Libertarianism is often criticised for being the politics of the straight white male. But does it actually offer LGBT people freedom the state can’t deliver?
The election of Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm to the senate and the appointment of the Institute of Public Affairs’ Tim Wilson to the human rights commission has placed libertarianism in the spotlight in Australia. Emphasising small government, individual liberties and the benefits of markets, libertarianism stakes a bold claim to be the true emancipating force at work in a world compromised by oppressive state power.
However, libertarianism, as both a politics and a “movement”, is often criticised for de-prioritising racial and gender diversity. Leyonhjelm’s first tweet, earlier this week, described the “gay lifestyle” as “reckless promiscuity” – eliciting disapproval from many LGBT Australians.
Is libertarianism a force for entrenching oppression of LGBT people, or is it the best friend of queer communities? We invited the IPA’s Julie Novak and Comment is Free contributor Simon Copland to discuss the issue.
Julie Novak: Libertarianism is the LGBT community’s best friend
The coercive state, often in concert with religious orders, has brutalised, ostracised and persecuted certain minorities over many centuries.
People physically attracted to those of the same sex and those who flouted conventional stereotypes surrounding gender identity have long been a ready target for ill‑treatment, with the worst cases including executions, imprisonment, or enforced medical treatments to override such allegedly deviant behaviours.
Such treatment is clearly incompatible with the principles of classical liberalism, often referred to today as libertarianism, with its emphasis on freedom of individual conduct, and the widespread toleration of such conduct so that freedom can be realised, insofar as it does not harm others.
This is not a widely held view. There are schools of thought, often associated with socialist and progressive movements, that libertarianism is incompatible with the attainment of greater freedoms and rights for LGBT people.
This suggestion seems patently absurd, and indeed, in contrast, one could reasonably claim that every major advance in LGBT rights has been fostered by – or is at least consistent with – libertarian ideals.
The decriminalisation of sodomy, first in South Australia in 1975 and, belatedly, in Tasmania in 1997, was an important step in a libertarian direction, since consenting adults performing certain sexual acts, in the privacy of their own homes, were not threatened by the police‑power when doing so.
The recent high court decision to allow Sydney activist Norrie to be legally classified as neither male or female is clearly another libertarian step in the right direction. The state was forced to relent imposing its gender identity preferences in favour of (in this case) an individual with non‑gendered preferences.
There is certainly still a fair way to go before the homophobic and transphobic state gets out of individual decision‑making on the basis of their sexual preferences and gender identities, or at least enshrine a basic equality of treatment under the law.
Therefore, matters such as adoption, equal age of consent (in Queensland), fertility access, and marriage equality still remain on the agenda for liberalising reform.
An aspect of libertarianism that has gone underappreciated is the profoundly beneficial impact of economic freedom for LGBT people, and for others. In economically freer countries LGBT individuals are more readily able to attain healthy incomes, helping them assert their self‑identities.
Less hampered markets also allow suppliers to creatively provide specialist goods and services for LGBT people, like safe meeting places, bars, cafes and nightclubs.
The promotion of civil, economic and personal liberties are at the forefront of libertarian philosophy, and this is why I subscribe to the view that, in the end, libertarianism is the best friend of people in queer communities.
Simon Copland: LGBT oppression is structural, not just personal
With its focus on individual liberty, it is true that on the surface, libertarianism is wholly consistent with the agenda of LGBT activists. Julie is correct to point out that many of the recent wins for LGBT are in line with libertarian ideals.
Yet these wins only scratch the surface of LGBT oppression. The structural issues that lead to queer oppression still need to be challenged and libertarians are not the people to do that.
Much of this structural oppression is imposed by the state; marriage being a perfect example. Marriage, as an institution, has not only been oppressive for women, but through social pressure promoted by a religious and state apparatus it also subtly reinforces a particular set of sexual and relationship rules.
This sort of oppression is common – from marriage and the military, to regulations about sex work and how we define our gender. It is for this reason that it is ironic that many libertarians focus their energies on marriage equality, instead of the abolition of marriage itself.
While libertarians may argue against the coercive state, in reality it exists to prop up the other major coercive apparatus of our society – the “free” market. Their advocacy for markets means libertarians are hardly the best friends of LGBT folk.
No matter how deregulated it becomes, the free market is in fact only so free. Like all other devices and structures it has rules that people must follow, in particular around the ownership and transferal of private property.
Importantly, for these rules to survive, the market requires full participation – something which impacts queer people in particular. In particular, it needs a society of couples in co-dependent monogamous relationships. It is only through these relationship structures that the transfer of property between generations can be ensured, protecting fundamental basis of our system.
It is potentially for this reason that libertarian politicians such as David Leyonhjelm find the “reckless promiscuity” of the “gay lifestyle” so offensive. Leyonhjelm knows that the “gay lifestyle” as he sees it won’t allow for the free market to operate as he would like. It is also for this reason that marriage equality is a focus for many libertarians. It brings people within the market system that is essential to their ideology.
All systems have rules that underpin them but for LGBT people it is the rules of the free market that are the most oppressive. It forces people into particular economic and social relationships that are diametrically opposed to the freedom of relationship structures and gender and sexual identity that LGBT advocates have been fighting over for decades.
Julie Novak: Economic freedom makes it expensive to discriminate
I agree with Simon’s characterisation of the structural oppression faced by LGBT people, and share his concerns about gender and sexual conformity exerted religiously, and politically, on behalf of moral, and voting, majorities, respectively.
It remains my firm view, though, that markets help economically emancipate LGBT people, and could even play a part in eliminating anti‑queer prejudice. Greater economic freedom makes it even more costly to discriminate.
But libertarians also appreciate that markets are one aspect of all non‑state interactions that individuals can voluntarily arrive at within our society.
If LGBT people feel a particularly strong aversion against profit‑making in product supply, they can “break the mould”, so to speak – for example by establishing not‑for‑profit cooperatives and building their local communities in that fashion.
It is unusual that Simon should depict the libertarian stance on marriage reform as being focussed upon “marriage equality instead of the abolition of marriage itself”.
It was almost a month ago I wrote an impassioned plea to my fellow lesbian women, and gay men, to consider a break to the state‑marriage nexus as a viable alternative to political pleading for our historical adversary – the government – to recognise our relationships.
Finally, I do not regard Leyonhjelm’s recent comments as representative of the libertarian position on LGBT people and their struggles, and hope his parliamentary record will demonstrate a genuine commitment to LGBT rights.
Simon Copland: It’s not enough to ask LGBT people to “break the mould”
I cannot agree that markets can play a part in eliminating anti-queer prejudice.
Recent evidence suggests that modern sexual and gender relationships are a direct consequence of the development of capitalism, seemingly confirming Friedrich Engels’ view that “The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male”.
That’s not to say there was no sexism or queerphobia before the arrival of capitalism, but the growth of the modern nuclear family – the modern “mould” which Julie would see LGBT people break – was formed under capitalism, and is certainly queerphobic. It demands gender, sexual and relationship structures that work in particular ways and then punishes those who break away from them.
In my view therefore we need a different mould, one that doesn’t require queer people to “break away”, but rather isn’t queerphobic in the first place.
I recognise both Julie’s work on marriage and her belief that Leyonhjelm’s statements don’t reflect mainstream libertarian ideal. But it’s hard for me to ignore this cultural conservative trend in libertarian circles, a trend that goes well beyond Leyonhjelm’s stray tweet.
It’s possible this represents some “delinquents” within libertarianism. More likely, it represents an inherent conservatism that is required for the survival of the ideology. So despite the work of people like Julie, I find it difficult to see how libertarianism can ever be a true friend of queer people.