Sam Sussman, an 18-year-old from Orange County, coolly delivered an address supporting gay rights in October 2009 at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. The politics, philosophy and law major had earned the spot in the march by winning an “Equality Idol” contest on YouTube in which he discussed the importance of gay rights.
“To tell you the truth, I was more nervous the first time I spoke in Orange County in front of 150 people than I was in front of 200,000 people,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out why. … I was speaking to one person times 200,000. That’s the way I thought about it.”
Sussman isn’t a contest winner who stumbled his way into the national spotlight: His passion about gay rights stems partly from constitutional law.
“We have this huge promise: equal protection under the law,” he says. “I don’t think you can make the argument that it’s been fulfilled. When has it applied to women and African-Americans? When people took to the streets and said, ‘This is wrong. We have to do something about it.’
“Human, civil and equal rights are not a matter of personal or sexual orientation. It’s a matter that goes directly to the heart of how we treat others and who we are as people. The discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans is no different than discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and ethnicity. It is the civil rights struggle of this generation.”
Last year, Sussman formed the Alliance for the Realization of Legal Equality (“If I had to name it again, it would’ve been something much shorter,” he said.) and has organized rallies in his home area. The alliance is partnering with a national group called The Right Side of History that is targeting young, straight people to become involved in the cause, and Sussman is in the process of forming a campus group under that name.
Most students at Binghamton have nothing against the LBGT community, Sussman said, but they aren’t actively fighting for their rights, either.
“That’s what I’m trying to change a little bit,” he says. “The idea is to change the cultural dialogue from ‘You support gay rights. You must be gay’ to ‘This is something basic that everyone deserves.’”
Sussman said he has been impressed and moved by the friends he has made and the stories he has heard since giving his speech.
“I think it strikes a lot of older gay and lesbian people to see a young, straight person so involved and passionate,” he says. “That means a lot to people and maybe that’s where some of the trust comes from.”
Sussman spent last summer as an intern in U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand’s office. He hopes to work on energy and educational issues, do some community development in Newburgh, attend law school and eventually make his way into politics.
“It’s a messy field, but somebody’s got to do it,” he said of the political arena.
Last Updated: 2/11/10