Noah Baron, Associate Editor
Ideology: Religious Progressive | Writing from: Princeton Junction, NJ

In the lead-up to the vote on same-sex marriage in New Jersey yesterday, I got into a discussion with one of my friends about gay rights. He told me that while he’s all for marriage equality, it’s not what we need to be working on right now – instead, we should be working on non-discrimination laws. I disagreed with him, saying that once we achieved marriage equality, all that would come easily, but in the back of my mind I knew I was wrong.

We are in the midst of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Despite some recovery, Americans are still losing their jobs, struggling to make end’s meet, and pay off their mortgages. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in many states already have trouble keeping a job or their housing while trying to live a normal life. That’s because in thirty states, there is no anti-discrimination legislation in place to protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people from being fired or kicked out of their home based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Now more than ever, it is wrong to allow such discrimination to continue – especially while the gay rights movement focuses on marriage in fairly liberal states which already have anti-discrimination laws in place.

Indeed, the locations of latest marriage equality battles – California, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and, yes, even Iowa – all have second-parent adoption, job antidiscrimination, housing antidiscrimination, health benefits for same-sex couples, and hate crimes protection on the books (and all but New York have civil unions). The same, alas, cannot be said for fourteen states which offer none of these things, and another ten states which were kind enough to deign to include gay people in their hate crimes legislation. (Source: Lax and Phillips 2009, “Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness,” American Political Science Review).

Yet bizarrely the vast majority of these initiatives routinely receive far more popular support than same-sex marriage does. Even in Alabama, where fewer than one in four people supprt same-sex marriage, and fewer than 35% of people support civil unions, the idea of extending health benefits to same-sex couples, instituting job and housing antidiscrimination laws, and extending hate crimes legislation to include gay people all garner much more than fifty percent. In fact, housing discrimination, the most popular measure in Alabama, weighs in between 65% and 70% support, and job antidiscrimination, the least popular, ticks in around 53%. This pattern remains true for nearly every state (the exception being Utah, where only hate crime legislation and housing antidiscrimination make it past fifty percent – yet nonetheless receive the support of more than 55% of the population). (Source: Lax and Phillips 2009)

So the question I pose to gay activists anywhere is this: how important is it to invest blood, sweat, tears, and millions of dollars in trying to achieve marriage equality in liberal states, when the effort to gain all of these other measures could do so much more good, make a greater difference in the daily lives of more gay people, and, importantly, be much easier to accomplish? Why not, for now, at least, set aside the goal of marriage equality for those of us who already do not have to worry about being fired or evicted when our boss or landlord finds out about our boy- or girlfriend, for those of us who are covered under the health insurance of our partners, for those of us who can adopt our partner’s child, so that those of us who can’t might be able to someday soon?

The problem, as I see it, is that we are investing millions of dollars in referenda and lobbying to achieve marriage equality in the Northeast and West, and often losing in the process – and at the same time, we are leaving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the mid-West and South behind, without assurance that they won’t be evicted the next day, without confidence that they’ll have their job for another week, without so many rights which we take for granted in our daily lives.