Fifty years from now, this whole conversation will seem incredible.

Nothing will bring our awkward clothing and diminutive televisions and hilarious prudishness into sharper focus in the minds of our grandchildren than this argument over marriage equality. Fifty years from now, it will be a genuine puzzle, an irreconcilable spiritual gulf between their generation and ours.

They will have a vague idea of the important dates, a rough understanding of the sequence of events, the path of change, and they will know our generation was just another layer of debris moving slowly underneath the inexorable tide of progressive change. They were not the change, they will think. They were subject to the change. Fifty years from now, the world will be more right, more like how it is supposed to be. The time before now will be the time when it was wrong and kept wrong by fearful wrong-headed misanthropes. It will bother them that they themselves or their friends or their siblings would have been second-class citizens by law, and that no one seemed to care very much, not even their grandparents, who seem to love them. They will wonder what we think of neighbors and actors and singers and politicians, and they will hope we keep our mouths shut at get-togethers.

Fifty years from now, it will help to codify their sense of America as a fundamentally progressive ideal, that despite our lethargy and inertia and entrenchment we were eventually left behind and made obsolete by what is right, but they will nonetheless puzzle that we never really fought this fight, that more of us actively fought on the losing side of this battle, and those that didn't were mere stanchions on the battlefield. Fifty years from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be ashamed that we didn't take to the streets in defense of human rights, that there weren't sit-ins and protests and riots, righteous leaders with holiday birthdays giving legendary speeches in historic places. It will seem impossible that we allowed the conversation to be about religious ideals or federal benefits or state's rights or politics, that we could ever be so cynical and indecisive, so lost and comfortable in our cute and by-then antiquated existences that we let whole lifetimes go by without raising our voices together in anger. The distance between their sensibilities and ours will be highlighted by our apparent lack of solidarity and human compassion.

Fifty years from now – and many of us will be alive to see this – they will make movies that paint the inevitable movement towards enlightenment as a benevolent distribution by a paternal majority, and some will feel a warming swell of pride for the moral fortitude of their forebears, but the smartest among them will realize that history is often retold in terms that flatter the privileged, that this is no different. They will wait for the real story, the one about homosexuals being degraded and slurred and beaten and killed, fired from jobs and dismissed from churches and chased out of military service, barred from the Boy Scouts, denied even something so basic as a recognition of their loving unions, that their sexuality was compared to humans having sex with dogs and farm animals, and the so-called good guys were still content to consider the beliefs of zealots and the comfort of bigots. The real story, that homosexuals were consigned even in popular fiction to cartoonish stereotypes of comic-relief platonic friends, always the hairdresser, always the weak, always. The real story, of how we placed civil rights somewhere below the sensitivities of the reactionary religious, below the comfort of media advertisers, below the sterile environment of the workplace, below even the business of professional sports teams. And when something like the real story is finally told, at long last, many theaters in wealthy exurbs and rural areas won't show the movie, and parents and grandparents won't bother to see it, and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be profoundly disappointed in us all over again, reminded again of how afraid we have always been to care deeply outside of our own needs.

Fifty years from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will resent that in our cowardice we sacrificed the purity of our nation's founding ideals, that we anchored so far out to sea that they are still making their way to the promised land. The difference between them and us will be that what is fundamental and human and inarguable for them, what they know of human equality with such pristine clarity, was a daunting and uncomfortable challenge for our generation, one that many of us were all too content to ignore altogether. It will frustrate them that we looked at it from every angle but the right one, the urgent one, and they will shake their heads and be glad the world is no longer up to us. And they'll be exactly right.