How Libertarians Failed Gay Rights

Bob Barr
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The current Libertarian Party home page has tabs for a wide range of topics, from crime (solution: more guns) to gun laws (solution: more guns) to the environment (solution: less regulation). Among these tabs is a “Current Issues” section, featuring blurbs covering the “Bush/Obama Bailouts” and “Civil Liberties.” Conspicuously absent from the page: any mention of gay rights.

Surprised? Don’t be. Despite myriad political developments in the last 10 years, not to mention three presidential elections during which Democrats and Republicans debated the topic at length, the 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.

In a sense, the website is an appropriate metaphor for the party in general. Libertarians like to tout the fact that the party supported marriage equality in 1971, when it was founded. Sort of.  In fact, two years after Stonewall, the party’s platform called for the abolishment of “victimless crimes,” which lumped homosexuality with prostitution, polygamy, recreational drugs, abortion, and gambling. While certainly not a ringing endorsement of the LGBTQ community, the mere acknowledgement of gay people’s existence was an important step forward for an American political party. It’s also true that in the 1990s, the Libertarian Party (having no elected representatives) did join a small handful of Democrats in opposing DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, despite overwhelming public support for both measures. This might seem like a case of talk being cheap, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Plenty of Libertarian candidates take strong positions on gay rights. So why shouldn’t all gay and lesbian voters support these candidates?

Because the Libertarian Party’s stance on gay rights never left the 1990s. The “government should stay out of your bedroom” era, which ended with Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, does not empower LGBTQ people outside of the bedroom—and that’s exactly where we need to take the fight. In the Libertarian view, gay and lesbian marriages are not seen as a committed relationship between two adults, but rather as a step toward ending governmental involvement in marriage altogether. That’s not giving gay people equal rights: It’s stripping away everybody’s rights.

Marriage equality doesn’t end in the home. It carries over into the workplace as well. The Libertarian belief that all marriages should be viewed as a private contract is especially dangerous when coupled with the party’s disdain for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Libertarians believe that categorizing a minority as protected in the workplace impinges on the rights of private businesses to discriminate against employees (and customers) as they see fit. Walter Olson of the Cato Institute suggested last month that the low rate of suits filed under state-level ENDA legislation shows that federal legislation is unnecessary. Tell that to Mark Zmuda, whose employer asked him to dissolve his marriage in Washington state before firing him. While his case is unique because of exceptions in place for religious-affiliated organizations, the bias displayed by his employer is certainly not unique.

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.