Content Note: discussions of homophobia and anti-LGBT+ legislation
Western countries such as the United States and the UK have been critical of Russia’s anti-propaganda laws. Such criticism, whilst important, neglects the legacy of anti-propaganda legislation in the West, as well as the continuance of laws that allow for discrimination. Legislation designed to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexual lifestyles still exists in many US states. These ‘sodomy laws’, though declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2003 (meaning they cannot be enforced), have not been repealed in 13 states. For example, Alabama state law, in relation to the sex education curriculum, says that: ‘ homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and… homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.’ Other states that continue to keep similar laws on the books include Texas, Utah, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Such anti-propaganda laws have not been the sole preserve of the American South. In 1988 the Thatcher government introduced Section 28 as part of the Local Government Act, which instructed councils not to ‘ intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ in their schools or other workplaces. Remarkably, this anti-propaganda legislation remained in place until 2003. In 2013 the British Humanist Association (BHA) revealed 45 schools whose sex and education policies were either ‘unhelpfully vague’ on Section 28 or even replicated Thatcher’s policy. In particular, the BHA highlighted two schools in Wales who believed the law was still in place. This serves to illustrate that anti-propaganda regulations continue to have a cultural legacy in the UK today.
Further, much existing legislation in the UK continues to present particular problems for trans individuals. Hesham Mashhour’s recent research for Get Real. on the trans policies of Cambridge’s three women’s colleges highlighted just one of the legal problems that currently exists. As the article shows, regardless of the attitude or approach of the college, colleges are bound by the law in terms of how they determine who is ‘female’. This is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the particular problems faced by trans people in the UK today, but it serves to illustrate that much more reflective thinking needs to be done. Drawing an ‘us and them’ dichotomy between the UK and Russia is therefore neither helpful nor accurate.
The legacy of anti-propaganda policies in the US and UK can be seen in the continued lack of provision for LGBT+ people in sex education lessons. In the US, much of the debate on the issue surrounds whether ‘abstinence only’ is the best approach to take. Any serious discussion around broadening what sex education provision does exist is therefore a long way off. Only 22 US states and the District of Columbia require state schools to teach sex education, with just 19 making some attempt to ensure that the advice they are providing is in some way medically accurate.
California took a step in the right direction in 2011 with the Governor signing SB48, which compels state schools to include lessons on issues affecting LGBT+ people. The Act was not aimed at sex education specifically, but was nonetheless a first-in-the-nation achievement. Randy Thomasson, president of the conservative family group ‘SaveCalifornia.com’, argued that SB48 prevents schools teaching ‘the facts that homosexuality is neither healthy nor biological’. That this law provoked such a strong reaction from some shows what a battle lies ahead in this area in the US.
The UK also continues to lack a comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) curriculum. A survey by the National Union of Students found that less than a fifth of university students discussed LGBT+ relationships in their Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) classes. Not only does this failure to educate young LGBT+ people increase the chances of them engaging in unsafe sexual practices, it fosters an idea of heterosexuality as ‘the norm’ that echoes the anti-propaganda policies of the (depressingly recent) past.
The issue of SRE raises the important point that anti-propaganda issues are not just about legislation. Laws reflect and respond to the attitudes and norms of society. Russia does not present a total contrast with ‘Western attitudes’ as many would like to believe. It would be wrong to say that laws and attitudes in the US and UK are as oppressive as they are in Russia. To make that claim would be to ignore the scale of the problem there, and the fact that in Russia such laws both exist and are enforced. Nonetheless, if Western governments are to criticise Russia for its treatment of LGBT+ people, it is important that they also cast a reflective eye over the state of affairs in their own countries. Much may have changed in the last decade or so, but the legacy of anti-propaganda legislation lives on.
Will Thompson (GR. Features Contributor)