As someone who not only opposes public funding for birth control, but also believes in axing public funding for a wide range of government programs, I was quick to pass judgment on Sandra Fluke following her speech at the Democratic National Convention. To me, her words were painfully unoriginal, re-telling the tired feminist narrative portraying conservative men as a patriarchal oppressor class trying to “control women’s bodies” in an age when contraception was more accessible than ever. As for Ms. Fluke herself, she was the figure around which the Democratic Party opportunistically built its “War on Women” narrative following a few abhorrent comments made by figures on the fringe of the GOP. She was not, in my mind, a gender egalitarian or even an advocate for the oppressed. She was simply a feminist icon, the latest front woman for the women’s lobby which has favored gender-based affirmative action over meritocracy and kangaroo courts over due process for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses.
It was as I began writing my preconceptions down on paper that I realized that I had fallen into the trap of my own prejudice. Despite my constant criticism of the way libertarians are mischaracterized and misunderstood by the left and in the media, I myself was guilty of drawing a radical caricature of Sandra Fluke which could be easily judged and discredited. Meeting Ms. Fluke at the Athenaeum gave me a much-needed reminder that good people often have the same goals albeit radically different ideas on how to achieve them.
The topic of Ms. Fluke’s speech was a pleasant surprise. Putting her advocacy for universal birth control funding and reproductive rights aside, she took the time to speak on a topic near and dear to her heart: America’s LGBT population. She described how though there are several million LGBT employees in the private sector, only 21 states and Washington D.C. currently prohibit work discrimination against gays and lesbians by law. Fluke then shifted the attention of the attendees to the “T” in LGBT, explaining that even in many of the states where discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited, there are no protections in place for gender identity. Ms. Fluke later spoke of her support for the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would replace the “patchwork” of laws addressing discrimination against the LGBT community with comprehensive federal protection. Her message of equality for all in society and her special emphasis on refusing to leave transgendered Americans behind proved noncontroversial to the audience.
Even during the question and answer period in which she tackled thornier issues, Ms. Fluke answered questions in a straight-forward manner and showed herself to be a pragmatic and moderate advocate. When asked about the lack of attention and help given to male domestic violence victims or the gendered language of legislation regarding human trafficking, she vehemently asserted that all victims, regardless of gender, deserve help. When questioned on the conflict between the provision of birth control and the question of religious liberty, she answered from the center, asserting that there needed to be a balance between the two. She went on to list categories of religiously-affiliated organizations which were exempt from the birth control mandate, and stated her firm commitment to the liberties of all religious communities including her own.
What I admired most about Sandra Fluke, however, was her emphasis on free expression and the necessity of dialogue. Her anecdote about an ACLU lawyer who protested a speaker on a university campus, but stood up against fellow demonstrators when they started blocking access to the talk, showed that strongly held beliefs and a respect for open dialogue are not mutually exclusive. I personally believe that it is exactly this kind of dialogue that needs to take place more often between those on opposing ends of the political spectrum. Because Ms. Fluke dedicated over half her time to the question and answer period, this open dialogue is exactly what I and many other students present received. The talk became one of a few at the Athenaeum where few hands were left raised and few questions left unanswered.
I still oppose the regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare of Obamacare (which does not currently contain a single provision on much needed tort reform). Though I believe strongly in reproductive freedom, I remain allergic to the idea of the government paying for any man or woman’s personal choices. However, I have found that in many ways, liberals can be friends of the Liberty Movement and more importantly, advocates for the rights of all people. When it comes to causes like equality for LGBT members of society, prevention of human trafficking, and the upholding of First Amendment rights, I am proud and very glad to have allies on the left like Sandra Fluke.