The 2014 Winter Olympics are soon to be upon us, which puts Russia, its host, under a media microscope. For the past year news media around the globe has been discussing Russia’s readiness to accommodate the thousands of international athletes and tourists that will flood Sochi Winter Resort this February. Recently, however, the topic of social discussion around Russia is not its ten billion dollar Olympic spending budget, but rather a more controversial issue of its widespread homophobia.
On June 30th the Russian parliament passed a bill banning distribution of homosexual propaganda to children, which was later signed into power by President Vladimir Putin. This law imposes a fine of up to $150 on individuals engaging in such propaganda, as well as fines of up to $22,000 for distribution by public organizations. This law has sparked a wave of protests across the globe, with international media framing Russia as widely homophobic.
So what is this law really about? According to Russian officials, this is about protecting children from exposure to propagandizing information, which could potentially be a bad influence on their still developing character, personality, and sense of morality. On the other hand western LGBT right’s advocates, see this law in a completely different light. According to them, this law is yet another attack by the Russian government on the individual rights and freedoms of Russian LGBT citizens. In addition, from a legal standpoint, this law is rather shady, due to its broad and rather vague legal definition of homosexual propaganda.
Is this truely a story of evil government munching away on the individual freedoms of its citizens? The average reader of this newspaper would definitively agree, but if this article was being published in a university newspaper in Russia, an average reader would disagree. This reminds me of heads and tails on a coin. One is the direct opposite of the other, yet both exist, at the same time, but why?
First let’s look into public opinion on homosexuality here in U.S. The topic of homosexuality had largely been taboo in the beginning of the 20th century with the public’s support for the cause being non-existent. Over the course of the entire century, the U.S. gay community has fought tirelessly in order to sway the public’s opinion in its favor, gaining substantial advances in rights for gay individuals. American society has significantly changed its opinion on the issue, with 55% of Americans claiming support of rights such as gay marriage according to the recent polls. If we look at Northern Europe, countries like Norway and Sweden, gay citizens have even greater freedoms and rights there, with Western Europe following closely behind.
Now we must investigate Russia and its public’s opinion. Homosexuality has been a topic non grata there up until the beginning of 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union. To this day, the majority of Russian citizens view homosexuality as immoral and unhealthy. Recent polls show that 74% of the Russian public is against any acceptance of homosexuality in the society with only 16% being supportive of it and the rest undecided.
The true question in this dispute is why there is such a compelling difference in opinion. One of the reasons is that the Russian public has not had as much time to discuss this issue, and therefore think differently. Remember that the US has come a long way on the issue since the beginning of the 20th century. Russia is just beginning its journey on the path to acceptance of homosexuality.
However, there is a much deeper and fundamental reason – culture. Russian culture and society is more collectivist in nature, and believes that it is the responsibility of citizens to help society benefit as a whole and therefore progress. This is directly opposite of individualist American society where people believe that society’s job is to bolster the power of each individual, in order to advance. The specifics of their culture make Russians put the needs of the whole above the needs of a few. Therefore in the eyes of the Russian public it is acceptable to deprive homosexuals of their rights until it serves the needs of society.
Then how does this homophobic law serve the needs of Russian society? Well the Russian belief system on the issue is also different. People truly believe that homosexuality is a learned and acquired behavior that deviates from the norm. Whether that is true is another topic and possibly a 100 page dissertation. The reality is that Russians believe in this and they act upon their belief and try, in their opinion, to minimize the odds of children growing up gay and deviating from what is viewed as “healthy.”
At the end of the day, this issue is about social opinions and sociology, and as we all know, when it comes to social interaction, nothing is set in stone and change over time and only history can show who was right and who was wrong. Today Russia plays by a different set of rules than the West. It is just like the two sides of a coin, here two fundamentally opposing sides manage to coexist.