How should the West respond to the Russian government’s homophobic crusade? It is a question that has bedeviled activists and legislators in Europe and America since the Duma passed a law forbidding so-called “propaganda” of same-sex relationships to minors last summer. While the law is criticized as an assault on gay citizens, it is actually something much more pernicious: by forbidding speech that portrays homosexuality in a positive, never mind neutral, light, it is a fundamental abridgement of the freedoms of speech and conscience of all Russian citizens, gay and straight alike. Worse, it has given a green light to vigilantes who have unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence against Russian gays.
In a recent paper co-authored with Ambassador Andras Simonyi of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, I argue that the United States ought to apply the Magnitsky Act against those Russians who have committed human rights violations under cover of this law.
The Magnitsky Act compels the US government to impose visa bans and asset freezes against Russians, whether they be private individuals or officials, implicated in human rights abuses. We name names, ranging from the Duma deputy who authored the law to the leader of a Russian vigilante group, as potential additions to the Magnitsky list. This tactic, we believe, would be far more effective at curbing the Russian government’s abysmal behavior than boycotting Stolichnaya vodka or the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, as some activists have proposed.
John Allen Gay takes issue with our proposal, arguing that gay rights should not be a central focus of American foreign policy vis a vis relations with Russia as, say, the reduction of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, and more practically, he believes that taking a harder line against Moscow’s anti-gay policies would do nothing to help Russia’s gays; in fact, he argues, it might hurt them.
Much of Gay’s argument rests on historical relativizing. “Do we intend to internationalize a newly acquired feature of our culture?” he asks, with regard to gay rights, while stressing that he is entirely sympathetic to our country’s belated progress this subject. He cites the case of the Englishman Alan Turing, the brilliant, gay father of modern computing who broke Nazi encryption codes and was thanked for his service with chemical castration, as an example of the West’s hypocrisy in preaching the gay gospel abroad. “Britain at the time was a stable and fully democratic country, and it was a reliable ally of the United States,” which, he notes, “zealously punished and marginalized gay Americans for decades—and committed more serious and systematic abuses against African Americans, Japanese Americans, and others.” No one can deny the shameful treatment meted out to gay people (and other minorities) by Western governments, but it’s hard to see why this should prevent us from speaking out loudly in favor of gay (and minority) rights today now that our countries have evolved in the right direction. Attitudes about homosexuality have changed drastically for the better over the past 50 years, and it should be the role of liberal democracies to promote the values we have embraced – however tardily – at home. Of course, gay rights were not the “canary in the coalmine” of democracies 50 years ago. But they are today.
“Do we as a country have the moral standing on gay rights to create, as the panelists repeatedly suggested, ‘teaching moments’ with other states, with us in the role of teacher?” Gay asks. I would argue that we do, and that the contemporary American domestic debate over homosexuality – namely, whether or not gays ought to have the right to marry – in no way hinders the international gay rights agenda, which is primarily concerned with eliminating state-sanctioned discrimination and violence, as well as protecting freedom of speech and association. The problem that we in the West have with Russia is not that Russia doesn’t allow gays to marry: it is that the Russian state violates the basic rights of Russians in regards to freedom of speech and association. Americans can disagree in good faith on the question of whether or not same-sex couples be given the right to marry, and this debate has played out in our courts and legislatures, as it ought to. But I would like to think that most Americans, regardless of where they stand on gays in the military or same-sex adoption, are united in the belief that partisans on both sides ought to have the ability to make their case in public, lobby our elected officials, and hold peaceful demonstrations. Russians who support gay rights are now prohibited from doing any of those things due to this draconian law.
Gay is concerned with the potential “backlash” that our promotion of LGBT concerns may have, leading him to suggest that they not be elevated to the level of a “geostrategic” interest. He is right that the Russian people broadly embrace homophobic attitudes – that Putin is not so much leading public opinion as following it. But it is hard to see this prescription for staying quiet as anything other than defeatism. Liberal values will not become more popular in Russia if we abandon our friends and leave the playing field to the nationalists and chauvinists. We should make clear to Russians that we are not asking them to embrace gay marriage, (a question on which, as Gay notes, Americans themselves remain divided) but merely that they allow all of their fellow citizens the right to engage in debate. Moreover, Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly forbids the sort of discriminatory policies it is now promulgating. If the moral argument for standing against Kremlin bigotry is not sufficient, the legalistic one ought be.