No, the Libertarian Party isn’t behind the curve on gay rights

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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Tyler Lopez’s new Slate article: “How Libertarians Failed Gay Rights” is awful.

But, nonetheless, the piece has stirred up quite the hornet’s nest. The post has 683 comments, and it has prompted responses by Brian Doherty at Reason, Stephen Miller at the Independent Gay Forum, and “Libertarians Concerned” (in a long Dec. 30 Facebook posting). Perhaps the speedy and sizeable response is because we libertarians are an especially prickly bunch. Perhaps it’s because we’re well-educated and like writing. Perhaps we had extra time to write because we didn’t attend religious services during the holidays.

Whatever the reason, the libertarian spirit has also moved me, and so here are three reasons why Lopez’s article missed the mark:

1. The Libertarian Party is very much on-the-record in support of gay rights.

From Lopez:

[T]he Libertarian Party website has no section devoted to LGBTQ issues. To find that content, users have to dig around in the site’s archives. The results are laughably minor: The most recent press release mentioning “LGBT” came in 2010—all of it spent decrying President Barack Obama’s “inaction” on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. LGBTQ Democrats are painted as victims suffering from the offensive catchphrase “battered gay voter syndrome.” Democrats, despite their recent efforts to expand gay rights, are labeled as oppressors. The cure for all this persecution is, of course, the Libertarian Party.

The notion that omission equals disapproval wouldn’t pass an LSAT logic class. By parallel reasoning, the GOP doesn’t care about gun rights: there is no gun rights section (see the GOP’s issues page). Ditto, the Democrats on foreign policy (roll over the “Issues” section and you won’t see anything mentioning foreign relations or foreign policy).

But we need not go down the logic route. Evidence of the Libertarian Party’s support of gay rights is readily available. “Libertarians Concerned” writes: “[Lopez’s] proof is that the home page for the LP fails to have a tab on gay rights. He didn’t bother to look in the same tabs at the actual LP platform. It took me all of 2 seconds [to find material on gay rights].”

Lest you think that the author behind “Libertarians Concerned” has special researching skills, try searching: “Libertarian Party and gay rights.” It will bring you to a page that most people are comfortable with — Wikipedia — which will tell you: “In 2013, the Libertarian Party applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, United States v. Windsor, to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. The Libertarian Party has supported same-sex marriage since its founding in 1971. … The Libertarian Party platform and Republican Party platforms are generally at odds of each other concerning LGBT rights.”

The mentioned Libertarian Party platform is accessible on the Libertarian Party website, and a party’s platform is usually its most credible pronunciation of its values. Section 1.0 of the platform (that’s ONE — not exactly tucked away) reads:

Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make. No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government. Our support of an individual’s right to make choices in life does not mean that we necessarily approve or disapprove of those choices.

Section 1.3 is titled “Personal Relationships” and reads:

Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no impact on the government’s treatment of individuals, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration or military service laws. Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.

That sure seems like blatant support for marriage equality. As Austin Petersen comments at The Libertarian Republic: “[T]he party platform doesn’t mince words when [it] talk[s] about personal liberties (1.0), and personal relationships.”

Doherty’s Reason article also mentions the prominence of gay rights on the Party’s platform, and Doherty includes other good bits of evidence demonstrating the Libertarian Party’s support of gay rights (In addition to the Party’s platform, 2012 Libertarian Party presidential Gary Johnson — pro gay rights — is a good place to start a search).

2. Libertarians and libertarians are not the same.

I bet Lopez knows that not all libertarians (philosophy) are Libertarians (political party). But he’s awfully casual about substituting one for the other. He begins by making the narrower argument that the political party isn’t supportive of gay rights, but then he uses individual libertarians as points of evidence. 11 percent of American voters identify as libertarian, but only 1 percent of the country voted for the Libertarian Party in 2012. Clearly the overlap is far from complete, and the positions of one group should not be transposed to the other. If Lopez is interested in gaining a sense of the broader libertarian position on gay rights, then he would do well to look at groups like the Cato Institute, which filed briefs on behalf of gay marriage in both the Windsor case (DOMA) and the Perry case (Proposition 8), Students For Liberty (broadly supportive of gay equality), Reason, Skeptical LibertariansLibertarians ConcernedR Street InstituteVolokh Conspiracy, and so on. All of them are reliably supportive of gay rights.

Then there’s the issue of the particular libertarian Lopez mentions: Walter Olson. Walter Olson, a libertarian obstacle to gay rights? Hardly. Using some top-notch, thirty-second-research skills again, I Googled, “Walter Olson gay rights.”  The first link that comes up is a BuzzFeed link titled, “Cato Scholar Hosting Benefit To Protect Maryland’s New Marriage Equality Bill.” The article details the powerful effort that Olson (who is gay) and many of his libertarian friends have made to support marriage equality in Maryland. The third Google link sends the searcher to a Huffington Post article Olson wrote in defense of gay parenting: “The New Campaign Against Gay Parenting.” And the next link, a Wall Street Journal link, is to an article in which Olson begins: “For those of us who support same-sex marriage and also consider ourselves to be right of center, there were special reasons to take satisfaction in last Friday’s vote in Albany. New York expanded its marriage law not under court order but after deliberation by elected lawmakers with the signature of an elected governor.”

If Walter Olson is emblematic of libertarian opposition to gay rights, then Lopez needs to rethink his argument.


Finally, Lopez makes the argument that the Libertarian Party (and libertarians?) are bad on gay rights because some don’t support ENDA.

Rather than boldly argue for equal rights for everyone, Libertarians have merely argued for the dismantling of everyone’s rights—the right to legal marriage, the right against workplace discrimination, and so on. That’s not liberty; it’s giving the green light to entrenched systemic discrimination. Libertarians could have led on this issue. Instead, they’ve fallen unforgivably far behind.

This is so wrong on so many levels. First, discrimination is when you treat certain groups as less equal. But, as Lopez acknowledges, libertarians want the law to treat gays and straights equally (just not in the big government sense that Lopez wants). Second, why would libertarians take the lead on an issue that further impinges upon the rights of private businesses? That’s a pretty key principle — that private actors and businesses should be able to do what they please so long as they don’t violate the rights of others — of libertarianism. Third, since when did not being onboard with ENDA — one issue in the mainstream gay rights movement — make you non-supportive of the movement? Does all of Walter Olson’s work for gay marriage, gay equality, gay adoption, and so on get nullified because he has a philosophical objection to government’s involvement in private businesses? To use myself as an example for the first time in this article, does the fact I mildly oppose ENDA for libertarian reasons make worthless the entire blog my friend and I created to move the Republican Party on gay rights (The Purple Elephant)?

As Lopez admits, libertarians and the Libertarian Party have historically been good on gay rights. And as even the slightest bit of research shows, most libertarians and libertarian organizations are great on gay rights, and the Libertarian Party is at least good on gay rights. In plain English, Lopez’s argument is very, very weak.