Homophobia as part of traditional culture?

(I found this post from July in my ‘drafts’ folder, and don’t seem to have ever pressed [Post] on it for some reason. Oops! It’s kind of an important issue.)

One problem with recent English-language coverage of homophobia in Russia is the tendency to attribute anti-LGBT violence simply to “traditional attitudes,” which in the first place reinforces the religious-nationalists’ own claim to tradition and authentic Russian identity. “Tradition” is, of course, not a fact but an argument for legitimacy, one which is made from moment to moment. We establish certain practices or ideas or objects as part of “tradition” by saying so, more or less. The more people repeat the idea, take it up on their own, teach it to their children or place it in museums, the more that claim is successful [1]. But it never stops being a claim, and it’s always (at least potentially) up for debate.¬†So in the first place, journalists are not obligated to pass along the claim that homophobia is part of “traditional” Russian culture.

In the second place, like any part of culture, “traditional” attitudes are not only able to change, but constantly do. The polling organization VTsIOM has been taking periodic surveys, and the results here are interesting:

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How should the government and society react to non-traditional [that word again!] sexual orientation? The top line (“It should be a criminal offense, including imprisonment”) was in decline from 2005 (23%) to 2007 (19%), until it shot up to 42% support in 2013.¬†Interestingly, in 2005 the most popular answer (34%) was “The government and society shouldn’t get involved in it, this is a personal matter for each individual.” But by 2013, only 15% of respondents thought homosexuality was a private matter.

It’s a complex issue, and clearly there’s a lot going on here. But interpreting negative attitudes toward LGBT people as an expression of Russian “tradition” doesn’t really fly.

[1] Hobsbawm and Ranger’s 1983 The Invention of Tradition is of course the classic text on this subject.

On protest without risk

This post last week by NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni didn’t get a lot of traction, but it caught my attention because it illustrates an approach to protest that is fairly widespread.¬†

Bruni describes a campaign/fashion line by Alexander Wang, Principle 6, which refers to Principle 6 of the Olympics charter:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,
religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic

Olympics participants/spectators are to buy clothing with a “P6” graphic as a visible reference to this principle. According to Bruni, this is a way “to get spectators and athletes in Sochi to register their opposition to outrageously repressive, regressive anti-gay laws in Russia without running afoul of one of them.” Continue reading