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By **Juan Cole**

Conservative religious fanatics lost on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and anti-gay discrimination. The scary thing is, that since it is clear that fear-mongering on gays will no longer win elections in the next generation, the turn to hate-mongering against Muslims may accelerate.

So the Senate has repealed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ the compromise policy on gays serving in the military.

The real question is why treatment of gays is such a hot button issue in the United States in the first place. Since America is a big island, only a third of Americans even have a passport, and US media carefully protects Americans from points of view emanating from abroad, most Americans would probably be surprised to discover that their country is an outlier among industrialized democracies in its treatment of gays.

If we take full marriage rights as a proxy for gay rights in general, then Argentina, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland are all heads and shoulders above federal US policy.

Gays can serve openly in the military in Russia, Ukraine, Canada, South Africa, Salvador, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Israel, Nepal, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and virtually all of Europe including the Balkans with the exceptions of Greece and Turkey.

Is there anything that would make sense of this world pattern? I can make three suggestions. First, gay rights, including marriage rights, have been implemented by some countries that suffered a long period of fascist or other authoritarian governance, and which rebelled against it. Franco’s fascist Spain, in place from 1936-1975, gave way to a new Spanish parliamentary regime and in recent years to Spanish socialism. Fascist regimes affected a macho heterosexual patriarchy and typically ruthlessly persecuted gays. Fascist regimes also often, being nativist, had a special relationship to the Church (yes, Hitler was a believing Catholic) and took cues on public morality from the remnants of the Inquisition. (This is by no means to deny that many conscientious Catholics and priests vigorously opposed fascism). In Franco’s Spain mere admission of being gay could lead to imprisonment, rape and torture.

Calvinist, Protestant regimes such as Apartheid South Africa were likewise highly oppressive, patriarchal and heterosexual. The hierarchical rightwing society, which placed adult men of the most favored race, at the top of the society, was challenged by any group that did not easily fit on the social ladder or who challenged its legitimacy. The Apartheid regime in South Africa

“South Africa’s apartheid army forced white lesbian and gay soldiers to undergo ‘sex-change’ operations in the 1970′s and the 1980′s, and submitted many to chemical castration, electric shock, and other unethical medical experiments. Although the exact number is not known, former apartheid army surgeons estimate that as many as 900 forced ‘sexual reassignment’ operations may have been performed between 1971 and 1989 at military hospitals, as part of a top-secret program to root out homosexuality from the service.&#822

Gay rights came to form part of a human-rights backlash against rightwing policies in South Africa, Spain and Argentina, then. Although it does not yet extend to full marriage rights, a residue of reaction against central European fascism informs the general European commitment to non-discrimination against gays.

If we take full marriage rights as a proxy for gay rights in general, then Argentina, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland are all heads and shoulders above federal US policy.

Second, gay rights are prominent in countries, as with Scandinavia, where there is a greater degree of gender equality and where women serve in large numbers in the legislatures. One suspects that just as anti-Apartheid activists saw an affinity between oppressed black Africans and discriminated-against gays, so Scandinavian feminists found a commonality with gays in confronting hetero male supremacism.

But third, and inescapably, religious fanaticism obviously plays a significant role in denying rights to gays. There is a direct relationship between rightwing Catholicism, rightwing evangelicalism, rightwing Hinduism, and rightwing Islam on the one hand, and discrimination against gays on the other.

Hindu India has been among the worst democratic countries for gay rights in modern history, and only in 2009 finally made it legal even to be gay (though it is still illegal to have a gay relationship!). Greece has a little-noted almost theocratic relationship at times with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Sri Lanka, obsessed by Theravada Buddhism, is like an island prison for gays, at least as far as the law goes. Despite widespread experimentation with gay sex in the Muslim world, which has an old history (half of the love poems in the Diwan of classic Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas are about young men), the public policies toward gays, shaped in part by the influence of the Muslim clergy, are among the worst in the world. And it is where the Church is strongest in the Catholic world that gays are treated worst.

Regional policy can also differ from national policy where one region of a country is more religious than another. And here we come to the United States. White, rightwing evangelicals have been among the most vocal opponents of gay rights in the United States (along with rightwing Catholics, African-American Protestants, and Mormons). Once the religious Right became politically active from the 1970s forward, and especially with the swing of white southern and western evangelicals to the Republican Party as a result of the Nixon Strategy in the aftermath of the enfranchisement of African-Americans, the Republican Party became a bastion of anti-gay policies and legislation, despite the significant gay constituency inside the party in the Northeast and the Bay Area of California.

Only six Republicans voted ‘yes’ in the procedural vote that allowed the DADT repeal to go forward in the Senate.

The Republican Party in the US is a coalition of groups, and ironically includes some relatively liberal factions (the Log Cabin Republicans, e.g., who sued over DADT). But religious ultra-conservatives are a key demographic for the party, and probably are growing in importance within it, according to Gallup. The ultra-conservatives are disproportionately white and committed Protestants (likely mostly evangelicals).

The mainstream Republican Party’s view on many social issues thus resembles that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties in the Muslim world far more than it does the ‘conservative’ parties of Scandinavia and continental Europe. Religion is a big part of the reason, but likely the other two factors play a role. Frankly, many American whites still have a hierarchical view of race and sexual identity in America, and many have relatively authoritarian views of governance-favoring the National Security State over individual rights, e.g.

As in Europe, where some far-right parties such as that of LePen in France that used to bait gays have recently posed as their defenders from Muslim immigrants, we can expect the American Right to play the same game. A plea here to progressive gays not to fall for it, and to American Muslims to stand for tolerance for other discriminated-against groups.

Copyright 2010 Juan Cole


Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for South Asian Studies. He maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

This post originally appeared at Juan Cole’s blog.

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