“Never take anything for granted” is that phrase we hear countless times when growing up, yet rarely ever pay attention to. The last half-century, especially the past few decades, have seen lightning-bolt progress towards a path of greater equality and acceptance for people of all races, genders, orientations and creeds. But as we find ourselves in the midst of a perilous period, one where our hard-earned social achievements are ambushed by the second, this motto becomes more important than ever. Being a 21-year-old today, I am urging my peers, but especially those younger than me, never to grow complacent in defending our rights and fighting for change. Because as young as I may be, I remember what life was like before.
I was born in 1996, part of a complex and much-maligned generational cohort. We’re old enough to have glimpsed a pre-Facebook world, yet too young to have fully appreciated it. Most of the time, our elders don’t take us seriously. We are labelled the “Snapchat” gen, eternally affixed to our iPhones and oblivious to the world around us. Newspaper articles have accused us of “killing” so many industries that you’d think we were all Insta-addicted Jack the Rippers.
However unfair and grossly generic these stereotypes may be, one thing is for certain: no generation has ever seen change as quick and vast as we did. We may have witnessed the evolution from brick phones to HD touchscreens within the span of our schooling life, but more important than that, we experienced such a huge amount of social progress that it’s easy to lose track. However silly it may sound coming from someone in his early twenties, I do remember a time before many of the rights we have today. And it is because of the memory of these times, and the looming threat to all the advancements made ever since, that I feel compelled to write this piece.
One of the prompts for my article came a few days ago, when I watched the (deservedly) acclaimed Call Me By Your Name with my family. I’d heard about it via Twitter buzz and, aside from a personal interest in its setting (Crema is less than an hour’s drive from where I was born), I was fascinated by the public’s reaction to it. Call Me By Your Name is not the first major LGBT romance movie, nor is it the only one to be recently released (Love, Simon is another that springs to mind). Nevertheless, the film’s warm reception, being catapulted from indie to mainstream success and developing a global legion of teenage fans, made me realise just how ‘normalised’ its same-sex narrative has become. The characters’ orientation wasn’t the main focus of viewer’s attention, and they didn’t marginalise its premise. It wasn’t a “gay love story” – rather, a “love story” between two gay people.
The response to this film would later remind me of a conversation I’d had with a younger cousin in Italy, only seven years my junior. While sitting at the dinner table he was telling us about his time at school, and one detail stuck to my head. “There’s this boy in my class,” he remarked, “who thinks he’s funny but no one really likes him because he’s homophobic.”
Such a comment is unsurprising to us today. Homophobia, like other forms of prejudice, is widely accepted as bad. No one would consider it “cool”. Quite clearly, a homophobic teenager wouldn’t be likely to garner the respect of his classmates.
Except that this is a very recent reality, one that strikes such a different chord from the days when I was at school. As little as ten years ago, witnessing casual homophobia and sexism was part and parcel of everyday classroom life. Using “gay” as an insult or hurling various discriminatory epithets was an inseparable component to bullying. Although I am unfortunately certain that is often still the case today, as my cousin’s story points out, there is much more awareness of the gravity at hand. In his 2018 reality, the “homophobic bully” becomes the object of criticism, while in my 2008 world, he would have been considered “cool”.
While society still has a long road towards ridding itself of its inherent prejudices and bigotries, once-taboo issues have become normalised in a way which my fellow age group and I would never have imagined as kids. My younger cousins are growing up in a time where they can see themselves represented in the media they consume. Our generation didn’t have that.
Black kids today can aspire to become the US President or leader of their country; ten years ago, they would only have dreamt it. LGBT kids have role models to imitate; when I was a child, I had never even heard of the word “transgender”. “Nerds” even have television shows and entire fashion trends dedicated to them; not too long ago, the very word itself was an insult.
These changes can appear subtle, but it truly shows how our society’s acceptance of certain issues is quite a recent phenomenon. This progress has not merely been one of attitudes – our very human rights have evolved considerably in the last few decades.
When I was ten years old, only five countries and a handful of American states had legalised same-sex marriage. As of today, the number has quintupled, including the whole of the US.
When I moved to the UK in 2005, it would still have been legal to deny someone’s public services on the basis of their religion or sexuality.
Only two years before I was born, South Africa still had Apartheid.
Modern society tends to present our current liberties as the result of sepia-hued victories – the Suffragettes chaining themselves to London’s gates, or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her place on a segregated bus. These may have provided us with vital groundwork, but the reality is that a vast number of our civil rights were attained in our lifetime. While us ’90s babies were in school. While we were playing on our PlayStation 2 and trying to keep our Tamagotchis alive.
Today, this long, hard-fought battle for social equality is being put under threat. The disgruntled voices of bigotry kept whispering under the ground for many years as they saw one progressive law after the other erode the world they’ve clung so desperately to. We dismissed these murmurs – “they’re just a minority of people”, “no one thinks that way anymore”, “they’ll never win”.
And that’s how it happened. Two years ago, we fell asleep in a hopeful, upward world and woke up to Brexit, Trump and Neo-Nazis marching on the street.
So as we reach this cross-roads, it is important to remember how far we’ve come, how much there’s left to do, and why we cannot afford to lose what we have. I will never forget the day as a middle-schooler sitting in assembly, watching Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on their inauguration. My classmates and I were just 12-year-old British kids, and yet the air of excitement was palpable. The world was changing, and we could feel an irrepressible sense that things were going to get better.
We in our generation are the children of change. Social progress accompanied our formative years like the loss of our milk teeth, it is the very blood and bones of who we are. We must never let this pass us by.
Lest we forget, half a century ago there was another ‘generation of change’: the Baby Boomers. They were the flower-power kids who grew up seeing the world break from its pre-war shackles, who marched alongside Martin Luther King and sang “the times they are a-changing”. But this generation got complacent, taking their progress for granted. Their headdresses morphed into nationalist rosettes, their proclamations of free love turned into war cries, and the bridges they built were replaced by concrete walls. They are the generation which collectively gave up on their dreams and settled for a comfortable reality. We must never let this happen to us.
”Never take anything for granted” is the maxim we should always live by. It’s the motto I’ll be teaching my kids, and it’s our only hope to ensure that prejudice will be something they only ever see in history textbooks.