In a recent rant, Russian President and brutal dictator Vladimir Putin railed against those oligarchs who NATO is targeting with economic sanctions in an attempt to weaken their support for Putin, referring to them as those “who can’t get by oysters or foie gras or so-called ‘gender freedoms’” and who are not really with Russia, living in villas in Miami or the French Riviera.
While one headline characterized Putin’s words as a “rant,” suggesting something wild or off-kilter about his comments, we should recognize that these supposedly crazy ramblings of an out-of-control murderous tyrant actually pass for mainstream talking points in the US Republican Party.
Ok, well, you might never hear members of the GOP rail against the wealthy feasting upon oysters or foie gras, attacking so-called “gender freedom” in their assaults on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, non-binary, and transgender Americans is not just commonplace, it’s downright abounding in terroristic legislation across the nation.
We can certainly point to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, also called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” as one example—a bill that for all intents and purposes seeks to gag teachers from talking about, even mentioning, different sexual orientations and gender identities in early grades.
And, of course, this hatred of those seeking “gender freedom” seeped its way into the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanjie Brown Jackson when the Republican Senator from Tennessee Marsha Blackburn asked Jackson if she could define “woman.” Jackson declined to define the term on the grounds that she is not a biologist, but the point of the question, to be sure, was to call out those who counter the extreme though mainstream GOP talking point that there are only gender and sexual identities : heterosexual man and heterosexual woman.
As I’ve written about before in the pages of PoliticusUSA, In the terms of both science and poetry, this GOP talking point is just downright wrong and harmfully ignorant. We of course know, for example, when it comes to biology, that intersex babies are born with both “male” and “female” sex organs. Did both God and nature make a mistake? Or are the narrow human cultural categories that recognize only two sexes and genders perhaps mistaken?
But this isn’t the main point here.
The point I want to stress is that while we watch the Ukrainians fight for democracy abroad—a fight with high stakes for the prospects and survival of democracy globally—we need to equally vigilant regarding the surging authoritarianism and anti-democratic repression here in America.
Putin’s anti-gay politics, his desire to repress “gender freedom,” is part and parcel of his larger authoritarian political complex.
The hatred and denial of civil rights to LGBTQ people is one strand, one root even, of authoritarian and anti-democratic political rule, and it’s one that has deep and strong roots in mainstream Republican politics.
In seeking to preserve and advance democracy in America, we must recognize the authoritarian threat directly and clearly, and highlighting the continuities between Putin’s anti-LGBTQ politics and those in Republican America is a start. Russia offers a vision of where Republican politics threatens to take us, which is towards a repressive nation in which citizens are deprived of civil and democratic rights and live in terror.
That Putin’s desire to conquer and colonize Ukraine does have roots in his anti-gay cultural and political worldview. For him, extending the Russian Empire is a matter of saving and extending what he sees as Russian values and cultural orthodoxy, which clash with Western values.
Recently, the top-ranking priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirilli, made clear this clash, even pointing to gay pride parades as a reason for Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine.
In a recent sermon, Kirilli cast the genocide against the Ukrainian people as “a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power”—meaning the West.
For Kirilli, the holding of gay prides is a key indicator of which nations hold these “so-called values.”
He sermonized last March 6:
“In order to enter the club of those countries, it is necessary to hold a gay pride parade. Not to make a political statement, ‘we are with you,’ not to sign any agreements, but to hold a gay parade.”
“If we see violations of [God’s] law, we will never put up with those who destroy this law, blurring the line between holiness and sin, and even more so with those who promote sin as an example or as one of the models of human behavior. Around this topic today there is a real war.”
As Delia Gallagher reporting for CNN put it, “Kirill’s speech denounced the infiltration of Western liberal values into the hearts and minds of what he said were the historically unified and Orthodox Ukrainian and Russian people.”
But this hatred of LGBTQ people has been intensely evident in GOP legislation the past four years.
Trump enacted extensive rollbacks in protections for transgender people that had been in place in the military, the correctional system, the education system, and more, highlighting the reality that transgender people have been relegated to non-personhood status, to second-class citizens.
Consider US Attorney General William Barr’s comments in a speech delivered at the Notre Dame University Law School while he was serving as US Attorney General during Trump’s administration. He found it outrageous that “New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching,” lamenting similar laws in other states.
Barr proudly and shamelessly revealed a belief that LGBTQ people are immoral, undeserving of equal rights—a belief in authoritarian repression.
And earlier this month, we saw a restrictive anti-abortion law pass in Idaho and the Mississippi Governor banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools in his state. One is an attack on women’s civil rights and the other is an attack on the quest to confront the reality of our nation’s history and understand racial injustice. In short, the laws are setbacks to creating a political culture committed to securing civil and human rights for all in America.
And these hateful assaults on civil rights need to be understood as assaults on American democracy.
If we are going to root for and support the Ukrainians in their defense of democracy, we need to start defending our own.
We can see, looking at Putin’s Russia, what is in store for us if we don’t.
Tim Libretti is a professor of US literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.