On one side of the great divide, the past few days have been revolutionary. France became the 14th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, eight years after Canada did. Rhode Island became the 10th U.S. state to do so, in a fast-changing America where six out of 10 citizens, and more than 80 per cent of those under 30, now believe that marriage should be open to all and that gays are fully equal. As if to symbolize this change, Americans, including their president, gave warm blessings to the coming out of a major-league basketball player.
On the other side of the divide, it’s grim. In Uganda, a notorious “anti-homosexuality” law, which includes harsh sentences for “aggravated” homosexuality, is working its way through parliament along with crackdowns that have resulted in the death of a protester. Ethiopia is facing strong pressure to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality. In Russia, a law banning “homosexual propaganda” appears poised to pass in the Duma. It’s sufficiently vague, Russian activists and writers tell me, that it could (and certainly would) be used to silence, imprison or banish any dissident figures who happen to be gay or even tolerant. A similar law is in the works in Ukraine.
Viewed from this perspective, the world seems to be splitting in two. On one side, there’s been a startlingly swift and uncontroversial shift of mainstream public opinion recognizing gays as being simply another legitimate category of being human (rather than an illness, an abomination or a “lifestyle choice”). A decade ago, this was a minority opinion in most Western countries; now it’s held by strong majorities in North America and Europe – a cultural transformation even more rapid than the one that transformed mainstream opinions about women and racial minorities a generation earlier.
This has led us to jump to an easy conclusion about the other side of the divide: The less privileged countries of the global East and South are trapped in attitudes the West has escaped, and have yet to achieve enlightenment. Or, from another perspective: The notion of gay equality, along with feminism, is alien to these cultures and its appearance is a product of “Western liberalism,” and advocates of these ideas within Asia and Africa are victims of imperialism or agents of Western influence. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister, Simon Lokodo, have both expressed this view and their governments have used it as a rationale to expel organizations that endorse gay rights.
It sounds plausible: After all, haven’t these countries been victims of Western meddling and outright colonialism in the past? But look again. The condemnation of homosexuals is not part of the cultural traditions of Russia, Uganda or most of the countries that have taken an anti-gay turn in recent years. Russia has had fairly robust gay-rights laws on its books in recent decades. The new anti-gay cultural movements haven’t emerged from widespread public belief – rather, they’ve largely been imported by mainly U.S.-based Western conservative and Christian groups that have made it a mission to prevent same-sex equality in the developing world now that their efforts to do so in their own countries have failed.
Anger and fear of homosexuality are products of 19th-century Western thought – this is why the harshest penalties for homosexuality are found in Commonwealth nations. The adoption of these ideas by Muslim figures in Iran, Egypt and Pakistan is a 20th-century product of cross-cultural influence.
In both Uganda and Russia, influential evangelical organizations have played the main role in spreading anti-gay ideas among politicians, churches and media figures. In Uganda, it was one American pastor, Scott Lively, who almost single-handedly created the anti-homosexuality movement in 2009.
What’s actually happening, in the wider world, is a near-simultaneous shift toward acceptance of gays. The most recent World Values Survey, a massive multi-country poll, shows that those who believe homosexuality is “never tolerable” fell from 59 per cent in 1993 to 34 per cent in 2006. By no means was this just Western: In India during those years, anti-gay sentiment fell by a quarter; in China, by a third.
The world isn’t divided over gay rights. It’s merely threatened by those who’d like us to believe it is.