Postmodern America is living a rather odd paradox. On the one hand, personal freedom and autonomy are seen as the supreme values in society; on the other, there is a marked tendency to see the federal government as the answer to virtually every problem, resulting in greater government control in our lives and thus less personal freedom. How are these differences resolved?
First, however, we need to look at precisely what is meant by personal freedom and autonomy. We can approach this issue from several directions. Let's begin by looking at the current definition of toleration, the ultimate virtue in American society.
The new toleration
The definition of "toleration" has been inverted in recent years. Historically, toleration implied disagreement. The powerful would tolerate ideas that they disagreed with or found unpleasant; they might argue against them or condemn them, but they did not suppress the ideas through violence or the courts.
Today, toleration means agreeing that selected categories—typically race, gender, and sexual orientation—are value-neutral, that is, that they have no significant bearing on human worth, moral standing, etc. To suggest otherwise is to commit the one unforgivable sin of being intolerant, judgmental or bigoted.
In other words, toleration has changed from referring to ideas to referring to people, and from learning to live with disagreement to agreeing that [specific] differences don't matter.
The Civil Rights movement has rightly made visible racism unacceptable in America, though it undoubtedly continues to exist below the surface. A similar case can be made with respect to sexism, which, though it still exists, is less overt and far less acceptable than it once was.
This leaves sexual orientation and gender identity as the key battleground for expanding the notion of "toleration" in society.
Sexual identity as a civil rights issue
LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) advocates link their cause to the Civil Rights movement, an identification many African Americans reject. Race, ethnicity, and biological sex are in a different category from behaviors that a person may choose to engage in, and so many in the African American community (along with most conservatives) argue that LGBT is not in any way equivalent to the Civil Rights movement.
The LGBT community and its supporters see things differently. First, they sometimes argue that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic—that people are born homosexual, and there is nothing they can do about it. To deny them the opportunity to act out that identity is thus every bit as much of a civil rights issue as discrimination against racial minorities.
This argument is more frequently made by male homosexuals than by lesbians, who often choose that lifestyle as a protest against sexism or abuse that they have experienced in their own lives. In this case, the argument is based on personal freedom to choose your own sexual identity and sexual partners without outside interference.
A similar dynamic occurs in the transgender community, where people either argue that they are psychically one gender trapped in a body of the other gender (and thus that theirs is a civil rights issue), or that individuals should be free to choose whatever gender suits them (in which case it is an issue of personal freedom).
There is no known biological basis for homosexuality, as some homosexual rights advocates privately admit. Similarly, the idea of being a woman trapped in a man's body (or vice versa) may not even make any sense—what does it mean to be a woman if it is unconnected to your body?
Much of the argument surrounding these issues thus has centered on the idea of personal freedom to choose identity and sex partners without regard to biology. This is seen as the critical element of what it means to be free.