Libertarianism, equal rights for gays, and intergenerational responsibilities 

By Bill Boushka   2006


No one should be forced to sacrifice against his will to meet someone else’s needs. That sounds like a very simple moral paradigm. Everyone should be accountable for himself or herself. Again, this is a very simple principle.


These ideas would seem to be all that one would need to justify equal rights for gays. They would provide very simple rationales for us to enjoy being who we are.


That would seem to comport with the simplest idea for government: that we should have as little as possible. That is what most of us think as the core belief of libertarianism. The psychological notion would be not just freedom but personal autonomy: the capacity to live one’s life for one’s own expressive purposes. This goes against another concept common in religious and social thinking: the idea of sharing sacrifices and burdens. To the libertarian, “sacrifice” means one party imposes its needs on another. Or does it?


When I look autonomy idea, as important as it is to me, I can see how double edged it is. It seems closely correlated to property rights. But when we look, with the best of good faith, at a number of issues and how they should be resolved, even within the libertarian community we find some disagreement. Questions arise as to how fully copyrights should be protected. Tort reform seems necessary in a practical sense, even if would contradict ideological commitment to freedom to contract. The freedom of workers to organize and unionize is respected, even while at the same time the nature of a union or any quasi-political organization is seen as compromising personal autonomy.


If I look further into social and family values, we find further issues. Do children have an obligation to help support their aging parents, as a way of “repaying them,” or do parents own any rights at all over adult children? Even seen from the viewpoint of personal responsibility, these questions can generate different opinions. And all of these questions are very important to the GLBT community.


At this point, it is helpful more me to trace how I became connected to libertarianism.


I grew up in an upper middle class home as pretty much the stereotyped spoiled only child “sissy boy.” Yet my parents put considerable pressure on me to learn to compete “as a man.” They insisted that I would be expected to provide for and “protect” women and children, as dress rehearsal for a human domain (“family”) of my own, continuing a lineage that would psychologically “validate” their home that had produced me.  I resented that, partly because I wasn’t any good at the conventional “masculine” things (the word does need quotes here) and because I was good at academics, especially math and science, and was quite talented in piano and classical music. Those gifts go together. I came of age during the Sputnik era, when intellectual, if nerdy gifts were being saved aside as a matter of national survival. I rode on that. I was unsociable, and even today some people say that I have Asperger Syndrome. In high school I was fortunate enough to have history and government teachers who stressed independent, critical and objective thinking and who gave controversial exams that were mostly essay.  Particularly on racial and minority issues, even before 1960, I learned the value of thinking for myself rather than going along with others. I was aware of my homosexual feelings, that I would cathect from more “competitive” men, in somewhat narcissistic fashion, qualities that I did not have myself.


I won a chemistry scholarship to William and Mary in 1961, but in a sudden turn over Thanksgiving weekend, I was expelled after admitting to the Dean of Men that I viewed myself as a “latent homosexual.” I would spend six months “hospitalized” at the National Institutes of Health in 1962 where mildly reparative therapy was attempted. I went to George Washington University while living at home (I was considered too “dangerous” for the dorm), graduate in mathematics (what else?) in 1966, and finally get an M.A. in math from the University of Kansas in 1968 (there I did live in a dorm, mostly without incident). I would be “drafted” in 1968 and serve uneventfully in the Army, although I was sheltered by my graduate education and remained stateside as a mathematician.


I would have a thirty-year plus career in information technology, mostly old mainframe stuff, a whole culture of its own.  In New York City, in the 1970s, I would find an East Village group called the Ninth Street Center, which advocated a philosophy of psychological independence based on psychological polarities, which would reside in the personality independent of biological gender or procreation. I connected with their idea that for a “feminine” personality (which I am), choosing those people (or values) to whom one will “submit” is a form of self-expression; at the same time, society expected men (therefore me!) to express “masculinity” by competing and asserting themselves to promote their own biology, an activity that in psychological terms could be experienced as a “false submission” to collective goals defined by others. Political and expressive freedom was the antidote to both personal rejection and the limitations imposed by one’s inherited biology and circumstances.  The Center’s philosophy valued personal decision making and the choice of one’s own commitments or goals as personal autonomy; but in its own way it would stress the importance of meeting the real needs of other people as a moral prerequisite for self-expression, a duality that would recur again as a moral theme. I would dabble with other similar groups, like the Rosicrucians, with their logical notion of karma.  In the 1980s, I would be living on the Buckle of the Bible Belt, Dallas, as the religious right mounted its response to AIDS, which at the time seemed to provoke threats to privacy and individual liberty, based on speculative theories about public health and viral mutation, scenarios that we had never faced before. Nevertheless, the public health crisis seemed to make gays into a community with a cohesion and progression comparable to that of biological families. 


When the new president Clinton proposed lifting the ban against gays in the military in 1993, I saw a striking a parallel to what had happened to me at William and Mary. The military services were claiming that the presence of gays interfered with unit cohesion, forced intimacy, and somehow invaded the sexual privacy of straight soldiers. This was the same thing as in the dorm thirty-plus years before! Actually, it was more subtle than that. I had grown up in the era when conscription (and draft deferments) had been accepted. I had partially accepted the idea that you owe service to your country and society. The military was insinuating that being gay interferes with good, patriotic citizenship and with “paying your dues.”


Since young adulthood, I had always sensed a political cleavage and indignation over a central problem about how people share supposed mutual obligations with one another. Liberals had insisted that these “obligations” had been created by a false, WASP power structure which had promoted segregation (after slavery) and gotten us into Vietnam; liberals seemed to want big government to equalize things and make them fair, with a minimum of emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to address needs around him. Conservatives wanted the biological nuclear family to provide the safety net of last resort, so that government did not get involved, and liberals quite properly criticized the family for propagating unearned wealth. Conservatives, to their credit, did move more responsibility for addressing injustice back upon the individual (but through the family and especially the church, under intellectual allegiance to religious or spiritual authority of “Him”). Libertarians want to simplify the idea of responsibility to whittling it back to the self, so it seemed. That appealed to me.


In the mid 1990s I wrote and self-published by first book, Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back. I used “conservative” as a kind of euphemism. I had been editing the newsletter, The Quill, for Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (GLIL) in Washington in the mid 1990s. A simple moral philosophy based on objectivism and personal responsibility went well with gay rights. Let’s get rid of all laws against adult consensual sex, drugs, prostitution, or any “victimless crimes.”  And let’s implement a simple solution to the marriage problem: make it a private civil contract between two adults, with no special privileges that the unmarried have to subsidize and pay for. Of course, I already knew that the moral issues would get more complicated than that, and readily admitted it in my book.


I had a touchy situation while writing the book. I was working (as a computer programmer) for a company that specialized in selling life insurance to the military, and this presented a potential conflict of interest. Fortunately, the company was acquired by a larger insurer, and I took a job in Minneapolis with the acquiring company, while keeping all benefits and service credit. Once in Minneapolis I became active with the Libertarian Party of Minnesota. Two college students arranged for me to give speeches on campus, and one of these was run on cable television. For a few years, we would have debates about the relative importance of “winning arguments” and “winning converts,” as I did my share of tailgating in LPMN ballot access petitioning drives. At one point, in 2000, I might have run as the LP candidate for U.S. Senate, but deferred to another candidate.


 I placed the text of the books on the web, and with the explosive growth of search engines like Google, I found that I could develop a public audience with no money, even if I made little money from it. But the legality of presenting such sensitive materials in public spaces where kids could find them came into question with the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, against which I became a plaintiff (as a member of Electronic Frontier Foundation).


But the biggest issue was within “my” family. I had spent thirty some years in urban environments as an uncommitted gay male, driven away into half “exile” by the values of the society in which I grew up. I had constructed a life out of aesthetics, intellect, abstractions, public accomplishments, and short relationships based on upward affiliation. In many ways, I had succeeded in conducting my life on my own terms. But, in meeting my own needs, I had separated myself from the practical needs of others. Was it right?


In the workplace, I was beginning to encounter some occasional friction as I was expected sometimes to do more of the unpaid on-call (salaried) responsibilities than were those with families, their own spouses and children. When I reminded people of the “personal responsibility” angle of this, they resented it; self-consciousness can disrupt the emotional life of many people with heavy blood family responsibilities.


I did face an eldercare situation in 1999, and could not come home for it because of the transfer. Eventually I did, after getting a final severance and retirement from the company.  In the weak job market, one of my interim jobs would be substitute teaching, which would expose me to the tremendous problems of “connecting” with disadvantaged children. I was getting a dose of reality, that now people expected a kind of emotional socialization from me from which I had run as a young man when I came out. Intergenerational responsibility (for children, the elderly, anyone in a phase of dependency) must be shared by everyone, as part of respect for life; and that is what generates all of the energy (and potential corruption) of social hierarchies – filtering onto the family. You can’t let people drop on the floor – but it might be “convenient” if you could get away from them. 


At this point, it’s useful for me to turn this discussion into an inside out “opposite field swing”, and explain it first from what I perceive in my own life. I don’t like to get too personal in a professional submission, but personal insights often lead to bigger principles.


My self-promotion and drawing attention to myself publicly, when I have never accepted “family responsibility” as others normally see it, disorients and frightens some people. Some family members feel that it could put them in danger and that it is not “fair” to them. Some people see public gay associations as a way of humiliating my own family, of suggesting that my own blood is not as important as that of someone to whom I would be attracted.  Factoring this back to individualistic arguments, I can see that they have a point. My parents and others bonded to me when I was a dependent boy. They were “loyal” parents and relatives despite my “masculine” shortcomings. Don’t I owe them this biological loyalty back when they may need me? Maybe. To extend this, if others related to me on my own level when I needed it, don’t I owe future and previous generations the priority of putting their needs first (especially with emotional connectedness) before I go out on my own and make a name for myself by drawing attention to everything that is wrong, with them and with “the system”?


You see how this thinking works. Loyalty to blood circumscribes personal responsibility as the competitive, global world sees it. (Many people see religion this say, say loyalty to Christ or to Allah.) You are supposed to like people as people and connect with them, and out of this comes complementarity that, in connection with abstinence until marriage, makes a lifelong heterosexual commitment needed to raise the next generation (and take care of the last) practicable. That’s the foundation of Vatican morality, of course, which, as we know, priests and even the Pope can hardly live up to. This is a chicken and egg problem, but objective experience does not support the idea that family and community socialization produces heterosexuality. One can make a strong moral case for the notion that someone like me, especially, should be forced to become “socialized” into meeting the real needs of others before I can choose my own course in life – that might contribute as much to “social justice” as any government program – but that won’t make me “straight.” Socialization is supposed to channel emotion, and its deepest connections to personal sexuality, to meeting the needs of others and community in a way that seems transparent, and when carried as far as “religious conservatives” want it taken (to “protect” everyone’s “salvation”), it invades the ability of the individual to make his own emotional space. At least he must pay his dues first. 


From a psychological and sociological perspective, “loyalty to blood” is what a lot of people have to live for. Society apparently offers everyone the idea of family connection and parentage, even if it is unequal otherwise. For many people, family is their only path to meaningful opportunity. If the family is brought low as a cultural institution, they are left with nothing. As I look back on the William and Mary expulsion, it seems that my apparent homosexuality was perceived by my roommate and other boys in the dorm as an indirect threat to their own masculinity. It is not at all the point that I would ever make a sexual advance; it is more that my presence reminded them that there were other men that they could be compared to and would have to compete with (in a sensitive, draft-driven Cold War background where some people were more “expendable” than others). “Open source” knowledge, so intrinsic to modern civilization, can interfere with the spontaneity of committed sexuality.  The military must deal with a similar psychological problem in the ranks. To a libertarian, this kind of think seems tribal and an abdication of personal responsibility; but many people have grown up to see the world in terms of friends and enemies, of “us” and “them.” This kind of thinking was well dramatized in the first two seasons of Smallville where the teenage Clark is feared and must keep his secret (“extraterrestriality”) because he is “different” and (as a potential “freak”) a threat to others. Many people become socialized into viewing building loyal (and somewhat compulsory) social networks around them as intrinsically connected to their own heterosexuality. To many people, a world that excludes homosexuality gives relatively average people a better chance of becoming socialized and “cared for” by heterosexuality.


“Biological competition” and the connection of sexuality to lineage are perceived by many people as essential to protecting the value of life itself. Without it, they feel, the needs of others become “burdens” rather than opportunities. Family and children gives one a domain that provides a natural incentive to support others and give them value. On the other hand, some people (often LGBT people) adopt aesthetic and cultural values that do not involve leadership of a lineage. 


The next big social problem is not going to be gay marriage as it is now debated, in such superficial terms, but filial responsibility. What I just described in emotional terns obviously can extend to ordinary financial responsibility. A lot is written about lower birth rates (among western Caucasians), the increasing life span, and the burden on the working to take care of the elderly. The demographics vary by race and social class. Internationally it may become a big problem as the third world (and the Muslim world) reproduces itself with much more fecundity. About thirty states have filial responsibility laws that enable adult children to be sued for indigent parents’ nursing home care, and so far these have been enforced mainly when assets have been given away under false pretenses (the look-back period has just been increased). That is likely to change, and political circumstances could well become onerous to those who did not have their own children. We had, until the mid 1990s, become comfortable with the idea of “private choice” and sexual orientation, that it did not need to be a public or moral matter; yet it is rather glaring that many “straight” people have obvious family responsibilities that gays don’t share, albeit due to circular reasoning and prohibitions; gays rightly fear that they will be required to subsidize the obligations of others if they don’t have their own.


Of course, in a libertarian sense, filial responsibility has its automatic underbelly, which is wills and probate. Parents are perfectly free to condition bequests upon a child’s behavior and performance in carrying on a family lineage, even posthumously (the so called “dead hand”). Filial responsibility laws, however, will deal mainly with impoverished parents with nothing to bequeath. And many people on the left believe that inherited wealth is immoral because it is unearned. But it can be earned!  


Let’s open this up. Conventional moral thinking has always emphasized responsibility for kids one “chooses” to have. Broader moral thinking would say that responsibility for others always exists, and that the whole moral paradigm encouraging marriage and family solidarity makes carrying out responsibility for others more practical. Indeed, homosexuals like me find that they have been forced to focus upon their own needs, and drift away from being able to answer to others. 


The bigger “moral” question, of course, is how larger burdens will be shared among individuals. Various issues bring this up, most of all “the inconvenient truth” of global warming, which some libertarians want to deny. Similar questions come up with other issues, such as pandemics and earthquakes. Can self-interest provide the incentive to solve all of these problems with technology and a minimum of sacrifice? Maybe. That is the question. But the other huge threat is terrorism, and here we find a dichotomy in what the terrorists object to: is it primarily our government’s foreign policies, or is it the overly commercial and “narcissistic” (and “ungodly”) values of individual citizens? A cataclysm could force people back into simple, biologically familial or tribal social patterns of interdependence, and take away from them the technology that has encourage expressive, individualistic lives.


We come back, then, to the free speech problem. The Internet, since the 1990s, has grown in an exponential fashion and offered new opportunities to individuals unimagined fifteen years ago. The search engine (Google) gives almost anyone with relatively meager resources the opportunity for celebrity, although earning money with passive exposure is another matter. The Internet also appeals to those who do not like to compete according to conventional social and business hierarchies.


We see the Internet posing issues that would make libertarians scratch their heads. The controversy over copyright in entertainment has already been mentioned. The problem may not just be protecting legitimate property rights, but protecting turf (is that “property”?) earned the old fashioned way. But a much more subtle problem is the way personal publishing on blogs, social networking sites, and even comments made by others on these, is affecting personal reputations. Employers, as the media have reported for about the past year, have been regularly monitoring job applicants and associates, both on social networking sites and on broader blogs and personal websites. At first glance, it seems like they have the perfect right to: after all, the Internet is a public square, and employers have both trade secrets and public brands and reputations to protect among customers. But we certainly would not want this practice to turn back into a test for social conformity.


I must also pitch here for my own concept – knowledge management. As an individual, I have shown how to organize a tremendous volume of political knowledge, some of it glued together by unusual personal experience, into a quasi-encyclopedia that gives the visitor an objective idea of how to connect the dots and fit the pieces of an intellectual Chinese puzzle. If people would do their own thinking (as we are supposed to be taught to do in school), they would be less susceptible to the calls of special interests. I am rather turned off by the idea of “democracy” by lobbyists, picket lines, phone banks, door-to-door, and sending money to politicians. Yet, many people make a living by doing just this—representing someone else’s partisan interest, raising ethical questions about our values. Fundamentalist religion accepts the idea of a pre-ordained scripture that contains all “truth,” reducing life to obeying edicts conveyed from “scripture” by those who have competed to direct others in a religious hierarchy (that can, in a utopian sense, take care of “everybody”)—bringing back the family and the external pecking order, in order to “take care of “ and “save” everyone.


A commitment to liberty leads to a layered examination of issues. Personal responsibility can decompose in different ways, and it can be tracked back to family values and the sharing of burdens. The foundation of liberty seems to support the idea that one follows one’s path in life, and it is always a matter of controversy when that can be affected by the needs of others. After all, one wants one’s activities to benefit others.


In the wake of the Foley scandal in Congress, we have seen speculative reiteration (especially from the religious right) of the idea that, for men at least, gay orientation results as a narcissistic reaction to abuse or to inability to compete as a boy, and that it grows out of an intrinsic character flaw in connecting to and taking responsibility for others.  The narcissism is said to connect homosexuality to an Oscar Wilde-like focus on youth and ephebophilia. Yet, the overwhelming majority of people caught in Internet sex stings involving solicitation of minors have been for attempted heterosexual contact (as on the NBC Dateline “To Catch a Predator” series). What offends the public about interest in minors is not just the “victimization” but the idea of abnegation of any responsibility for the special deference needed by other generations.


The core concepts of libertarian paradigms for responding to homosexuality have been personal responsibility, respect for privacy, and harmlessness.  That fit well with the ideas of individual “fundamental rights”, such as the right to choose a consenting adult significant other, the right to privacy. Seen from the perspective of “hyperindividualism,” winning the legal and principle battle over sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas) sounded simple.  Libertarians would “walk the line” over letting private interests (including private employers as well as the Boy Scouts with their constitutionally legitimate claim of “expressive association”) make up their own minds about private issues, while maintaining that a progressive and technological, globalized world would make discrimination economically impractical. The struggle, however, moved back toward one of solidarity and shared needs. The outside world now reacts to gay sexual orientation and activity as if its purpose were expressive, not just a mode of “private” personal experience with others. People with older modes of thinking believe that homosexuality is a way of rejecting or shaming people who do depend on familial socialization, and believe that it is an escape from what should be perceived and demanded as filial obligation. Isn’t this way of thinking self-demeaning? I would think so; but people of older generations, with a mindset that had never experienced personal autonomy, are quite comfortable with honoring the rules of social hierarchy, however easily corrupted hierarchy is. The family is supposed to the area where the buck – Darwinian or Spencerian thinking -- stops. The “moralizing” in the old 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy decision really was a reinforcement of the mandatory socialization and psychological “sacrifice” people make for “family.”  


The recent tragedy in an Amish school, while I don’t want to dwell on the specifics, brings to mind a whole moral paradigm. The Amish believe in living simply in a closed society, with strict obedience to God, and acceptance of family responsibility and participation as a prerequisite for anything else in life. This includes full participation in intergenerational activities including having and rearing children, and avoiding any technology that could make one dependent on the outside world, or that, for that matter, could pollute the planet. Unlike many other religions and “cults”, the Amish do not try to export their values onto others, so they present a test case.  They definitely live by the idea that one is his brother’s keeper. They would see someone who is “different” like me and who leaves family and then draws world attention to himself as abandoning responsibility for the vulnerable of his own kin and even as endangering them. Their value systems are definitely communal and not individualistic as we know it. In a sense, their world is utopian, as it is very stable and has almost no internal crime or corruption. It does not offer personal freedom as we know it. And it may not always be able to defend itself from the outside world. It may wind up needing to allow its own members more freedom if it is to thrive in a larger competitive world.


The biggest problem for LGBT people is still freedom. If one accepts the idea of shared community obligations and responsibilities, then equality (as an organization like HRC would define it) becomes a prerequisite for freedom. I have sometimes found that others will not respect my freedom if I haven’t “chosen” the same blood responsibilities that they did, and they assume that I have nothing better to do with my life than fit in to their social hierarchies and serve their communal needs. My insistence on my own course is seen as hostility. In some ways, we find ourselves in some of the same spaces we lived in during the 1950s.  


Libertarianism emphasizes voluntarily chosen contractual relations between people. It imagines a perfect, “rationalized” world where everyone executes and takes full responsibility for personal choices. Biological family origin or parentage is not chosen. Libertarians could debate on the moral debt owed by children to their parents, but it seems that as this problem evolves many people in my situation can loose much of our expressive freedom if we don’t pay back this intergenerational debt.  What is most unacceptable is to be forced to honor belief systems that, even if they purport to be based on faith, seem to express a kind of hypocrisy or denial that seems necessary for lifelong adaptive function within the family. Freedom, most of all, implies the ability to express and abide by one’s own convictions, and yet we can see how easily one’s beliefs, however internally righteous and utopian, can slip over the line and aggress upon others. It happens with almost all belief systems. But at least libertarianism and individualism encourage objectivity – and personal responsibility—in assessing the impact of any social change on ordinary people.   


A recent book Liberty for All: Reclaiming Individual Privacy in a New Era of Public Morality by Florida International University law professor Elizabeth Price Foley (Yale University Press, 2006) maintains that the founding fathers really did intend to emphasize individual sovereignty as a foundation of law, and would not have approved on the convention of codifying public morality into the law that developed for most of our history. But the experience of recent years shows that notions of “public morality” have a lot to do with “protecting” the vulnerable members of society as individuals rather than just reconciling injustices among groups. Moral notions seem to have a lot to do with providing a climate in which children are raised and the elderly and disabled are cared for. Another book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts our Country (Collins, 2006) by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer does play on the idea that the freedom and personal autonomy that an advanced technological society offers individuals cannot be taken for granted. But one idea that we can explore is that we can recognize intergenerational and service responsibilities for individuals without necessarily making them legally driven through statutes or through litigation. Libertarians support the idea that private and property interests can articulate moral choices. For example, an employer could be permitted to allow a slightly shorter workweek for parents than for childless people as an explicit company policy. We do need a systematic way to articulate these troubling problems in a public debate.


©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka. Permission granted for non-exclusive reprint in a possible forthcoming book. Otherwise, all rights reserved.


See also essay on personal web publishing