Kyle James Rohrich
In response to the United States’ recent Supreme Court ruling to make marriage equality law of the land, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party offered their rebuttal by unveiling a so-called “straight pride” flag depicting a man and a woman with three children. Per this “traditional values” ideology, the very existence of sexual minorities is a threat to what social conservatives depict as the Russian “traditional” family.
“Straight pride” is a new element of Putin’s increasingly prominent “traditional values” narrative, a conservative credo that Putin seeks to establish as his government’s new ideology aiming at both the Russians and anti-Western or conservative sympathizers abroad. As Russia’s first consistent political narrative since the fall of the Soviet Union, the “traditional values” sells well to an increasingly religious populace suffering among other things from a national identity crisis for most of its post-Soviet existence.
Toward establishing a new national narrative, Russian leadership has marginalized a variety of identity groups to rile popular support: Central Asian migrants, feminists, and Euro-sympathizers. However, Putin pulled a winning ticket by putting LGBTI rights in the center of Russia’s new ideological crusade. By taking a stance for so-called “traditional values” in an era where Western governments began to lobby for LGBTI rights internationally, Putin doubled the gains on his political capital. Not only did he garner support of social conservatives opposed to LGBTI rights, but also he rallied Russia’s anti-American base by casting American LGBTI rights promotion as a form of cultural imperialism responsible for “regression, barbarity, and extensive bloodshed.” Social conservatism, Putin argued, was a bulwark against American attempts to promote a human rights model that would allegedly drag Russia into the same fate as countries such as Syria. With Russians fearing a return to instability of the tumultuous decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin’s message rang loud and clear.
Since Putin adopted the “traditional values” doctrine in 2013, he has promoted the ideology beyond the borders of the Russian Federation to pull homophobic populations into Russia’s geopolitical orbit. In this “World War LGBT,” Putin uses Russia’s newfound “traditional values” ideology instrumentally to rally grassroots support particularly in those countries he views as part of the country’s “near abroad”—namely, the former communist bloc of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. As Ukrainians flocked to Kyiv’s Maidan Square to protest in 2013, Putin referred to the scene as the “Gayeuromaidan,” fusing the concepts of “gay” and “European” in the minds of Ukrainians who may be sympathetic to Europe but oppose LGBTI rights. More recently, Putin has targeted the citizenship of Moldova, a former Soviet republic that signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. In this religious and conservative country, Russian propaganda has suggested that Moldova’s continued orientation toward Europe would among other things “turn everyone gay.”
“Straight pride” is the latest nuance to Putin’s geo-ideological campaign beyond Russian borders, winning the support of social conservative and hetero-nationalist masses within geostrategic Eurasian countries. As LGBTI rights activists in Georgia sought to publicly mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) in May 2015, the generally pro-European Georgian government instead issued permits to the Georgian Orthodox Church, which had organized a festival for the second year in a row centered on children and the traditional family. Beginning one year to the day after thousands of Orthodox fanatics violently attacked LGBTI activists during the country’s first IDAHOT event, the Church established this “pro-family” festival as a new annual holiday to drown out the voice of LGBTI activists. Although the allegedly secular festival ultimately took place in a church, the Church with the support of the Georgian government effectively precluded LGBTI activists from accessing the most public spaces in Tbilisi to raise awareness about violence against LGBTI individuals.
As hetero-nationalists and social conservatives lash out against LGBTI rights from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, Putin’s political party unveiled a “straight pride” flag as yet another attempt to legitimize his claim that Russia is a beacon of “traditional values”, a counter-ideology to Western liberalism. However, Russia has among the world’s highest rates of abortions, divorces, and single parenthood; the “modern family” depicted on United Russia’s straight pride flag would be more accurately represented by a single mother with one child as opposed to a full nuclear family. This discrepancy between real and ideal demonstrates that Putin and his followers are not actually out to defend anything. For Putin, “straight pride” and “traditional values” are smoke and mirrors for more important goals, including building a Russian-led counterweight to Europe at the expense of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people caught in the geopolitical crossfire.