Rounding out the end of what National Public Radio dubbed “the gayest year ever,” the fight for marriage equality saw a late victory in a court ruling that extended the right to marry to same-sex couples in the deeply conservative state of Utah. A similar ruling occurred in Oklahoma just yesterday.
Immediately after each ruling came down, progressive pundits went into high gear — triumphant Facebook statuses, snarky tweets and quaint Human Rights Campaign graphics abound.
But in the midst of the fanfare, I couldn’t help but cringe at the troubling precedent Utah had set for gay rights. As the courts continue to grapple with how best to proceed, we should use this time to re-evaluate our definition of success for the movement in the long term. Clearly, same-sex couples won the right to marry much sooner than they would have through a referendum. So if we consider the marriage license itself as the end goal of the modern gay rights movement, we should hail the Utah decision as a resounding victory.
But today’s LGBT movement has never been about marriage. Rather, it has always been about allowing queer Americans to move about freely and without fear of physical, emotional and financial abuse. By opting to use the courts to circumvent the political process, gay rights groups missed a key opportunity to tackle the larger problem facing queer Americans: the court of public opinion.
To understand this crucial distinction, we must first remember that the rainbow-tinted Yale bubble insulates Yale students from the often-vicious anti-gay rhetoric that still pervades American culture. Taking a legal shortcut in Utah did nothing to address the deeper prejudices within our culture.
Hidden acts of abuse and discrimination affect the queer community far more than lack of legal recognition. I confess I know this all too well.
Until I came out to my family freshman year, I experienced such acute pain from living a lie that I sought out therapy, my grades suffered and more than once I considered ending my own life. The hostility I encountered from friends, relatives and outright strangers literally threatened to kill me. My life had become a living hell far worse than the one so many had told me would one day be my final destination.
My story is far from unique. LGBT Americans are three times more likely to commit teen suicide, five times more likely to miss school for fear of safety and twice as likely to be homeless in their youth. But the modern LGBT movement has left the safety of gay youth behind in its zeal to hand out marriage licenses. In fact, opting for a quick ruling without a solid foundation of public support often prompts a backlash that leaves vulnerable gay Americans worse off than before.
Ultimately, for me, it got better. But it was not the physical marriage licenses themselves that changed the way Americans react to my sexuality; rather, it was the grass-roots organizing and advocacy for measures such as marriage equality that shifted public opinion.
In 2012, pro-gay groups in Washington state spent $10.8 million on a marriage equality campaign, blitzing the airwaves with commercials, sending out volunteers to knock on doors and making thousands of phone calls to residents in order to move public opinion away from intolerance and toward acceptance. Thanks to organizing on the ground, approval for same-sex marriage shot up from 46 percent to 54 percent in just over a year. In Washington, activists realized they needed to change people’s hearts, not just their laws.
But when a court hands down a ruling from above, it denies LGBT activists the opportunity to organize politically around queer issues and prevents many phone calls and face-to-face conversations about gay rights from occurring.
If we want to protect LGBT Americans, we should instead focus on ballot initiatives that force conservative Americans to think critically about gay rights. I come from Georgia, a ruby red state with a constitutional amendment banning any form of recognition for same-sex couples. I worked extensively for gay rights in my state — even spending last summer working for Georgia Equality. But I couldn’t imagine anything worse for my own security than a court ruling that would overturn our discriminatory ban and deny us the opportunity to launch a full-blown persuasion campaign.
I desperately want to hold a marriage license in my hands one day. But what I want much more is to walk hand in hand with my boyfriend down a street in Georgia without fear. No piece of paper is going to change that. And if shielding vulnerable LGBT youth from the scorn of an anti-gay society means waiting a few more years to put a ring on it, so be it.
Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.