Rand Paul confuses me. In some ways, the Republican presidential candidate is a very smart politician, injecting easy-to-love, soft-core libertarian views on drugs and drones into an otherwise conservative outlook. But when Paul steps out of his comfort zone, he tends to say very stupid things—especially about civil rights laws. In 2013, Paul professed his distaste for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then qualified his position to the point of incoherence. Now Paul has offered a neat solution for gay employees who fear they will be fired due to their sexual orientation: Just stay in the closet.
That was the gist of Paul’s comments on Wednesday, when a college student asked the candidate for his views on gay nondiscrimination measures. Here’s the highlight of Paul’s rambling remarks:
I think really the things you do in your house, we could just leave those in your house and they wouldn’t have to be part of the workplace. I don’t know if we need to keep adding to different classifications to say government needs to be involved in the hiring and firing. I think society is rapidly changing and if you are gay, there are plenty of places that will hire you.
Paul went on to explain that a gay nondiscrimination statute “sets up a whole industry for people who want to sue”:
If you happen to be gay and you get fired, now you have a reason [your employer fired you]. … People don’t put up a sign and say, ‘I’m firing you because you’re gay.’ It’s something that’s very much disputed.
Obviously, this statement is incredibly fatuous. But it also reveals a fair amount about Paul’s perspective on gay rights and gay people. Let’s unpack the two central fallacies here: That being gay is something you only “do in your house,” and that expanding nondiscrimination laws to gay people would be a radical departure from the status quo.
First, as MSNBC’s Steve Benen points out, sexual orientation is about more than just sex. Everybody, gay or bisexual or straight, broadcasts their sexual orientation constantly—and, usually, inadvertently. When a straight man mentions his wife at work, he is flaunting his orientation just as much as a gay man is when he mentions his husband at work. The sole distinction between the two scenarios is a troubling one: We expect straight people to reveal their heterosexuality, while some of us—Paul included—expect gay people to keep their homosexuality hidden. This double standard implies that homosexuality is somehow bad or shameful or, at the very least, awkward and thus worth concealing. By endorsing it, Paul is sending a clear message to gay and bisexual people that only heterosexuals deserve the privilege of publicizing their orientation.
Second, Paul’s concern about adding “different classifications” to civil rights laws is quite odd in light of the dramatic expansion of such classifications since the Civil Rights Act was passed. Since 1964, myriad states have outlawed workplace discrimination against a slew of traits—including marital status, ancestry, pregnancy status, disability, and even smoker status—with virtually no controversy. The federal government has also added a few protected classes, including pregnant women, members of the armed forces, and disabled people. Why are Paul and his Republican colleagues suddenly eager to draw the line at sexual orientation? The conclusion that Paul and his party simply think gay people are less worthy of legal protections is nearly inescapable. It is also a disappointing position for Paul, who was heretofore one of the less outwardly anti-gay candidates in the current race.
One last note about Paul’s comments. Toward the end of his spiel, Paul trotted out the old argument that protecting gays from workplace discrimination would leave employers vulnerable to litigation. He is correct, because that is how civil rights laws work. In America, businesses have vast discretion to hire and fire employees as they see fit. Nondiscrimination statutes give a little power back to employees, opening up an avenue for redress when they are fired for a reason which, the legislature believes, is illegitimate. Yes, these lawsuits are sometimes messy. But that occasional mess is the cost we pay, as a society, for a workplace relatively free from irrational bias. Paul can certainly favor the prejudiced employer over the wronged employee. But he should explain why his reasoning stops with gay employees—and why, under his logic, the whole edifice of civil rights laws in America should not come tumbling down.