Coming Out As Libertarian

by Connor Sutton

The following article was first published in SpeakFreely’s Fearless For Freedom print issue, Tbilisi Georgia, April 2024.

Coming out to loved ones is one of the most significant, personal, and terrifying things one can do. You might have done it yourself, or you might have experienced someone you care about coming out to you, or you may simply recall seeing such a situation in an emotional viral video. There’s a great deal of fear involved, as you have no idea how people will react. The more intolerant the society you live in, the more this fear rises. I still remember coming out: my leg was shaking, my palms sweating. I had wanted to say it for so long but I never managed to mutter the words until:

“Mom, Dad, I’m…. a libertarian”

I wanted to hide, to run from the words I’d just uttered. I felt shame and disgust wash over me. They knew I was gay, but a libertarian son is pushing things too far. 

For me, “coming out” as a libertarian has paralleled coming out as gay: both involve navigating fear and identity. But coming out as a libertarian has been far more dangerous and detrimental. It’s caused tension in my family, caused my best friend to hate me, hindered my professional opportunities, and caused me to feel isolated, unsure, and lost.

“I’m gay.” Two words that have felt like a burden for most of my life. These two words would get caught in my throat any time they tried to escape my mouth. Growing up, the term “gay” was laden with negative connotations, synonymous with stupidity or weirdness. Fear of its weaponization hindered my ability to embrace my identity. The struggle for identity was further complicated by societal expectations and perceptions, leading to uncertainty and oscillation between labels. Mixed with fear was the struggle for identity. 

During this same period, I also felt politically homeless, never satisfied with the left or the right. One day the YouTube algorithm recommended a video of Milton Friedman answering questions from university students. He was so articulate, kind, and humorous, and his ideas struck a chord. That freedom is the ideal, and that the state too often infringes on this freedom… that’s what had been missing. The left and the right each focused on specific issues but were far too willing to sacrifice freedom to serve their specific political ends. Friedman also made clear that the ideal wasn’t to maximise freedom just for oneself; the role of money and profits is not just for enriching one person. Capitalism and freedom are for the benefit of, and are built on, love, respect, and care for our fellow human beings. 

Not only did libertarianism help me solve my political identity crisis, but it helped me find comfort in my sexuality. No, not because of all the heartthrob libertarian figureheads, but rather because their principles led them to be advocates for queer rights. Growing up, I watched the US election debates when Barack Obama ran. I watched as the main parties disagreed on almost every point, yet came to find common ground about marriage only being between men and women. Meanwhile, libertarians had long recognised that two people ought to be able to form a union regardless of their sexuality. They stood up for this principle despite its political contention, and in doing so, allowed me to align different aspects of my identity. 

Since then I have found further confidence in my sexuality, coming out and living openly and happily. Meanwhile, I face far more fear and discomfort with my libertarian identity. When I came out to my family as a libertarian they all believed it to be a far-right ideology; more right-wing than conservatism. Perhaps the misconceptions also come from a deepening alliance between certain libertarians and right-wing political voices. This is a concerning trend which can lead to libertarians being seen as synonymous with the right, and also see backsliding on genuinely libertarian principles, such as the principled stance in favour of the rights of queer people which brought me and others like me to feel there is space for us in the libertarian movement. While principled libertarians have remained steadfast in their principles, others have further blurred the line between libertarianism and the political right.

This misconception is hard to overcome, as the average person does not spend all their time studying politics, philosophy, and economics. They have very little nuance and when their conception of political ideology takes place on a one-dimensional line, there’s only left and right, and farther left or further right. Overcoming it requires libertarians to engage more often with the average person and to act as positive examples of what libertarians truly are, giving them the tools to add more nuance to their understanding of politics as a whole. 

The most important friend I’ve made since moving to study at university now hates me. He says, “If I had known you were a libertarian when we first started hanging out, we would not be friends.” Luckily for me, the sunk-cost fallacy seems to have allowed our friendship to continue. He’s a staunch Marxist, as are most of my university friends. There are constant jokes at my expense and a clear disgusted response. It’s the reaction I feared loved ones might have had regarding my sexuality, but instead it’s directed towards my political philosophy. Despite agreeing with them on every progressive social issue, we disagree on the role of important economic institutions such as private property, prices, profits, and losses. We have the same goals—to have an economic system that maximises human flourishing and minimises human suffering—but we disagree on the means.

It appears libertarians have lost the public relations battle, presumed to be selfish and deluded rather than considerate and principled. Part of this is our defence of capitalism and the negative connotations of the term. Capitalism is often synonymous with the ills of rent-seeking, with the corrupt business benefiting at the cost of others, and with the 1% growing richer while the cost of living pushes more into poverty. It’s associated with overthrows of democratic elections and the enslavement of children working long hours for pennies in foreign countries. Even Kanye’s PR manager wouldn’t touch this. Yet libertarians have to navigate the land mines to defend this term as simply being a particular and limited set of social institutions that serve to effectively direct resources where they are most valued; while clarifying that the other issues have more to do with governmental institutions than economic ones.

Another part of the problem is the ‘selfish libertarian’ or ‘greed is good’ messaging—by which I mean the libertarian who wants less government not for the benefit of society at large but purely for their own gain. This is the libertarian who dismisses the homeless for personal failure without any sympathy for them. The libertarian who would not give any aid, even private charity, to the oppressed and disadvantaged. While rarer than those outside the movement think, I have come across this type, and to me, they fail to exhibit the true virtue of libertarianism: the humanistic underpinnings central to its founding and exhibited to me by Milton Friedman. 

While self-interest is essential for freedom, it’s crucial to distinguish it from greed. Self-interest can manifest in extremes of both selfishness and selflessness, including giving all one’s wealth to charity. Markets are defended because they reward even selfish behaviour that benefits others, rather than allowing exploitation. However, emphasising individual greed over collective and charitable benefits can obscure this. Our unpopularity stems partly from principle but also from poor branding. Negative associations with libertarianism arise from a few bad actors, tarnishing the label. 

Fear is what chokes an individual’s identity and freedom is what allows them to discover themselves and thrive. The fear of discrimination that held me back from being openly gay was misplaced, it turns out that everything I feared would happen happened due to my political identity, not my sexuality. To allow libertarians to be open and comfortable in their identity, we have to overcome misconceptions and negative connotations. Luckily, organisations like Students For Liberty are making a lot of progress in this regard, and because of the work I do for them I feel proud to identify as a libertarian, just as I’ve come to feel comfortable with my sexuality.

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