Guest Blogger: Fabrice Houdart, President World Bank GLOBE
As St Patrick’s Day parade organizers in Boston and New York were arguing today that the parade “isn’t a sexually oriented parade” to justify banning LGBT people from marching with signs indicating their identity, I was reminded of conversations on the “anti-gay” laws in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia.
The reasons why LGBT Americans are so eager to be visible in this parade is the same that drove homophobic parliamentarians to push “anti-gay” laws: visibility is key to greater acceptance of homosexuality. Tolerance of homosexuality is not only correlated with high visibility of LGBT people in the media and their communities, it is its single most important predictor even more than economic development. This transformative effect is what St Patrick’s Day parade organizers and Ugandan, Russian and Nigerian lawmakers want to avoid by locking the closet doors.
The historical tragedy and blessing for gay people is that they can avoid discrimination and violence provided they do not reveal their sexual orientation. But in exchange they must relinquish hope of progress and greater equality for their community. This was never an option for most other marginalized communities: such as racial minorities, people living with disabilities or women.
However, for LGBT people to be out in the workplace, in the medias or in community parades can have a transformative effect. The “contact theory” is now accepted as the main explanation from the sudden change of attitude towards homosexuality in the United States. As Herek and Glunt famously expressed in 1993 “heterosexual men and women who report knowing someone who is gay express generally more positive attitudes toward lesbians and gay men then do heterosexuals who lack contact experiences”.
In France or Spain, a mostly hidden gay population, particularly in very conservative workplace environments, has been a key impediment to greater acceptance. As a result France, which was well positioned culturally to be inclusive, remains today the least tolerant country in Western Europe towards homosexuals, with 28.8 per cent of the population responding that they would not want a homosexual neighbor in the World Values Survey (WVS) On the other hand, Nepal (which was not part of the WVS) where sexual minorities are increasingly visible is apparently showing clear signs of greater acceptance of homosexuals.
One of the most surprising aspects of our conversation on the “anti-gay” laws has been the perception by many that the impact of these laws is blown out of proportion and instrumentalized by western LGBT groups to their benefit. They point to the fact that there have been few reports of arrests, imprisonment and lynching. Similarly, they remind us that people who experience same-sex sexual attraction in these countries reject themselves the idea that such feelings make them “gay”. A prominent African decision-maker – who has been silent publicly on the “anti-gay” laws passed in her own country – even called in a private conversation for patience with Africa reminding her interlocutor that it took centuries for western countries to experience this rapid rise in acceptance of homosexuality.
These arguments ignore the fact that “anti-gay” laws will actually prevent this cultural evolutionary process to even start. Ever. But beyond that, it is important to remember that this greater invisibilization is a step towards deshumanization, reinforcing the message that gays are outsiders. By deshumanizing LGBT people, politicians legitimize the violence, bullying and discrimination that many LGBT people experience everyday paving the way for a possible more radical and systematic persecution.
I have no doubt that LGBT Americans will succeed in ensuring that the St Patrick’s Day parade becomes inclusive: it is too late in the United States to send back the LGBT community to the closet. Hopefully, the Russian community is too at the tipping point and they will find the courage and resources to overcome legal challenges. For Ugandan and Nigerian sexual minorities, the impact of the laws is tragic, reinforcing the existing widespread homophobia and annihilating hope for change.