In 1989, the term “marriage equality” had yet to enter the national vocabulary. No state recognized same-sex marriage — nor did any state constitution or federal law ban the practice. Now, near the end of 2009, same-sex marriage is legal in six states but banned by constitutional amendment in 30.

Over the last 20 years, the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights has seen both transformative victories and significant setbacks. The fight for equality, including marriage equality, has made the LGBT community more organized and unified in the last two decades than ever before. The fight has taken its place among one of the most important civil-rights struggles of our generation. And as more and more people come out at younger ages and as LGBT people are featured more and more in the media, the problem of inequality is ceasing to be the elephant in the closet.

As LGBT people have become more visible, the nation has been forced to recognize some simple, crucial facts. Queer people exist. They form long-term, committed relationships. Many have children. Yet the law does not recognize the relationships between these children’s parents and, as a result, the children of same-sex couples are treated unequally as well.

When the state refuses to recognize same-sex couples as married it implies they are incapable of making the same commitment as heterosexual couples. For that reason and others, civil unions are an inadequate solution to the problem of unequal protection by the law. As long as marriage is recognized by the state, it is discriminatory not to allow same-sex couples to enter into the contract called “marriage.”

This constant violation of equal protection poses danger to everyone — child or adult, straight or queer.

Last week President Barack Obama came one step closer to recognizing this fact, extending protection from bias-motivated crime to LGBT people by signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

But the fight for full civil equality on the state and federal level has just begun. In three elections today — Kalamazoo, Mich., Washington state and Maine — citizens will decide the fate of landmark legislation protecting rights of LGBT citizens.

Maine’s election has attracted the most attention. Question 1, today’s ballot question in Maine, is an attempt to exercise a “people’s veto” of a law legalizing same-sex marriage that the Maine legislature passed and governor signed in May 2009. Over the past 16 years, 33 states in the United States have passed ballot initiatives against marriage equality.

We have an interest in Maine’s legislation as Connecticut residents: Our state is close to Maine and has had marriage equality for less than 14 months, leaving civil equality here still open to attack. But we also have an interest as Americans, for the fight for equal rights in Maine translates to the fight for equal rights throughout the country. One state passing a law legalizing marriage equality in 2003 has led to a cascade of states following suit in the last two years. Though the passage of California’s Proposition 8 last year was a setback, the political momentum in this fight is still with us, advocates of marriage equality.

The elections today provide a unique chance to show that ordinary citizens, not just governors and state representatives, support marriage and civil equality.

But no matter what happens in today’s election, there will still be other state and federal issues facing the struggle for equality. New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., seem poised to pass same-sex marriage legislation.

But beyond marriage, we believe in the principle of civil equality for all, and we have the responsibility to advocate for it even when the cause does not touch us personally. We should fight, for example, for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. While Yale for Maine Equality was founded around this important election, Y4ME will live on as an activist organization working toward civil equality for LGBT people around the world.

Such advocacy continues a thread in Yale history — part of the legacy of the Yalies who founded the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal and many of the first advocacy groups for people with HIV/AIDS. But more importantly, pushing for equality continues one of the threads of American history — progress toward national recognition that every citizen should and must enjoy equal protection of the laws.

Kate Kraft is a senior in Silliman College. Amalia Skilton is a freshman in Calhoun College. They are the co-presidents of Yale for Maine Equality.