Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president of Iran, famously made an unholy spectacle of himself in a 2007 speech at Columbia University when he asserted, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”
Today in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is trying to make this literally true.
As part of a broader crackdown on gay rights activities of various sorts, Russia recently passed a law against “homosexual propaganda,” making it illegal to “spread information about non-traditional sexual behavior” to children under 18 years old. Transgressors will be penalized with heavy fines, and violators from other countries will be subject to deportation.
This “propaganda” legislation joins similar measures against public homosexuality in the Russian Federation, such as the prohibition on foreign same-sex couples adopting Russian children, as well as the general practice by Russian police to break up gay rights marches and demonstrations, often violently, and detaining some of their participants.
As well, assaults on gay Russians by straight Russians have run rampant in the country for a long time. Anti-gay sentiment apparently cuts wide and deep, with 88 percent of the public giving the new “propaganda” law a thumbs-up, according to a state-run polling organization. (The trustworthiness of such opinion-gathering outfits is in some dispute, but one suspects this one is not too far off.)
Here in America, most of this official anti-gay policy strikes us as positively barbaric, and is no longer tolerated in our open, pluralistic culture.
Or is it?
Reading about the “propaganda” law, I could not help but be reminded of the kerfuffle in Tennessee at the beginning of this year over what came to be known as the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’ bill.” Proposed by State Senator Stacey Campfield, the bill, if passed, would have effectively banished all discussion of homosexuality in the state’s elementary schools.
“At grade levels pre-K through eight,” the bill stipulated, “any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.”
Sound familiar? Is there any part of that sentence of which Vladimir Putin would not approve?
This is not to say that Tennessee is as bad on gay rights as Russia, per se. Campfield’s bill never actually passed muster in either house of the state’s legislature, having died in committee. Further, no American state government is systematically rounding up pro-gay rights agitators as they regularly are under the Putin regime and in many other hell holes around the world, particularly in Africa.
What should nonetheless command our attention here in the states—the one way in which the shenanigans in Tennessee mirror the shenanigans in Russia—is the leading role that language plays in the battle over gay civil rights around the world.
The central irony of the new “propaganda” law—unmistakable and essential—is how it is, itself, an exercise in propaganda.
While everyone with any sense knows that homosexuality in some Homo sapiens is an objective fact of life that cannot simply be wished away, this legislation seeks to do precisely that.
In a Russia whose population has flatlined in the last several decades, where the prospect of insufficient occurrences of heterosexual congress presents as an existential threat, homosexual intimacy can reasonably be seen (by the homophobia-inclined) as slightly beside the point.
The Russian government has been actively encouraging procreative sex for years. In this way, the “propaganda” law can be seen as complementary and then some—a means not merely to discourage one form of non-procreative sex, but to deny its very existence.
Conceivably, this would make sense if human sexuality was a choice, as some apparently still believe, and homosexual relations were merely a form of rebellion against social mores, as some apparently also still believe.
The problem is that this is not the case. Homosexuality exists whether a government wants it to or not, which means any attempt to argue or legislate to the contrary will ultimately be futile and subject to the sort of ridicule President Ahmadinejad faced when he suggested Iran was immune to the gay germ.
“Don’t Say ‘Gay’” policies are not merely an affront to gay people, you see, but an affront to truth.
Not unlike neo-Nazi denial of the Holocaust or Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, they are an attempt not to attack a particular group of people, but rather to delegitimize them outright by withholding from them the most basic component of human dignity: Acknowledging that they exist at all.