Alex Blaze

What Happens If LGBT Rights Aren't Profitable?

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 16, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: civil rights, economic policy, human rights abuses, LGBT, marriage, New York Times

I can't say I expected a NY Times column to take on this position today:

pride.jpgAnd yet supporting marriage on economic grounds dehumanizes same-sex couples by conflating civil rights with economic perks. Americans should be offended when the value of gays and lesbians is reduced to their buying power as consumers or their human and creative capital as workers.

Why can't same-sex couples have access to the same rights and protections as their straight neighbors simply because they are citizens? How would we respond if the right to interracial marriage were based on the prospects that these relationships made good business sense or added to the state budget? While economic arguments were certainly advanced during the struggle for African-American civil rights -- in the late 1950s, Atlanta's business-oriented mayor, William B. Hartsfield, promoted his city as being "too busy to hate" -- those rationales are not what we think about when we remember that struggle's highest ideals.

Worse yet, this narrative neglects the most economically vulnerable gay and lesbian couples and plays into the inaccurate stereotype of same-sex couples (particularly male couples) as being mostly well-educated and affluent.

I agree with the thrust of the column, although there are parts that grate on me (I'm just plain not convinced marriage is a "natural expression of human intimacy" when its tenets have to be enforced by civil and religious law). While it can be very interesting to discuss whether basic rights and protections and seeing various family structures all as legitimate benefits people's pocketbooks, it fundamentally shouldn't matter, especially considering how easily these arguments could be turned around.

Usually the argument about how LGBT rights are good for a state's finances center around marriage (as outlined in the Times), employment discrimination protections (that forcing businesses to entertain the idea of only looking at merit will make them function more efficiently), and it sometimes is made more generally, that a state should do X or Y because, if it doesn't, it'll seem backwards and smart people will leave and businesses won't want to move in.

It's a Randian argument, and, like most of Rand's arguments, it makes little sense when applied to the real world (the one that isn't completely dependent on trains). Arguing that greed is a good motivation for human and civil rights protections only works in the limited situations where helping others makes brass-tacks economic sense for the rich and powerful. If those situations were the norm, human beings would have this equality and justice thing figured out already.

The question then, for me, becomes: What happens if LGBT rights aren't profitable? What if the benefits of marriage were found to cost more than the amount of money expected to be saved or generated for marriage tourism? Would it then be justified to argue that equality will just have to wait for the economic forecast to change?

What if a business (like a day care) thinks it'll lose clients if it hired openly LGBT people? If sued, should they be allowed to argue in court that they'd love to hire qualified queer people, they're totally not homophobic, but, let's be honest, parents just don't want their kids to be exposed that?

And what if a state actually wanted to attract homophobic workers and businesses instead of the gay-friendly ones?

Studies on the economic benefits of LGBT rights are interesting, and arguments using them can be cute. But when we're talking about social policy, autonomy, fairness, and respect should be the guiding principles.

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Politics is the art of the possible. A few votes may be obtained for the cause by making the economic arguments. People are very worried about pocket book issues today. The name of the game is to get the votes by any legal means. It's nice to have hearts and minds always with us, but perhaps there is a lag time. That is no reason not to make all arguments now to get the legislative victory.

I read the NYTimes column this morning. The column is dribble from the non-reality based ivory tower, not the real world of politics.

Most of what is in the NY Times is ivory tower dribble. I don't know anyone who takes it seriously anymore, though many still like the crossword puzzle.

But what happens when that argument falls apart as illogical? Does that end up hurting us in the end?

First off, without seeing the text of the letter the business leaders sent, I'm reluctant to take that as their whole argument -- as we've seen in the past couple of days, major Republican donors in New York -- also businessmen -- are supporting the marriage campaign for the stated reason that it's the right thing to do. An economic argument is one that you would expect from businessmen -- that's their area of expertise, after all -- but I'm not sure it's the only argument they offered.

That said, the economic argument is not the sole argument, nor is it the best -- but every little bit helps.

As for your own discomfort with the idea of marriage as a "natural expression of human intimacy," take that as a rather egregious misstatement -- marriage is the community's recognition of the fulfillment of the human urge for pair-bonding. Intimacy is properly the province of the couple involved.

I'm inclined to agree with Drake.

The problem with Jaye Cee Whitehead's op-ed is that it was written from the perspective of "should be," not the perspective of "is."

Obviously, gay people deserve the same rights as straight people because we're productive and tax-paying citizens, and the idea that granting equal recognition to our relationships is detrimental to the interests of society is bullshit founded entirely on homophobic animus.

But a lot of people out there aren't totally convinced, and the economic argument that Whitehead criticizes is one of many that can help persuade them.

Whether it's dehumanizing or not (I don't think it is; calling GLBT people a drain on the economy by virtue of our existence would be dehumanizing), if it helps convince those people on the fence, then use it. The point of all of this is to win, not to be able to pat ourselves on the back years from now because we took the high road, even if we lost.

"calling GLBT people a drain on the economy by virtue of our existence would be dehumanizing"

I don't see how that's not just the other side of the same coin, especially since the people who make that argument also say that homosexuality shouldn't be "promoted."

They're saying that a certain human right costs too much, which is the same mentality as saying that it makes money. At that point, we're not debating rights anymore but just working out a math problem.

If the answer isn't one we like, do we just pack the movement and go home?

The economic argument is just one of many arguments, not the only argument. And again, the point is to persuade people who are on the fence and otherwise either don't care about GLBT rights or can just as easily be persuaded to favor the other side.

It doesn't mean that GLBT people have no value beyond the monetary; it means "Don't vote to drive GLBT people out of your state because exclusion is bad economics." Like it or not, economic arguments are often what resonate most with people in this country.

As I mentioned already, the point of politics is to pragmatically use whatever tools you have at your disposal to win, not to live up to lofty, ivory tower ideals, which appears to be the goal of Whitehead.

Great post, Alex - and you beat me to it! :-) I'm with you on this: "And what if a state actually wanted to attract homophobic workers and businesses instead of the gay-friendly ones?" Because, then, of course, teh gayz would be fuming and asking, how dare businesses/states (and do we see too much distinction between the two these days?) use their corporate influence etc. See: the Target fracas.

And while I also agree with the thrust of the op-ed, I am, like you, deeply troubled by the emotional and affective rhetoric around marriage that is still upheld here; that argument about marriage as a "natural expression of human intimacy" is bizarre, coming from anyone who has a critique of neoliberalism (and Whitehead appears to have one).

There's also a wider argument to be made about how neoliberalism in fact coopts these arguments to make gay marriage serve in its favour. But I'm also hopeful that Whitehead's forthcoming book will expand on that - certainly, its title sounds promising.

Plus, the NYT op-eds have a way of reading like they were all written by exactly the same person, with good reason - I wonder, given the paper's neoliberal reluctance to ever be truly critical of mainstream gay politics, how much scouring and editing this went through...not to exonerate Whitehead, but, again, there's the reality of how the Times operates.

Oh, Alex ... if Rand had written Atlas Shrugged closer to the turn of the millennium, Dagney Taggart almost surely would have been running an airline instead of a railroad. I don't think you have reason to be catty about the late Ms. Rand just because time marches on.

But more to the point: Have you ever noticed that Atlas Shrugged does not contain one child -- nor does it even mention the possibility of having and raising children?

What would happen if child-raising weren't profitable? ... Don't look now, but unless you were Bill Gate's or P.Diddy's mom, for 99.999% of all the mothers out there, it is consistently a financially losing proposition (so to speak). Yet there seems to be no problem with getting straight couples to have children, so there must be something else going on here.

Brad Bailey | May 17, 2011 3:51 PM

That's a great NYT article. It argues support for gay rights on a purely moral basis. Do it because it's the right thing to do. Beautiful! Having a big heart and caring about others is at the very core of liberalism.