Is Homophobia the New Anti-Semitism?

On May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. That's why gay-rights activists chose May 17 for the International Day Against Homophobia, a worldwide series of events, now in its fourth year, designed to spotlight the terrible abuses gay and lesbian people face in much of the world. (In what might be seen as a prescient tribute to Larry Craig, it goes by the acronym IDAHO.) Even before this year's IDAHO began on Sunday, events in Moscow offered a lurid demonstration of why global homophobia needs our attention.

Moscow gay-rights activists had planned a march to coincide with the finale of the ultra-campy Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday. It was a brave and risky undertaking -- in the past, gay-rights demonstrators in Russia have been met with violence from both police and right-wing thugs. Moscow's mayor has called gay-rights marches "satanic," and his spokesperson told journalists that the activists threatened "not only to destroy the moral pillars of our society but also to deliberately provoke disorder, which would threaten the lives and security of Muscovites and guests of the city." The Independent reported that organizers hid out in a country house to avoid arrest in the days leading up to the march, then dodged police roadblocks to make it into the city.

In the end, the protest was quashed before it could begin. "The demonstration lasted for about a minute before the police set upon them from all sides, clambering through the shrubs and knocking news cameramen out of the way to seize the demonstrators, pin their arms behind their backs and drag them off into waiting buses and patrol wagons," reported the Los Angeles Times. Added The Telegraph, "Some activists were detained for doing little more than talking to reporters, including a female campaigner who had her glasses and shoes torn off and her dress pulled up above her waist as she was carried screaming into a bus." Far-right anti-gay demonstrators were allowed to have their own event elsewhere in the city.

As the organizers of IDAHO know, this kind of official repression is all too common. Opposition to homosexuality in conservative countries is, of course, nothing new. But right now, partly in response to the increasing visibility of gay rights in the West, we're seeing a ratcheting up of anti-gay demagoguery and persecution throughout the world.

The hatred comes in many guises and from many different directions. But there are some underlying themes, enough so that it's possible to talk about global homophobia as a single concept, akin to anti-Semitism. Indeed, worldwide, the rhetoric of homophobia recapitulates the tropes of classical Jew hatred. Gay people are seen as a subversive internal enemy with dangerous international connections. Even in places where they've been cowed into near invisibility, they're viewed as having an almost occult power. They represent modernism and cosmopolitanism, the bete noirs of every type of fundamentalism.

In part, global homophobia is a reaction to the great strides the gay-rights movement has made internationally. Almost every developed nation -- including, once Obama took office, the United States -- signed onto a recent United Nations declaration calling for the decrimalization of homosexuality worldwide. The European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights recognizes gay rights. In 2006, at a conference that led to the creation of the International Day Against Homophobia, Louise Arbour, then the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, denounced anti-gay legislation in forceful terms and dismissed the kind of cultural relativist arguments often used to justify repressive laws.

"In my view," she said, "respect for cultural diversity is insufficient to justify the existence of laws that violate the fundamental right to life, security, and privacy by criminalizing harmless private relations between consenting adults. Even when such laws are not actively enforced, or worse when they are arbitrarily enforced, their mere existence fosters an atmosphere of fear, silence, and denial of identity in which LGBT persons are confined."

Meanwhile, just as the gay-rights movement has been globalized, so has the religious opposition. "There are currently two major sources of homophobic thought globally," says Hossein Alizadeh, the Iranian-born communications coordinator of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "One is primarily Christian conservative movements that are mainly based in the United States. We see a lot of that fitting into the hatred and violence in Africa, the missionaries that go into different African countries and bring with them the message of hate. The second is Islamic fundamentalism."

In many Muslim countries, homosexuality is denounced as a decadent and imperialistic imposition. "Almost on a weekly basis you see there's some sort of article published in the Muslim world blaming the United Nations for promoting homosexuality and basically destroying the fabric of the society," Alizadeh says. Indeed, such rhetoric sometimes comes from the anti-colonialist left as well as the religious right. In a 2002 article on what he called the "Gay International," Columbia University professor Joseph Massad presented the global gay-rights movement as an instrument of Western hegemony. "Following in the footsteps of the white Western women's movement, which had sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women's movements in the non-Western world … the gay movement has adopted a similar missionary role," he wrote.

In Iraq, the scapegoating of gays and lesbians as agents of the West has been particularly deadly. "The country was invaded back in 2003, and ever since then things have been going south rather than getting better," Alizadeh says. "People have to blame somebody, and gays seem to be the easiest target. There are lots of comments about how homosexuality did not exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. People think the least they can do in order to protect their culture is just to go after gay people and kill them."

Terrible abuses of gays and lesbians are certainly not limited to the Muslim world. In Africa, despite the near-invisibility of gay people on much of the continent, there's a full-blown gay panic underway, much of it stoked by evangelicals with ties to the American right. Last month, Burundi passed draconian anti-gay legislation, making gay sex punishable by up to two years in prison. Nigeria is currently considering a bill that would criminalize the "coming together of persons of the same sex with the purpose of leaving [sic] together as husband and wife or for other purposes of same sexual relationship." In Uganda, where same-sex relations are already punishable by life in prison, Christian-right organizations have been accusing homosexuals of "recruitment," leading to calls for even more punitive anti-gay legislation.

Scott Lively, a key figure in the global anti-gay movement, spoke in Uganda in March. Indeed, wherever one sees really furious Christian anti-gay activism, one often sees his name. Lively is the co-author of a book called The Pink Swastika, which posits that Nazism was a homosexual movement and that the modern gay-rights movement is its direct descendent. He's also written a book called The Poisoned Stream, a kind of anti-gay Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which traces the machinations of "a dark and powerful homosexual presence" through "the Spanish Inquisition, the French 'Reign of Terror,' the era of South African apartheid, and the two centuries of American Slavery."

Lively has been particularly influential in the former Soviet Union. "The Pink Swastika has become Lively's passport to fame among anti-gay church leaders and their followers in Eastern Europe, as well as Russian-speaking anti-gay activists in America," reported the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007. "Lively frequently speaks about the book and his broader anti-gay agenda in churches, police academies, and television news studios throughout the former Soviet Union."

Lively is close to Pastor Alexey Ledyaev, whose New Generation Church, an influential megachurch based in Riga, Latvia, has satellites all over the region. As the SPLC reported, he's known for staging large-scale Christian rock operas "replete with lasers, smoke machines, and spandex-clad actors in ghoulish makeup. One of the rock operas, which young Russian-speaking anti-gay activists promote on video-sharing web sites, features a hero character wearing a tuxedo battling men in black tights armed with tiki torches. Over heavy-metal guitar riffs, a military-like chorus sings of ‘victory over the gays.'"

This aggressive, even obsessive homophobia, more than simple religious traditionalism, is the context for the violence in Moscow on Saturday. Anti-gay bigotry, like anti-Semitism, has its local particularities everywhere it surfaces, but it's also increasingly part of a bigger phenomenon, one knit together by overarching conspiracy theories. The activists behind IDAHO have made an important start in publicizing the international character of the problem. Worldwide, those most fervently opposed to gay rights are organizing across borders. The people standing up to them need to do so as well.