The Duggars: Sex and the police

Madonna of the multiplication tables: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

Lady Madonna: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

I knew nothing about the Duggars until two days ago; and, as Karl Kraus might say, now that I know all about them I feel much less well informed. Apparently in America you can become a tourist attraction just by giving birth on schedule. Michelle Duggar did it at year-and-a-half intervals for 27 years, like a fertile Old Faithful, and she parlayed it into her own TV show. The Duggars spawned 19 children; they monogrammed the kids, all their names beginning with “J” (for daddy Jim Bob, or maybe Jesus, or the life-inciting jism); Mom has spent 144 months pregnant, 12 years of her life; they go through 16 boxes of cereal, 7 gallons of milk, and 40 loads of laundry a week. This isn’t a family, it’s a factory. They don’t give love, they produce shareholder value. Learning about them is like leafing through Enron’s glossy annual reports before the fall. The facts and figures impress, but don’t inform; their accumulation teaches nothing. Now that I’m familiar with the Duggars, I’ve diminished rather than increased my useful knowledge about the world.

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars' dining table

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars’ dining table

A gossip magazine made me taste, in matters Duggar, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Last week In Touch reported that eldest son Josh Duggar “was named in a police report as the ‘alleged offender’ in an underage sexual abuse probe.” It’s been nonstop furor since. Josh, 27, was a rising right-winger, a lobbyist for the wildly homophobic Family Research Council. He takes after his hardshell Baptist parents. From their Arkansas home, mother Michelle did robocalls last year opposing a local anti-discrimination law, warning parents it would allow trans people — “males with past child predator convictions” — to “endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.” The scandal and the hypocrisy practically mandate gays and their friends to gloat.

I have no patience for the Duggars’ homilies, or for their show, which I never watched. (Their channel pulled it from the air tonight, endangering those breakfast bills but possibly forcing them to earn an honest living.) It’s the schadenfreude I question — and fear. Is demanding Josh Duggar’s head a blow for liberation? Or is it surrender masquerading as a victory? Does it give an inadvertent imprimatur to the punitive laws and the punitive state that have spent decades making LGBT people their victims? In playing along with moral panic, is it ourselves we hurt?

There’s plenty of “gleeful, gotcha-style excitement,” as Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it, out there.

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 11.34.33 PMAnd there were a lot of unfunny jokes displaying zero sympathy for the alleged victims.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.00.58 AMBut what’s the truth? In Touch has now released the 2006 police report on Josh Duggar, their only evidence. It’s on their website, heavily redacted by the local constabulary. (They’ve blacked out not only names, but, weirdly, personal pronouns that are completely obvious from the context. It’s a pathetic attempt to make it seem police are protecting the Duggars’ privacy, when in fact they’re putting the ordeals of minors on display. In quoting, I’ve restored the missing pronouns in brackets where possible.)

The report is bureaucratic and boring, yet a wind of paranoia blows through it from the blanks and deletions, a window ajar on a menacing wilderness. A Victorian atmosphere of fear, silence, and suddenly forced speech cohabits with sunny split-level certainties, as though a Gothic novel had mated with The Brady Bunch. Start then with how the Duggars governed their brood. They were all homeschooled. The kids had limited contact with life outside – with what hardcore evangelicals call “the secular world.” All their curiosities and impulses had no object but each other. Sexual stimulation was an intense source of fear. The whole family had to wear “modest dress,” even in the swimming pool, as Mom Michelle explains:

[W]e felt like we needed to be covered from our neck to below our knees … [W]e don’t want to play peekaboo so that there’s a visual element that might defraud someone. For us the definition of the word defrauding is to stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled.

Wholesome wear: Duggar girls model their undefrauding swimsuits

Swimsuit issue: Duggar girls model their wholesome, undefrauding swimwear

And amid this, in March 2002, one of the children told Daddy Jim Bob (as Jim Bob later told police) that Josh had been sneaking into a common bedroom and touching one of his sisters “on the breasts and vaginal area … this had occurred 4 or 5 times.” The victim herself only “remembered one time when [she] woke up and [Josh] was taking [her] blanket away, but [she] did not remember anything else.” This was definitely not righteous fulfillment. Jim Bob confronted Josh. At least two anguished family meetings followed, warning everyone about “inappropriate touching.” But in July of that year, Josh confessed to his father that he’d also touched the breasts of a girl from another family, while she was sleeping at their house, on the couch. “About 9 months later,” in March of 2003, according to Jim Bob, “there was another incident”; Josh touched one of the girls, who was sitting on his lap while he read to her. And, “sometime during this time frame,” while another daughter “was standing in the laundry room,” doing one of those 40 loads, Josh “had put [his] hand under [her] dress.”

Josh was born on March 3, 1988; this all happened when he was 14. The redactions in the report conceal how old the alleged victims were. From the details that slip through, I’d guess they ranged, when interviewed, from perhaps 10 to 16; since the police investigation happened over three years after the acts (I’ll get to that in a minute), that means they might – I stress this — have been 7 at the youngest, 13 at the oldest, at the time.

That’s a big gap. But it is also important to look at exactly what the police learned from these interviews. The children went one by one to the Springdale Children’s Safety Center, for an intimidatingly formal encounter with the cops. In each case, the report says, officers “started the interview by getting to know them”: by offering an anatomical diagram, perhaps a discomfiting icebreaker for a child.

Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Fundamentalist fiction: Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Start with the girl on the couch. She told police she remembered nothing except that she “half way” woke up and felt Josh “trying to take the blanket.” She “stated that [she] did not know what [Josh] had done until later,” when he “confessed that he had done some things wrong.” Josh “asked for forgiveness for touching [her] improperly” and for “having wrong motives.” The detective asked “if [she] had any worries, concerns, or if [she] was scared. [She] sad [sic] no.”

The girl guest in the Duggars’ house similarly had no memories of being touched. “It happened when [she] was asleep. … approximately three and a half to four years ago [her] parents got a phone call from Jim Bob and Michelle. [She] said they told [her] parents that they needed to talk … the Duggars came and apologized [to her. She] said that [they?] told [her] that [he] touched [her] while [she] was sleeping. [Josh] said it only happened one time.”

What the interviews do suggest is that after those family meetings, the whole clan was on sexual alert, especially though perhaps not exclusively where Josh was concerned. Police interviewed another daughter, whose story Daddy Jim Bob had apparently not mentioned to them. It’s not clear it shows abuse; it shows an atmosphere of intra-family suspicion where physical contact instantly received strict scrutiny. “Inv[estigator] Taylor asked if something happened. [She] said some thing happened a long time ago.” Josh “had touched [her] inappropriately … [She] said [he] felt bad about it.”

Inv. Taylor asked what happened to [her. She] said [she] did not remember much … [She] said she was walking through [?unknown] and [he] started scratching [her] back. [She] said her clothes were on, but [he] was scratching [her] back on [her] skin. [She] said [he] pulled her shirt up and touched [her]. [She] said [she?] felt bad about it and told their parents. [She] said [she] told them that he had touched her chest.

“He touched me inappropriately” sounds like repeating a parental warning. Specifics of the touch are vague, though. After pointing to breasts and vagina on an anatomical chart, “Inv. Taylor asked if anyone had ever asked [her] to touch them or make [her] do anything she did not want to do. [She] said no.”

Arkansas modernism: The great room of the Duggar's house

Fundamentalist modernism: The great room of the Duggars’ house

Another daughter described the reading incident. “it happened once when [Josh] was reading all the kids a book.” Seemingly all the children were in the room, and the girl was sitting on the arm of his chair. “ Josh “dropped the book and ran from the room.” Another sibling, it seems, “called their parents and told them what had happened.” Josh, the interviewee says, had

touched her on the skin … [she] was sitting down and had pulled [her] dress up because it had a hole in it. [She] said [she] had pants on under the dress and [he] pulled them down. [She] said [he] touched [her] private. [She] said it felt weird.

Inv. Taylor asked [her] to point to where [Josh] touched her on the anatomical drawing. [She] pointed to the buttocks and said it happened on the outside.

This incident seems weird indeed, not least because it happened in front of all the children. It’s not clear where he touched or how. But beneath the blurred details it’s reasonably clear that any “touching “Josh did by then, even under everyone’s eyes, could incite an indefinite but collective alarm.

Finally, there’s the girl in the laundry room.

Inv. Taylor asked if [she] knew why [she] was there for interview. [She] then started to cry. Inv. Taylor handed [her] a tissue. [She] said that [Josh] did something to [her] four years ago. [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done exactly. [She] said all [she] remembers is that [she] was on the washing machine and [he] picked [her] up and did something to [her]. … [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done. [She] said he had stuck [his] hand up [her] dress, but did not remember what [he] had done.

Her tears echo with me. But why was she crying? We don’t know. Was it because she was recalling a traumatic memory? Or did the trauma stem from being forced, in an institutional setting, to revisit for police an ambiguous incident that derived part of its meaning from family division, mistrust, and fear? Was the trauma in the event, the context, or the compelled retelling?

There are many things we don’t know about these stories, and many ways to read them. Something happened. Josh confessed at the time to “improper touching” and “wrong motives”; he “acted inexcusably,” he said in his ritual mea culpa this week. But how? He was never charged with any crime. (For more on why, see the Note at the end of this post.) I can only offer one subjective view.

Clearly Josh Duggar was a troubled child: an adolescent discovering his desires in repressive confines that gave them neither legitimacy nor outlet.The gamut of possible rubrics for his reported acts runs from odious to “merely” creepy. Why, though, is everybody sure the first recourse should have been criminal law and the police? There was no penetration, no intercourse, no incest, no violence, no force. There’s no clear sign that anybody suffered trauma, or any other harm. Most of the five girls remembered either nothing, or something too vague to be categorized, much less criminalized: a palimpsest of a seemingly minor experience and its subsequent panicked redescriptions. And even the number of his offensive actions remains indeterminable. Several of the later stories could be the product of a family environment already prone to moral paranoia about sexuality, and now perpetually on watch. We know too little to decide.

Photo depicts Josh Duggan at 27. Headline describes  Josh Duggan at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

Photo depicts Josh Duggar at 27. Headline describes Josh Duggar at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

The media are full of pictures of portly, 27 year-old Josh with the headline Child Molester. These deliberately obscure the fact that when it all happened, he was a child. Originally the “child molester” label meant menacing adults despoiling innocents. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to believe that innocence is under threat from the innocents themselves.

And here, I think, the Duggar story melds with deep contemporary anxieties. Judith Levine has analyzed the rise, in American popular culture since the 1980s, of “a new ‘epidemic,’ the ‘sexualization’ of children; a new class of patient, ‘children with sexual behavior problems’; and a new category of sexual criminal perpetrator, ‘children who molest.’” Forms of sexual exploration that for decades or more, in a liberalizing society, had been unproblematic or normal for kids suddenly met a sharp punitive backlash. The very economic and social freedoms that many (middle-class) children enjoyed made parents fearful. “Experts” discovered danger in ever more private, domestic, and previously innocuous actions. Kids became the darkest threat to other kids.

As Roger Lancaster reveals in Sex Panic and the Punitive State, reports of child sex abuse in the US rose from 6,000 in 1976 to 350,000 twelve years later – a fifty-eight-fold increase. Was abuse exponentially growing? Were hundreds of thousands of survivors stepping forward? Or was the country in the grips of a panic, seeking sex and imagining abuse in gestures and conduct where they’d never been seen before?  Likely, the latter. The panic was also helpful to a Reagan-era state fortifying its police powers. The pedophile in the house, Lancaster writes, “circulates fear of crime beyond the inner city and into the outer suburb. He thus fosters security measures and watchfulness in places far removed from any crime scene. He anchors the culture of control firmly within the far-flung redoubts of the white heterosexual middle-class family.”

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to “child sexual abuse” in books published 1940-2008

Creating the child pedophile proved a particularly potent trigger for fear. Levine cites a welter of stories:

In 1996, in Manchester, New Hampshire, a ten-year-old “touched [two girls] in a sexual manner” (he grabbed at them on the school playground) and was charged with two counts of rape. In New Jersey, a neurologically impaired twelve-year-old who groped his eight-year-old stepbrother in the bath was compelled to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, a mark that could stigmatize him for life. In 1999, the newspapers briefly bristled with reports of a “child sex ring” in York Haven, Pennsylvania, in which “children as young as 7 .. taught each other to have sex.” An eleven-year-old girl was convicted of rape.

A single mother in Long Island, New York, tracked me down in 1999 to ask for help for her thirteen-year-old son, Adam, who had been accused of sexually rubbing against his eleven-year-old sister (she had boasted of her sexual experience to her friends, who were urged by her to report him to a school counselor). Adam was arrested, handcuffed, threatened with prosecution on adult felony charges, then placed in a youth sex offenders’ program in an austere Catholic residence (he was Jewish), where he was paroled after a year on the condition that he undergo at least another year of outpatient treatment.

A grandmother told Levine how a sex-offender institution kept her 11-year-old grandson locked up, despite pleas to release him. His refusal to confess, they said, showed he was “in denial.” After four years of incarceration for demanding what he was too young to call due process, the child killed himself.

Of course children can be violent; they can abuse and rape. And abusive sex within families is real. Accusations of incest have racked families I’m close to, even related to; I know how traumatic both the stories and the consequences can be. But Duggar was not accused of incest or violence or rape: only, and ambiguously, of fondling other children. Maybe we’ll learn something – some new story, from some new victim – that limns a conclusive horror. Till then, though, we need to ask the LGBT people piling on his case why they think he should be treated as the worst kind of criminal danger – and why the brand of “sex offender,” based on stories from his fourteenth year that led to neither charges nor conviction, should irrevocably make him a pariah a decade after the fact.

It’s clear what Duggar’s critics want to see: jail time, or worse.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.07.21 AMPresumed innocent? Forget it. Delusionary activists confuse the police report with a court conviction; without even a criminal charge, Duggar’s guilt is “confirmed.”

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 9.57.08 AMEven supporting the guy merits prison:

So did his defenders

And Dan Savage weighs in:

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 2.51.52 AM

Just pause there. Savage wants Child Protection Services to descend with their full panoply of powers on the parents twelve years after – not on the alleged abuser, who’s grown up and doesn’t even live in the house. (Of course, police already interviewed almost half the children without parents present.) Presumably he wants the law, after inflicting its own brand of trauma on the kids, to ship them all to foster homes. Savage endorses the principle behind sex offender registries, with a vengeance: that “sex crime” accusations deprive you permanently of your civil rights, along with everyone around you. A teenage misdeed marks you for life, and your blood relations. This is a new stage in Savage’s transition from self-proclaimed “sex radical” to exponent of middle-class paranoia at its most unthinking. He takes what authorities do to gay men as a model; he just wants it done to everybody else.

The premise here is that the parents led a “cover-up.” And the basis is that when Daddy Jim Bob first heard his son might have fondled his sister – an act she didn’t remember – he should have summoned the police immediately. Here the underlying fear becomes clear: when children have problems and sex is involved, it’s a criminal matter first and above all. The law’s the best and only remedy for troubled children; the overwhelming danger they present demands the most draconian intervention. It’s all quite odd. Plenty of liberal Americans admit that our cops are racist torturers, our prisons are overpacked, our courts are warped and broken, the system runs on retributive fantasies – until they come up against a crime involving sex. Then those courts are paradigms of fairness, those brutal police our best friends; then it’s lock them up and throw away the key! And they seem almost triply eager to entrust human lives to the corrupt and unscrupulous system when the accused is a fourteen year-old child.

Crime control, as Lancaster writes, has become “the ‘pivot of governance’” in America; and sex is central to it. The specter of sexual predation dominates American culture, more dangerous than almost any other threats – economic disaster, political disempowerment, even the violent crimes we used to fear. Only terrorism rivals it. It’s a mythic, not material, peril. Innocence, Lancaster says – “a euphemism for child sexlessness” – has become the “new watchword, apparently more valued than children themselves. And offences against this childhood innocence have become a crime capable of inflaming opinion, inciting juries, and inspiring rash actions.” It’s natural that these invisible wrongs become the place par excellence where the police recover their respectability, the law its utility, the state its power. What we don’t notice is how our secular fear of sex replicates the Duggars’ religious strictures.

I challenge anybody to say, if they were Josh’s parent, the first allegation would have led them to call the police. Daddy Jim Bob alerted the rest of the family, in what seems to have been a effort to protect them. Apparently he immediately contacted the parents of the one alleged victim outside the family – appropriately: that is, he put the choice of whether or not to summon the police in their hands. All this is not a “cover-up,” though it does reflect a reluctance to send his son to prison. Where his response failed conspicuously was in finding a therapeutic solution. Jim Bob consulted his church elders, he claims; mistrusting secular programs, he sent Josh to “a Christian program in Little Rock which they felt more comfortable with.” He doesn’t seem to have considered therapy for his daughters. And the program, if it existed (the details are vague) was probably awful. If the boy derived any benefit – the accusations did stop after he turned 15 – it may have been simply from leaving home for a slightly less hothouse environment.

Reportedly, the Duggars’ homeschooling courses used materials from Bill Gothard, a Christian pseudo-educational guru whose model curricula include discussions of sexual abuse like this:

CFoory8UkAAh7mK(There’s a whole website, recoveringgrace.org, devoted to people damaged by Gothard’s teaching materials; and this page offers more insight into how his minions view abuse.) If that’s true, it suggests any therapeutic response to Josh’s deeds that the Duggars endorsed might have only have added to the problem.

But paranoia about sex is not exclusive to Christian-right therapy. Neither is the replacement of rehabilitation by stigma, shame, and blame. Levine writes how, in respected programs for supposed child offenders,

the distinction between punishment and treatment is becoming more difficult to discern. A great deal of what passes for sex-offender treatment (such as an increasing number of “emotional growth” and other behavior-modification programs for misbehaving and violent youths) has been challenged as dubiously therapeutic and even abusive in itself. Moreover, unlike kids whose sentences are meted out by the juvenile justice system, those who become entangled in the mechanisms of “cure” are denied the legal protections afforded even adult perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

One program she visited, she says, was “surely not the worst”:

But it was typical of youth sex-offender “therapy” today: steeped in conservative sexual values, behaviorist in approach, and employing classic good cop-bad cop manipulations by staff. … the practice was anything but consensual, and the rights of both children and parents were all but disregarded. The minute a child touched his neighbor’s penis or buttocks, he had been assumed devoid of moral faculties; there was simply no debating whether what he did was wrong. A patient received no due process: as long as he protested his innocence, he was “in denial” (the psychotherapeutic equivalent of “in contempt”) and could be dropped from the program that was a prerequisite of reunification with his family. Or worse: His treatment, unlike a jail sentence, could go on for years, during which he relinquished his own and his friends’ rights to privacy. Anything he said could be reported to the authorities, and in many programs he was required to furnish the names of everyone he’d had sex with.

Is this child abuse? What’s certain is that it shares with the Duggars’ ideology a deep, disabling fear of sex. The fear is turned in different directions, but it’s equally overpowering. And it’s kids who suffer.

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes her delivery to People magazine, while Rock Hudson looks on in alarm

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes childbirth to People magazine last month, while Rock Hudson watches, unimpressed

The other aspect of the cover-up charge is that the Duggars kept this from the press. Presumably the fact they’re on TV created obligations to their inquiring audience; their kids’ juvenile offenses became fair game like any other minor star’s misdeeds. Even hypocrites and homophobes, however, have a right to privacy. In fact, the way this case became public followed a typical, invasive trajectory for juvenile sex cases: through gossip and suburban ressentiment. In 2006, an outraged 61-year-old neighbor e-mailed Oprah before the Duggars were due to appear on her show. Her missive seemed spurred more by jealousy than concern (“THEY ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM TO BE … JIM BOB LIES TO HIS CHURCH AND HIS FRIENDS TO MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD”). Oprah’s company passed the message to Arkansas authorities. The investigation ended without charge, but local rumors about Josh continued to swirl; that prompted In Touch to file a Freedom of Information request for his police records.

There is no rational excuse for releasing these records to a gossip magazine. However, as protections for accused juveniles in the justice system have eroded, so has respect for their privacy. A 1996 survey of “Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States” by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention noted stoically that

Until recently, State laws and judicial norms were established with the understanding that the preservation of the privacy of juveniles adjudicated in the juvenile court is a critical component of the youth’s rehabilitation. Today, however, in the face of increasing public concerns over juvenile crime and violence, government agencies, school officials, the public, and victims are seeking more information about juvenile offenders.

In this case, of course, the alleged “offender” wasn’t even formally accused. There were no charges, and the case never reached a court. An Arkansas judge yesterday intervened and ordered the police record destroyed: too late to protect the privacy of any of the juveniles involved.

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

I’ve no interest in defending the Duggars. Their ideology repels me, and their sexual anxieties are likely to demolish all their children’s lives. But neither are they a unique, deplorable freak show, detached from the pattern of American life. Their program lured a cult following among Evangelicals, but its bizarrely distended family dynamics had a wider appeal. For decades now, American audiences have been drawn to shows depicting super-sized families: The Partridge Family (five kids), The Cosby Show (ditto), The Brady Bunch (six), Seventh Heaven, Eight is Enough, John and Kate Plus 8, plus movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and many more. 19 and Counting was by the far the biggest, but its grotesqueries suggest what the fascination is about. For the Duggars, the family isn’t just a consumption unit, the way we’ve all been trained to feel. It’s a place of production, a factory of souls. Real work is done there, and that’s how it justifies its value in a fallen world. I remember what Joan Didion wrote, visiting the industrial barons’ palaces in Newport:

The very houses are men’s houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways … Somewhere in the bowels of “The Elms” is a a coal bin twice the size of Julia Berwind’s bedroom. The mechanics of such houses take precedence over all desires or inclinations; neither for great passions nor for morning whims can the factory be shut down, can production – of luncheons, of masked balls, of marrons glacés – be slowed.

There are no marrons glacés in Duggardom, but the apple dumplings carry the same idea. Everybody produced, in Duggardom. Most of the toil was exploited and underpaid, 19th-century style; the kids got 3 cents per chore. Jim Bob calculated that “all the family members combined have worked approximately 39,000 total hours building their new house” – a figure that Qatar could envy, and that helps explain how the Duggars remained so proudly debt-free. Sex, too, was chained to the wheel of labor. The “Quiverfull” version of Christian Patriarchy to which they subscribed was all about maximizing reproduction; it turned women’s wombs into production sites for manufacturing little Christians – lots of them. The Duggars harnessed desire to the assembly line. Of course this Fordist vision of the family couldn’t last; desire escaped its bonds, disastrously. But you see their appeal; they gave an answer to anomic Americans wondering why the family should survive at all.

“Family” is, of course, a word to conjure with in gay life now, as marriage equality advances. And needless to say it doesn’t mean to us what it does to the Duggars. Our socially accepted intimacies aren’t production sites but proofs, a visible demonstration that we belong. Ours is the family as spectacle. It’s where you show the world you’re respectable, as good as them.

A family meant to be watched has to be kept in line, though. Opinion, gossip, the prurient side of publicity are enforcers of conformity. They punish the recalcitrant, the outliers. (It’s no coincidence that some of the most prominent gay men in America today – Michelangelo Signorile, Michael Musto, Perez Hilton – started as or still are gossip columnists.) But beyond chastisement by headline lie more brutal forms of power. Families in the US are zones of correction. They’re less and less private, more and more subject to surveillance, more and more ruthlessly criminalized when they go wrong. The law forces “deviant” famlies to conform. And childhood is no refuge from the law. To the contrary: get ‘em while they’re young. The US has more of its youth in jails and prisons than any other country in the world.

Chart-2When gay activists rage against the Duggars and demand draconian punishments for childhood fondling, they aren’t just taking revenge for the hate the Duggars aimed at them. There’s schadenfraude, but there’s something more. Everyone should, of course, have deep concern for Josh Duggar’s alleged victims. That doesn’t require relying on the prison-industrial complex to right the wrongs. The gays are putting themselves on the side of power as it works in the US today: on the side of the jailers, the side of privacy invaded, on the side of moral panic and against its victims.

There are plenty of reminders out there of how rumor and panic coupled with police power can destroy people, Just last week, a Texas appeals court finally overturned the convictions of Dan and Fran Keller. The couple were victims of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic of the 1980s, a witchhunt that saw hundreds jailed on charges ranging from ludicrous to insane. Terrified parents and eager police induced children at the Kellers’ day care center to tell stories of “videotaped orgies, of murder and dismemberment by chainsaw, of cats and dogs tortured and killed, of shark-filled swimming pools and a mutilated gorilla in Zilker Park, of corpses dug up and desecrated … of blood-soaked satanic rituals and of day flights to Mexico, where soldiers molested them before they were flown back to Austin in time to be picked up by their parents from the Kellers’ day care.” In 1992, they were sentenced to 48 years in prison. They served 21. They were finally freed in 2013, when the only physical evidence against them collapsed: an emergency room doctor untrained in pediatric forensics recanted, admitting that the signs of sexual abuse he’d supposedly seen on a girl’s body were actually normal variations. Voiding their convictions, the appeals court still refused to find them innocent. The Kellers, now in their 70s, remain under a permanent stain.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

And there are cautionary stories that, for gays, should hit closer to home. Who remembers the boys of Boise? In 1955, in Idaho’s capital. police arrested three respected citizens for having sex with teenage boys. Local media seized the story to trumpet a threat to all the city’s children. “Crush the monster,” the Idaho Statesman warned. It went national: Time magazine claimed that a “widespread homosexual underground” had “preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” Police hauled 1500 men in for questioning over the ensuing weeks. 16 eventually faced charges of “lewd conduct” or “infamous crimes against nature”; courts convicted all but one. Most got sentences from five years to life in prison. No children were protected; lives were ruined.

Then there’s Arkansas, the Duggars’ home. Three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, 16, 17, and 18 respectively — were charged in 1993 with the rape and ritual murder of three 8-year-old boys. Suspicion started because they listened to heavy metal music. They were queer, outcast, unmanly kids, the Devil’s brood. Media and churches wove a story of Satanic ritual abuse around the killings. In five to ten hours of intense interrogation, police pressured Misskelley into confessing and fingering the others. After their inevitable conviction, Lancaster writes, “New DNA evidence … established that the teens were not present at the crime scene. Forensic analysis concludes that the grisly dismemberments were the post-mortem work of wild animals, not ritual abusers.” In 2011, they won their freedom: the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to overturn their convictions, but resentenced them to time served. They had spent eighteen years in prison, with Echols on death row.

I’m sure the Duggars endorsed the kids’ ordeal; Satan is real for them. That’s not the point. Gays need to remember how panics work. When proof and privacy, doubt and due process disappear, it’s the deviant, weird, and unwanted who suffer most. Falling for the blandishments of power, you forget the people like you it hurt.

Promo for MIchael Signorile's radio show on the Duggan scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Promo for Mike Signorile’s May 2015 radio show on the Duggar scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Note. Why did the Springdale police not press charges against Josh Duggar in 2006? The police report peters out with a detective writing that he “had not been able to locate an offence inside of the statute of limitations of three years.” In the last week, this roused Twitter outrage that the statute of limitations was so low:

Screen shot 2015-05-24 at 2.43.13 AMIt’s more complicated. In Touch, breaking the story, claimed that “The charge being pursued while Josh was a minor was sexual assault in the fourth degree,” according to “multiple sources who have seen the police report and are familiar with the case.” Other media parroted this. But it’s wrong. The police report says differently: the most serious charge it lists is sexual assault in the second degree. Under Arkansas Code § 5.14.103 paragraph 6 (available through LexisNexis), that applies if “ Being less than eighteen (18) years old, the person engages in sexual contact with a person not the person’s spouse who is less than fourteen (14) years old.” (Arkansas Code § 5­.14­.101 defines “sexual contact” as “any act of sexual gratification involving the touching, directly or through clothing, of the sex organs, buttocks, or anus of a person or the breast of a female.”) In that form, second-degree sexual assault is a Class D felony, meaning it should have a statute of limitations of three years. There’s a catch, though: Arkansas Code § 5.1.109 stipulates that second-degree sexual assault has no statute of limitations “if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.”

If I’m reading this right, then, the police were wrong about the statute of limitations. It’s possible they just didn’t know the law. Sex law in Arkansas, as in most places, is a confusing mess: a baroque welter of legal classifications imposed on impulsive acts. There’s another possibility, though. It should have been clear to any police officer, looking at the evidence from their interviews – the edifice of stray touches and forgetfulness — that this was a very flimsy case to bring to trial. Of course, in many sex-crime cases, evidence hardly matters; rumor is enough to prosecute. It’s possible, though, that they used the statute of limitations excuse to avoid admitting that what they’d found simply couldn’t sustain a high-profile prosecution.

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Stoli and sympathy, and the new LGBT public sphere: What to do about Russia

The eternal question

The eternal question

It’s good to go beyond oneself. The world is so full of borders that moral value accrues simply to those moments when thought exerts itself to cross them. In that sense, the worldwide fury against Russia is moving. No cynicism is proof against seeing people experience sympathy for others they do not know.

This is especially true among LGBT people, whose broader solidarities have been troubled and, for all those grating choruses of”We are family!”, pretty rare. “Sexuality poorly repressed merely unsettles some families,” Karl Kraus wrote. “Well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.” But how often does anybody let themselves feel that world-shaking force of resistance? In an article on Russia, Eric Sasson says “the worldwide LGBT rights movement” has “proven to be one of the savviest political and cultural movements in history.” That’s nice flattery, thank you, but the kind in which you can’t possibly see yourself. What he dubs the “movement” is a tiny minority of hunchbacked, monastically dour activists thwarted in their aspirations and alienated from the dancing masses for whom they claim to speak. Any such stunted revolutionary must straighten his back and take a purring pleasure when folks actually show they care about the larger world. And any time the denizens of Sidetrack or some other megabar consider the politics behind their pleasures should occasion some rejoicing. 

I want to go to Sidetracks and drink a certified non-human-rights-abusing Sex on the Beach

There is no “worldwide LGBT movement,” at least if by “movement” you mean something that’s genuinely mass-based and political, that has its own decision-making structures, and that moves. You could say, though, that we’re seeing a worldwide LGBT public sphere emerge. There’s now a common space on social media — even if a virtual one — where queers can carry their concerns and argue them out. In that diverse agora, all kinds of things can happen: many ad hoc movements, hardly embracing the planet but transcending plenty of boundaries, can flourish. That’s no small development.

This makes it all the more important, though, to keep a critical eye on that space’s shortcomings and inequalities.

It’s clear that it’s not yet an adequate arena for coming up with common strategies. For one thing, the sphere and the technologies that power it may be new, but it’s hardly broken free of more archaic prejudices and motives.  You can’t help noticing there’s agitation and panic over what happens in some countries, and not over others. Old geopolitical enmities seem to matter as much as present-day facts in determining which. We carry the whole burden of our fears and fantasies into debate.

He ain't heavy, he's my Big Brother: 1975, Idi Amin forces British businessmen in Uganda to serve as colonial bearers as he enters a diplomatic party. A Swede is holding the umbrella.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Big Brother: In 1975, Idi Amin forces British businessmen in Uganda to serve as colonial bearers as he enters a diplomatic party. A stray Swede holds the umbrella.

Thus it’s easy to gin up outrage over legislation in Uganda –which a few decades back was a byword in the West for how rebellious the Third World was, and which a sizeable percentage of Americans and Britons of a certain age probably think is still run by Idi Amin. It’s much harder to get anyone to notice a similar bill in Nigeria, though that one has been hanging over its potential victims’ heads for even longer. But then, no post-colonial Nigerian leader ever forced a contingent of white British citizens to cart him on their shoulders.

A tale of two T-shirts: US images of Iran, then and lately

A tale of two T-shirts: US images of Iran, then and lately

It’s easy to rouse anger over mere rumors of abuses in Iran –which is, after all, a favorite foe since 1979, and more recently a bête noire for Israel as well as the rest of us (even though the Likudniks once loved to snog the mullahs in a halcyon, more romantic time).  There was never such intensity of feeling over documented arrests and torture and deaths in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Poland, under its previous right-wing government, prohibited Prides, looked away from skinhead violence, and flirted with bans on speech similar to the Russian one. But anger in the West never spread in the same way over the Poles as over Putin, and isn’t this partly because of how much larger and longer Russia loomed in the Cold War imagination? Even the panic about Moscow’s “anti-propaganda” legislation has coincided eerily with a revival of those Paleolithic, pre-Gorbachev tensions, after the decision to give shelter to Edward Snowden.

Captain America, 2013 style

Captain America, 2013 style

This is far from saying that people should hesitate to campaign against the Russian bill, or the Ugandan one, both intolerable violations of human rights. It’s simply to say that a modicum both of self-examination, and of looking at the larger picture, benefits activism — among other ways by lending it a larger political perspective. Context is good; and if it’s the enemy of urgency, sometimes false urgency is our enemy. The problem is, instead, that those caught up in the moment’s frenzy treat that context as a hallucinatory distraction. The problem is that such intense and atavistic emotions often drive these mobilizations that people resist discussing what’s realistically possible, or how to adjust ends or methods to get anything done. We end up seeming to stagger in delirium toward an unseen, unknown goal.

With Uganda, Western LGBT activists were lucky in a lot of ways. The government was concerned about its reputation, addicted to US support, and just open enough that a working domestic civil society could even dictate terms to its international supporters. Western activists could have a real impact, both by showing solidarity with a Ugandan movement that was vocal on its own, and by prodding their own governments to quiet action. As a result, the odious bill hasn’t passed, and with luck and some sustained pressure never may. Iran shows the opposite extreme. It’s hard to get its government to budge on anything. The “pro-gay” vigils and protests that sprang up in the US and UK seven years ago simply convinced the Iranian regime that this was a foreigner’s and not a domestic issue. They also convinced it that this didn’t involve shared rights like privacy or freedom from arbitrary arrest, but only a “minority identity” which — Ahmadinejad was right in this — didn’t exist in most Iranians’ minds. It’s anybody’s guess, at this point, where on the spectrum of success the Russia campaigns will fall. 

Moreover, the spaces where these truncated and emotional discussions about strategy happen are still riven by bias: unequally accessible, far more attuned to some voices than to others. The people most affected find it hardest to get heard.

Lady G as babushka doll: A a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inside a publicity stunt

Lady G as babushka doll: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inside a publicity stunt

Why are celebrities, not Russians, the ones we’re listening to in figuring out what to do about Russia? Why are people taking their cues from Lady Gaga, George Takei, Dan Savage, Harvey FiersteinStephen FrySome of these people are smart; Fierstein and Fry, whom I adore as actor/writers, are especially savvy. But they’re not experts on Russia, or on gays in Russia, or really on anything helpful. (As for Dan Savage: he blogged back in 2002, as Bush and Blair plotted their mass-murdering imperial adventure, “Say “YES” to War on Iraq.” He’s apologized, but I see no reason to listen to him on other international interventions until he does a really comprehensive penance, perhaps by rimming a few gay Iraqi refugees on top of the Space Needle.) 

The blind faith that celebrities know more about anything than us, because we know more about them than anything, is a pathology of modern life. But it’s a particularly pronounced sickness among the gays, perhaps because the long experience of the closet breeds an unthinking fascination with publicity and fame. I certainly see the use of strategically-placed stars to draw attention to crises. There’s a reason the United Nations seduced Angelina Jolie, in the intervals between child-choosing junkets, into being a “Good Will Ambassador.” But they recruited her to publicize what the UN is doing; they don’t let her decide what the UN should do. Only in GayWorld do we so religiously believe that a looney Madonna ripoff, or the ex-pilot of an imaginary intergalactic vehicle, has unique wisdom ex officio; that those paparazzo flashbulbs bursting round them are effusions of inner illumination; that they possess insights into Russian politics completely inaccessible to Russians themselves.

Good will ambassadors, their side

Good will ambassadors, Cold War version

There are now at least two statements signed by Russian human rights activists, urging what to do about Putin’s law. And Russians have been talking strategy in public fora for months now. The most depressing thing is that none of the Western celebrities pontificating about Russia have bothered to mention anything Russians recommend. Not Fierstein, not Fry, not even Dustin Lance Black, who is usually relatively aware. (Dan Savage was a partial exception — he alluded only to a letter signed by LGBT Russians living in the United Stateswhile condemning the ones living in Russia to continued invisibility.) This is disgusting. It’s shameful. It means that probably nine-tenths of those demonstrating and dumping vodka have no idea that, in this situation, Russians have strategic opinions, are not helpless victims, can speak for themselves. It encourages the worst fantasies of Western white-saviorism.

Good will ambassadors, now

Good will ambassadors, today

One result is a parody of intelligent analysis like Time’s recent contribution to Russia news. Their take on the anti-propaganda law is entirely about brave Dutch rainbow missionaries who fell into its clutches while trying to rescue gay Russians from ignorance about Amsterdam’s bars. One of the heroic Hollanders, Time tells us, offered Russian activists

a seminar comparing and contrasting equality in the Netherlands and Russia. … Though bullying is still rampant in the Netherlands, the LGBT movement there is past its adolescence. In April 2001, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. But in Russia, the gay-rights movement is in its infancy.

Putin couldn’t ask for a better justification for the law. This bullshit tells the oppressors exactly what they want to hear.

Petition politics: Tremble, puny Putin

Petition politics: Tremble, puny Putin

The other result is that, with no ballast from some sense of what Russian activists think feasible, people’s appeals fly off in all sorts of directions. I can’t even count how many petitions are running riot on the web, each directed at somebody different, demanding something else. Move the Olympics! Boycott the Olympics! Hold the Olympics but protect the athletes! Screw the athletes, let them get arrested! Protest at Sochi! Write to the White House! Boycott Stoli! No, make Stoli give more money to the gays! … and on and on. The most ridiculous, and that’s saying a lot, comes from Wayne Besen, who has a one-man LGBT group called Truth Wins Out. He launched an opportunistic petition aimed at MSNBC, that doyen of brutal homophobic regimes, demanding they name Rachel Maddow their “special human rights correspondent” during the Sochi Games. This has nothing to do with helping Russians. Voting for celebrity journalists is maybe the least likely path for our limited energies to create meaningful change. But it’s a great way for Besen to flatter Maddow into inviting him back on her show. Last time I checked, 10,000 had signed.

Now, let’s be clear: Russian activists don’t have a consensus on what international colleagues should do. The two statements now circulating show the divide. There’s a letter from 33 activists (posted on the website of the revived Queer Nation in New York). It’s brief; it says

We appreciate and support all attempts to let the Russian authorities know that homophobic and inhumane laws will not go unnoticed and that Vladimir Putin’s regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Then there’s a statement from the Russian LGBT Network, specifically opposing a boycott of the Winter Games.

We believe that calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies, and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in[to] a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity. …

We hope for the support of national organizations in making sure that the athletes publicly take a stance against violence toward LGBT people and stand strong for LGBT equality; that the national houses fill the gap of the banned Pride House and support LGBT athletes, staff, spectators and their allies on their grounds; that sponsors follow through with their policies and visualize their commitment to justice and observance of human rights in regards LGBT people at the Games…

When there’s a divide among domestic activists, international supporters must stop and think things through. You’re going to have to take a side sooner or later (even inaction is a decision), but you need to figure out the different priorities put forward, and the reasons behind them. The fact that there’s a conflict, though, is not an excuse to do whatever you want without thinking things through at all.

I have Russian friends on either side here. To generalize: Many pro-boycott signatories strike me as experienced at political advocacy and tied to the human rights community. Meanwhile, the anti-boycott Russian LGBT Network speaks with the voice of activism within LGBT communities. The first statement, I think, comes more from considering what could budge the notoriously impervious Putin government; the second, more from thinking about the safety and political viability of LGBT communities.

You can’t reconcile the two recommendations: either you boycott things, or you don’t. You can try to negotiate between the concerns they represent: between having maximum effect on the Russian regime, and protecting LGBT people from backlash and isolation.

What follows are seven thoughts on how to do this. They are purely my own, but I hope they can provoke some debate.

This aggression will not stand, man

This aggression will not stand

ONE. Protest has a goal, and it’s in Russia, not London or New York. “International solidarity” actions tend to fade into the fake activism of catharsis. The aims you strive for affect others, not yourself; and those Others are too often abstract rather than known. On both grounds, it’s easy to lose sight of concrete ends while flooded with moral superiority, all passion spent. You hear this whenever people talk about “raising awareness” as a purpose in itself — as though, having been on the evening news, they’ve done enough. You can raise a million people’s awareness, but unless you plan to do something with it, it’s a waste of time.

What matters? Actions that will have move the Russian government toward change. Pressuring the IOC is fine if the IOC can then apply pressure on Putin, not just to protect its own brood of tender athletes, but to reform his human rights record. Pressuring a private company is pointless unless there’s reason to think that company can actually influence the regime. You need to keep your eyes on the prize.

Calls for Olympic boycotts past: 1980, 1984, 2008, 2012

Olympic boycotts past: 1980, 1984, 2008, 2012

If you do keep your eyes there, it’s possible to imagine different campaigns, apparently at cross-purposes,  working toward the same end. There’s a case that calling for a Sochi boycott can give Putin’s government some shivers, even if it doesn’t succeed, by casting a pall over his limelight moment. It probably won’t succeed, though. Demanding Olympic boycotts is a political strategy going back almost 40 years. But only three went anywhere: the 1976 boycott of Montreal by (mainly) African countries, over the Games’ lax enforcement of anti-South Africa sanctions; the 1980 boycott of Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the tit-for-tat Soviet-bloc boycott of Los Angeles. And only the first had anything to do with human rights, rather than Cold War retaliation. The present calls may “raise awareness” if enough people pay attention.  But they must mesh with a Plan B assuming the boycott doesn’t happen, to channel that awareness into ongoing pressure. The boycott campaign can be just the first stage of a project to embarrass Putin’s government at Sochi — and beyond.

A useful chart of which nations participated in the three main Olympic boycotts in history, 1976, 1980, and 1984

A useful chart of which nations participated in the three main Olympic boycotts in history, 1976, 1980, and 1984

Such calibration of strategies, though, requires Western activists to talk to one another about what they want and how to get there. All the clashing rhetoric lately conceals the fact there hasn’t been much communication between people making different demands.

It also requires talking with, not just about, Russians, to get their views. Among the most vocal Western campaigners, there’s little evidence of regular dialogue with Russian groups, still less that they take strategic advice. Queer Nation in New York has that letter from Russian activists on its website, but mainly treats it as a weapon to be brandished against other campaigners with different priorities. (Indeed, when the Latvian LGBT group Mozaika objected to their assault on Stolichnaya, which is bottled in Latvia and gives Latvians jobs, Queer Nation responded by telling the Latvians, in effect, that New Yorkers know better about the region than they do.)

"Here Lives a Foreign Agent": Banner over offices of Memorial human rights group, November 28, 2012

“Here Lives a Foreign Agent”: Banner over offices of Memorial human rights group, November 28, 2012

TWO. Learn about the context. The human rights crisis is way larger than one law. More’s at stake in Russia — much more — than LGBT issues and the “anti-propaganda” law. There are two reasons for Western LGBT activists to stress this. One is moral: it’s the truth. Many Russians are suffering, and even the new repression against gay people grows out of older patterns. The other is pragmatic. This is the best way to protect LGBT Russians against a backlash over the campaign.

Manifold rights violations have burgeoned under Putin — even overlooking the fraudulent elections, or the torture and mass murder in Chechnya. A few others:

  • Suppression of free expression. This year, Reporters Without Borders placed Russia 148th out of 179 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Since his 2011 re-election, Putin has enacted repressive new laws and policies to restrict access to information. Almost unnoticed in the West, the anti-gay-propaganda bill has a twin: a law that would create “a registry (or ‘blacklist’) of any online materials containing illegal information relevant to children.” That’s any information the State doesn’t like, not just the gay stuff. Meanwhile, most major media are under state control, and bureaucrats bully independent outlets into self-censorship. Attacks on journalists, including murder, are common — and rarely investigated or solved. At least 56 have been killed since 1992. In 2012 alone, “two journalists were killed and 33 were physically attacked in connection with their work.”
  • Persecution of whistleblowers. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky died in prison after being beaten and denied medical care. He’d been jailed for an attempt to expose interlocking corruption among business magnates and state officials. His death pointed not just to torture in detention, but to the increasing paranoia of a secretive state (a point where the US is ill-poised to offer criticism, given its pursuit of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden). Recently, new amendments to the criminal code have expanded the definition of “state secret” as well as “treason.” The latter now means transmitting a “secret” not only to a foreign government but to an “international organization or its representatives.” (Obama would love this.)
  • Attacks on freedom of assembly. Moscow Pride is hardly the only gathering authorities have banned or broken up under the Putin regime. After the demonstrations against his rule in 2011-2012, Putin pushed through new restrictions on legitimate protest. The two-year sentence meted out to members of the punk band Pussy Riot in 2012 shows the fate of loud dissent. Amnesty reported this year that “Peaceful protests across Russia, including gatherings of small groups of people who presented no public threat or inconvenience, [are] routinely dispersed by police, often with excessive force. The authorities regarded every such event, however peaceful and insignificant in number, as unlawful unless expressly sanctioned, although gatherings of pro-government or pro-Orthodox Church activists were often allowed to proceed uninterrupted even without authorization.”
  • Racism and xenophobia. Recent skinhead targeting of LGBT people originated in a long barrage of attacks against immigrants, guest workers, and non-ethnic Russians (and the more traditional object, Jews). Human Rights First estimates racist violence “claimed as many as many as 470 lives since 2004.” The government condemned these attacks in the past and prosecuted them sporadically, but the Putin administration’s rhetoric against “terrrorist” Others, including Muslims, promoted hate. Just this week, “police and migration officials mounted raids at markets across Moscow, in factories … in the city’s subway system and on the streets. At last count nearly 1,500 foreigners had been detained … That number included 586 people, most of them Vietnamese, who were being held in a temporary tent camp more appropriate for a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster than the center of a capital city.”
  • Destroying civil society. After his faked re-election in 2011, Putin’s parliament began enacting laws to prevent Russian NGOs from functioning. The worst, passed in November 2012 but almost forgotten in the furor over the anti-gay bill, requires groups receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to stigma and constant official oversight. Within days of the law’s passage, the premises of two of the best-known Russian human rights groups, Memorial and For Human Rights, were defaced with graffiti and banners saying “Here Lives a Foreign Agent.” As of June 2013, Human RIghts Watch could identify 62 organizations severely harassed under the law. Prosecutors told the New York Times they had targeted 215 groups. Two LGBT organizations, including Side by Side, a St. Petersburg cultural festival, were among the earliest ones taken to court under this law.

The last instance makes crystal clear that Putin doesn’t need the “gay propaganda” law to shut down LGBT civil society. Nor, as I’ve stressed, would scrapping that law end skinhead violence against LGBT people, or ensure them free assembly, or guarantee they can express themselves without fear. Getting rid of the propaganda ban is one important step, but one of many. Protecting the human rights of LGBT Russians means fighting for the human rights of all Russians.

LGBT activists in Russia rightly fear that the more Western protests focus on gay concerns and ignore other vital issues, the more they’ll be punished in retaliation. If you don’t want to harm the LGBT communities you’re trying to defend, look at the big picture. Stress connections. Talk about all fronts of Russia’s human rights struggle.

THREE. Get ready for the long haul. This won’t be easy. No LGBT campaign of the last decade — not gay marriage, not getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live — can equal the difficulty of changing Vladimir Putin’s mind. And changing the corrupt system that rules Russia would, will, be even harder. LGBT activists in Russia know years of struggle lie ahead. If you really want to support them — if you want to help them tackle the interlocking rights abuses and systems of oppression — don’t expect quick victories. Don’t give up. And don’t return to regular programming if and when one bad law goes down, forgetting the many repressions that remain.

FOUR. Foreigners to the rear, please. God in heaven, I’m begging you, enough of this:

What we did on our summer vacation

Fool Britannia: What we did on our summer vacation

“A British tweeter has unveiled his pink Union Jack in Moscow’s Red Square, outside the Kremlin, to defy Russia’s anti-gay laws. In response to a tweet by LGBT activist and political campaigner, Peter Tatchell, Mathew Benham attached his photo with the words ‘our little gesture’ … Tatchell had nothing but praise for the activist, applauding his efforts for managing to surpass the Russian officials.” Victory! Let the word go forth from Minsk to Pinsk: pink is the new Red! Putin, you’re punk’d!

This kind of stunt activism by tourists, à la Tatchell, is usually naïve but harmless. But in Russia, where xenophobia is rife, and where the law specifically targets groups and movements that can be deemed “foreign agents,” pinning a UK flag on LGBT rights can only hurt Russians. It’s the wrong thing to do.

Why do Russians identity LGBT issues with foreign influence? A least a little derives from the disastrous way the first attempts to hold Pride in Moscow were handled. I was there in 2006 and 2007; non-Russians swarmed the events. The day before Pride in 2006, at a meeting tasked to decide whether to proceed with the march in face of multiplying threats of violence, more than 100 people crowded the room, all but a dozen of us aliens. I suggested politely that we all leave and let the few, overwhelmed Russians decide an issue that disproportionately affected them. The proposal enraged some prominent guests.

Most ominously, the Prides were played for foreign press and foreign cameras, who wanted to film foreign celebrities being telegenically bruised. How Russia media and Russian audiences saw things could matter less. They spread an impression that the whole issue was the hobbyhorse of a few well-photographed tourists with time on their hands.

We need to talk about Putin, and then talk some more: Tilda Swinton's PR man urges retweeting her photo

We need to talk about Putin. Then tweet. And retweet. Tilda Swinton’s PR man urges retweeting her photo

It’s too late to unmake that impression completely, but at least you shouldn’t add to it. An embargo on flag-bearing foreigners in Red Square would only be a start. Maybe we also need to voice a bit less indignation over the prospect of our sexy visiting athletes getting arrested at the Games, and more over what might happen to Russians themselves.

More than that, though: Russian voices must be heard. The fact that the Russian law targets “propaganda” gives extra impetus to the idea that silenced Russians don’t need supporters, but ventriloquists — that we must “use our voices to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Nonsense. Russians are not cowards (the grandparents of these gays survived Stalin) and, law or no law, they can speak for themselves perfectly well. It strikes me that the Western protest organizers are very good at using Facebook and Twitter to promote their own proclamations — but somehow haven’t figured out how to give space to others. Why not Skype in Russian activists at meetings, rallies, press conferences?  Why not retweet what Russians are saying? Why not lend your Facebook pages to Russian movement leaders, to share their opinions?

FIVE. Drop the comparisons. Is Russia South Africa? Yes.

South Africa had institutionalized racism through the discriminatory laws enacted by Parliament which became known as Apartheid. Well now Russia has institutionalized homophobia through discriminatory and prejudicial laws enacted by its Parliament … I think that that a boycott must be called and the United States, and all concerned about homophobia and LGBTI equality should refuse to set foot on Russian soil to participate in any sport whatsoever. … And then what about the matter of principal? [sic]

That’s by Melanie Nathan, who as a white South African living in the US unquestionably has a proprietary claim to apartheid-as-metaphor. (It’s odd, though, that a single law in Russia justifies the comparison in her view, whereas if you use the simile for the whole battery of laws, regulations, and policing that Israel deploys against West Bank Palestinians — denying them political rights and free movement, enforcing segregation, seizing land, destroying homes — she finds it “anti-Semitic.”)

But wait: Russia’s worse. Is it … Nazi Germany? Well, guess.

Consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books … The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer … Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians.

I think the first sentence has something to do with Tolkien. Didn’t an exultant aegis swoop down and save Frodo from Mount Doom?

I'm furious at this Führer: London anti-Putin demonstration, August 2013

I’m furious at this Führer: London anti-Putin demonstration, August 2013

These analogies don’t aid in understanding what’s happening in Russia. They prevent it. A law attacking freedom of speech isn’t the same as a sweeping denial of citizenship. (Nor did a minority of invading Russian heterosexuals colonize the East European plain and rob the gay majority of its land.) And Putin has not passed the Nuremberg Laws. Even amid the current manic carnival of emotion, the writers should flinch in embarrassment from the implications of what they’re saying. Will Putin launch a new blitzkrieg against Poland so its gays can be carted off to extermination? Don’t go there — but unfortunately these guys do. Hitler’s Olympics “gave him confidence,” Stephen Fry warns, and of course we don’t want to make Putin cocky, because “what [Hitler] did with that confidence we all know.” Another writer’s even clearer about the coming storm:

 In 1935—as in 2013—the International Olympics Committee was keen to pretend that sporting events could wash a clearly politicized setting of its politics, or wipe a dirty city clean. … In this Faustian bargain, Hitler hid the most obvious signs of what would later become his Final Solution. … And then, once the international community had left, Hitler and his willing minions invaded neighboring countries and incinerated every fucking Jew, queer, or dissenter they could get their hands on. 

Help.

Alex Gabriel argues that this death talk makes us feel good about ourselves. “Fry’s recourse to anti-Nazism enlists [Great Britain] in helping ‘save’ sexual minorities in Russia, as Britain loves to remember it saved European Jews, replaying on memorial loop its empire’s one moment of apparent heroism.” That’s a grotesque comment on our moral self-image.

The Holocaust against the European Jews was a genocide that slaughtered millions. (I’m not sure why I feel the need to say this, except that some of these folks talk so casually it’s as though Hitler didn’t kill people, just film Schindler’s List.) Comparing some other serious human rights abuse to the extermination of a people doesn’t make the former more urgent, it makes it trivial. For some strange reason, a lot of gay (not so many L or B or T) intellectuals over the years have taken the Holocaust as a standard by which the undoubtedly awful persecutions inflicted on dissident sexualities over the years can, and should, be measured. (Gore Vidal, Larry Kramer, ACT UP, many more.) Maybe it’s because silence didn’t just enshroud the latter persecutions — silencing was part of them. To identify with the most condemned and public atrocity of modern times promises that some of the dignity of visibility can be regained. It doesn’t work that way, though.

San Francisco demonstration against Putin, August 2013: http://bit.ly/14147ub

San Francisco demonstration against Putin, August 2013: http://bit.ly/14147ub

The extreme talk is getting out of control. A new slogan’s all over the Internet, based on the unconfirmed stories that skinheads have killed young gays: “YOU SPILL GAY BLOOD WE SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA.” The quid doesn’t quite fit the quo; vodka’s not equivalent to blood – even in Russia, where the latter may well be 40% composed of the former. But you can easily imagine the menacing sentence spun around, spoken by the skinheads themselves: “YOU SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA, WE SPILL GAY BLOOD.” The lunatic register of revenge would be the same. Any time we start mimicking the mad rhetoric of neo-Nazis, we’re on the wrong road.

SIX. Chuck the Tchaikovsky talk. I don’t like Tchaikovsky that much, but even if I did, I would be tired of you people talking about him. Western activists hold him up incessantly as proof positive that Russian culture contained and was shaped by queers. O Kremlin hypocrites, attacking your very heritage! “Tchaikovsky. Genius. Gay. Outlawed” was a sign at one New York protest.  “All Out Tells St. Petersburg Governor Not To Tarnish Tchaikovsky’s Legacy With Anti-Gay Bill,” a headline reads (they even handed him a video set to the camp chords of Swan Lake). Has anybody heard of a Russian musician, or writer, or artist other than Tchaikovsky? Didn’t I see Tolstoy the other night at Sidetrack?

Hero of the Homintern: Tchaikovsky worship at London anti-Russia protest, August 2013 (http-/www.flickr.com/photos/zefrog/9479752671/in/set-72157635017804350)

Hero of the Homintern: Tchaikovsky worship at London anti-Russia protest, August 2013 (http-/www.flickr.com/photos/zefrog/9479752671/in/set-72157635017804350)

No homophobe was ever persuaded by these appeals to Great Gays in Your History. In my experience people hate few things more than having folks who know nothing about their culture explain it to them. (Imagine a Russian telling you that Obama has betrayed the rich heritage of Negro obsequiousness in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Moreover, the diehard supporters of the “gay propaganda” bill, if they listen to classical music at all, most likely hate Tchaikovsky. They’d see him as the effete creature of cosmopolitan St. Petersburg who turned away from healthy Russian tonalities toward Western decadence. In his one unequivocally patriotic piece of music, the 1812 Overture, he even dared to insinuate the heathen Marseillaise, which is like finding a dead rat in your blini. If these people think about high culture at all, they’re the heirs of nineteenth-century Slavophilia: ultranationalism in art. They’d listen not to the Nutcracker but to the narodnik notes churned out by The Five (true, one of that circle’s members, Mussorgsky, drank himself to death in unrequited passion for young men, but there’s one poison mushroom in every Russian dish, right?). And probably even that would be too highfalutin. As Putin’s own deputy culture minister said last spring, “Who needs Tchaikovsky?”

They don't call it the Nutcracker for nothing: #FuckyeahTchaikovsky tweets

They don’t call it the Nutcracker for nothing: #FuckyeahTchaikovsky would be a nice hashtag

What’s interesting is that Western LGBT advocates describing Russia instinctively treat “culture” as their friend: a reserve of enlightened values and liberal tolerance, regrettably sidelined by the uncultivated thugs who happen to rule the country now. They would never blame the new legislation on Russian “culture” or “tradition,” though in fact those are exactly the terms that Russian right-wingers use to justify it. Contrast how these activists talk about Africa. There “culture” is the enemy, a monolithic blob of primitive practices that no enlightened idea can penetrate without either missionaries or soldiers to escort it.  (When the US President travelled to three diverse countries at different corners of the continent this summer, a headline read, “Obama to Visit Homophobic Culture.”) Newspapers doing the obligatory stories on homophobia in Africa hardly ever bother to mention politics or politicians; they come and go, but the magma of tradition remains.

Yet all this measures the degree to which Russia, despite those decades of enforced Cold War enmity, remains like us in our minds: a country of white people and European values. Out of racial solidarity comes an affinity transcending historical difference. In fact, talking about “culture” can’t tackle a political problem; it’s a bankrupt strategy. Appeals to “Russian culture” won’t help us change a single Russian mind, any more than condemning “African culture” has changed a single African one. They only show that we’re still unable to disentangle our advocacy from our darker fantasies.

SEVEN. Think gas pump, not Stoli dump.  Boycotts are such an easy form of activism, except for the ones that work. It’s looks so simple just to sit back and not buy things!  Of course, once you actually start to figure out where your target’s vulnerable and how to exploit that, things change. When facts enter, the work gets hard.

ACT UP disrupts Stoli promotion, New York, July 2013: The upside-down poster is a signal of distress

ACT UP disrupts Stoli promotion, New York, July 2013: The upside-down poster is a signal of distress

The campaign to punish Putin by abjuring Stolichnaya impresses me as one of those extremely easy boycotts that nobody thought through first. The point isn’t so much that the vodka’s actually bottled in Latvia — a fact that has only prodded boycotters into Jesuitical arguments over what it means for a vodka to be “Russian.” (Note to campaigners: when the dispute sinks to this level, you’ve lost.) The point is that the brand is owned by a private company, not the State. As several people have noted, the boycotters assume that Russia is like the US, where corporations tell the government what to do. But in Russia’s crony capitalism, most private companies bow and tremble before government clerks, begging to hang onto the last shreds of their independence. Putin’s State has been trying to wrest back control of Stolichnaya for some while; arguably the boycott, if it actually weakens the owners, will only speed the takeover. I have zero sympathy with the corporation or its “support” for gay rights in the US — read: its bribes to LGBT institutions in order to keep the community profitably soused. But vodka dumps in San Francisco are unlikely to make Putin tremble. 

For a decade now, no international pressure has been able to make Putin tremble.  As long as the West was slavishly dependent on the country’s vast natural gas and oil resources, the President could pretty much do as he liked. Russian politics run “on conventional oil and gas,” the Economist says, and “Vladimir Putin is in essence the CEO of Russian Energy Inc.” Recently, Russia’s fuel exports have been declining, and with them the profit machine. Why not exploit this weakness? Why dump vodka, when Russia’s engines run on more precious liquids?

Running on empty: Problems of a petro-state

Running on empty: Problems of a petro-state

The Russian economy is slowing down. Growth has gone from 7% a year in the heady mid-2000s, to under 4% in 2012, to only 1.6% in the first quarter of 2013. One word explains a lot of the slippage: shale. The “revolution” in shale oil and gas may not be “changing the geopolitical and economic map of the world,” as its boosters bray. But new (environmentally disastrous) ways of extracting fuel from recalcitrant soil have turned the US from a dependent energy importer to a power source, in fact the world’s largest producer of natural gas. And they’ve given formerly Russia-addicted buyers new energy sellers to choose from.

Fuel exports run the Russian economy. A few facts:

  • Russia is the most oil-dependent of the world’s 10 largest economies;
  • Oil and gas account for more than half of federal government revenues;
  • They make up nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP);
  • They account for 50% – 60% of Russia’s exports;
  • Nearly 50% of Russian energy production is for export.
Oil outlflow. Source: http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3782/rosneft-the-new-star-of-russian-energy.html

Outlflow: Russia’s oil production vs. export since 2000. Source: http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3782/rosneft-the-new-star-of-russian-energy.html

Lots of the exports run through three giant corporations: the State-run duo Gazprom and Rosneft, and the crony-controlled Lukoil. (The oil industry was imperfectly privatized under Yeltsin, though it’s heading back into Putin’s hands, but natural gas remained mainly under State management). Gazprom’s activities alone make up 8% of Russia’s GDP.

But oil and gas flowing from the US have shaken Russia’s market position — and its political power. It’s been forced to make unprecedented concessions to its consumers. In Asia, where Beijing claims even larger shale reserves than the US, “Russia has had to agree to the majority of China’s demands in recent purchase negotiations of crude oil and natural gas.” In Europe, it’s even worse. The Economist explains,

The shale revolution is changing the balance of power between the Russian bear and its European customers. In the past Russia was so confident of its producer power that it felt able to bully clients: it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in both 2006 and 2009 during contract negotiations. But America’s shale-driven transformation … is pushing down the price of gas on the world market. Supplies of Middle Eastern liquefied gas that America no longer wants are now being offered to Europeans. This week a consortium was chosen to pipe gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe, further reducing dependence on Russian supplies. Europeans are finding they have bargaining power: Bulgaria recently negotiated a 20% price cut in its new ten-year contract with Russia.

Putin’s pals at Gazprom are especially suffering. The company draws 40% of its revenues from sales to Europe, and those are no longer pliant customers. Russia’s share of Europe’s natural gas purchases dropped from 45% to 31.8 % between 2003 and 2010; with some ups and downs, it’s still dropping. As a result Gazprom’s value fell from $369 billion in 2008 to less than $77 billion this June. “Russia is shooting itself in the foot,” Lithuania’s president recently remarked.

Russian_gas_exports_pie_chart

I’m not particularly thrilled about LGBT rights drawing advantage from the despicable practice of fracking; but let’s face it, there’s a window of opportunity here.

The Gazprom logo on these shirts in no way indicates tolerance for this homoerotic behavior: From the Gazprom Germania Sport website

The Gazprom logo on these shirts in no way indicates tolerance for this homoerotic behavior: From the Gazprom Germania Sport website

LGBT activists in Europe have a particularly ripe chance to press for change. Now is the time to demand their governments buy less Russian gas and oil. There’s a pragmatic reason: energy diversification is good. There’s a moral reason: Russia’s whole human rights record — not just its oppression of LGBT people. You can protest, demonstrate, make the case. You can hurt Putin in his bulging wallet, which is also the padded seat of his political power. (Germans, Italians: look at the chart above! Repression fires your stoves. Here’s the website of Gazprom’s German branch: and here is the page of “Gazprom Sport Germania,” its football-sponsoring PR side, an Olympic-sized irony just calling out for a nice demo.)

US activists’ options are more complicated. We don’t import so many Russian hydrocarbons. But look: Lukoil has moved into the US market. They bought Getty Oil some while ago; they own a bunch of former Mobil gas stations in the Northeast, including dozens scattered across New Jersey, right under Queer Nation’s nose. (Those stations created a local furor last year for price-gouging, by the way.) Here, too, is a sitting target: a chance to hit Putin in his petro-power, where it just might really hurt.

A light at the Frankenstein place: Lukoil station in New Jersey

A light at the Frankenstein place: Lukoil station in New Jersey

 

A who’s who of the Iranian firewall

A friend from Iran sent me this link tonight; it’s amusing, in a disturbed and disturbing sort of way.   The “Iran Firewall Test” allows you to “use the Internet in Iran in real time” to explore what people in the country can access or not through ordinary Web means. What’s blocked, and what’s not? Enter your favorite website, and see.

There are already mysteries I’ve stumbled on in five minutes of playing with it. Why is Salon blocked while Slate isn’t?  Why does the New Republic lie afoul of the firewall but not — get this — Commentary? Barack Obama’s reelection effort isn’t censored; the White House is. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is open to any Iranian to view; perhaps the ultimate step in his political evolution is to succeed Ahmadinejad. So, too, World Net Daily, the rabid right-wing Christian page (“American’s Independent News Network”) can be perused by the most militant of Teheranis. But you can’t get Wonkette.  Iranians will never learn the true meaning of Santorum.” Dan Savage’s column is blocked, and so is Dr. Ruth, and so is Rex Wockner’s blog. But neither COYOTE in LA nor SWEAT in South Africa — both of them sex workers’ advocacy organizations — is. You can get to the Ford Foundation but not the Soros Foundation. You can get the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, but not Saturday Night Live.

This little blog is unblocked, at the moment, a dubious honor; if you want anything read in Iran, just let me know and I’ll facilitate it.  One feels like reciting Brecht’s poem:

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!