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Are we really wedded to gay rights?

For British gay rights campaigners, 2014 already looks like a year to remember. England and Wales will join the small club of nations that allow same-sex couples to marry. Meanwhile, the Sochi winter Olympics have sparked global outrage against Russian homophobia. Surely reasons to celebrate?

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Photo courtesy of Purple Sherbert Photography
Photo courtesy of Purple Sherbert Photography

Not according to two Yale Law professors. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Ian Ayres and William Eskridge blast US hypocrisy over Russia’s anti-gay legislation. They highlight eight US states that maintain laws against ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Similar cries of Western hypocrisy have surfaced in the Guardian and The Spectator.

Ayres and Eskridge rightly debunk tidy distinctions between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’.  In France last year, hostile right wing groups dispelled any illusions about tolerance when they turned same-sex marriage into the symbol for everything wrong with Europe today.

Meanwhile, bullying is behind a disproportionately high numbers of gay teens suicides in Britain and other Western European countries.

But there’s a problem with Ayres and Eskridge’s argument.  If we wish to compare Russia with the West, it’s not enough merely to draw up checklists of our respective laws. Far more important are the cultural contexts in which those laws operate.

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, anti-gay violence is soaring hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, anti-Roma brutality, and Nazi-type militancy. These minorities are tarred with old accusations of undermining the nation, contaminating it with ‘foreign’ influences.  They live in fear of both public and private violence.

‘These are growing pains of new democracies’ is a common view in the West.  But many Eastern Europeans roll their eyes at such condescension. More than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, their officials use that same tired excuse to masque endemic corruption and incompetence.

Ayres and Eskridge rightly warn that gay communities in Texas or Alabama are, sadly, unlikely to live, for now, without prejudice. On the whole, however, rights are progressing in the West in ways far beyond the reach of sexual minorities in Russia, Nigeria, India, Uganda or Iran. 

If we had to choose between launching the next same-sex marriage campaign in conservative Dallas or autocratic Moscow, few of us would pick Vladimir Putin’s backyard.

Yes, we must certainly guard against hypocrisy.  The West is far from perfect in its outlook and record.  But those shortcomings should not be used as an excuse to ignore, or withhold help for, vulnerable minorities in the rest of the world who are reaching out for support and solidarity.

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law and Humanities in the School of Law.

The first same sex weddings in England and Wales will be able to take place from Saturday 29 March 2014.

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