How the Right to Discriminate Helps the LGBT Community

The Equality Act, which bans private businesses from discriminating against gays and lesbians, hurts the LGBT community more than it helps.
The Equality Act hurts the LGBT community more than it helps. (Flickr/ JoshuaMHoover)

By Julian Adorney

EspañolCongress’s recent introduction of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians by private business, is already picking up major endorsements from corporate giants like Facebook and Nike.

But laws banning discrimination will hurt the LGBT community by empowering bigots.

Customers are the lifeblood of a business. Their willing patronage is the difference between a business failing and thriving.

The problem with anti-discrimination laws is that they deny customers the information needed to make informed choices.

If businesses retain the right to discriminate, then an openly homophobic businessman will be clearly identified by his bigotry. This may be a painful experience for the people discriminated against, but it allows them, and everyone else opposed to bigotry, to combat discrimination by choosing to go elsewhere and denying those companies their business.

In a competitive market, there are always businesses willing to serve all customers. A gay or lesbian couple refused service by a wedding-cake provider can push back on this bigotry by voting with their money. They can punish the baker’s bigotry twice: once by not buying a cake, and again by helping a competitor to gain market share.

With anti-discrimination laws in place, LGBT couples have little means of seeing which businessmen are bigoted versus which ones are tolerant. That robs them of essential information, and makes it more likely that they’ll contribute their hard-earned money to the enrichment of homophobic businessmen.

Advocates of anti-discrimination law claim that pushing people to interact with those whom they dislike discourages intolerance. After all, if a baker caters an LGBT wedding, then he’ll spend time with the couple, and that socialization produces a humanizing effect.

But this socialization only occurs if working with the LGBT couple is the businessman’s own choice. Forcing a baker to violate his religious principles or risk being shut down is more likely to cause resentment than mutual understanding.

The baker could perceive the couple, however wrongly, as threatening his business — only serving to reinforce his existing homophobia.

Bigotry imposes real harms, but it won’t go away merely because we ban discrimination. Homophobic business owners will still find ways to express their feelings, like doing mediocre work or cheating their customers.

If we force them to enact their bigotry in the dark, we rob the LGBT community and their allies of the information they need to punish homophobia in the marketplace. While anti-discrimination laws have shuttered some prejudiced businesses, it’s doubtful that they are more effective than a market of consumers that increasingly sees intolerance as unacceptable.

The best response to bigotry is a boycott. And boycotts work. In the 1990s, consumers boycotted Nike for employing sweatshop labor. The boycotts pushed the company into becoming a sustainability leader.

Protests against Nestle convinced them to become more environmentally friendly. But a boycott relies on an essential transfer of information: we see a man with a sign in his store windows saying “no gays allowed,” and we decide to punish him by withholding our money. Laws against discrimination would eliminate our access to that information.

Anti-discrimination laws are essentially anti-boycott laws. Instead of enabling people to punish homophobic businesses in the market, they force consumers to unknowingly subsidize that prejudice.

Julian Adorney is a Young Voices Advocate and economic historian. His work has appeared in FEE, The Hill, Townhall, and Lawrence Reed’s latest anthology Excuse Me, Professor.

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