The Spiral of Progress

We rounded the corner and were met by an 8-year-old girl with her hand outstretched in greeting.

"How are you?" she asked. Her long ponytails jittered with energy. "My name is Selena. Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure," we said.

"What is progress?"

We were at the Tino Sehgal exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. All we knew in advance was that the exhibit was interactive and took over the entire rotunda. We didn't expect that the piece would wind up being a serious conversation with several different people on the same theme.

Selena started walking up the ramp that circles the entire inside of the museum and we walked with her. I looked at my partner Jenny and her friend Lori and said slowly, "Progress is when you take steps toward a goal."

"Can you give me an example of progress?"

"Gay marriage advancing from state to state."

"OK," she said. An older teenager, Jane, was waiting for us farther up the ramp, half hidden behind a pole. Selena summarized our conversation for her and vanished.

We walked alongside Jane, climbing the slope of the circular rotunda, ascending higher and higher with each word.

She asked us again about progress and when I again responded with gay marriage, she gave her own example of progress: the weekend before, she had been out with a group of friends. They were mixed gay and straight, and no one had really noticed. To them, the difference was insignificant.

We talked about what social progress means, and how we can tell if it has been achieved.

The conversation continued to get deeper as we climbed higher.

With the next interpreter, a man in his 20s, we talked about where progress came from. "Consensus," said Lori.

"And where does consensus come from?" he asked.

"Listening," Lori said. Our final interpreter was Michael, an older man who told us a story. He had recently been to a play with his wife, he said. The play compared gay life in the 50s with gay life today. What did we think, he asked us. Have gays and lesbians made progress?

"Absolutely," I said. "In my lifetime you can see that."

With each interpreter, our conversation became a slightly different take on broader social progress, but those conversations themselves were a sign of progress, too. It is impossible for me to imagine that 50 years ago - or even 20 years ago - a similar conversation could have been had with an 8-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old and a senior citizen.

Yet here was a random collection of New Yorkers who each believed that gay marriage is progress and weren't afraid to say so to (very straight looking) strangers.

I've been thinking of those conversations ever since.

When we think of the progress we've made on gay rights, we tend to limit our definition to whatever big state or national battle is currently in the news. Did a state legislature vote for gay marriage? We crow about progress. Did voters take that right back again? We mourn our country's backslide into homophobic intolerance.

But the truth is that those big battles aren't making progress - they're reflecting it. Progress comes slowly, person by person, step by step, in conversations like the ones we were having in the Guggenheim's rotunda.

Progress comes when we listen to those who have doubts about gay rights and when they listen to us about how it hurts us to be denied what straight people take for granted.

Progress comes when we tell our own truths to our families, our friends, our colleagues, our clients. Progress comes when, through conversation, people stop seeing us as a thing to be feared and start hearing our stories and empathizing with them.

When we do win those big battles, it is partly because of strategy - but it is mostly because of stories. It is only after we win hearts that we win votes.

At the top of the rotunda, Michael shook our hands. "This is a work by Tino Seghal," he said. "It's called, 'This Progress."

And it was.

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