Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nostalgia for the good old days of Stalin: John Wight on homophobia in Putin's Russia

In case you thought the nonsense about "pinkwashing" was limited to castigating Israel for being a relatively decent place to live if you happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, while at the same time giving a pass to the multitude of anti-gay Arab regimes - I give you John Wight on the Stalinist British blog, Socialist (dis)Unity. He's angry at Stephen Fry for writing an open letter calling on Britain to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia. Fry is calling for this boycott because of the recent passage of Russian anti-gay legislation that bans "homosexual propaganda." A short excerpt from his letter:
Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma.
So how does Wight respond to Fry?
Many societies remain uncomfortable with homosexuality. In our own country gains in LGBT rights and equality are a relatively recent phenomenon. Whether we like to admit it or not, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity are still viewed as two sides of the same coin in some societies, feeding a misplaced understanding of homosexuality as solely a lifestyle choice motivated by hedonism. It is seen as a corrupting and corrosive influence on social cohesion as a consequence. There is of course nothing wrong with homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. The freedom to choose any lifestyle a person so wishes, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others, is rightly deemed sacrosanct in a healthy society.
Homosexuality as a "lifestyle choice"? What is Wight talking about? He sounds like the religious right in the US, which views acting on same sex attraction as a sinful "choice" that should be resisted. I'm not sure, myself, that sexual orientation (not "lifestyle") is as genetically based as some people argue it is, but it has always seemed to me to be something deeply rooted in one's personality, not something chosen. The lack of success of so-called "eparative therapy" (trying to turn gay people straight) is testimony to the lack of choice. This is a man of the left? He sounds like someone who is longing for the days when homosexuality was thought of as a bourgeois deviation not found in healthy socialist societies like the Soviet Union! (Shades of Ahmedinejad denying that there were any gay people in the pure Islamic Republic of Iran!)
But social attitudes are inevitably buttressed and influenced by cultural traditions, which differ across the world and are the product of specific histories and inevitably develop at different rates of progress. These factors cannot simply be abstracted in favour of a western-centric approach on the part of liberal commentators and activists in Britain.
Why is Wight defending Putin's Russia? As a socialist, shouldn't he be opposed to Putin and everything he stands for: authoritarianism, suppression of dissent, alliance with the deeply reactionary Russian Orthodox Church? Why is he defending regressive "cultural traditions"? 

And note that snuck into his supposed tolerance for different cultural traditions is the statement that they "develop at different rates of progress." This implies that there is, or should be progress, toward something - in this case, the greater acceptance of homosexuality that is found in Britain and other western countries. So he knows that he's apologizing for an anti-gay policy, but he's cloaking it in the language of respect for different cultural traditions.

There's a good comment on the blog criticizing Wight, from someone calling themselves "Loony Lefty":
I find this piece profoundly disturbing. Sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle choice”, it is a fundamental element of people’s self-identity. Describing it as a “lifestyle choice” is incredibly dismissive. 
And to advocate that we should cut Russia some slack because homophobia is part of their culture is not only deeply patronising, it is an entirely false argument. I grew up as an Afrikaner in Apartheid South Africa, where it was part of my culture to believe that black people were subhuman. Is that an acceptable belief? Absolutely not. It was part of my culture, but I’m sure (at least, I would hope!) that no-one on SU would have opposed our exclusion from international sport. And I somehow doubt that anyone here would have argued against our exclusion from the Olympics by arguing that black people in SA weren’t suffering on the scale of the Holocaust.

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