Photo by Aleksey Nikolskyi/AFP/Getty ImagesMy Bubbie and Zada used to tell me my gentile friends wouldn’t hide me in another Holocaust. I like to think they were wrong (and that there won’t be another Holocaust). But that won’t stop me from invoking their wise spirit with a warning to conservative pundit Mary Matalin’s gay friends: She won’t hide you in a gay Holocaust.
The famously crabby GOP strategist shrugged off a growing human-rights crisis in Russia on Sunday with a glib dismissal of even discussing the anti-gay policy and violence there, just as the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games have finally brought much-needed mainstream media coverage to the problem. “I’m so sick of sports and politics,” she complained in response to questions from George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s This Week. Her bottom line? “All of my gay friends think [Putin] looks so buff in his shirtless publicity photos.” Mustering the ghosts of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she asked about Putin, “Why is he even talking about this?” even though the obvious answer was that Putin was talking about it because Stephanopoulos had, quite properly, asked him about it, and later asked her too.
It was difficult to make out if Matalin was quoting someone else, but the intent of her comments was clear, and despicable: All this talk of gay suffering is boring, unimportant, and makes lots of us feel icky (the gay part, not the fact that they’re being persecuted), and the only response is not to clearly condemn it but to vomit out a gay stereotype such as the one about how gays only care about how men look shirtless—indeed, they can only see flesh and muscle even when a major country is unleashing a concerted campaign to vilify and dehumanize their people for political gain, giving the green light to mob violence.
This sort of response illustrates precisely why the head-in-the-sand, “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach can be dangerous and even deadly. The developments in Russia that Matalin was laughing off were a string of provisions passed last year—and their violent consequences—that punishes promotion or even discussion of homosexuality in a broadly defined set of scenarios. No, what’s happening there is not the Holocaust. But many observers have noted the eerie influence of the Nazi playbook, including the singling out of an unpopular minority for dehumanizing treatment, a campaign of terror unleashed by punitive laws and tough talk, and an autocratic leader’s use of blatant scapegoating to consolidate power and distract voters from his failed policies. And just as with America’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the result of the law’s passage was an uptick in violence and harassment against gays and lesbians.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the Russian campaign against sexual minorities also has eerie echoes of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: A law singles out a despised group for punitive treatment and then prohibits that group from speaking up to defend itself. That’s what makes Matalin’s dismissal of a journalist’s effort to ask pointed questions about the matter so maddening. And the taboo against even talking about homosexuality in polite company is a pattern all too familiar to American conservatism. Indeed, Matalin was not alone in in her dismissal of anti-gay persecution as unimportant. On the very same panel yesterday, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan exhibited clear relief when Stephanopoulos turned the focus away from gays and back to terrorism, saying “Oh, yes, that of course is the great issue that will overwhelm what we have been talking about”—as if she couldn’t stand to hear or utter a single word about something as small and awkward as gay suffering.
The taboo against even discussing homosexuality—particularly if the silence enables violence—provides an embarrassing link between American conservatism and Russian autocracy that must be called out for what it is: an abdication of the kind of moral responsibility that conservatives used to (and still try to) claim as their mantle.
Just so we’re absolutely clear on what the conservatives on the panel found too small and laughable to talk about: Laws passed last year in Russia ban any speech or writing “aimed at forming non-traditional sexual orientations, the attraction of non-traditional sexual relations, distorted conceptions of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations among minors, or imposing information on non-traditional sexual relations which evoke interest in these kinds of relations.” As the bill was being debated, gay protesters were attacked by a mob of anti-gay thugs and then detained by police. Around the same time, a 23-year-old Russian was brutally beaten and murdered after coming out to “friends,” his genitals and head smashed with beer bottles and rocks, his clothing set ablaze.
As a result of the law, tourists have been arrested just for discussing homosexuality. In the months after its passage, the Guardian reported an upsurge in anti-gay violence across the country. Hate groups have lured gay people to unsafe areas where they are violated and humiliated—sometimes on camera—including having urine thrown on them, a historic mark of the kinds of dehumanizing campaigns practiced by the Nazis. Last fall, two men went on a shooting spree in a gay club in Moscow. The next week, the same club was attacked with poison gas.
Russian lawmakers have loudly accused gay people of threatening the country’s birthrate and proposed they be purged from government jobs, forced to get medical treatment, and even banned from the country (and at least two journalists have been fired for being gay). Putin himself, who insists that the law “does not hurt anyone” and that gays “are not discriminated against in any way” in Russia said last week that gay people would be safe at the Olympics next month but to “just leave kids alone please,” a wholly unveiled reference to gays being pedophiles.
The result of what’s clearly an official effort to villainize gay people has been a collective experience of terror, secrecy, shame, silence, and in some cases expatriation. And the Russian parliament, which also passed a law banning adoption of Russian children to gay foreigners, is now considering whether to pass additional laws that would strip Russians of their parenting rights if they are found to be gay.
This is what Mary Matalin tried to laugh off on American television yesterday with a crude and unfunny joke. Putin has promised that “none of our guests will have any problems” at the Olympics because of the law. That’s not terribly comforting, given the impossibility of quelling mob violence historically spurred by these kinds of hate campaigns. But it’s easy enough to suspend enforcement of a law when all the world is watching; the bigger problem is what happens after everyone’s gone home and the cameras are shut off. To Mary Matalin’s gay friends, if you exist, please help her understand just why it’s important to talk about a growing national campaign to persecute a despised minority in Europe. Meanwhile, please don’t run to Mary in a pinch.
Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind.