Vladimir Putin can probably point to Fontbonne Academy and wonder about the criticism directed at Russia when gay people are refused jobs in America. The Catholic girls’ school just reneged on a promised appointment as its food services director when it learned the applicant, Michael Barrett, was married to another man. A lengthy explanation to Putin about church and state and the difference between private and government action would likely fall on deaf ears. The upshot, he might note, is you still discriminate.
The Sochi Olympics are in full swing, the first Olympics held in the country since the embarrassing games of 1980 — games the United States and other nations boycotted, rendering them a footnote to history. It’s not going so well this year, either. Sochi opened with shoddy construction, security worries, spectacular cost overruns, shootings of stray dogs — and widespread criticism over the nation’s treatment of gays. A recently passed law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” has provoked an outcry and demands that the United States do something — anything — to push back.
Such stuff isn’t new from the Russians. A number of years ago I visited the country when it was still the USSR. On a tour of Moscow’s churches, I asked our guide why religion was prohibited in the communist state. She adamantly disagreed. Anyone is free to practice religion, she said. “You just can’t talk about it,” and especially, she said, not to children.
Religion back then. Sexual orientation today.
All of this seems to have caught Putin by surprise, and one can understand why. After all, it was only in 2011 that the United States finally repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy that discharged 13,000-plus men and women from the services not because of anything they did but rather merely for who they were. Even today, 33 states have defense of marriage laws on the books; 29 of those have them written into their constitutions. Most states still permit discrimination against gays when it comes to housing, adoption, and even treatment of gay students. And as some gay advocates observe, a number of US states have laws reminiscent of those in Russia. Alabama, for example, requires that sex ed classes teach “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” Arizona prohibits any lessons that portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle.”
So really, who are we to talk? “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye,” says Jesus in Matthew. Putin, Biblical scholar that he is, made essentially the same argument when he told George Stephanopoulos, “as they try to criticize us, they would do well to set their own house in order first.”
Moreover, why the focus on Russia when there are so many other countries out there — 78 by one recent count — where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death? Then, too, why during the Olympics, which should be about the purity of sport and human endeavor? Politics, one would think, should be left at home.
If so, that’s probably a first. There’s always a political undercurrent to the Olympics, sometimes overtly so. The 1936 Olympic Games were about Aryan superiority, neatly undercut by black American Jesse Owens’s four gold medals. The 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing were an occasion for China to open its doors to the world. And this year, the Russians clearly see the games as a chance for redemption, a moment to prove themselves equals on the world stage.
The Biblical beam-in-the-eye injunction can be taken too far. No country and no individual is perfect, and if we demanded perfection before anyone could voice criticism, then criticism would never be voiced and nothing would ever be accomplished. The Olympics represent a signal opportunity to advance human rights and the United States as well as its athletes, media, and thousands of Sochi visitors, have an opening to put Russia on the spot. I hope they do. Putin is undoubtedly taken aback at the rapid evolution of attitudes toward gays — from pariahs to equals in a remarkably short span of time — but that, in a sense, is the price of membership in the civilized world.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.