Do You Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's official: New Yorkers aren't entitled to the same freedoms that residents of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and after New Year's, New Hampshire can take for granted. I refer, of course, to the right of all the state's citizens to marry the individuals they love, and to enjoy the thousand or more legal rights and benefits that marriage entails. Not that they don't have plenty of company: Every other state in the union has two separate sets of laws for consenting adults. Next up in the legislative ring is New Jersey, where a bill to legalize gay marriage is expected to be voted on before Governor Corzine leaves office. Before he was defeated by conservative Chris Christie, the likelihood of its passage was described by a backer as "a slam dunk." Now he refers to its prospects as "who knows."

The legislative road to equality is long and can even double-back on itself, as we've seen in California and Maine, where voters rejected their Supreme Court's decision and legislature's bill, respectively. Sadly, as Chris Matthews observed the other day on Hardball, "This is a right, [but] a lot of rights wouldn't be approved if you had a vote on them."

This seems to hold true for gay rights, so far. But there's another way to advocate for change, and that's from the bottom to the top. Great ideas are bubbling up from young people, whom polls consistently show are more likely to understand that the issue is one of legal parity. A ten-year-old in Arkansas refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because gays and lesbians don't have equal rights. Per lawyer Emma Ruby-Sachs' post here last week, hundreds of New York couples say they're going to seek annulments to their marriages on the grounds that their contracts violate constitutional equality guarantees. And on a much larger, less painful scale, an energetic Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate is launching a non-profit group called The Right Side of History Campaign. It takes its inspiration from the civil rights movement of the early '60s, which was propelled in large part by college students and other young idealists.

"Up to now, the frame of the gay rights movement has largely been an outgrowth of the sexual revolution, a backlash to sexual oppression," says Brian Elliot, Right Side's CEO and founder. "But to young people today, the issue isn't about relationships, or for that matter, religion. It's all about being treated as equal citizens. And that's a goal that resonates far beyond the gay community." The younger the voting group, he points out, the stronger the support for gay marriage. Currently, well over half of 18-29-year-olds in 38 states explicitly support it, and actuarial tables indicate that the future holds great promise for equal rights.

So if legal equality will eventually come, the group asks, why should anyone be a victim of bad timing, and have to wait for it? To that end, Right Side is finding new, and sometimes formerly unlikely, champions to mobilize what they see as the next equal rights movement. They're engaging college campus leaders, from frat and sorority members to student government activists and possibly heads of campus religious groups, to protest, advocate and even talk to their family members about this issue, ala the Great Schlep movement. Tapping into young people's ability to maximize the web and to speak candidly about their beliefs and values is a strategy that has much in common with Barack Obama's own pre-election playbook.

And it is still just as effective: A recent protest at Washington University in St. Louis drew strong involvement from fraternity students, animated, as Elliot points out, by the need to say "I'm standing up for what I believe in. My lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters don't have what I have, and I need to do something about it. "

In the meantime, the pursuit of happiness remains elusive for large chunks of the populace. In 29 states, it's perfectly legal to fire employees based on their sexual orientation. Tenants in 32 states can be legally evicted from their homes simply because they're gay. And 13,000 service members have been discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell. Opponents of gay rights claim that they do so to protect children, yet LGBT young people are three times as likely as their peers to be bullied; six times more likely to be depressed; and eight times more likely to commit suicide. Roughly four hate crimes are committed daily against them. It seems disingenuous at best to talk about shielding the innocent when it's singling them out as lesser citizens that does them the greatest harm.