10/03/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Winning Marriage Equality: Necessary But Not Sufficient

These are heady times for those of us who have labored for years to achieve marriage equality, as the Supreme Court considers whether to review one of the cases now pending before it striking down marriage bans in five different states. Opinion polls and a drumbeat of favorable court decisions reflect an emerging pro-equality consensus that the Court could ratify as soon as next spring.

Ironically, about the only ones still questioning marriage for same-sex couples, beyond diehards on the right, are certain activists within the LGBT rights community itself. The most pointed critique comes from those who embrace the queer radical mantle -- and their non-gay allies -- who reject marriage entirely. They view it as archaic, oppressive, unjustly privileging one family structure over all others, and a hetero-normative steamroller out to crush what's left of the gay outlaw ethos. On the last point they are often joined by gay men of a certain age who emerged from decades of oppression with ingrained hostility and distrust for the institution.

These views deserve respectful consideration at seminars and over late night whiskeys. But I'm skeptical of reductionist takes on an oft-evolving institution that today is premised on consent and embraced by couples for varied reasons. And it seems the antithesis of liberation to expect all LGBT people to live in a state of perpetual rebellion. Equality means, among other things, that everyone has the same right to choose a conventional life -- despite the condescension of those who have it all figured out.

Others argue that marriage, whatever its merits, has pulled focus (and drained resources) from issues like HIV/AIDS, transgender rights and youth suicide and homelessness. The media's focus on marriage lends this view some credence, but the narrative gets a few important things wrong.

First, the allocation of resources for LGBT rights work is not a zero sum game. Marriage captured the imagination of thousands of donors, large and small -- including many who gave because the issue directly affected them (or their children). Sadly, issues affecting only the powerless don't have the same draw. But this influx of funds fueled overall growth for the leading LGBT rights organizations, facilitating expanded work -- and some significant victories -- on issues like HIV discrimination and transgender rights.

More fundamentally, though, vindicating the freedom to marry has significance far beyond marriage itself. It is a battle that had to be fought.

Just a few years back, before the transformative decisions in Lawrence v. Texas and U.S. v. Windsor, same-sex intimacy remained criminal in many states and same-sex relationships were officially deemed beyond the pale or at best second-class in every American jurisdiction. That included Vermont, which recognized "civil unions" but reserved the M word for "real" marriages.

This regime legitimated and encouraged discrimination, bullying and anti-gay violence. It told LGBT youth that society considered their social and sexual desires not just deviant but criminal, and that any relationships they might form as adults would be disrespected and disfavored. It undermined public health by deterring young people from seeking counseling and information about safer sexual practices. It validated parents who spurned their gay kids. And for all these reasons, it no doubt contributed to teen homelessness and suicide.

Decriminalizing private conduct and ensuring equal government treatment for same-sex relationships therefore have been crucial steps towards dismantling the larger edifice of homophobia and oppression. As official discrimination has abated, American society has taken great leaps forward in visibility, acceptance and respect for gay people -- for which the Supreme Court must receive at least some credit alongside Will & Grace -- and more recently, and much more slowly, for transgender people as well.

Once the Supreme Court affirms the freedom to marry for all Americans, the laws regarding relationship recognition will no longer signal society's disapproval and disdain toward LGBT people. Bullies will be more isolated. Parents will know that coming out does not sentence their children to lives hobbled by official disrespect. LGBT youngsters will more fully be able to anticipate -- and demand -- a future offering the same choices and possibilities as any of their friends.

In short, winning marriage was, and is, necessary but not sufficient. We must stay the course to tackle discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations; teen suicide and homelessness; extreme discrimination and abuse directed at transgender people; the HIV/AIDS epidemic; homophobic persecution and violence in other countries; and related problems of social, racial and economic justice.

The latter category may include extending protections associated with modern marriage to other family configurations adopted by choice or necessity by many gay and non-gay Americans. Some would prioritize such broader social reforms over marriage equality, or even argue that winning marriage will harm such efforts by reinforcing the institution's undeserved special status. But this concern, even if correct, is outweighed by the benefits -- and moral imperative -- of eliminating structural discrimination in the law.

Perhaps marriage should not occupy such a unique place of respect in our society -- but it does. It is simply unfair for those who would radically remake marriage to hold hostage to that goal the basic constitutional right of all LGBT couples to make the same personal choices taken for granted by different-sex couples.