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When Pocket Full of Liberty published Mike Gannon’s paean to “familial strength” and “tradition,” I found myself implicitly agreeing with the ensuing backlash among (predominantly left-leaning) libertarians. Gannon’s argument is clearly reactionary statism masquerading as radical libertarianism: To protect individual liberty, we need to violate individual liberty? So counter-intuitive, it must be true! So why give the absurd any more thought than it deserves? Because this kind of rhetoric is not uncommon among libertarians—or anyone who espouses an individualist ideology—if we can take as another example the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s claim that Keynes, being a “childless homosexual,” was constitutionally incapable of caring about the economic long-term. As libertarianism becomes more and more influential in the coming decade, it will be necessary to reassess the way rhetoric at the theoretical level can influence policy, often for the worse. In short, libertarians aren’t immune to the vices of prejudice and privilege-denying—and before we can try to liberate anyone else from the State, we should try liberating ourselves from our own bad habits.
In order to see what can happen when prejudice infests free-market thought, it might be helpful to visit France. (If the juxtaposition of “free-market” and “France” in the same sentence seems somewhat jarring, it’s largely because of media misrepresentation and nothing substantial. Classical liberalism, after all, was born in France.) Like any country, France is a place of many contradictions. Some of these are rather beneficial, like the peaceful coexistence of a majority Catholic population with an officially and strictly secular government. But some are destructive and frankly a bit bizarre, like the nation’s track record on women’s rights. Abortion and birth control are government-funded, and parity laws require that election ballots have equal numbers of male and female candidates…in a country where Muslim women are forbidden from wearing veils in public. It’s therefore not that surprising to learn that French approval of marriages that fall outside the nuclear model doesn’t extend to same-sex couples. In fact, homophobia is alive and well in supposedly liberated France. And all in the name of freedom and democracy.
I discovered this odd facet of the French political landscape in the last two weeks of May, on a trip to Paris. I was drawn to the hundreds of political stickers and posters slapped onto street lamps, benches, and Métro walls. These mysterious sheets of paper advertised a dizzying and conflicting array of acronym-d organizations supporting or opposing various causes, likewise abbreviated. As a result, it was next to impossible to puzzle out the goals of the different activist groups taking to the streets. An anti-same-sex marriage demonstration was scheduled for 26 May – Mother’s Day in France – but you wouldn’t know that just by glancing at the stickers and posters. Marriage equality in France is referred to as le Mariage pour tous (“marriage for all”); and the anti-Mariage pour tous demonstrators were calling their event, la Manifestation pour tous (“the demonstration for all”). Even Parisian friends of mine were confused as to whether the Manif pour tous was pro- or anti-marriage equality.
It’s relatively easy to understand after some Googling, though: same-sex marriage was legalized in France on 18 May, and the first government-sanctioned same-sex weddings took place two days after the Manif pour tous. The demonstrators were, and still are, banking on the claim that they are the true defenders of liberté, égalité, and fraternité – the classical liberal legacy of the Enlightenment and the first Revolution in 1789. It’s for this reason that grown, supposedly straight men have gone parading around France half-naked with slogans like “Demo [democracy] dead” and “Save kids” stenciled onto their stomachs in high-camp fashion. Such flair for the dramatic was also evident at the Manifestation pour tous, where I saw no shirtless male torsos but plenty of signage, including such gems as Mariage-o-phobe, pas homophobe (“Marriage-o-phobe, not homophobe”) and Dernière Fête des Meres (“Last Mother’s Day Ever”). Passions have been so high that a right-wing historian famous for his Nazi-collaborationist apologia showed his solidarity with the anti-gay demonstrators by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun at the altar of the Notre Dame, a day after I was set to visit the famed cathedral.
So what are the similarities, if any, between the French opposition to le Mariage pour tous and American protests against marriage equality? At first glance, it seems difficult to make any sort of equivalence between the two movements. As the Mariage-o-phobe, pas homophobe sign indicated to me, the French demonstrators are not motivated explicitly by a desire to reinstate a ban on homosexuality itself, the like of which has been absent from French penal codes since 1791. This by contrast with America’s somewhat tardy repeal of “sodomy laws” by Supreme Court fiat in 2003, a decision which still rankles many Republicans. And few protesters in France would directly cite the Bible or the Qur’an to justify their arguments, though they certainly don’t turn away Catholic priests and Muslim imams who support the cause.
No, it’s not the super-religious who are leading the charge in France – it’s the libéraux (classical laissez-faire liberals). Contrepoints, one of the most well-known online libéral news sources, regularly features articles promoting a peculiarly conservative ideology with regards to the politics of gender and sexuality. Although they don’t participate in the homoerotic flash-mobs of their more active fellow citizen, the writers and editors at Contrepoints regurgitate the same talking points painted on pasty white abdomens across France. Take “De la théorie du genre à la famille” (“From Gender Theory to the Family”) by Francis Richard, an article which advocates that queer people be treated like delinquent children: “Humanity has always had its margins. Likewise biology, where there are the archetypes and then there are the margins. [But] variance shouldn’t be the norm. For example, all children must go to school. That doesn’t mean we should make bad students the norm at the expense of all the others.”* This is a libéralisme without diversité, it seems; or where diversity has to accept the “dunce” cap and shove over for the superior elements of society.
The French arguments against marriage equality are the same classical liberal ones currently in vogue among right-leaning libertarians in the Anglophone world. Like the French activists who cavalierly dismiss the complaints of their queer compatriots by saying that a relationship “aux marges” doesn’t need the government’s stamp of approval, the very American Gannon just as ignorantly writes, “One’s sense of worth and human dignity should not be predicated on a slip of paper from the county courthouse….” Spoken like someone who’s never had his own rights denied based on his sexuality, skin color, or gender. That saccharine comfort works just up to the point that a person is denied access to their same-sex partner’s deathbed, health insurance, Social Security benefits, or inheritance because of said “slip of paper.”
But what’s most interesting about both Gannon’s and Richard’s articles is that neither of them primarily or only reference a religious text. Instead, they draw on a variety of works considered to be classics of Western Civilization, a technique which allows them to avoid accusations of being bigoted conservatives. Yet as Rachel Burger recently pointed out, Gannon’s interpretations have little to do with his sources – ditto those of his French counterparts. Gannon’s crude Aldous Huxley references aside, there is no truth to the claim that same-sex partnerships will usher in an orgiastic dystopian wonderland. And claiming to be interested in “biology” doesn’t make Richard any more than an armchair social engineer when he declares that having gay parents hurts children, despite study after study proving (to conservatives’ constant astonishment) that lesbian moms won’t corrupt the youth. Basically, it’s easy to fake an interest in “the big topics” (biology, psychology, economics, literature) to push an agenda.
So if it’s not religion, what is the root cause of this homophobic libertarianism, and what can libertarians do to keep it from spreading? One memory from my trip might prove useful.
26 May, the day of the protests. I’d woken up late and so missed the groups of people going to visit Victor Hugo’s house near the Place des Vosges. Complicating things further, my closest friend on the trip texted me – she’d gotten lost in the Marais district on the other side of the city, panicking. I rushed to the Métro on my own, unsure if I’d even be able to find her among the sprawl of bistros and curving streets. In my own panic, checking my phone for more texts, I initially didn’t glance at the crowd of people who got on a few stops after me. They were happy, even rowdy, and speaking in hurried French which I mostly couldn’t decipher. Something told me not to look up; I did anyway.
It was a mistake.
I found myself confronted by a group of gleeful young men about my age, a middle-aged woman, a teenage girl, and a woman about as old as the men – all covered in Manif pour tous stickers. One man was standing behind the young woman, as all the others chattered amiably. He stared at me, directly into my eyes. Parisians do not do this. Not in public, especially not on the Métro, not unless they want something, or notice something odd. It was rude. It was unnerving.
I looked away, redirected my attention. The older woman had lipstick on her cheek in the imprint of a kiss. The teenage girl was peeling another sticker. One of the men wondered aloud what stop they were getting off. When I looked back, the man was still staring at me. I’d never felt this watched before. I could see myself through his eyes: seated, beneath him, blank – afraid. He looked hungry. Later, I tried to explain this to some straight friends of mine, and they thought I was being dramatic. A queer professor I met for coffee back in the States told me: “Of course. You know when someone is looking at you. You know what they want. You have to.” Those of us who count ourselves among society’s F-students (per Monsieur Richard) know what’s needed to communicate in strictest secrecy.
But every time I returned his glance, he pulled the woman in front of him closer, kissed the back of her neck – while still watching me. She closed her eyes, smiled, as if she were suddenly back in their bedroom, alone. She wasn’t even aware of me, or what her boyfriend (husband?) was doing. With her eyes closed, his lips on her collarbone, he continued to stare. I was pinned. I was terrified. And I finally understood homophobia.
We’re trained by our culture to think that homophobia only occurs as a result of antiquated religious taboos, and libertarians (even the religious ones) would generally like to see themselves as free of such “collectivist” influences. But prejudice is at heart the fear of an Other, whose very existence calls into question any self-centered, privileged worldview. Gay people marrying scares Mike Gannon, who resists any opportunity to question his own privilege as a straight man who, if he chooses, can get the State to sanction and protect his relationship. The same thing disgusts Francis Richard, who fears having his self-conception as a “normal” member of society shattered by the presence of those pesky little margins. And it terrifies or outrages the closeted man on the Métro, who desperately wants to remain part of that privilege. As a queer man, I can understand that conflict of competing desires: the wish to be free, and the wish to be safe.
But as someone who is involved in libertarian circles, I also want to question the belief that libertarians are free of prejudice. We aren’t. Just because you condemn collectivism doesn’t mean you’re not a bigot. Prejudice can manifest itself through any medium – religion, science, and even humanitarianism have all been popular excuses to oppress and control a hated minority group. I would add libertarianism, individualism, and classical liberalism to this list. Considering the discourse of American and French libertarianism as of late – and the apparent popularity and influence of such rhetoric on French activism – this isn’t much of a stretch.
To truly advocate for liberty, libertarians need to reevaluate the ways in which their ideals – reason, individualism, and freedom – can be manipulated to perpetrate systems of privilege and prejudice. This doesn’t mean ceasing to care about taxes or the War on Drugs. Such traditionally libertarian causes are integral parts of that very illiberal phenomenon, privilege. (A fact which is confirmed every time a politician, chuckling, admits that he smoked pot in college – and never had his livelihood taken away because of it.) But real liberty, if there is such a thing, includes those on the margins, and libertarians do damage to their mission when they exclude or demonize the marginalized in the name of (straight, white, male, cisgender, middle-class) liberty. It is not enough to condemn the State in the abstract; we must be aware of the ways our own rhetoric can perpetuate prejudice. To use a phrase becoming more and more popular among left-libertarians: we need to check our privileges, and fight them.
*Translation mine. The original line is: “L’humanité a toujours connu des marges. De même, en biologie, il y a des archétypes et il y a des marges. La divergence ne doit pas être la norme. Par exemple, tous les enfants doivent aller à l’école. Cela ne veut pas dire que l’on doive faire des mauvais élèves la norme aux dépens de tous les autres.”
Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.