Last week, the LGBTQ rights movement faced its first major setback since the marriage equality ruling in June. Voters in Houston voted down a city ordinance that would include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes in nondiscrimination laws. The ordinance, referred to as Proposition 1, was widely supported by the city council. Its proponents were confident that the progressive citizens of Houston would easily continue the trend of inclusivity, tolerance and nondiscrimination.
However, they didn’t expect a highly efficient and very well-marketed opposition campaign. Running on the slogan “No men in women’s bathrooms,” social conservatives created an impressive fear-based movement that proved more potent than the promise of equality. There are several moving parts within this story, but this column is going to address the libertarian interaction with the issue.
Libertarians have been staunch allies of the LGBTQ community for decades. The first openly gay man to run for president was 1972 Libertarian Party nominee John Hospers. Several LGBTQ rights organizations are openly affiliated with the National Libertarian Party. Libertarian principles of individual self-determination apply even for those who might have various religious objections for the LGBTQ community — while they might personally object, they’d never seek to use the government as a vehicle for imposing their personal beliefs on someone else, thus infringing on their self-ownership.
Self-ownership is one of the cornerstones of libertarian support for LGBTQ rights. It’s the principle that every person owns his or her body and that no other individual or group can violate the rights that come with that ownership. It is from here that libertarians draw their largely liberal social views, that no one else should be allowed to dictate what you can or cannot do to your own body without violating this principle of autonomy. Individual liberty is the cause célèbre of the Libertarian Party. The belief that the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own path is paramount. From this perspective, libertarians hold a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to how people live their lives. They don’t care who you love or how you express that love as long as you don’t infringe on anyone else’s right to do the same.
The same goes for expressing gender identity. Unlike social conservatives who believe the government should act as a guardian of pre-determined “morality,” libertarians trust people to determine their own values. It is only when the natural rights of others to life and liberty have been infringed upon that libertarians take issue.
The protection of those laws is the only legitimate function of government. There are many nuances of this idea and they have countless iterations and justifications, but from a very basic standpoint, the purpose of government is to protect each citizen’s natural rights. LGBTQ Americans are citizens to the exact same extent as heterosexual, cisgender Americans.
Hence the protection of their rights does indeed fall under the purview of the government.
This brings us back to the Houston bathroom issue: Should transgender people be allowed to use the bathrooms that accord with their gender identity rather than their given sex? Despite the support for transgender rights and disdain for discrimination against them, libertarians do not have an easy answer. Part of the problem lies in being conscious of singling anyone out.
One solution proposed by school districts facing this issue is to create separate spaces for transgender students to use. But creating separate bathrooms or changing rooms for transgender students in schools or adults in the workplace creates a separate class rather than treating everyone equally. It also raises questions about the school’s ability to force the student to use the separate facilities. It doesn’t properly balance the comfort and security of the transgender student and his or her classmates, especially with regard to locker rooms. These are thorny issues, and no one has a clear answer.
Ultimately, Proposition 1 was a non-discrimination law. Libertarians disapprove of discrimination and bigotry in all forms and would have fully supported Prop 1 for this reason. The plight of the transgender community and the LGBTQ community as a whole is one libertarians want to help improve. Hopefully future efforts will be met with more acceptance and a more enlightened dialogue informed by reason rather than fear.