Democracy Lab

The LGBT Global Values Gap

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.


Democracy Lab

Eulogy for a Quiet Revolutionary

What today’s activists can learn from the life and times of the heroic Polish politician who passed away earlier this week.

I remember seeing Tadeusz Mazowiecki for the first time in Warsaw that remarkable summer of 1989. Back then, Mazowiecki -- who died earlier this week at age 86 -- was a middle-aged man with hunched shoulders. He wore an ill-fitting jacket and he had the long, sad eyes of a basset hound. You could tell that he wasn't the kind of man to run around proclaiming utopian visions. His whole being seemed to demonstrate that the escape from communism and the journey toward democracy was destined to be a long, hard slog. He was grounded, sober, and decidedly un-emphatic. But I can't help thinking that it was his rejection of heroism that made him uniquely heroic.

On August 24, 1989, he became the first freely elected prime minister in Poland since World War II. (The photo above shows him celebrating the election of his cabinet a few weeks later.)  No one quite realized it at the time, but his assumption of office marked the beginning of the end of the postwar Stalinist order in Central Europe. Nor did anyone forecast the series of events that soon followed, in accelerating succession: the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist dictatorships in East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Later came the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

Mazowiecki could have rightfully claimed a starring role in this story: as one of Poland's most prominent Catholic thinkers and longtime oppositionists, he had all the credentials. In an initial period of idealism shared by many other Polish intellectuals after the war, he tried to work with the Soviet-dominated communist government by joining a pro-regime Catholic party and serving for a time in parliament. Increasingly disillusioned, he resigned his seat in 1955, and later went on to found a leading Catholic journal of ideas that soon became required reading even for non-believers.

An enthusiastic supporter of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, Mazowiecki later played a critical role in the rise of the independent Solidarity trade union in 1980, which represented the first serious organizational challenge to communist hegemony and prepared the way for the annus mirablis nine years later. As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash memorably put it: "Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism." Mazowiecki was there at every decisive waypoint.

And yet his name remains unfamiliar to many students of politics and history outside of Central Europe. After his death this week, most of the English-language papers ran dutiful biographies, many of them from the news agencies. Few conveyed anything of the extraordinary drama encompassed by this life, or the courage he showed along the way. (When the Polish communists reacted to the Solidarity challenge by declaring martial law in 1981, Mazowiecki was one of the first activists they made sure to arrest -- and among the last to be released a year later.)

It would be a shame if we were to neglect Mazowiecki's remarkable career of dissent -- especially since his experiences offer valuable lessons to countries that are still struggling to find their way toward democracy today.

He was a man of revolutionary insights who looked and acted nothing like a traditional revolutionary. Like many of his compatriots, Mazowiecki lived through both Nazism (his older brother died in a German concentration camp) and Stalinism, and the experience inoculated him against all-encompassing ideological designs and the violence they usually entailed. It was this rejection of radical social engineering that formed the basis for the "self-limiting revolution" of Solidarity, which explicitly embraced peaceful but principled resistance to totalitarianism.

His greatest talent, perhaps, was his capacity to acknowledge the humanity of his opponents even when they were at their most inhumane. His extraordinary patience and modesty played a crucial role in that delicate summer of 1989, when the time finally came for him and his Solidarity colleagues to confront their former jailers in a counterintuitive spirit of compromise. The union's leadership had been caught somewhat off guard the year before, when its rank-and-file members responded to the accelerating collapse of Poland's economy with a series of wildcat strikes that shook the communist government to its core. That forced the communists to consider legalizing Solidarity, which they had so bitterly resisted doing for so long. But the union was only prepared to cooperate if the Communist Party made concessions.

Mazowiecki was one of the architects of the negotiating process, known as the Round Table Talks, that the two sides devised to resolve the impasse. It ultimately resulted in Solidarity's legalization as a political movement, a substantial revision of the Stalinist constitution, and the establishment of ground rules for Poland's first competitive elections since the 1920s. The elections weren't entirely free yet, though: in order to allay the fears of their communist opponents, who didn't want to be swept out of power, Mazowiecki and other Solidarity leaders agreed to a formula designed to reserve a controlling majority for the Communists in the newly created parliament.

In June 1989, two rounds of elections took place -- and delivered a smashing victory for the opposition movement. Altogether Solidarity won 160 of the 161 seats available in the election. Though the communists still retained formal control of the parliament, their hold on power was doomed -- as became clear when several of their non-communist coalition partners deserted them for a new alliance with Solidarity. It was that shift that enabled Mazowiecki's election as prime minister.

It was an office he retained only for a year and a half, but that was enough to launch Poland on its trajectory towards a stable parliamentary democracy. Communist hegemony crumbled. The constitution was revised in 1992, and then again in 1997. In 2004, Poland became a member of the European Union. (Mazowiecki himself later served as an EU emissary to the Balkans during the Bosnian War.)

It's worth noting that there are a lot of Poles who don't like Mazowiecki much. Many of them, like the former Solidarity activist Andrzej Gwiazda, are right-wingers who believe that the whole Round Table process was a conspiracy designed to prevent a proper reckoning with the communists' crimes during their four decades in power. This, of course, completely ignores how utterly unprepared Party leaders were for the thumping they received in the 1989 vote. (The scale of Solidarity's victory shocked many of its activists, too.)

There's another reason why the view of the conspiracy theorists misses the point. Retaliating against the communists for their past misdeeds entailed the possibility of serious social unrest (perhaps even Romania-style violence) in a country where millions of people had been members of the Party at one time or another. This was precisely why Prime Minister Mazowiecki announced in 1990 that it was time to draw a "thick line" between the new democratic era and the Stalinist past, by which he meant that Poles should look ahead to a new future in which all could participate as citizens. I strongly believe he made the right choice.

Other countries have tried to learn from Poland's example -- most notably Burma, where the erstwhile ruling military junta seems to have looked to the 1989 parliamentary compromise as a model. Last year they chose a similar path when they allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers to participate in a tightly circumscribed election that gave them seats, and a corresponding say, in the legislature. It's a pity that the Arab Spring countries don't seem to have paid much attention. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, would have been well-advised to study the Polish scenario of a cautious, "self-limiting" transition.

Considering the scale of Mazowiecki's achievement, it's no wonder that his passing has elicited some noteworthy praise. The World Jewish Congress called the Catholic Mazowiecki "one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people." German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of his "unforgettable contribution to overcoming authority and injustice and also to unifying Europe," and praised him for helping to topple the Berlin Wall and promote German unification. And current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described Mazowiecki "one of the most prominent Polish politicians of the twentieth century."

I think they're all right.