For British gay rights campaigners, 2014 is becoming a year to remember. England and Wales will join the small club of nations that allow same-sex couples to marry; meanwhile, the Sochi winter Olympics have sparked global outrage against Russian homophobia. Surely reasons to celebrate?
Not according to two Yale Law professors. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Ian Ayres and William Eskridge blast American hypocrisy over Russia’s anti-gay legislation, highlighting eight US states that maintain laws against “promoting” homosexuality. Similar cries of Western hypocrisy have surfaced in the Guardian and The Spectator.
Ayres and Eskridge are right to debunk tidy distinctions between “the West” and “the rest”. In France last year, hostile right wing groups dispelled any illusions about tolerance when they turned same-sex marriage into the symbol for everything wrong with Europe today.
But there’s a problem with Ayres and Eskridge’s argument. If we want to compare Russia with the West, it’s not enough merely to draw up checklists of our respective laws. Far more important are the cultural contexts in which those laws operate.
Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, anti-gay violence is soaring hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, anti-Roma brutality, and Nazi-type militancy. These minorities are tarred with old accusations of undermining the nation, contaminating it with “foreign” influences. The victims live in fear of both public and private violence.
One common view in the West is that these are just the “growing pains” of new democracies. But many Eastern Europeans roll their eyes at such condescension. More than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, their officials use that same tired excuse to mask endemic corruption and incompetence.
Ayres and Eskridge rightly warn that gay communities in Texas or Alabama are unlikely to live any time soon without prejudice. On the whole, however, rights are progressing in the West in ways far beyond the reach of sexual minorities in Russia, Nigeria, India, Uganda or Iran. If we had to choose a city to launch the next same-sex marriage campaign, I suspect even Bible-thumping Dallas would win out over Vladimir Putin’s Moscow.
Yes, we must certainly guard against hypocrisy. The West is indeed far from perfect. But those shortcomings should not become excuses to ignore, or withhold help for vulnerable minorities in the rest of the world who are reaching out for solidarity.