Why This Libertarian Is Celebrating DOMA’s Defeat




Not everyone is happy about yesterday’s SCOTUS decision on DOMA, and I get it. More recently than I’d like to admit, that was me. I believed that gay sex was a sin. I also thought that government should promote God’s plan for us by not legitimizing “marriages” between anyone other than one man and one woman. Because “marriage” was between a man and a woman. One man, one woman, one lifetime.

Well one sister out of the closet, a divorce, etc., etc. later, my position on gay marriage has evolved. But it didn’t happen though persuasive argumentation. You know what I mean, the sort of fact-based argumentation I’ve written in the past.

It’s not like I reject reason (the magazine or the method of inquiry). Obviously, I think they’re both solid. You can logic your way toward the conclusion that discriminating against gay couples at the federal level is pretty inconsistent with liberty. And the slim likelihood of privatizing marriage makes allowing this discrimination to continue indefinitely, pretty inexcusable.

But my views didn’t change because I heard good arguments. I think that when it comes to gay marriage, libertarians on both sides are largely talking past each other. My views changed because I watched my sister wrestle with her same-sex attraction. She grew up in an environment where she was taught, we were both taught, that gay sex separated you from God. Gay sex, even thinking about gay sex, made Him unable to even look at you in your sin. Repentance, and a complete rejection of that lifestyle, was the only way to be in relationship with your Creator.

That's her with the backwards baseball cap. And the gun.

That’s her with the backwards baseball cap. And the gun.

I watched as we heard at home and from the pulpit that being gay was a choice. But my sister got in trouble at like 8 years old for slicking her hair back like a 50s greaser with Vaseline because we didn’t have any pomade. And every time we played Barbies, she was the Ken doll. And every time we went into the toy store, I went straight for the dolls and she went straight for the action figures. And it just didn’t make sense.

Does anyone else remember ball chain necklaces?

Does anyone else remember ball chain necklaces?

Then she’s in high school, deciding how and whether to date. I knew it was wrong for her to date other girls. But I didn’t know why. I could figure out the protective reasoning behind most Christian prohibitions. More than one sex partner? Of course, to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease and to preserve your heart for marriage. No drugs and don’t get drunk? Protect your body and prevent poor life choices. But who in the heck was Evelyn hurting by falling in love with and marrying a woman? I’d forego casual sex and intoxication for eternal life spent in ecstasy with my personal Creator. But should Evelyn have to miss out on a lifelong, whole, sexual, emotional bond with another human being, for no apparent purpose? Who would it hurt for Evelyn to get married? Who does it help for her to stay chaste? These are questions I thought absolutely needed answering before I could continue to support an ideology opposed to her orientation. And so I had to let that prohibition fall out of my heart.

But I wasn’t quite there yet. Even though I thought Evelyn should have the freedom to love and be loved, I wasn’t really digging getting the state involved, which is what I saw gay marriage as. That’s where empathy came in again. I slowly began to believe that whatever it would cost me, in terms of tax dollars or a very slightly larger state, it would be worth it to not have my government actively denying her the sorts of opportunities it (stole and then) gave (back) to me.

Because really, marriage abolition is a long way off, and men and women like Evelyn are hurting right now.

Just listen to the story of the face of the DOMA case, Edith Windsor. She had to pay $363,053 in estate taxes because the state would not recognize her marriage to her partner of more than 40 years. In marriages recognized by federal law, surviving spouses are exempt from estate taxes on property. Helen Dale told their story in a Reason paper, “An Argument for Equal Marriage”:

[Windsor and her partner] had enjoyed successful careers, one as a computer programmer for IBM, one as a consultant psychologist. Both had paid their taxes, obeyed the law, been model citizens. And yet, when one died, the federal government refused to recognize the marriage that was good enough for Canada and New York, levying tax on the estate of $363,053.

Once I could empathize with Evelyn, and Edith, I became their advocates. No one had a good enough reason to deprive Evelyn of everything she is entitled to seek as an autonomous individual! The DOMA decision grants gays equal protection under the more than 1,000 federal marriage benefits currently denied to anyone other than hetersexual couples.

As Ilya Shapiro wrote for CATO:

It should be axiomatic that the federal government has to treat all people equally, that it has to accept the several states’ sovereign laws on marriage (and many other subjects), and today there were five votes at the Supreme Court for that proposition.

I was happy that SCOTUS declared DOMA unconstitutional. But it wasn’t because supporting freedom by supporting continued institutional bigotry is wildly intellectually inconsistent. It’s because Evelyn made me care about how the government is screwing her. If we libertarians want to change the way people view markets, we’ve got to show that we’re advocating for people. No one is won over by your fidelity to abstract arguments, nor by your flawless intellectual debates. People are won over when you advocate for freedom by championing the victims of the state. We had a chance to do this with DOMA, and some of us took the opportunity. Let’s get on the same page with every battle like this. Every time the state victimizes people, especially already oppressed minorities, let’s come together to fight on their behalf.


  1. disqus_jHBq0skgUa

    great article. i have had to wrestle with this issue as it relates to my christian ethics and worldview. you articulated it quite nicely.

  2. liberty4all

    I certainly am not in favor of anything that’s designed to disparage LGBT people. But the uncomfortable truth is that the only thing that this has accomplished is the inclusion of a few additional people in a privileged class. Meanwhile, a vast segment of the population, those who are not married and don’t have children, (including single LGBT’s) are still being discriminated against. We continue to be forced to subsidize other people’s children, still get less in total compensation for our labor and are just generally getting screwed.

    “Marriage” as a legal institution creates an artificial class of people, singled out for formal privileges. Changing the parameters of who gets to partake in that privilege does nothing to change the fact that formal discrimination, which affects a group far larger than than the LGBT community, is still in place.

  3. Andrea Castillo

    Great post. People more often filter the “facts” through their moral preferences than the other way around. Sometimes (oftentimes?), a good dose of empathy is the best way to cut through our false conceptions of unbounded rationality.

    And the throwback photos are too cute.

  4. Brendan Moore

    This is the kind of writing we need: empathetic, intelligent, and fundamentally kind essays from straight-identified people. Thank you, Cathy.

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