At a time of growing public acceptance of gay rights in the U.S., flash points of resistance in Russia and Africa point to the endurance of discrimination over sexual orientation as a political tool.
From Moscow to Kampala, punitive new laws against homosexuality have been enacted, solidifying support for the leaders in some quarters, including churches, while drawing criticism from elsewhere in the world.
President Barack Obama, who backed same-sex marriage rights in his re-election campaign, has chastised Uganda for passing laws calling for prison sentences for homosexual acts. And the U.S. sent a delegation featuring famous gay athletes to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has signed laws banning the adoption of Russian-born children by foreign gay couples and blocking distribution of information on “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors.
“Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Russia has been searching for its special mission,” said Richard Mole, a senior lecturer in East European studies at University College London. “Establishing itself as the defender of traditional values against Western decadence can be seen as a way for Russia to fulfill its historical destiny.”
While the world was once more aligned against homosexuality, the spectrum of opinion today puts pressure on politicians who champion laws opposing it, said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “From the Closet to the Altar,” a legal history of same-sex marriage.
The same forces that led to progress on the issue in Western Europe and the U.S. “will also be at work in the rest of the world,” Klarman said.
“It’s just that the rest of the world started in a different position,” he said, adding that Russia eventually will see support for gays become an international human rights issue. “They see that change is being pushed around the world, and it’s going to come for them, and so they’re resisting it.”
More than 80 percent of Russians are opposed to same-sex marriage, according to polls conducted by the Levada Center last year. And 47 percent said gays and lesbians shouldn’t have the same rights as other citizens, while 39 percent said they should. By contrast, a majority of Americans now accept gay marriage, surveys show, with 17 states and the nation’s capital legalizing those unions.
“The notorious law against homosexual propaganda among minors passed by the Russian parliament helped to spur the problem of gay marriage in particular and the problem of homophobia in general,” said Tatyana Vorozheikina, an analyst at the Levada Center. “The law was homophobic in general and it sharply increased the homophobic mood in Russia.”
While conditions for gay people are improving in the U.S. and other nations, they’re worsening elsewhere, said Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group leading a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
“Gay people are often the canary in the coal mine,” Wolfson said. “The way a country treats gay people, like the way it treats women, is often an indication of even deeper flaws and abuses with regard to bedrock principles of pluralism, the rule of law and democracy.”
Attempts at toughening laws against homosexuality in some countries, particularly those lacking democratic traditions, speak to the political needs of leaders more than any common global theme, according to John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio, who has led studies of religion in politics.
“I’d be very cautious about drawing too close a parallel, because each of the circumstances are different and each of the leaders have different motivations,” Green said. “It’s important to remember that Russia and Uganda are not as thoroughly democratized.”
In the U.S., the Pew Research Center has found that support for same-sex marriage rose above a majority for the first time last year, with 51 percent supporting the right of gays and lesbians to marry and 42 percent opposing it.
Acceptance has accelerated most dramatically among the young, Pew found, with those younger than 30 supporting gay marriage by about two-to-one, and those 50 and older divided. Almost three-quarters of Americans surveyed -- 72 percent -- said legal recognition of same-sex marriage is “inevitable.” This included 59 percent of opponents.
With states from California to Maine legalizing same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry says more than 38 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state that either permits same-sex marriage or honors out-of-state marriages.
The tide of public opinion turning toward acceptance of homosexuality is driven in part by businesses that can’t afford discrimination, said E. Joshua Rosenkranz, a lawyer who represented 100 companies in a U.S. Supreme Court brief opposing a California ban on same-sex marriage last year. These include Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), General Electric Co. and Google Inc.
“A lot of opinion leaders are realizing that this is a moment in time where they have to decide whether they want to be on the right side of history, because they know how history will judge this debate,” Rosenkranz said.
“You see Republicans now wrestling with which side of the line they’re going to be on politically,” Rosenkranz said. That would never have happened “10 or I think even five years ago, unless you had a daughter who was a lesbian.”
After years of not taking a stand on social issues, hundreds of large corporations signed a brief for the Supreme Court last year in favor of overturning a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. In Indiana, Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY:US) and Cummins Inc. (CMI:US) each donated $100,000 to a campaign opposed to a proposed amendment banning gay unions.
After the high court overturned the part of the law blocking federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over the marriage of two men in Washington in September.
Still, there is nothing inevitable in the debate about homosexuality. Most major religions see marriage as between a man and a woman, despite how the mainstream media portray the issue, said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage in Washington.
“These questions don’t change the fundamental truth of traditional sexual morality that men and women are made for each other, that there’s something unique about that,” Brown said. “For Catholics and Christians and Muslims and others, homosexual acts are sinful.”
Green, of the University of Akron, says the 51 percent approval of gay marriage isn’t simply growing acceptance, it’s also a measure of how divisive the issue remains.
“While public opinion is changing, it’s not changing everywhere at the same rate,” he said. “This is causing the issue of homosexuality generally, but also the issue of same-sex marriage, to be more divisive.”
In Russia, Putin has adopted a more conservative ideology since returning to the presidency in 2012, maintaining close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church to fight the spread of homosexuality and feminism, which he blames for spurring dissent against his rule, Mole says.
“His policy is very much like that of the Russian czars: It’s based on orthodoxy and keeping the Western idea out,” Mole said.
Putin has defended Russia’s record on gay rights, telling ABC television in January that it is about protecting children and has “nothing to do with persecuting individuals for their nontraditional orientation.”
Homosexuality remains a crime in 70 countries and “some U.S. states,” Putin said, while in Russia, “everybody is absolutely equal to anybody else, irrespective of one’s religion, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
Putin’s popularity rating reached a two-year high in the last two weeks, which may be attributed to the Olympic games in Sochi -- where Russian athletes won more medals than any other nation, Russian pollster VTsIOM said on Feb. 26.
“Russia is where the U.S. or Europe were 50 years ago,” said Sergey Gavrov, a professor of social science and anthropology at Moscow State University of Design and Technology. “Russia is always in the process of catching up with the West.”
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed legislation imposing a 14-year prison sentence for conviction of an initial homosexual act and the possibility of life imprisonment for convictions of further homosexual relations.
Evangelical leaders from the U.S., including Scott Lively, with a Kansas City-based ministry, traveling in Uganda and addressing lawmakers there have promoted stronger laws against homosexuality. Yet Lively has issued a statement saying the law “takes the wrong approach,” and that the “agenda should be on rehabilitation and prevention, not punishment.”
Homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African nations, according to Amnesty International.
There is a potential economic price to pay. Uganda’s shilling weakened for the biggest monthly decline since November 2012. The shilling has slumped 3.3 percent against the dollar since Museveni signed the anti-gay law on Feb. 24. That’s the biggest decline among 24 African currencies over the period.
Obama, in a statement issued by the White House, called Uganda’s law “a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice and equal rights.”
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim delayed a $90 million loan to Uganda because of the crackdown on homosexuality.
“Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies,” Kim said in an op-ed article in the Washington Post. “Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies. There is clear evidence that when societies enact laws that prevent productive people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer.”
Even in the U.S., the issue is far from settled. The newly elected Democratic attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, has declined to defend his state’s prohibition on gay marriage, which a federal judge has deemed unconstitutional. A judge in Texas this week said the state’s ban on same-sex weddings is unconstitutional, although he left the prohibition in place in expectation of an appeal. Judges in Oklahoma and Utah have issued similar rulings on those states’ laws.
In Arizona, the governor this week vetoed a bill passed by the legislature that would have allowed businesses, based on their religious beliefs, to deny service to gays.
The business measure was pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a “pro-family” organization declaring that “marriages and families would be strengthened by public policy, not attacked or weakened.”
Before making her decision, Governor Jan Brewer had fielded calls to reject the bill from interests as varied as Delta Air Lines (DAL:US) and Apple, as well as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberties have been violated,” Brewer, a Republican, said at a Feb. 26 news conference in Phoenix announcing her veto. “The bill is broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”
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