Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 5: Gay Rights

On July 1, 1975, Reason, a libertarian magazine, published an interview with Ronald Reagan. Reagan was preparing for an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Republican President Gerald Ford in a primary challenge. Reason acknowledged that, “His federally-funded Office of Criminal Justice Planning made large grants to police agencies for computers and other expensive equipment, and funded (among other projects) a large-scale research effort on how to prosecute pornographers more effectively. He several times vetoed legislation to reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor, and signed legislation sharply increasing penalties for drug dealers. Thus, Reagan’s record, while generally conservative, is not particularly libertarian.” As if to shy away from their own conclusion, however, they added, “But one’s administrative decisions, constrained as they are by existing laws, institutions, and politics, do not necessarily mirror one’s underlying philosophy.” At the beginning of the interview, Reagan stated, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Less than two months earlier, however, Reagan had given the lie to his own claim.

In the 1970s, many states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books. By banning anal and oral sex, these laws effectively outlawed sexual intercourse between same-sex couples. Thus, they both discriminated against gay people and quite literally amounted to government control over what people did in the bedroom. In 1962, Illinois had become the first state to repeal its anti-sodomy law. For the rest of the decade, no other states followed suit. However, in the 1970s, starting with Connecticut in 1971, a number of states began rescinding their bans. In 1969, California Assemblyman and future San Fransisco Mayor Willie Brown began annually introducing a bill that would allow consenting adults to do as they pleased in the bedroom while protecting youth from sexual exploitation. The proposed bill would decriminalize adultery, “fornication,” and “sodomy” while tightening the state bans on nonconsensual sex and sex with minors. Brown was supported by a minority of legislators, as well as the ACLU of Southern California. Nationally, the far Left and the Libertarian Party had some degree of convergence on this issue. In 1971, a young candidate for the Liberty Union Party in Vermont named Bernie Sanders opined, “Let us abolish all laws which attempt to impose a particular brand of morality or ‘right’ on people. Let’s abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc.).” In its 1972 platform, the Libertarian Party proclaimed, “We favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes without victims” now incorporated in Federal, state and local laws — such as laws on voluntary sexual relations, drug use, gambling, and attempted suicide.” But in California, as author William N. Eskridge, Jr. explains, “Brown’s bill had little likelihood of being enacted during the administration of Governor Ronald Reagan (1967-1975.)” In 1975, however, Reagan was replaced by Jerry Brown, a young Democrat. That same year, Jerry Brown signed Willie Brown’s repeal bill. It would be difficult to be too hard on Reagan for not pushing repeal of the state’s sodomy law. No previous governor, including his direct predecessor and Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, had taken this courageous step. More disturbing is Reagan’s response to the repeal. In a May interview with Christianity Today, he stated that he would have vetoed the repeal bill, because, “You can make immorality legal, but you cannot make it moral.” While there is a great deal of room for disagreement on specific policy questions within libertarianism, and few people (including this author) are libertarian on all issues, there is simply no way to advocate government prohibition on private, consensual sexual activity between adults and still call oneself a libertarian. Three months later, the Libertarian Party further contrasted itself from Reagan. At its national convention, the party unanimously adopted a resolution affirming their opposition to both sodomy laws and the military’s ban on gay service members.

Much has been made of the fact that in 1978, Reagan opposed Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. Although both Jerry Brown and President Carter opposed the initiative also, this commendable stance should not be ignored, especially considering the fact that Florida’s contemporary “liberal” Governor Reubin Askew flatly opposed gay teachers. Nonetheless, this does not erase Reagan’s earlier and later support for government-imposed persecution of gay people. Dan White opposed Proposition 6 while also opposing a gay rights ordinance in San Fransisco. Does that mean he was a gay rights advocate? Of course not. We generally recognize (or should recognize) that support for one aspect of civil rights for a group of people does not magically cancel out opposition to other aspects of civil rights for that group. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many politicians, from Thomas Jefferson and George Mason to Roger Taney and Jefferson Davis, opposed the African Slave Trade while condoning slavery itself. In the twentieth century, such politicians as Claude Pepper and Strom Thurmond opposed poll taxes while defending segregation.

In fact, Reagan would largely backpedal even from his support of gay public school teachers. In 1986, he was asked about a New York City ordinance outlawing housing and job discrimination against gay people. He could have simply stuck to the issue of private-sector discrimination and repeated his old, contradictory stance on the “right” of businesses to discriminate. Instead, he specifically addressed the issue of gay teachers, lamenting, “But I do have to question sometimes whether individual rights are being defended in this particular field, or whether they are demanding an acceptance of their particular lifestyle that others of us don’t demand. For example, should a teacher in a classroom be invoking their personal habits and advocating them to their students as a way of life?” This response seemed to pivot away from private sector discrimination straight to public sector discrimination, which had been illegal in New York City since 1980. More disturbingly, Reagan seemed to be deliberately conflating a teacher not going out of their way to hide being gay with describing their sexual escapades to students. Perhaps thinking that the president had misunderstood the question, the interviewer pointed out that, “This bill essentially applies the same antidiscriminatory measures as are applied to blacks, as to women, to other people. Do you think that’s all right?” Reagan responded, “How would we feel if a teacher, male or female, a heterosexual, insisted on the right in the classroom to discuss their sexual preferences and why and whether they believed in complete promiscuity or not? We would be quite offended and think that our children should not be exposed to that.” Like the modern day social conservative who considers same-sex couples holding hands to be “flaunting their sexual orientation,” Reagan ignored the fact that gay teachers had been held to standards not imposed on heterosexual teachers. Once restrictions about married women teaching were phased out, a heterosexual teacher could not be fired from their job for referring to their spouses with gendered pronouns. Nor were heterosexual teachers expected to hide from colleagues that they were heterosexual. It was as if Reagan felt some embarrassment about his earlier libertarian stance and was attempting to tacitly disavow it.

Reagan was equally non-libertarian when it came to the issue of government forcing gay people out of the military. His administration implemented a policy clarifying and solidifying the U.S. military’s longstanding ban on gay soldiers. The policy took the form of a Department of Defense Directive declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” The proposal had been put forth under Carter, but it was under Reagan that it was effectively put into practice. More damningly, while Reagan’s views on gay people in the military were not much different than Carter’s, they put him markedly to the Right of Walter Mondale, his 1984 Democratic presidential opponent. Mondale promised an executive order ending government discrimination against gay people in all forms of federal employment, including the military. And despite having eight years to shift policy, Reagan made no attempt to rescind the ban on gay military personnel during his administration. Some critics of his presidency have pointed to his response to the AIDS crisis to suggest that Reagan ignored gay Americans. In fact, they are incorrect. Far from ignoring gay people, he was, for the most part, perfectly fine with the government actively abridging their rights. In fact, he was an excellent case study in how the very heart and soul of conservatism was not libertarianism, unless “libertarianism” means “the State policing what consenting adults do in their bedrooms.”

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