Change is Coming, Slowly and Suddenly

05/28/2015 09:52 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

A few years ago it seemed almost unimaginable. Ireland's overwhelming support of legalizing same-sex marriage is a reminder of how fast political change can happen, and how apparent certainties can crumble at lightning speed.

In 1983, the Chief Justice of Ireland declared that homosexuality was:

Of course, morally wrong, and has been so regarded by mankind throughout the centuries... It cannot be said of it... that no harm is done if it is conducted in private by consenting males. Very serious harm may in fact be involved.

Such conduct, although carried on with full consent, may lead a mildly homosexually oriented person into a way of life from which he may never recover.

This week Ireland voted about 2:1 in favor of same-sex marriage, the first country in the world to do so by popular vote. All of Ireland's major political parties, many athletes, writers, priests and nuns publicly supported the "yes" to same-sex marriage vote, as well as the Garda Representative Association, Ireland's police labor union.

As we saw in Ireland this week, political transformations sometimes happen rapidly and without much warning.

Chris Gueffroy was 20 years old when, during the night of February 5, 1989, he was shot dead as he tried to escape the autocracy of East Germany by crossing the Berlin Wall. He couldn't have known that later that same year the East German government would fall, and he could have walked safely across the stretch of No-Man's Land with thousands of others into west Berlin.

In February of 1989, there was no indication that the dictatorship was about to topple. A few weeks before Gueffroy was killed, East German leader Eric Honecker said the wall would last another "50 or 100 years." The repressive regime which looked likely to last for generations fell apart spectacularly quickly. The guards involved in Gueffroy's killing were prosecuted for his death months after receiving awards for the same act.

Though the fall of the Soviet Union was a long time coming, the day it happened was somehow still a shock. To the world, the fall of the Soviet empire felt a bit like the way Mike Campbell, a character in Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, describes going bankrupt, saying it happened, "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

Those fighting for change in some of the most repressive countries in the world -- Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia -- should remember that the most repressive regimes are likely to be brittle. The era of torture, of mass jailings, of sectarianism, is likely to come to a sudden end without much warning.

Change won't happen by itself. Activists must continue with the difficult, Sisyphean grind of advocating for change -- even when progress is slow or invisible. Speaking out against the injustice, gathering petitions, holding street protests, appealing for the release of dissidents, the UPRs, the tweets, the public speeches, the NGO reports, the quiet diplomacy, the articles and blogs, the exhausting years of advocacy -- they're all part of the process.

Just like the Soviet Union, apartheid South Africa and the Latin American juntas, the repressive Gulf dictatorships can't go on forever. But don't be surprised -- when the change comes it's likely to be simultaneously slow and abrupt.