There has been a great deal of talk over the last several months about the way one ought to react to the Olympics in Sochi in light of Russia’s ban on “propaganda of homosexuality” or whatever Russian prosecutors construe as “propaganda of homosexuality.” People have, in order of decreasing glamour and increasing effectiveness, boycotted a vodka which turned out not to be made in Russia at all, raised rainbow flags, and made other, more sensible suggestions. But it seems to me that, although a lot has already been and is still being said on the subject, an important element is missing from this conversation. It is the fact that, while the “propaganda” ban certainly is homophobic, its underlying cause is authoritarianism as much as, if not more than, homophobia. What this means is that to really help Russian gays and lesbians (and all other Russians too), we must not only criticize and support the victims of a specific law, but the whole system of Vladimir Putin’s government.
Now this is not to say that this criticism and support are unimportant. People suffering as a result of the “propaganda” ban, and perhaps even more because of the wave of discrimination and violence that this signal of official homophobia has helped unleash. I would like to think that, for them, knowing that the world cares is at least a small consolation and source of hope. And the overt, shameless callousness of this law deserves its own response.
Nor do I mean to suggest, by saying that the “propaganda” ban is the product of authoritarianism, that a free Russia would a very gay-friendly place. Unfortunately, it would be no such thing. Freedom, democracy, and the Rule of Law are not enough to eliminate at a stroke the latent prejudices of society. But they do tend to make it rather less likely that these prejudices will translate into official policy, or that the authorities will let them run loose to the extent homophobia now does in Russia. Of course, there are some sad exceptions to this general trend, as Québec’s proposed ban on public employees wearing “ostentatious religious symbols,” which is calculated to discriminate against minorities (and especially Muslim women) and which Charles Taylor has rightly compared to the Russian anti-gay law, demonstrates. Still, such laws are both rarer and generally less malign in democratic countries. As, or more importantly, as I will shortly argue, free, democratic countries committed to the Rule of Law give their citizens the tools to fight and, at least over time, overturn those discriminatory measures that they do enact.
The reason Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism is key to understanding and deciding how to respond to the “propaganda” ban is that this law and the prominence of homophobic discourse more broadly are quite recent phenomena. What is not recent ― what has lasted for more than a decade now ― is a trend of small, unpopular groups being persecuted, whether with the active participation or with the silent connivance of officials. First ― before Mr. Putin even was elected President, there was the population of Chechnya, made the victim of a war designed to bolster his (theretofore nonexistent) credentials. Then (and to this day), it was political opponents and independent journalists. A businessman who supported opposition political parties imprisoned. Journalists who reported on human rights violations murdered. The rare media that still remain independent being denied access to their audiences. But then there were other victims. Later and still now, it was ethnic and racial minorities ― first African students, then immigrant workers from central Asia, who the victims of campaigns of murderous brutality, which the authorities have seldom done much of anything to stop. Gays and lesbians are only the latest on the list of the enemies of the Russian state. For a government that lacks the legitimacy that comes from prevailing over political opponents in a fair electoral contest (or indeed for one, like the PQ’s, which is committed to democracy but knows that its electoral prospects are dim), having enemies is probably indispensable to manufacture popular support. The enemy’s identity matters little, provided that he is weak and unpopular. In Russia, liberals, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people all are.
For this reason, and although, as I said above, it is important to oppose the “propaganda” ban and other forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians in Russia, the real solution to their problems must pass by the (re-)establishment in Russia of a free and democratic political system committed to the Rule of Law. Only such a system will not need to make minorities into scapegoats for its shortcomings and prejudice against them the only rallying point it can offer the people.
In addition, such a system would, unlike the present one, allow gays and lesbians ― as well as all other citizens, whether persecuted in their individual capacities or as members of unpopular groups ― to fight back and vindicate their rights. At present, it is not only equality that is absent from Russia. It is also, among many other rights and freedoms, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. Yet as Jonathan Rauch argues in a fascinating and important guest-post at the Volokh Conspiracy, “[h]istory will show … that gay marriage, and gay legal equality generally, owe their success not primarily to the 14th Amendment but to the First” ― not the one protecting equality, but the one protecting freedom of speech. The reason is simple: in order to have equality, you must persuade people to recognize you as their equal. You need to be able to speak to them. You need the freedom to make your case. And before you can insist on rights which on paper are yours, you need judges to know that nothing particularly bad will happen to them if they enforce them.
Once Russian gays and and lesbians have these basic rights, which (unlike equality rights which are of more recent vintage) we perhaps take so much for granted that we forget that others might lack them, we can hope, and indeed believe, that they too will in time succeed in having their equality rights recognized. Let us denounce and oppose homophobia. But let us not forget that, in Russia and elsewhere, it will not end without freedom, democracy, and the Rule of Law.