The following week, I traveled to Finland, Estonia and Latvia on a study tour organized by the Hudson Institute to meet with presidents, defense officials, cybersecurity experts and other specialists to discuss the security environment in Northern Europe.
Thus were two of my primary professional interests joined: I am working on a book about the history of gay Washington, and my day job consists of analyzing transatlantic relations. While they might seem like completely different spheres of intellectual pursuit, they are connected, in my mind, by a common thread.
The political West is ultimately a community of values. Two such values, perhaps the two most fundamental, are the freedom of speech and assembly. One doesn’t have to be a supporter of same-sex marriage or gay adoption or any other contentious social issue to believe that the right of people to demonstrate and speak their mind is sacrosanct in a democratic society.
The degree of respect for LGBTQ people has increasingly become a measure of democratic health in former Soviet states. While gay-rights demonstrations in the Baltics were once met with feces-flinging counterprotesters in 2006, this month’s celebration was unmarked by any such ugliness. All I saw were smiling faces, happy families and solidarity among people gay and straight.
Contrast this progress with the dire situation next door. Since 2013, when the Russian Duma unanimously passed a law prohibiting the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, it has been illegal for any Russian — homosexual or heterosexual — to speak positively about gay people or their rights. (Shortly after this draconian measure was passed, I protested the law on a live broadcast of Russia Today and got kicked off the Kremlin-backed network.) Russians who advocate gay rights are arrested and fined, LGBTQ websites are blocked, and a steady exodus of gay people has trickled out of Russia over the past six years. Emboldened by the Kremlin, Chechnya’s government has once again unleashed a pogrom against gay men.
Marija Golubeva, a recently elected member of the Saeima, the Latvian Parliament, told me it is often “not religious feelings, but the heritage of Soviet ideology” that determines the extent to which a nation respects LGBTQ equality. Countries that overcome their totalitarian pasts — as the Baltic states have admirably done, shedding their command economies and authoritarian political structures for membership in NATO and the European Union — will progress toward recognizing the basic dignity of their gay and lesbian citizens.
“The share of people who say that religion is very important in their lives is higher in Spain and Norway than in Lithuania and Latvia, or even in Russia,” Golubeva said. “Yet it is in Spain and not in Russia that people of the same sex can marry.” Golubeva is just the second openly gay politician in Latvia, following the country’s foreign minister, who came out in 2014 and is still serving.
Keenly aware of the anxieties many socially conservative people in the former Soviet space harbor about homosexuality, the Kremlin exploits the issue for geopolitical aims. On Sunday, thousands marched for LGBTQ rights in Ukraine, a country that has paid a hard price for its Western aspirations in the form of Russian occupation forces on its sovereign territory. As part of its propaganda narrative, Moscow paints pro-West Ukrainians as wishing to subsume the country under “Gayropa.”
Now consider Georgia: Like the Baltics, it is a former Soviet republic, but luckless geography places it outside the civilizational umbrella provided by NATO and the E.U. The spirit of the Stonewall uprising in New York, which occurred 50 years ago this week, lives on the streets of Tbilisi: On June 14, gay-rights activists demonstrated outside the main government building to demand police protection for an upcoming Pride march. They were attacked by far-right activists as police passively looked on.
In my study tour group’s meetings with Baltic officials, the question repeatedly came up of why the United States should risk blood and treasure in the defense of tiny countries along Russia’s border. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, then acting as a campaign surrogate for Donald Trump, gave voice to this sentiment during the 2016 presidential election when he said that Estonia was just some place in “the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”
For an answer to that “why” question, I will defer to Natan Sharansky, the dissident whose quest to free his fellow Jews from Soviet captivity helped bring about the evil empire’s collapse.
Years ago, Sharansky came up with a “town square test” to distinguish the free society from what he termed a “fear society.” Can a person walk into the town square and express his opinion without fear of being arrested or harmed? “The understanding of linkage between democracy and peace was always very seldom understood,” Sharansky told me last month. “And that’s why it is our highest interest that our neighbors have democratic rule and not dictators.”
One suspects that if Russia were a place where Pride parades were allowed, its quarrels with the United States, and ours with it, would diminish.