Classical liberalism, with its emphasis on individual liberties and limited government intervention, has played a crucial role in advancing the rights of LGBTQ+ people throughout history. 

By advocating for principles such as individual liberty, reason, fundamental rights, and equal treatment under the law, classical liberal ideas have challenged societal norms, fought against oppression, and paved the way for greater acceptance and inclusion. 

Let’s dive into the fascinating intersection of classical liberalism and LGBTQ+ rights, examining real stories that exemplify the impact of these ideas in promoting equal rights and social progress.

The Enlightenment set the foundations for individual rights

The Enlightenment era, marked by a surge of classical liberal ideas and an emphasis on the primacy of reason, laid the groundwork for recognizing the inherent rights of all individuals.

It was a period of intellectual and philosophical exploration. Thinkers like John Locke put forth notions of natural rights and individual liberties that eventually laid the groundwork for recognizing the rights of all individuals, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

One key principle advocated during this era was the concept of natural rights, which held that individuals possess fundamental liberties simply by virtue of their existence. Classical liberals argued that these rights are inherent and cannot be granted or taken away by any external authority. 

The emphasis classical liberals place on personal freedom and autonomy aligns with the idea that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a personal aspect that should not be subject to societal control or persecution.

The Enlightenment’s influence on LGBTQ+ rights can be seen through the works of thinkers like John Locke, who argued that individuals have a right to pursue happiness and should not be subject to arbitrary restrictions or prejudice. 

While the Enlightenment era itself was not a time of gay liberation, the classical liberal ideas that gained traction during this time ultimately laid the philosophical groundwork for challenging discriminatory laws and social norms that sought to suppress or stigmatize non-heteronormative relationships and identities.

Classical liberal ideas led the fight for decriminalization

Classical liberal thinkers and activists have long been at the forefront of advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the repeal of discriminatory laws that targeted LGBTQ+ individuals. By challenging oppressive legislation and pushing for legal reform, they have played a crucial role in reshaping societies and promoting greater acceptance.

Classical liberalism’s emphasis on personal freedom, limited government intervention, and the rights of individuals to live their lives as they choose aligns with the fight against criminalization. It recognizes that consensual same-sex relationships should not be subject to legal punishment or interference. Advocates drawing from classical liberal principles have argued that the state should not intrude upon the private lives and intimate choices of individuals.

Government persecution of LGBTQ+ people

Particularly prior to the popularization of classical liberal ideas and values such as secularism and individual rights, LGBTQ+ individuals faced severe persecution by both governments and society at large. The prevailing attitudes toward same-sex relationships, gender nonconformity, and alternative sexualities were deeply rooted in religious doctrines and strict social norms.

The persecution of LGBTQ+ people throughout history

For centuries, governments have actively enforced discriminatory beliefs and subjected LGBTQ+ individuals to harsh punishments. Same-sex relationships were considered criminal offenses, with penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment to public humiliation and even death. 

The legal codes of many societies explicitly condemned homosexuality and transgender identities, leaving little room for tolerance or acceptance. The social stigma attached to being LGBTQ+ led to the marginalization, exclusion, and ostracization of individuals, often forcing them to conceal their true identities or face dire consequences.

Indeed, in the centuries prior to the Enlightenment, European countries were essentially theocracies under the authority of absolute monarchs and guided by powerful religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church and later Protestant denominations. 

These institutions viewed (and many still view) non-heteronormative expressions of love and sexuality as inherently immoral and sinful. Their vast influence in society enabled them to ensure such “offenses” were severely punished, similarly to the current situation in many authoritarian, theocratic regimes across the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Our video below highlights some of the bizarre and irrational persecution faced by LGBTQ+ people in mid-20th century America…

While the Enlightenment laid the foundations, progress would come later

The Enlightenment did set the stage for the future advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, but we must recognize that the gradual process did not begin until much later. Despite philosophical shifts towards recognizing individual freedom as a fundamental right, LGBTQ+ people continued to face persecution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries — and even beyond.

Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist and advocate, played a crucial role in advancing LGBTQ+ rights in the early 20th century. As a champion of scientific understanding and personal freedom, Hirschfeld challenged discriminatory laws and societal norms. In 1897, he founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality. 

Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research, established in 1919, provided a safe space for research and support, contributing to the recognition and validation of LGBTQ+ individuals. His efforts aligned with the classical liberal principles of personal freedom and limited government intervention in arguing that consensual relationships between adults should not be subject to legal punishment.

Although his work was later disrupted by the Nazi regime, Hirschfeld’s legacy exemplifies a more rational, scientific approach to what had previously been treated solely as issues of collective, public morality. Such empirical studies were essential in the beginning to pave the way for the burgeoning cause of LGBTQ+ rights and greater understanding at a time when state persecution was rampant.

An example that showcases the struggles faced by LGBTQ+ individuals during this period is the story of Alan Turing (1912-1954). Turing, a brilliant mathematician, contributed significantly to breaking German codes during World War II, aiding the Allied forces. Despite his invaluable contributions, Turing was prosecuted and subjected to chemical castration due to his homosexuality. This tragic treatment highlights the need for classical liberal principles to protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

(You can find out more about Alan Turing’s story here: How Alan Turing’s tragic tale epitomizes LGBTQ+ persecution by governments)

How the FDA made the AIDS crisis worse

The AIDS epidemic in the United States emerged in the early 1980s and quickly became a public health crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Initially, the disease primarily affected marginalized communities, particularly gay and bisexual men, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs. However, while it soon became evident that AIDS could affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or background, the government’s response and hardening of public attitudes towards gay people represented a significant setback in advancing LGBTQ+ rights.

In the early years of the epidemic, there was a lack of understanding about the disease and how it spread. Fear, stigma, and misinformation fueled discrimination and prejudice against those infected with HIV. The virus attacks the immune system, leaving individuals vulnerable to opportunistic infections and cancers. Without effective treatment, AIDS leads to severe illness and death.

However, the role of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in exacerbating the crisis cannot be overlooked.

The FDA implemented stringent regulations and lengthy approval processes for experimental drugs and treatments, impeding timely access to potential life-saving medications for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

One notable example is the FDA’s handling of the drug AZT (azidothymidine). In the mid-1980s, AZT showed promising results in early trials, offering hope for those infected with HIV. However, the FDA’s conventional approval process was time-consuming and bureaucratic, causing delays in making the drug accessible to those in desperate need. 

While clinical trials were still ongoing, many activists argued for a more compassionate approach, urging the FDA to speed up the approval process and grant accelerated access to AZT. Their pleas were consistently ignored, and many people died waiting for the drug to become available.

Furthermore, the FDA’s restrictive policies regarding the compassionate use of experimental drugs further hindered access to potentially life-saving treatments. Compassionate use allows patients to access investigational drugs outside of clinical trials, particularly when no other viable treatment options are available. However, the FDA’s cumbersome approval process and strict criteria made it difficult for individuals with AIDS to obtain these experimental treatments, leading to unnecessary suffering and loss of life.

The FDA’s slow response and bureaucratic hurdles during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s were widely criticized by activists, healthcare professionals, and the LGBTQ+ community. The agency’s approach exacerbated the already dire situation, hindering timely access to potentially life-saving treatments. It was only through relentless advocacy and pressure from activists that some progress was eventually made, leading to reforms in drug approval processes and increased access to experimental medications for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

It is worth noting, however, that regulating treatment options was not the only instance of government overreach during the AIDS epidemic. Indeed, many countries around the world implemented travel bans and restrictions on individuals living with HIV/AIDS. These policies were often rooted in fear and misinformation surrounding the transmission of the virus. 

The United States, in particular, enforced a travel ban that prevented individuals with HIV/AIDS from entering the country. The ban was put in place in 1987 and remained in effect until 2010, when it was finally lifted.

These travel bans had severe consequences for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. They not only perpetuated stigma and discrimination but also hindered access to vital medical care and support systems.

Such policies were widely criticized by human rights organizations, medical professionals, and advocacy groups, who argued that they were ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and were rooted in discrimination rather than evidence-based public health strategies.

For more content on this topic, be sure to check out our video below…

Classical liberal principles and the gay liberation movement

Throughout the 20th century, LGBTQ+ individuals faced widespread discrimination and persecution. Many countries enacted laws that criminalized homosexuality, and individuals were often subjected to police raids, arrests, and imprisonment. Social attitudes remained deeply entrenched in heteronormativity, and public opinion often stigmatized and marginalized LGBTQ+ people. However, things were beginning to change.

One significant example that showcases the impact of classical liberal principles in the LGBTQ+ rights movement is the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Fueled by ideals of freedom, individual rights, and equal treatment under the law, LGBTQ+ people fought back against police harassment and societal oppression at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The riots served as a catalyst for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, sparking increased visibility, activism, and demands for equal rights.

In the aftermath of Stonewall, classical liberal principles guided the establishment of vibrant advocacy organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, which sought to challenge discriminatory laws and promote social acceptance. These groups campaigned for the decriminalization of homosexuality, drawing attention to the inherent rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and arguing that their consensual relationships should not be subject to criminal punishment.

Their efforts led to significant progress in decriminalization globally. Many countries began to repeal laws that criminalized same-sex relationships, recognizing that such laws violated principles of personal freedom, equality, and non-interference. The fight against criminalization was and continues to be, rooted in classical liberal principles that reject the state’s intrusion into private matters and affirm the inherent dignity and autonomy of individuals.

This fight has long been rooted in the understanding that consensual same-sex relationships should not be subject to legal punishment or interference, aligning with classical liberal ideals of equality and individual autonomy.

In summary, thinkers and activists influenced by classical liberal ideas have played a pivotal role in advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the repeal of discriminatory laws. Their efforts have been guided by principles of personal freedom, limited government intervention, and the recognition of the rights of individuals to live their lives as they choose. 

Fundamentally, the more rational society that gradually emerged from the Enlightenment is what made debates on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights possible.

Successful moments in the history of LGBTQ+ rights

The advancement of LGBTQ+ rights has been marked by significant milestones throughout the past five or six decades, reflecting the progress made in societies around the world. These milestones represent pivotal moments that have challenged discriminatory laws, shifted societal attitudes, and propelled the fight for equal rights and individual freedom.

The earliest notable event in the modern history of LGBTQ+ rights, as in since the age of Enlightenment, was the decriminalization of homosexuality in revolutionary France. In 1791, France’s National Constituent Assembly eliminated the law against homosexuality as part of a new legal code independent of any religious influence. 

Although homosexuality was not specifically discussed, this act effectively legalized same-sex activity in France, ending the death penalty, which had previously been applied but was infrequently enforced. The 1810 penal code later formalized this decriminalization.

Napoleon’s conquests and the adoption of French civil law and penal codes across Europe further spread the decriminalization of homosexuality. This led to the abolition of anti-sodomy laws in various jurisdictions. In other cases, death penalties gave way to prison sentences. These developments reflected a significant development in homosexuality’s legal status throughout large parts of Europe.

However, many Western countries continued to impose severe sanctions on LGBTQ+ people until well into the 20th century, and in any case, social stigmas persisted regardless of legality.

A wave of decriminalization occurred as a result of the sexual revolution and associated social liberalization of the 1960s. England and Wales repealed bans on same-sex activity in 1967. Canada and West Germany did likewise in 1969, and many other countries where the prohibition of homosexuality persisted followed suit over the subsequent decades. 

Prior to the gay liberation movement that gained momentum following the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969, consensual same-sex relationships were deemed illegal across the United States. 

Indeed, in 1960, every single U.S. state had an anti-sodomy law on its books. As a result of the activism and resilience sparked by the riots, the LGBTQ+ community started advocating for change. 

Progress was slow, but the majority of states repealed their bans on same-sex activity during the last few decades of the 20th century, particularly during the 1990s. 

In 2003, a landmark Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws across the nation, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality in the United States and affirming the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to engage in consensual relationships without fear of prosecution. 

It is important to note that while these milestones represent the decriminalization of homosexuality, the journey towards full LGBTQ+ rights and legal recognition, including equal marriage, continued beyond the decriminalization process.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States was another pivotal moment in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. In 2015, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, ruling that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry nationwide. 

This historic ruling overturned state-level bans on same-sex marriage, ensuring that LGBTQ+ couples in the United States could legally marry and enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

From a classical liberal perspective, equal marriage rights must be welcomed. Based on the principles of equal treatment under the law and separation of church and state, legal marriage should not be subject to terms and conditions set by religious institutions or any other arbitrary considerations. If the government is to be involved at all in the institution of marriage, it must offer the associated rights and privileges equally to all consenting adults. 

(For more content on the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, be sure to check out this piece highlighting the rapid liberalization that took place over less than 25 years in Ireland: LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland: a redemption arc)

The reactionary backlash against LGBTQ+ rights

Progress in advancing LGBTQ+ rights has often been slow, and one of the main reasons for this was the reactionary backlash against the growing acceptance of gay people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Indeed, between the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the wave of jurisdictions legalizing same-sex marriage in the 2000s and 2010s, many social conservatives became deeply invested in a sort of moral panic over gay people.

The moral panic centered around the idea that gay people were part of a nefarious agenda that aimed to “recruit” children, destroy “traditional values,” and ultimately disintegrate the social fabric. Those who bought into the idea of gay liberation posing an existential threat to their way of life, and religious groups in particular, did their utmost to leverage whatever influence that had to convince others of their fears and ultimately affect policy decisions.

These fears were typically rooted in deep-seated biases and misconceptions, along with a general reluctance to accept any change to long-standing social norms.

Ultimately, the movement in reaction to the plethora of social ills supposedly represented by the L, G, and B of the LGBTQ+ acronym ran out of steam in the early 21st century as equal treatment under the law and growing social acceptance picked up pace. 

At least in the West, both politically and culturally, by the late 2010s, the issue of gay rights was settled. The theocratic, reactionary, and fundamentally authoritarian element within the political right had lost that debate and thus had to shift its focus.

The next big debate has proven to be trans rights, and a pattern has clearly emerged. In recent years, we have seen much of the same demonizing rhetoric directed at trans people as was directed at gay people some 30 or 40 years ago — accusations such as they’re part of an agenda to destroy the fabric of society or that they’re “recruiting” children.

Anyone who values individual liberty should be wary of this latest moral panic and oppose any attempts to restrict freedom in the name of some vague collective. Someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity are an individual matter and should absolutely not be a matter for the state to involve itself in.

Why classical liberals are natural LGBTQ+ allies

Throughout history, classical liberalism has played a vital role in advancing LGBTQ+ rights. By championing individual liberties, fighting against discrimination, and challenging societal norms, classical liberal ideas have propelled the LGBTQ+ rights movement forward. These principles align with the core tenets of classical liberalism, including personal autonomy, equality, and non-discrimination.

Supporting LGBTQ+ rights is consistent with classical liberal principles for several reasons. 

Classical liberalism recognizes that individuals should have the freedom to live their lives as they see fit as long as their actions do not harm others. Sexual orientation and gender identity are personal aspects that do not infringe upon the rights or freedoms of others.

Classical liberalism promotes equality under the law and rejects discrimination based on arbitrary characteristics. Supporting LGBTQ+ rights means upholding the principle that all individuals should be treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This includes ensuring access to marriage, adoption, employment, and public accommodations without facing discrimination.

Classical liberalism emphasizes limited government intervention, allowing individuals to make their own choices in matters of personal identity and relationships. Supporting LGBTQ+ rights means advocating for the government to protect individual freedoms and refrain from interfering in consensual adult relationships.

Classical liberalism recognizes the importance of reason in shaping public policy. When it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, embracing evidence-based approaches and rejecting unfounded prejudices is essential. By championing LGBTQ+ rights, classical liberals demonstrate their commitment to basing decisions on reason and the principle of equal treatment under the law rather than arbitrary biases or social conventions.

Deirdre McCloskey wrote in 2014, “For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure.” She is here to tell us that there are indeed reasons for us to be optimistic about the future, and the direction humanity is going in.

At Students For Liberty’s upcoming LibertyCon International, Deirdre McCloskey will take to the main stage to discuss how true liberalism, tolerant and individualist, created the Great Enrichment.

Held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024, LibertyCon International offers an opportunity to engage with top experts, scholars, and entrepreneurs from a variety of fields while providing a platform for attendees to connect with others who are dedicated to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.

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