Sunday, March 1, 2009

Homophobia, Public and Private

Reason's Jacob Sollum distinguishes between governmental and private homophobia:

Ideally, the government would leave marriage to the private institutions that handled it for most of its history. Short of that, those institutions and the individuals who follow their teachings should be free to accept or reject gay unions as they see fit, which means they should not have to worry about being sued for unlawful discrimination.

Such fears played a conspicuous role in the Proposition 8 campaign, and the eHarmony case shows they’re not fanciful. Eric McKinley, the gay man who filed the civil rights complaint that forced eHarmony to start matching same-sex couples, says the company’s straights-only policy was “very hurtful,” making him feel like “a second-class citizen.”

Unlike a government that claims exclusive authority to approve adoptions or marriages, eHarmony has plenty of competitors, including online matchmakers that advertise themselves as gay-friendly. Yet McKinley could not bear the thought that one of many dating services chose to focus on heterosexuals. Such intolerance undermines the struggle for gay rights by feeding fears that equal treatment by the government means equal treatment by everyone.

Homophobia -- like racism, sexism, and antisemitism -- is a bigot's right. If the chief troglodyte of a business refuses to provide a service to gay persons (or hire them), then let him -- to his own detriment. Given competition, he and his business will suffer in the end. It is not the business of government to enlighten the hayseeds of America.

Instead, our energy should be focused on the pernicious practice of governmental discrimination, the kind of discrimination that we all pay for. Equal (not special) rights for a minority ultimately boils down to the fact that the individual is the smallest minority there is, and that minority's rights must be protected by the government. Gay marriage, like interracial marriage, should be legal not because gays need "special" privileges from the government, but the same status, as individuals, that straights enjoy.

As long as we still have some semblance of a constitutional republic, we cannot allow the majority to vote away the rights of an individual. But, in the same turn, those individuals also have a right to privately discriminate. It is the market, not the government, who is ultimately the arbiter. (This includes the "market" for friends and acquaintances, those who we choose to fraternize with.) No one is forced to deal with those bigoted individuals or companies.

We choose to deal with them. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our dealings with the government.