Bigots, Homophobes, and HERO

Last week, Houston City Council passed the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The ordinance makes it “unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to discriminate against any person on the basis of any protected characteristic,” such as sexual orientation or gender identification.

As is usually the case, debate over HERO focused on non-essentials. Supporters argued that discrimination against transgender individuals should be illegal, and detractors claimed that the ordinance will allow sexual predators to enter women’s restrooms. The result was a festival of name calling, ad hominem attacks, and evasion.

Neither side bothered to identify the core issue: the meaning and application of rights.

Rights pertain to freedom of action in a social context. They recognize and protect the moral right of individuals to act on their own judgment without coercive interference from others. Only physical force (or the threat of force) can prevent an individual from acting as he deems best; only physical force can violate our rights. If I tie you up, wave a gun in your face, or steal your property, I have violated your rights.

Retaliatory force—force used against those who initiate its use—is proper and just. The initiator of force—the thief, rapist, or murder—violates the rights of others. It is proper to arrest and punish such individuals. The initiation of force is morally wrong. And this is true whether the initiator of force is a private citizen or a public official.

The principle of rights protects the freedom of individuals to engage in voluntary interactions with others. And they may use any criteria they choose, no matter how petty or irrational. If a business owner refuses to hire blacks, he has a moral right to do so. If he refuses to serve gays, he has a moral right to do so. If he wishes to discriminate against individuals with tattoos, body piercings, or green hair, he has a moral right to do so. And more enlightened individuals have a moral right to ostracize him and boycott his business.

Contrary to the claims of HERO’s backers, there is no such thing as gay rights or transgender rights. Nor are there such things as black rights or women’s rights. There are only individual rights, and they pertain to all individuals, no matter their sexual preference, gender identify, sex, or race. All individuals, including gays, heterosexuals, blacks, whites, and bigots, have a moral right to associate with those they choose, both personally and economically.

We may not always like the decisions and choices that others make. We may not always agree with the criteria they use when deciding whom to hire, promote, serve, befriend, or marry. But if we want the freedom to make such decisions regarding our own life, then we must recognize and defend the freedom of others—including bigots and homophobes—to do the same.

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