truly sorry, or if they are or ever were racist, or if what they did was only a result of ignorance and utter lack of awareness at that time, is not for me to say. I will leave that for others to judge.
How many of us have said or done things in the past that now cause us to cringe when we recall them? How many of us can truly say our attitudes and beliefs, in fact our whole worldview, has changed in the last few decades? And what we may have said or done in the 1980s and even in the 1990s does not reflect who we are today? Looking back I can honestly say that during that time our society, as a whole, was ignorant and blind to the subtle acts and memes of racism and sexism that permeated our world. I can recall how we all followed the Presidential sex scandal that involved Bill Clinton, a fifty year old man in a position of power and a 22 year old female intern in the White House. I, for one, never once considered that Monica might be a victim. In all our minds it was consensual sex between two equal adults. Now, in hindsight, this idea seems absurd. She was a target of sexual harassment and he was a sexual predator, no matter who initiated what.
I’ll also admit, with shame, that I was on the wrong side of the controversy over allowing a gay man to be in a position of leadership in the Boy Scouts of America. At the time I mistakenly thought that a homosexual leading a group of young boys, might influence them to become like him, to make them think they were gay too. I do know that I never felt there was danger of molestation by a gay leader. Even back then I knew the difference between pedophiles and homosexuals. But I was still operating from a place of fear. And, I felt I had a vested interest in this controversy, as our son was a member of the local Cub Scout group at the time. I guess I thought I was protecting him.
Fear of the unknown, willful ignorance and blind allegiance to fundamentalist religious views, upheld by my church, led me to think and behave in this way. But that is no excuse. I now know that I was wrong. I know that a person’s sexual orientation is something they are born with, not something learned or chosen. I also know that no person, least of all a gay man, has any desire to convert others to his sexual orientation. For one thing, it can’t be done, it wouldn’t work, no more than conversion therapy will turn a gay man into a heterosexual. NOTE: I am not talking about pedophiles or predatory adults. Please don’t misconstrue my words.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we all change, we all grow in depth and understanding. Society as a whole is constantly evolving and changing. Less than 200 years ago slavery was considered acceptable, by most Americans. Southerners, as well as many in the northern free states, upheld the idea of slavery by using quotes from the Bible. The successor to slavery, the Jim Crow laws of the south, are unthinkable by today’s standards, as is publicly mocking persons whose skin is darker than ours. The subjugation of women as lesser citizens and the idea that those who are not strictly heterosexual are an abomination is also NOT OK.
We as individuals can open our hearts and minds to new ways of being, allow ourselves to be swayed by the truth, or we can stay behind, stuck in the past. And when an act or word from our past pops into the present, instead of admitting we were once blind, but now we see and humbly apologizing for how we behaved in a time and place where it seemed OK, we can act like it’s no big deal and ignore the changing tide around us.
Either way, I believe we must all be judged by our present words and actions, and each of us should give a little grace when it comes to ourselves and others for what we did or said back then. NAMASTE