Gay Rights on the Right

By Paul Varnell


First appeared on October 13, 1999 in the Chicago Free Press.

This article is included through the courtesy of the Independent Gay Forum.
See also Gays and the Sixties, June 17, 1999


The modern case for gay rights is something we owe to thinkers on the Left -- or so the conventional wisdom would have it. But in fact libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservative intellectuals were advancing influential pro-gay arguments through the 1960s and 1970s, as witness the writings of Nobel economic laureate Friedrich Hayek, professor of psychiatry Thomas Szasz, and psychoanalyst Ernest van den Haag.




SINCE OCTOBER IS GAY HISTORY MONTH, it seems an apt time to correct one of the persistent errors about gay history -- the notion that support for gays came only from the political left. In truth, there was a certain amount of support for gays from libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives throughout the 1960s and 1970s.


Perhaps the best place to start is 1960-1961 when two libertarian academics published books that helped set the agenda for future discussion.


In 1960, Friedrich Hayek, an economist and social philosopher at the University of Chicago, and later a winner of the Nobel prize, published "The Constitution of Liberty." Hayek's chief aim was to set out arguments for personal liberty and explain why government coercion was harmful both to the individual and to society.


One of Hayek's key points was that just because a majority does not like something, it does not have the right to forbid it. "The most conspicuous instance of this in our society," Hayek wrote, "is that of the treatment of homosexuality." After noting that men once believed that tolerating gays would expose them to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Hayek added, "Where such factual beliefs do not prevail, private practice among adults, however abhorrent it may be to the majority, is not a proper subject for coercive action for a state."


Just two years later one of Hayek's students wrote a long article, "Sin and the Criminal Law," for the libertarian quarterly "New Individualist Review." Using Hayek's framework, the article attacked all so-called "morals" legislation -- e.g., laws against gambling, drug use, suicide, prostitution, voluntary euthanasia, obscenity and homosexuality.


The article dismissed all these as "imaginary offenses" and developed Hayek's argument that such laws should be repealed because the personal freedom of individuals is what creates the conditions for social progress.


Hayek's influence was pervasive among libertarians. To take just one example, in 1976, one of Hayek's students wrote a 12-page pamphlet, "Gay Rights: A Libertarian Approach," for the fledgling Libertarian Party and its presidential candidate Roger Lea McBride.


The pamphlet, one of the major outreach tools of the campaign, outlined the libertarian approach of repealing bad laws instead of passing new ones. It urged the repeal of all laws that prohibited gay sex, gay marriage, gay participation in the military, gay adoption and child custody, cross-dressing and laws that permitted police entrapment. Many of these have become more pressing issues 25 years later.




Szasz argued in 1961 that "mental illness" was just a label for socially disapproved behavior. His argument was quickly adopted by early advocates for gays.




The other early libertarian book was Thomas Szasz' 1961 "The Myth of Mental Illness," in which Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at Syracuse University, argued that psychiatry was simply a system of social control, that "mental illness" was just a label for socially disapproved behavior and the goal of all therapy should be individual autonomy and self-understanding for the person seeking therapy.


Just as Hayek provided a powerful theoretical structure for opposing sodomy laws and other government controls, so Szasz provided a powerful general argument against the notions that gays are sick and could or should be "cured."


Szasz' argument was quickly adopted by early gay activists and other advocates for gays. In a pioneering essay in Hendrik Ruitenbeek's 1963 anthology, "The Problem of Homosexuality in Modern Society," the independent-minded conservative psychoanalyst Ernest van den Haag reinforced Szasz' approach by arguing vigorously against every possible reason that could be offered for describing homosexuality as sick or immoral or unnatural.


"I do not believe that homosexuality as such can or need be treated," van den Haag wrote, and added that when one psychiatrist said all his gay patents were sick, van den Haag replied that so were all his heterosexual patients.


Van den Haag also mischievously turned traditional neo-Freudian theories about homosexuality upside down by arguing that powerful American mothers and passive fathers probably caused most fear and hostility to homosexuality. Because of this family structure, van den Haag explained, boys have a more precarious identification with their fathers. Their resulting fear of feminine identification leads to an exaggerated insistence on masculinity manifested in part by hostility to homosexuality.


Szasz himself applied his general argument to gays in "Legal and Moral Aspects of Homosexuality" in a 1965 anthology "Sexual Inversion," edited by psychiatrist Judd Marmor.


Szasz repeated his arguments that psychiatric diagnoses were merely labels used for social control. Accordingly, attempts to change homosexuals to heterosexual were simply attempts to change their values. Szasz added that there was no basis for saying that homosexuality was unnatural unless one's standard was universal procreation -- hardly a modern necessity.


And Szasz pointed out that homophobia arises because homosexual acts seem to devalue the privileged status of heterosexual acts for heterosexuals. If anyone doubts the cogency of that argument, they need only remember that the most common argument the religious right offers against gay marriage is that it will cheapen or undermine heterosexual marriage.


Szasz returned to the mistreatment of gays in 1970 in "The Manufacture of Madness," where he argued with numerous historical examples that modern psychiatry is best understood as a continuation of the Catholic Inquisition but using pseudo-scientific language.


He described the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah as the first recorded Instance of police entrapment of gays, noted that the Catholic church opposed homosexuality primarily because it gave pleasure and urged that the proper goal of psychiatry should be to help people value their own selfhood more than society's judgment about them.


There are other pro-gay libertarians and conservatives, but Hayek and Szasz are particularly important for their broad theoretical frameworks.


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Reprinted on the Szasz site with permission.