Editor's Note: Guest blogger Dr. Heather W. Hackman taught in higher education for 20 years. She recently retired from her tenured position to form Hackman Consulting Group and consult full-time on deep diversity, equity and social justice issues.
In the aftermath of the 2014 Winter Olympics, with its ceremonies and medal counts, I would like to take a moment to comment on the ferocity of Russia's homophobia and its deep connection with that country's ongoing nation-building.
Through vehicles such as the strategic expansion of its hydrocarbon holdings and the rising importance of that commodity on the world stage, the increasing power of Russia in the United Nations, and Vladimir Putin's desire to form a parallel "union" of Western Asian and Eastern European states that would rival the European Union in its reach and power, Russia is ceaselessly working to position itself as a major 21st-century power. To do this, however, Vladimir Putin needs not only the structural capacity (political, economic, or military) to carry out his plan, but also the ideological justification for doing so. This is where homophobia enters the picture.
I am not convinced that Mr. Putin cares any more or less about LBGTQI folks than did Karl Rove. Instead, it seems that he sees homophobia as an ideological support for his nationalist ideas and particularly his expansionist nation-building in Asia and Europe.
To be sure, Karl Rove is no longer spending his time fighting against "the gays." But during the George W. Bush years he viewed homophobic legislation as a way to drive conservatives to the polls during the 2004 and 2006 elections, which were sure to be close. What Rove knew was that he had to spin the ballot initiatives not as "hate the gays" legislation, but rather as "protect the family" legislation.
In this way, Rove was playing on one of the most long-standing rationales for colonization, "Westward Expansion," and increased militarism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world: the "ever-increasing needs of the growing American family". In this line of thinking the "American family" (read: heterosexual, white, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, etc. -- think a Norman Rockwell painting) is the vessel into which all ideas of what it means to be an "American" are poured, whereby the protection of this heteronormative "nuclear family" is equated with the protection of America itself.
The end result is that anything perceived as a threat to this family must go, and conversely anything that aids the growth of this family must be supported. Rove astutely saw this and played this card beautifully to the benefit of the Republican Party in 2004 and 2006.
This ideology is so deeply rooted that many of the voters themselves had no idea what was happening - national queer organizations did exit polling in 2004 and 2006 and found that in some states where there were anti-LBGTQI ballot initiatives, voters demonstrated some peculiar contradictions.
First, they were asked how they voted on the initiative. Those who voted to "protect marriage" were then asked something to the effect of "do you think gay and lesbian Americans should have equal rights under the U.S. constitution?" Just over 75% of those same "protect marriage" people said "yes" to equal rights.
Bizarre, right? They just voted to deny equal rights and enshrine that in their state's constitution, but also felt LBGTQI folks should basically be equal. This happened because Rove played to their homophobia, and partially because those ballots were worded in a way of "defending" marriage. It also happened because the "American family" (the "American Dream", the "American Promise" -- pick your platitude) is decidedly heteronormative and so the identity of this ever-expanding nation and the family that we are "safeguarding" through our expansion is a heterosexual one.
So any change in the heteronormative nuclear family, like LBGTQI people getting married, marks a potential weakening of the justification for U.S. expansion economically, politically, and ideologically.
As we turned our attention these last two weeks to Russia and the Olympic Games, we saw the same tired old process just under the skin of Putin's "protect Russia" rhetoric. The same three flavors of the homophobic argument were there -- being gay is a crime against God, a crime against nature, and a crime against society -- the same police-state reaction to LBGTQI people was there, and the same economic and political moment was there.
In short, Putin was shoring up his ideological power base in order to enact his larger vision of Mother Russia precisely as the global landscape of economic and political power shifts from West to East. Unfortunately, U.S. mainstream media has been so anemic in its analysis of this (and is perhaps still sloshing around in "Rovism") that it could not offer anything more than a cursory glance at Russian homophobia, while others simply chose not to cover it at all. Those non-mainstream outlets that did cover it stuck to the "end homophobia" storyline at the exclusion of a deeper look.
What I would like to have seen is the cover drawn back and a more cogent and comprehensive analysis offered so that we can stop using homophobia as a tool for nation-building, whether it be in Russia, the United States, Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, or India. (It should be noted that many of these countries are putting forth their homophobic legislation at the behest of white Western Christian evangelicals and therefore the nuanced yet corrosive nature of Western colonialism can still be found in these countries' laws despite their strong self-identification as post-colonial nations.)
Importantly, I am not talking about generalized societal homophobia the likes of which can be found anywhere rigid gender roles are constructed, codified and enforced. I'm talking about the ways homophobia is being enshrined in policy and used as a political tool. For example, Latin American countries like Peru, Argentina, and Brazil have horrible statistics when it comes to societal violence against LBGTQI people, but have also enacted some legislative protections for queer folks.
It's about individual homophobia, it's about state-sanctioned homophobia and the deeper, colonial purpose it serves. And in this sense, Putin has been playing right along with his global contemporaries who are using it to the same effect.
The solution to this weaponizing of homophobia, in Russia and elsewhere, manifests on several fronts: local grassroots organizing (already happening in Russia with courage and clarity), support from international organizations for those grassroots organizers (also already happening but with more presence needed), economic penalties for countries who engage in such homophobic legislating (weak at best via international relief funds), and political pressure from the international community to expose the true motives of those countries and to marginalize them if they do not change their tactics (not happening enough).
To be sure, the reduction of this to a "gay rights" issue not only minimizes what is really happening, but in fact miscasts what the role of the international community needs to be in response. Yes, we must immediately stop the homophobia and violence toward queer folks in Russia and elsewhere. But in a deeper sense, we need to stop the use of homophobia and homophobic attacks on the LGBTQI community (and the subsequent lauding of heteronormativity) as a weapon by which leaders justify their colonial, expansionist policies. In this way the effort for queer rights is indeed a struggle for global, human rights.