In my teens, I “came out,” and it was a truly liberating experience. I soon got to know other gay people, and I saw many of them struggle, especially those dealing with a religious background. Many of them were consumed with worry about what “society” or their parents—or “God”—would think of them.
I avoided this struggle almost entirely. In many ways, I was lucky. My parents were indifferent to religion and never tried to push it on me. When I announced in the fourth grade that I was an atheist, they were not horrified. They gave me the option to attend Hebrew school and have a bar mitzvah, and I opted out. My parents also were unusually forward thinking in sexual matters. I’m the only person of my generation I know whose “sex talk” started off with “when you grow up and fall in love with a woman or a man . . .” In retrospect, my parents obviously had more than an inkling about my sexuality. In any case, the fact that they presented same-sex love as just another option in the 1970s is pretty remarkable.
In addition to their understanding and support, my parents armed me (perhaps inadvertently) with a powerful tool that helped me to defuse the kinds of worries that often torment young gay people.
When I was twelve, my mother gave me Anthem, a dystopian novella by Ayn Rand, set in a society where the word “I” had been banished and was no longer used or even known. Although I didn’t entirely understand the message of the book, I was intrigued. I liked what it had to say about the importance of individualism enough to pick up, at age thirteen, the longest book I had ever read: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
The story of architect Howard Roark’s fight to erect buildings that were true to his vision exploded my worldview and changed my life. Here was a character filled with passionate intensity who made no apologies for living his life for himself in pursuit of what would make him happy. He simply did not worry about what other people thought of him. I always had been a people-pleaser and had accepted the almost universally held belief that being moral consists in sacrificing one’s values and ambitions for others, the morality known as altruism. The Fountainhead—and later, Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged—encouraged me to ask, “Why is sacrifice moral?”—and to challenge this dogma.
Rand’s novels and nonfiction collections do not have much to say about homosexuality. But her morality of rational egoism, the centerpiece of her philosophy of Objectivism, has a lot to say about issues that would help me appreciate and enjoy my life, particularly my sexuality. As Rand described it, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”1
Objectivism showed me that sex is a positive value, something beautiful and profoundly important. It is not dirty or sinful—but also not something to be taken lightly. Rand wrote, “Sex is a physical capacity, but its exercise is determined by man’s mind—by his choice of values, held consciously or subconsciously. To a rational man, sex is an expression of self-esteem—a celebration of himself and of existence.”2 This perspective steered me away from casual sex, which we only later learned enabled the AIDS virus to plague the gay community. I also didn’t feel compelled to use sex, drugs, or alcohol to escape damaging ideas about myself—because I refused to accept such ideas in the first place. The Objectivist view of sex may literally have saved my life.
More generally, Objectivism helped me come to terms with who I am. The philosophy advocates thinking for oneself and offers a uniquely powerful methodology for doing so. Its emphasis on “checking your premises,” for instance, was profoundly important to me. I started examining all of my previous beliefs—including those about homosexuality—to see whether they were consistent with my other beliefs and with what I knew about the world around me. I realized that most of what society said about sexuality—about my sexuality—just didn’t make sense. Objectivism also taught me that other people’s evaluations of me are not fundamentally important. What is important is my rational judgement about what’s real, what’s true, what’s good.
Perhaps most important for me, Objectivism made explicit that the moral good is not self-sacrifice, but that which leads to a happy, fulfilled life. Rand’s characters, such as Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged, have an approach to and a capacity for joy that I wanted for my life. They are immensely ambitious and hardworking, and they are able to achieve their values and pursue their interests without much concern for naysayers and critics—and without violating anyone’s rights. Rand brought into focus for me the fact that you don’t have to choose between sacrificing others (the conventional view of what egoists or selfish people do) or sacrificing yourself (the so-called ideal of selflessness, or altruism). Each of us can and should live for ourselves, neither sacrificing ourselves to others nor sacrificing others to ourselves.
Before encountering these books, I had absorbed some misguided ideas about what it means to be a good person, and as part of that, I’d begun to accept certain views about how others should conduct their lives and what role the government should play. Having grown up in Southern California, it’s perhaps unsurprising that these ideas had a pronounced “Progressive” bent. I thought vaguely that the government’s job was to ensure the “public good”—to “take care” of people; to make them do what’s “right” (i.e., to force people to sacrifice for others by paying for their health care, retirement, and so forth).
But Rand demonstrated—in exciting fiction and brilliant prose—why people should be free to act on their own judgment in pursuit of their own happiness, so long as they respect the rights of others to do the same. She helped me realize that a world in which people are forced to comply with other people’s ideas of what is right is not a world where people can flourish (especially not gay people or other minorities). The idea known as collectivism—which holds that society, the group, the collective, should decide how everyone may live their lives—quickly lost all attraction for me. I embraced the alternative, individualism, which is rooted in Rand’s morality of egoism and “regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.”3
In grad school, I worked with a few other students to start an Ayn Rand student club. We met regularly and brought in several prominent speakers. But the club was controversial. It not only sparked some opposition, it also led to further education for me. One outspoken gay student admitted he had loved Ayn Rand’s novels and many of her ideas. However, he pointed out something Rand had said in a Q&A, which I hadn’t heard. A questioner asked Rand for her views on the moral status of homosexuality, and she responded by saying that
it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises—but there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality. Therefore, I regard it as immoral, but I do not believe that the government has the right to prohibit it. It is the privilege of any individual to use his sex life in whichever way he wants it. That is his legal right, provided he is not forcing it on anyone. And therefore, the idea that it is proper among consenting adults is the proper formulation—legally. Morally, it is immoral, and, more than that, if you want my really sincere opinion, it’s disgusting.4
Fortunately, I had already learned how to think critically for myself—largely thanks to Rand—and I could see that her opinion on homosexuality was inconsistent with her philosophy and reality. My fellow student, however, was unable to make that distinction. Given that Rand disapproved of homosexuality, he felt he couldn’t embrace her philosophy.
And, when it came to politics, because conservatives and Republicans, for the most part, offered only “conversion therapy” or the closet, he—like most gay people—defaulted to what he thought was the only alternative and lined up with so-called Progressives and Democrats. He loathed the idea of anyone telling him what to do, but he had no problem advocating that the government force people to do what he thought they should do.
As I came to know more and more gay people, I encountered this contradiction over and over again. They certainly didn’t want the government telling them who they could love or what they could do in bed. But forcing others to support causes they didn’t believe in (e.g., baking a cake for a gay wedding) didn’t seem to bother them. They had accepted that people ought to sacrifice for the “public good” and that the government ought to force people accordingly. So, many gay people enthusiastically embraced—and continue to embrace—the entire Progressive agenda.
But over the past few decades, as gay people (and other minorities) have made tremendous strides in gaining protection for their rights, leftist leaders have needed to find new “victims” to fight for—and new “oppressors” to condemn. They have sown divisiveness, classing people into groups that supposedly are inherently antagonistic. Such groups are never defined by their chosen values or ideas but by the color of their skin, their nationality, their sex, their sexuality, and so forth. The left is now classing groups and various forms of discrimination (real or imagined) on the basis of how the groups “intersect”—a topic they call “interesectionality.”5
Who is more oppressed, they ask, black men or black women? Men, they say, have “male privilege” but are also more likely to be targeted by police. And what about gay black men? Sure, they’re male, but, many leftists argue, black women have “straight privilege,” so it’s not clear which “group” is most victimized. What is clear though, they argue, is that gay white “cisgender”6 men—those whose gender identity is congruent with their sex (like me)—are now part of the problem. As the intersectionalists’ “thinking” goes, by finally obtaining protection for their rights, gay white men’s homosexuality is now secondary to their whiteness and their maleness, putting them in a position of “privilege.” In the minds of these leftists, gay men like me have moved from oppressed to oppressor in the span of a few years, despite having never oppressed anyone.
In short, these leftists have become hypersensitive scolds who seek to find offense everywhere and who inculcate a culture of victimhood. In their view, none of these ideas are open to discussion. Even raising questions or doubts is considered oppressive or “triggering.”
Fortunately, many people (gay and otherwise) are starting to realize that the left has gone off the rails and that its “oppression Olympics” has no connection to protecting people’s rights. The #WalkAway campaign is one heartening sign. According to its website, the campaign
encourages and supports those on the Left to walk away from the divisive tenets endorsed and mandated by the Democratic Party of today. We are walking away from the lies, the false narratives, the fake news, the race-baiting, the victim narrative, the violence, the vandalism, the vitriol. We are walking away from a party driven by hate. We are walking toward patriotism and a new, unified America! We are the future of this great nation!7
These are laudable motives. But achieving its aim of supporting “unity, civility, respect, and the American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all” will require more than merely withholding votes from Democrats.8
Coming out as gay is a process of finding the strength to declare, “This is my life, and I’m going to live it to make me happy.” Though gay people may not realize it, this is an (implicit) application of key aspects of rational egoism—including the virtues of independence and integrity and the principle that the moral purpose of your life is the achievement of your own happiness.
Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism and, more broadly, her entire philosophy of Objectivism, provide tools that can enable all people to live fulfilling lives in freedom and harmony. These tools are worth picking up.Though gay people may not realize it, “coming out” involves key aspects of rational egoism, the centerpiece of Ayn Rand's revolutionary philosophy. Click To Tweet