I’ve just re-read the chapter of my book, The Asylum of the Universe, on homosexuality and it still does its job of helping to understand homosexuality and railing against homophobia. Its closing paragraph is, however, more pertinent than ever. It was written in 2010, at the time of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill going through its parliament. (I’ll post the chapter at the end of this article).
That bill proposed the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality was defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality was having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that was to become the fate for anyone caught indulging in any form of homosexual behaviour, such as kissing or holding hands, or even living together in a same-sex (but possibly sexless) marriage. Condoning or promoting homosexuality will get you five to seven years.
I ended by suggesting that this was all just a short step away from the sort of ‘final solution’ (genocide) policies we have seen elsewhere to eradicate perceived menaces. And now we see ‘concentration camps’ and the rounding up of people in Chechnya.
As with so many spheres of life, we are clearly making no progress and the waves of fascist intent sweeping around the globe are taking us backwards alarmingly fast. It is time, I would suggest, to try and change societies mindset on theses issues.
For too long homosexuality itself has been thought of as ‘the problem’. In fact, the real problem is not homosexuality, but homophobia. Any phobia is an extreme, unjustified and/or irrational fear; it is a psychological problem that needs to be overcome and in so doing enhances the lives of all concerned.
Homophobia is a pervasive, irrational fear of homosexuality. Homophobia includes the fear heterosexuals have of any homosexual feelings within themselves, any overt mannerisms or actions that would suggest homosexuality, and the resulting desire to suppress or stamp out homosexuality. And it also includes the self-hatred and self-denial of homosexuals who know what they are but have been taught all their lives by a heterosexual society that people like themselves are sick, sinful and criminal.
As I describe in my book, homosexuality is as valid a lifestyle as any other and found throughout the animal kingdom. Homosexuality has been practiced in all societies throughout history and has been openly accepted in many cultures. The taboo on homosexuality in so many parts of the world has largely been the result of the widespread dominance of the Abrahamic religions, with their inbred repression of any form of sexuality unrelated to childbearing.
Thus, we need to alter the discourse and stop asking questions like:
- What are the causes of homosexuality?
- Can you tell if you are a homosexual?
- Can homosexuality be cured?
The questions that really need to be asked are:
- What are the causes of homophobia?
- How can you tell if you are a homophobe?
- Can homophobia be cured?
In tackling these questions, we really need to look at them in different contexts. At the scale of us as individuals, the answers can be fairly obvious. But at the scale of the nation state, where things get enshrined in law, a whole set of other issues has to be involved. But a common denominator is invariably religiosity, as this piece of research shows:
The 40 or so countries examined show a statistically significant correlation that has three main exceptions: Philippines (a lot more tolerant than may be expected in a strongly Catholic country) and China and Russia (both a lot less tolerant than may be expected in supposedly atheistic states). I want to focus on Russia as it is very much in the forefront current homophobic atrocities – especially in its federated republic of Chechnya.
Russia started following a similar path to Uganda in 2011. The Russian Duma unanimously approved a law that prohibited the distribution of homosexual “propaganda” to minors. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in massive fines. Before the vote, gay rights activists who attempted to hold a “kiss-in” outside the Duma were pelted with eggs by Orthodox Christian and pro-Kremlin activists. Anti-gay protesters also gathered, with one holding a sign that read: “Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!”
The argument that a young person can be “propagandised” into turning gay may seem outdated, but it’s actually not out of place in modern Russia. In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labour, and Stalinist anti-gay policies persisted throughout the 60s and 70s. Gays were considered “outsiders” and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists. Reports child sex scandals amongst the churches and right wing elites of the West in recent times can only have reinforced these prejudices. Measures like the propaganda ban show that many Russians still haven’t shed these views, even decades after the fall of the regime that kept homophobia in place.
Since the 90s, Russians have faced incredible economic turmoil, a loss of public services in many areas, and widespread corruption — all factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes. “To the degree that a given society that is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity, it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength,” said Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond. We can relate to the propensity for hard times (austerity) to lead to an increase in scapegoating (immigrants) in what we have seen in the UK in recent times. Homophobic hate crimes in the UK have dramatically increased simultaneously.
But let me return to the apparent fact that Russians buck another major trend in modern homophobia: more religious countries are far more likely to be less accepting of homosexuality. As pointed out, the data suggests that Russia and China seem to reject both God and gays. Russia ranks as one of the least devout countries on earth, with only 33 percent of Russians saying religion was very important in their daily life in 2009. But this hides the reality of the people’s religiosity. Even though Russians aren’t churchgoers in the traditional sense, most (80-90%) are still incredibly supportive of the Orthodox Church, which wields power both politically, as an ally of the Putin government, and as a symbol of national pride in much of the population. In satellite republics like Chechnya, the same role is played by Islam. In 2010, a poll revealed 95% of the population were muslim adherents, predominantly of the more the more homophobic Sunni Islam.
Indeed, many Russians/Chechens today view Church affiliation as a way to reaffirm their national identity. In a 2007 (Russian) poll on the subject, the majority of respondents said religion for them was a “national tradition” and “an adherence to moral and ethical standards,” while only 16 percent said it was about personal salvation. The two great ills of the world, religion and nationalism, reinforcing and supporting each other!
It’s no coincidence that the punk band Pussy Riot was sent to jail for performing in an Orthodox church, specifically. Orthodox Church elders have also served as occasional Putin campaigners, issuing bizarre declarations that mash together Christianity and the longevity of United Russia. One said that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse” and referred to Putin’s presidency as “a miracle.” Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov warned once that “one needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan.”
In some countries, homophobic laws might seem like a sign of religious influence run amok. But in Russia, it’s part of a broader anti-opposition push and a crackdown on a wide array of civil liberties. Homophobia, more often than not, derives not just from one’s faith, but from being anti-liberal. Russia is an illiberal country, and Putin’s government capitalises on the illiberal sentiments expressed by the church. Chechnya may be a different context, but the same forces are at work.
We can all, fortunately, challenge individual homophobes we encounter and help them to enlightenment. But when it gets embedded in politics and law, reinforced by religion, it is hard to envision any painless solutions. The pain in Chechnya right now, is however, intolerable.
I am not a huge fan of petitions, but we are limited in what we can do to affect things in Chechnya. Voicing our disgust and abhorrence, through any and all of the many petitions that have emerged on this issue, is therefore important. Amnesty International are consistently at the forefront of these campaigns, so I commend this one to you in particular (and please join them, if you haven’t already).
TRANSCRIPT OF ‘HOMOSEXUALITY’ CHAPTER FROM ‘THE ASYLUM OF THE UNIVERSE’ (apologies for issues with page formatting). Click the link: