The world is profoundly divided over gay rights -- and it's going to get worse before it gets better.
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi don't open until Feb. 7, but they're already becoming a bone of contention. Within Russia itself, activists are pointing to problems with corruption, environmental damage, and the possible security threat from Islamist insurgencies in nearby regions. Internationally, though, concerns about the Winter Games are crystallizing around a rather different issue: gay rights.
The LGBT community and its allies are putting the Olympics at the focus of a campaign against the notorious law, signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin last year, that targets "homosexual propaganda." The law is ostensibly aimed at preventing pedophilia, since it targets the spread of "non-traditional sexual orientations" among minors, but critics note that its language is so vague as to make virtually any positive reference to homosexuality a criminal offense. Activists also point out that violent acts against gay men and women have been rising steadily ever since the law was passed amid a flurry of homophobic rhetoric from many prominent figures in Russian society.
Activists around the world are rising to the challenge. They've launched an international boycott of Russian vodka. They've aimed public protests at Valery Gergiev, the high-profile conductor of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg who has often boasted of his close ties to Putin, during his visits to the West. They plan to send thousands of gay-marriage themed coloring books to addresses throughout Russia. Some, including British actor Stephen Fry, have even called for Russia to be stripped of the Games. Others are spreading powerfully emotional videos throughout the Internet:
As if the anti-gay legislation wasn't bad enough already, it comes at a moment when Russia already seems to be bingeing on a witches' brew of intolerance and xenophobia. One particularly nasty clip currently making the rounds allegedly shows Russian kids bullying a gay black teen from South Africa, force-feeding him watermelon and forcing him to perform oral sex on a bottle. None of this seems likely to bring Russia the bounty of positive PR it was hoping to harvest from the Games.
President Putin has already responded to the barrage of bad publicity by declaring that gay visitors to the Games don't need to worry about being singled out for their sexual orientation (which would seem to imply, at the very least, that he doesn't take the laws of his own country very seriously). Meanwhile, though, Vitaly Mutko, Russia's sports minister, has made it clear that anyone who chooses to reveal that they're gay during the Olympics could very well run afoul of the law (which has special provisions targeting foreigners). One can presume that many activists will choose to make their inclinations known accordingly, turning the Games into an arena of protest. Those of us who sympathize with them will certainly find it hard to blame them for doing so.
There's one aspect of the controversy, though, that hasn't come in for much discussion. There's every indication that the fight over the Olympics merely dramatizes a much longer and deeper split between the nations of the West, where citizens are growing increasingly tolerant towards their LGBT compatriots, and a large bloc of other countries where anti-gay sentiments are, if anything, becoming even more entrenched.
Don't get me wrong: This is not to discount the forces of intolerance that, goodness knows, remain strong in various parts of the United States and Europe. But the trends are fairly clear: young people in the West, many of whom increasingly have openly LGBT friends or acquaintances, steadily demonstrate less of an inclination to demonize their peers on the basis of their sexual orientations. A remarkable 2011 study of international attitudes by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles Law School tracks the evolution quite clearly: from 1991 to 2008, the number of Americans who described homosexuality as "always wrong" dropped from 67.4 percent to 53.6 percent. (Polls that have tracked American sentiments on the issue over the past five years show even more dramatic movement toward tolerance.)
The shift is increasingly finding expression in laws excluding discrimination and allowing for equal civil rights, up to and including single-sex marriage. (Just this week, on Nov. 7, for example, the United States Senate passed a law dramatically upgrading workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans -- another big step forward.)
Yet the situation is starkly different in other parts of the world. When, according to the Williams Institute study, pollsters asked Russians in 1991 if being gay was "always wrong," 58.7 percent of them agreed with the sentiment; by 2008, that percentage had gone up to 64.2. It's hard to see how this number is going to improve, given that the recently passed law will likely make it even harder for LGBT Russians to be open about their preferences, thus diminishing the already small number of Russians who have personal contact with (as Russian officials grimly refer to it) "people of non-traditional sexual orientations." The increasingly prominent political role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which propagates unapologetically homophobic views, is also a factor. And I question whether younger Russians -- who make up the bulk of the participants at the nationalist rallies like the one we saw in Moscow earlier this week -- are necessarily more tolerant than their elders.
This has broader implications. If Americans and Western Europeans (not to mention South Americans) continue to believe that rights for gays are just another subset of human rights, this will increasingly bring us into ideological conflict with Russians and the many other countries (in the former USSR, Africa, and the Muslim world) that regard rights for sexual minorities as a fundamental threat. Some Russians already say that they regard gay rights (like many other aspects of contemporary liberal democracy) as antithetical to "traditional Russian values."
Moscow's stance on gay rights is already becoming a specific cause of tension between it and the country that, for a few years there, regarded itself as one of Russia's defenders in the West -- namely, Germany. (Energy politics has quite a bit to do with it, too.) The Dutch government (which also has a bone to pick with the Kremlin over its harsh treatment of Greenpeace activists) recently declared that the Russian anti-gay law may warrant recognition of asylum seekers. Just to underline the point, the United Nations General Assembly called this week for Moscow "to promote social inclusion without discrimination" during the Olympics.
Just to be clear: The West -- which, in this respect at least, really still does exist -- is on the right side of this argument; the bigots are not. And if we really care about our commitment to human rights, we should stay there. But we shouldn't expect everyone else in world to agree, which could mean some hard policy choices on the road ahead. Stay tuned.
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