Anti-discrimination laws aren’t the best way to advance gay tolerance

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Earlier this month, a gay couple in Naples, Florida walked into a massage parlor and was denied service. They say their rejection was due to their sexuality. As they have with many similar cases in the past, a multitude of LGBT advocacy groups immediately rallied to their support, using the event to push for anti-discrimination laws. Although this effort is well-intentioned, it will only result in increased intolerance, not less. But if the goal is acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, we should look to ourselves to achieve that goal— not the government.

Effective social engagement becomes reduced when the government intervenes. Passing anti-discrimination laws will have the same numbing effect in the fight for LGBT tolerance. If the federal government addresses it, it's a done deal. But after the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill, which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protections for gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation, multiple states didn't follow suit, leaving activists frustrated and hopeless. Even if they did follow in the government's footsteps, there's no guarantee the conclusion would have been satisfactory. No matter what you think about "hate crimes," one thing is clear: government involvement poses a steep opportunity cost that can render social movements helpless, frustrated, or hopeless.

Anti-discrimination laws are no different.

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Anti-discrimination laws create a hidden threat to the very people they profess to protect. By passing an anti-discrimination law, gay couples (or anyone else who would be subject to the protections) would go totally blind into situations where they might be discriminated against. They'd never know if they were giving money to help a local community business — or unwittingly financing a bigoted enterprise. Ironically, prejudiced preconceptions could easily flourish behind closed doors, setting us back in the fight for tolerance. If the Naples massage parlor owner hadn't expressed his disdain for homosexuals, his business would have continued. Instead, his own free speech brought him down.

Why not keep bigotry easy to identify, extinguishing it out in the open? Even in environments where discrimination was rampant, consumer activism has always been a better antidote than government intervention. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Coors Boycott, or the Birmingham Campaign, which were social movements that used the power of advocacy, buried discrimination and increased accessibility for previously marginalized people. Any government intervention that did happen happened after these movements had already made their mark.

I think the idea of government protecting people from bigotry and hate is a result of a paternalistic mindset that doesn't see the power of individuals to protect themselves.

I'm not advocating for racism, discrimination, or bigotry. I don't think you should be denied service on the basis of an arbitrary personal characteristic. But I think the idea of government protecting people from bigotry and hate is a result of a paternalistic mindset that doesn't see the power of individuals to protect themselves. There are certain ideas that can be harmful in a society, and individuals have an obligation to confront them through education, advocacy, and patience — not through force.

If we really want to create a totally safe environment for LGBT people in America, we won't get there through force. The massage parlor owner in Naples is paying for his antiquated ideals with his pocketbook, and rightfully so. If the modern LGBT movement adopts a model of engagement coupled with the awesome power of market forces — instead of force or brash bullying — we may see real tolerance reach heights unseen.

Christian Watson is a writer at Young Voices and a freshman at Mercer University. He can be found on twitter at @OfficialCWatson.

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