Ben Carson Doesn't Understand Equal Rights

by Seth Millstein
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

At his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary appointee Ben Carson was asked whether he believes that HUD, the agency he will lead if confirmed, has an obligation to ensure that LGBTQ Americans have equal access to housing. In response, Carson said that while he'll uphold the law, he doesn't think anybody gets "extra rights." This is one of the sleaziest, most disingenuous phrases in the anti-LGBTQ movement, and Carson, like others before him, used it to intentionally misrepresent what equality activists actually want.

“You have in the past raised questions about whether LGBTQ people should enjoy the same rights as everyone else," Sen. Sherrod Brown asked Carson. "Do you believe that HUD has a duty to take actions that promote equal access to housing opportunities for LGBTQ people?”

"Of course I would enforce all the laws of the land, and I believe that all Americans, regardless of any of the things you mentioned, should be protected by the law," Carson said evasively. "What I have mentioned in the past is that no one gets extra rights."

As Carson is well aware, Brown wasn't suggesting that LGBTQ people receive extra rights. An extra right would be something like, say, free rent for LGBTQ tenants, which nobody is proposing. The demand of activists and allies is, and always has been, that LGBTQ Americans have the same rights as straight people — in other words, equal rights.

This is a slight of hand (or slight of mouth, as it were), and an especially revealing and sleazy one at that.

Gay rights opponents know they can't win their argument on its merits: LGBTQ Americans have never asked for anything beyond equal rights, and it's impossible to argue against equal rights.

So, instead, they replace the phrase "equal rights" with "extra rights" (or "special rights"). That phrase suggests, inaccurately, that LGBTQ Americans are asking for a privilege that straight people don't receive, which in turn makes the pro-LGBTQ movement seem unfair and biased against straight people.

Carson is by no means the first person to use this trick — it's a time-honored straw man tradition. Here's Bobby Jindal saying it in 2015. Here's Rick Perry, Donald Trump's appointee to lead the energy department, railing against "special rights" in 2011. Here's some random anti-LGBTQ guy writing about it on his blog.

In all fairness to Carson, he did attempt to qualify what he meant: "Extra rights means you get to redefine everything for everybody else," he said. But in all fairness to everybody else, Carson's argument is irrelevant nonsense. Insisting that landlords can't evict tenants based on their sexual orientation (which, broadly speaking, is the kind of thing Brown was talking about) is not attempting to redefine anything for anyone (let alone "everything for anybody else").

By leaning on the old "extra rights" language, Carson wasn't just employing a bad argument (although he was doing that, too). He was revealing that he doesn't actually have any good arguments against LGBTQ equality. When the only way to make your case is to misrepresent what your opponents' demands, that means you don't have a good case to make.