The coming clash of civilizations over gay rights
Supporters of gay rights have been protesting in Western cities this past week, picketing in front of Russian embassies and consulates. They’re protesting the passing of a law in the Russian parliament that bans “homosexual propaganda” directed at under 18-year olds — which if interpreted strictly, bans all public demonstrations and much public and private discussion on the issue.
Not so long ago how a country’s administration handled its ‘homosexual problem’ would be thought of as its business. Many still think that way. But most Western democracies don’t. They haven’t just adopted legislation that enjoins equality of treatment for all, irrespective of sexuality. They have taken seriously, for the most part, the claims made by gay organizations for many years: that discrimination against gay men and women is an affront to civil liberties, and that when some states pursue discriminatory policies, those who do not should make their disapproval clear. Gay rights are now part of the world’s clash of cultures.
This is presently true most clearly in the United States and the U.K., not because they have been ahead of the pack in equality — they have lagged a bit behind Canada and the Scandinavian states, ever the pioneers in such matters — but because they have had, and still have, the most contentious relations with Russia.
In the U.K., Stephen Fry, a British TV star, wrote an impassioned letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, likening Russia’s treatment of gays to Adolf Hitler’s treatment of Jews, and begged him to order British athletes to boycott the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi in February next year. In an interview for a TV series on the treatment of gays with Vitaly Milonov, a designer of Russia’s anti-gay platform, Fry was told that Britain was being destroyed by the kind of liberalism that encouraged homosexual behavior. Milonov, a city councilor, was the author of a St. Petersburg law that was the model for the national anti-gay propaganda legislation: he intends to pray for Fry, but believes he is morally and terminally “sick.”
President Barack Obama has also shown some passion on this. Appearing on Jay Leno’s talk show, Obama said that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them,” adding that he spoke out because “making sure that people are treated fairly is what we (Americans) stand for.” In his August 9 press conference, Obama hoped U.S. athletes would bring back medals — but didn’t believe he should call back the American athletes already out there “training hard.”
Russia is not alone in underscoring the leper-like status its lawmakers believe gays should endure. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has presented a bill that stiffens the provisions in 2006 legislation, banning gay marriage, institutional recognition of gay relationships, gay clubs and public displays of affection between gays. The legislation is justified under the rubric of “protecting the integrity of (Nigerian) culture” — a similar stance to that of Milonov in St. Petersburg, and to many who, like him, believe the West’s insistence on sexual equality is but another instance of Western imperialism.
This is bad, but there’s a half-full-glass side too. It’s over-simple to say that there’s a liberal camp of light and a reactionary camp of darkness. There’s an important and very large middle ground, which includes the world’s two largest states, on which a battle rages both for greater toleration on the part of the authorities and — more difficult — for greater understanding on the part of the masses accustomed, for religious or other reasons, to seeing homosexuality as an abomination and gays as fair game for insults, beatings and even murder.
A recent report from Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project showed that public opinion in most states in North America and in Europe is for, sometimes strongly for, social acceptance of homosexuality. The same is broadly true in Latin America, Japan, the Philippines and Australia. But elsewhere it’s the reverse, and generally strongly so: most African states show their citizens rejecting social acceptance by over 90 percent margins. Even in South Africa, where there is anti-discrimination legislation, some 60 percent reject it. And in no Muslim country is there any significant acceptance. In the Middle East, only Israel shows a more or less even split of opinion.
The “pro” countries are getting steadily more liberal: when the populations are broken down by age, one sees the majorities for acceptance rising steadily the younger the age groups. But the elders are changing too. Pope Francis’ remark last month to reporters on his flight back from a trip to Brazil (“If a person seeks God and is gay and has good will, who am I to judge?”) is the most dramatic indication of old structures creaking toward new positions. His predecessors, especially the last two, would have answered his rhetorical question with something like, “Because you’re the Pope, dummy!” Francis wasn’t changing doctrine, but he was a lot more accommodating. This Pope has a Lady Diana-like feel for the spirit and the causes of the times, and wants to put the Catholic Church, as far as possible, on the right side of history.
What comes next perhaps matters most in the 21st century giants: China and India. In his knowledgeable Peking Duck blog, Richard Burger writes that, even after 15 years of legal recognition and 10 years after its being removed from the list of mental illnesses (and centuries after gay lovers were an accepted part of Chinese life, at least among the aristocrats) homosexuality still offends against the deeply and widely rooted belief that “children must marry and continue the family line.” Uniquely, Chinese gays have gotten around this in an organized fashion, setting up arrangements where male and female gays marry in order to placate their families, then go their separate sexual ways. Burger doesn’t think matters will change much soon: certainly not enough for gay marriage to be accepted.
India’s still more conservative. The Colonial era anti-sodomy legislation was repealed only in 2009, and attitudes are far behind. Nish Gera, an Indian writer and entrepreneur who lives in New York, wrote recently that when he came out to his middle class parents, his mother threw up. Most people, he writes, believe that homosexuality is a Western “disease.” But if homosexuals account for some 5 to 10 percent of any population, India has between 50 and 100 million who are afflicted. Yet contentious Gay Pride marches attract no more than a few thousand.
India and China make up two-fifths of the world’s population. It’s there, rather than in shrinking Russia, that the important struggles — to recognize gay men and women as fully equal to heterosexuals in their choice of partners and style of life — are taking place. For the pioneers, and the men and women who must make their mothers sick by revealing their sexuality, support is needed. It will not be shown by boycotting Sochi. Athletes are better off wearing a badge or waving a flag to show which side they are on.
Over the past weekend, a 14-year old boy jumped to his death in Rome because he could no longer bear schoolmates’ jibes over his homosexuality. That was in relatively liberal Italy. It’s much worse in hardline countries. Misery of that kind is what’s at stake. Speaking out against Russia, a country that is going backward, would show we’re aware of that.
PHOTO: Demonstrators hold up signs, including one of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, during a protest against Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, outside Downing Street in central London August 10, 2013. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor