This is quick post given that its relevance is waning a bit already, but I wanted to comment for a moment of the voracity of Russia’s homophobia and simply note its connection with that country’s ongoing nation-building. Through vehicles like the expansion of its hydrocarbon holdings and the role of that on the world stage (economic and energy nation-building), the ever-increasing power of Russia in the UN, and Vladimir Putin’s desire to form a parallel “union” of Western Asian / Eastern European states that would rival the EU in its reach and power, Russia is continually attempting to position itself as a major 21st century power.
While I do not know Mr. Putin personally, I am not convinced that he cares any more or less about LBGTQI folks than did Karl Rove, and instead sees homophobia as an ideological pathway to support his nationalist ideas and particularly his expansionist nation-building in that region of the world. To be sure, Karl Rove is no longer spending his time “fighting the good fight” against “the gays”. But during the GWB years he viewed homophobic legislation as a way to drive conservatives to the polls at a time when the 2000 and 2004 elections were sure to be close. What Rove knew was that he had to spin the ballot initiatives not as “hate the gays” legislation, but rather as “protect the family” legislation. In this way, Rove was playing on one of the most long-standing rationales for colonization, “Westward Expansion”, and increased militarism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world: “the ever-increasing needs of the growing American family”. In this line of thinking the “American family” (read heterosexual, white, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, etc.) is the vessel into which all ideas of what it means to be an “American” are poured (in a Norman Rockwell-esque fashion), whereby the protection of this heteronormative, etc. nuclear family is equated with the protection of “America” itself. The end result is that anything perceived as a “threat” to this family must go and conversely anything that aids the growth of this family must be supported. Rove astutely saw this and played this card beautifully to the benefit of the Republican Party in 2000 and 2004.
And this ideology is so deeply rooted that many of the voters themselves had no idea what was happening – the Human Rights Campaign did exit polling in 2004 and 2006 (mid-terms) and found that in some states where there were anti-LBGTQI ballot initiatives, voters demonstrated some peculiar contradictions. First, they were asked how they voted on the initiative. Those who voted to “protect marriage”, were then asked something to the effect of “do you think gay and lesbian Americans should have equal rights under the U.S. constitution” and just over 75% of those same “protect marriage” people said “yes” to equal rights. Bizarre, right? They just voted to deny equal rights and enshrine that in their state’s constitution, but also feel LBGTQI folks should basically be equal. And that’s partially because Rove played to their homophobia, partially because those ballots were worded in a way of “defending” marriage, but also partially because the “American family” (aka the “American Dream”, the “American Promise”) is decidedly heteronormative and so the identity of this ever-expanding nation and the family that we are “safeguarding” through our expansion (think Iraq war and Condoleezza Rice’s mushroom cloud warnings) is a heterosexual one. So, any change in the heteronormative nuclear family marks a potential weakening of the justification for U.S. expansion economically, politically, and ideologically.
And so as we turn our attention these two weeks to Russia and the Olympic games, we can see the same tired old process just under the skin of Putin’s vernacular and “protection of Russia”. The same three flavors of the homophobic argument are there (being gay is a “crime against God, a crime against nature, and a crime against society”), the same police state reaction to LBGTQI people is there, and the same economic and political moment is there – in short Putin is shoring up his ideological power base in order to enact his larger vision of mother Russia precisely as the global landscape of economic and political power shifts from West to East. Unfortunately, U.S. mainstream media has been so anemic in its analysis of this (and is perhaps still sloshing around in “Rovism”) that it cannot offer anything more than a cursory glance to this issue while some have simply chosen not to cover it at all. And, those non-mainstream outlets that are covering it are sticking to the “end homophobia” line of thinking. What I would like to see is the cover drawn back on this and a more cogent and comprehensive analysis offered so that we can stop using homophobia as the tool for nation-building whether it be in Russia, the United States, Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and the like*. Importantly, I am not talking about generalized societal homophobia that can be found anywhere rigid gender roles are constructed, codified and enforced. I’m talking about the ways homophobia is being enshrined in policy and used as a political tool. For example, many countries in Central and South America have horrific statistics when it comes to societal violence against LBGTQI people, but have also enacted some legislative protections for LBGTQI folks in places like Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. So, I’m not talking about individual homophobia, what I am talking about is state-sanctioned homophobia and the deeper, colonial purpose it serves. And in this sense, Putin is playing right along with his global contemporaries who are using it to the same effect.
The solution to this weaponizing of homophobia manifests on several fronts: grassroots organizing in Russia itself (already happening with courage and clarity), support from international organizations for those grassroots organizers (already happening but with more presence needed), economic penalties for countries who engage in such homophobic legislating (weak at best via international relief funds), and political pressure from the international community (not happening enough from the U.S. Secretary of State, UN, EU, and the like) to expose the true motives of those countries and to marginalize them if they do not change their tactics. To be sure, the reduction of this to a “gay rights” issue not only minimizes what is really happening, but in fact miscasts what the role of the international community needs to be in response. Yes, we must immediately stop the homophobia and violence toward queer folks in Russia and elsewhere. But in a deeper sense, we need to stop the centralizing of heteronormativity and the subsequent use of homophobia (and concomitantly the queer community in general) as the weapon by which leaders justify their colonial, expansionist policies. In this way the effort for queer rights is indeed a struggle for global, human rights.
*Note: It should be noted that many of these countries, for instance some of the examples I offer from Africa, are putting forth their homophobic legislation at the behest of White, Western, evangelicals (of a very particular variety) and therefore the nuanced yet corrosive nature of colonialism can still be found in these countries’ legislation despite their strong self-identification as post-colonial nations.