It's always a cause for rejoicing when the State gives us back some of the freedoms we should have had in the first place, and the recent passage in California of a bill (AB 489) authored by Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) decriminalizing all privately performed sexual acts between consenting adults undoubtedly produced its share of celebration. Since the sex laws probably had no deterrent effect—there was probably no change in the type of sexual activity going on, just one less hassle for the average couple to worry about, if they thought about it at all.
Unless the couple was gay.
In that case, the new law—nicknamed by its detractors "The Homosexual's Bill of Rights"—had much more significance: it meant that in California homosexuals could finally legally have a sex life free from the threat that a nosy landlord, inquisitive cop or some other person out to save homosexuals from themselves could have them arrested for physically expressing their love for a friend and thereafter sentenced to jail or a mental institution (for a maximum of life imprisonment). For them, the repeal of the old California laws has meant a major increase in freedom.
Now, one might expect that these developments would be greeted with great enthusiasm by all of the avowed profreedom forces in our society—but one would be wrong. In fact, some conservative elements in California are trying their best to get the old laws reinstated. Led by State Senator H.L. Richardson (R-Arcadia), who even described himself as a libertarian on several occasions during his 1974 bid to unseat U.S. Senator Alan Cranston and who garnered considerable libertarian support based on his strong stand in favor of economic liberties, they have formed the Coalition of Christian Citizens which is trying to block the implementation of the new law by putting a referendum on the June 1976 primary ballot!
Petitions supporting the referendum have been circulated and it seems likely the group will get the approximately 315,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. At this point it is too early to tell about the Coalition's chances for ultimate success—AB 489 just barely passed the legislature, which might indicate a similarly polarized public.
And what of libertarian reaction? Well, obviously AB 489 and similar efforts throughout the country are very much in line with libertarian principles—all libertarians agree that victimless crime laws (such as laws limiting voluntary sexual relations) should be repealed. However, I think it's a mistake if libertarians simply rest on their principles—if we (and here I mean anyone active enough to write a letter to the editor or attend a public forum) are serious about wanting to stop the growth of oppressive government then it is important that we do more than just talk among ourselves: it is imperative that we make appeals to and form tactical alliances with people who are already predisposed to like some of what we have to say (and who hence might be persuaded to buy the rest of our philosophy). This general strategy is already being implemented by libertarian activists with regard to such groups as tax resisters and hard-money advocates—the furor over AB 489 provides the opportunity to present the libertarian philosophy to yet another potentially sympathetic group: homosexuals.
After all, experts estimate that up to four percent of the population is exclusively homosexual, with perhaps ten times that number having some sort of homosexual experience during their adult life—that's a good-sized market for libertarian ideas. The conservative movement—especially the segment represented by the Coalition of Christian Citizens—does not seem too ready to welcome homosexuals (true, National Review and The Alternative have carried articles urging tolerance towards homosexuals, but judging from subsequent reader reaction it might be concluded that the editors of those publications are more avant-garde than most of their subscribers). And while elements of the radical left are trying hard to welcome homosexuals into their midst and gayness has become rather chic in some socialist circles, even the more left-oriented gay activists remain aware that whatever the rhetoric, in practice homosexuals have fared at least as badly under socialist or Communist governments as under nonsocialist ones.
TYPES OF DISCRIMINATION
Which leaves libertarianism. This is not to say that libertarians should become gay (although some are)—only that libertarians should try to develop a sympathetic comprehension of what being a homosexual in this society involves, and the sort of legal discrimination a homosexual encounters. For instance, a lesbian can be virtually assured of losing her children if their custody ever gets called into question (as in a divorce case)—her sexual orientation is considered by most courts to be prima facie evidence of her unfitness to be a mother. The marriage laws are obviously discriminatory and thereby deny to homosexual couples legal benefits granted to heterosexual marrieds—lower tax rates, immunity from being forced to testify against a spouse, etc. Probably the most blatantly homophobic institution in our society is the military and security establishment. The armed forces' refusal to allow homosexuals to join or to stay in the military reaches beyond the issue of whether homosexuals should have a chance to receive the training, pensions, and other benefits their tax dollars are paying for—veteran status and an honorable discharge affect a man's chances of getting a job, being admitted to a school, receiving preferential insurance rates, etc. (Note that I am not talking about a private business discriminating against homosexuals—libertarians certainly recognize the right to discriminate so long as no force is involved. I am talking about private business using a government certification and the government's using some nonrelevant criterion in awarding it.) An inability to get a security clearance (even where they don't present a security risk) can cut a homosexual off from employment in any company holding government contracts and in fact can close whole industries to homosexuals.
In all of these areas, as well as with the general issue of victimless crime laws, libertarians can work with gays, providing an analysis of the role of government in creating many of these problems and offering libertarian solutions that will hopefully help to avoid many of the statist programs that have marred the civil rights and women's movements, as well as directly limiting the power of the State. And if individual gays get turned on to the general libertarian philosophy and broaden their activism to include other antistate issues, so much the better.
In the final analysis a libertarian society will have to be a tolerant society, since not initiating force against your neighbors means that you are willing to let them live as they please no matter how alien their life style is to yours, as long as they aren't initiating force against you (if you don't like them, you don't have to deal with them). This political commitment to tolerance is the main thing that distinguishes libertarianism from conservatism and is something that often gets lost in all the libertarian rhetoric about the Federal Reserve System, natural gas pricing, gold coins, etc.—a willingness to get involved in issues such as achieving and defending full civil rights for homosexuals (and other oppressed groups) will do much to restore the balance.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Defending Tolerance".