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The non-inevitability of progress

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At The Nation, Alec Kuhn has a heartbreaking article on a horrible new anti-gay law in Russia, and the ongoing Russian embrace of a virulent, nasty homophobic politics under Putin. Among the many depressing aspects of the story is the possibility that Russia is witnessing not just a growth in anti-gay politics but a growth in anti-gay sentiment more broadly:

Indeed, an April poll by the independent  Center found that 45 percent of Russians believe that people “most often become homosexual as a result of seduction or their own loose conduct,” and a February Levada poll found that anti-gay sentiment has risen over the past decade.

It’s difficult, at least for me, to live in the United States in 2013 and not view progress toward equal rights, equal treatment, and greater acceptance for GLBT people in my own country as pretty much inevitable. This is especially true when you consider that the extraordinary progress of the last five years has taken place during a period of extended mass unemployment and grim economic circumstances on a scale not seen since the 1930’s. It is precisely during such periods we might reasonably expect social progress to stall or regress, and yet we’ve seen nothing of the sort.

But as inevitable as continued progress seems in the short or perhaps short-medium term, there are good reasons not to assume inevitability beyond that. An under-appreciated aspect of our own history is that we’ve seen significant regression on social acceptance for GLBT people in the past, as the final chapter of George Chauncey’s remarkable book Gay New York details. There’s a powerful American narrative of progress that sometimes blinds us to other possible outcomes.  If anything, this possibility highlights the importance of winning the cultural battles along with the legal ones. The law is not a particularly useful tool for an effort to marginalize of anti-gay variants of Christianity in favor of the gay-accepting variants, but it’s important nonetheless, as a victory in that battle will make this generations’ legal victories more secure, if and when we find ourselves with a Putin of our own.

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