Evan Wolfson: Seizing the moment

Posted by Evan Wolfson on northjersey.com:

"In the past few months, two federal courts ruled that the government must end marriage discrimination and two national polls reported that a majority of Americans nationwide support the freedom to marry.

"But recent weeks have brought sobering reminders of the harms caused by that discrimination and the message it sends to young people.

"In recent weeks we’ve learned of several teenagers who committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. Here in New Jersey, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi took his life after his roommate surreptitiously posted a live video of him on a date with another man. And in New York, two separate hate crimes – one in the Stonewall bar where the modern gay rights movement began – targeted gay people for violence.

"Responding to these tragedies, citizens, national leaders and leading gay rights organizations such as New Jersey’s Garden State Equality issued urgent calls to address the bullying and assaults pervasive in schools and in society. Harassment, violence and even casual unthinking derision should no longer be accepted as a 'rite of passage' for gay young people.

"Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on the nation to “stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms.” Pointing to a recent Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network study that found nearly 9 of 10 LGBT students suffered physical or verbal harassment in 2009, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., argued that common sense solutions such as a national anti-bullying policy are vital because 'no student should be subjected to discrimination and harassment in school.'

"Anti-gay prejudice does not stop with gay teens (witness the hate crimes last week in New York). But young people are most vulnerable to the assaults on their identity, the sense of being without support or respect and the fear of rejection by those they should most be able to count on — schools, government and even their own families — and thus gay youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-gay peers.

"More than one-third of gay youth report having attempted suicide, and those rejected by their families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.

"Scholarly studies have shown that legal inequality, including marriage discrimination, and the way in which the debate over gay people’s aspirations to equality under the law is conducted, has a profoundly negative impact on gay Americans.

"This is especially true of young people who are deprived of the dream of marrying the person they love and having a family that is legally and socially accepted.

"The American Psychological Association’s Journal of Counseling Psychology documents how political campaigns to exclude committed same-sex couples from marriage spark psychological distress, feelings of alienation and fear of violence among gay youth and adults.

"Where anti-gay groups wage their assault campaigns to perpetuate the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, young people continue to hear that they are less equal, less worthy and less acceptable than everyone else.

"Even worse, marriage discrimination puts the weight of our government on the side of those who foster prejudice against gay people; it says that in the eyes of the law, gay relationships are less worthy and deserve fewer protections and less respect.

"It tells non-gay people (such as Tyler Clementi’s roommate) that it’s okay to look down on people who are different. What parents want their child taught a sense of inferiority, or a sense of false superiority? Should the state be on the side of, indeed an engine of, discrimination and disdain?

"As the Supreme Court has held, 'The Constitution cannot control such prejudices, but neither can it tolerate them. Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.'

"Political agenda

"Yet the well-funded opponents of the freedom to marry continue to stoke and rely on anti-gay prejudice to push their political agenda. In state after state, week by week, LGBT youth hear anti-gay leaders characterize gay people as 'depraved' and 'immoral,' while deriding gay youth who commit suicide, even in death, for embracing an 'unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle,' as Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council recently declared.

"National Organization for Marriage Chairman Maggie Gallagher is among those who, with reckless disregard, attacks LGBT youth, arguing that 'any organization or institutional practice that encourages kids to adopt the homosexual label at an early age is not being kind, healthy or compassionate to children.'

"Despite Gallagher’s claims that organizations like hers are concerned about children, NOM does nothing with its millions of dollars other than attack the freedom to marry and demonize gay relationships, and Gallagher herself wasted little time defending those who pushed Tyler to the brink, saying that 'nothing in the press accounts suggest the kids who did this were motivated by homophobia.'

"A majority of Americans, and an even greater majority of today’s youth, are ready to turn the page on this unfairness and inequality under the law. Young people are coming to accept that the world includes moms who are lesbian and dads who are gay, and are coming to know, as the American Academy of Pediatrics and every other professional authority in the country has affirmed, that those parents are fit and loving and their children are doing well.

"Young people today see happy gay couples getting married in five states and the District of Columbia, and know the sky has not fallen, that families are helped and no one is harmed.

"More young people resist the poison and prejudices still circulated by groups like NOM and accept and support their classmates and fellow citizens.

"Every child deserves to be affirmed and supported, and every person deserves equal protection under the law. The best way to combat hopelessness and hostility, violence and suicide is to repudiate the destructive messages and eliminate the burdens that incite such pain and damage.

"We need more adults speaking out against prejudice and demeaning stereotypes, while combating isolation and promoting inclusion.

"And we need to get the state out of the business of promoting prejudice through its own direct discrimination.

"The pursuit of happiness is not just something we want for our kids; it’s something we all have as our birthright.

"Ending discrimination and exclusion, including the denial of marriage, is something we must do — for the children."

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