Wednesday – March 14, 2019. Massachusetts House legislators overwhelmingly passed bill H.140 concerning the banning of practicing gay conversion therapy on minors. In a landslide decision (147-8) Representatives from across the state and across the aisle came together to put a stopper in allowing state-licensed therapists from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. “Ultimately, we all know this bill will ensure that children receive therapy in a healthy, evidence-based and medically sound manner, not one which fosters an atmosphere of self-hate, prejudice and intolerance,” said Rep. Kay Khan of Newton, MA. Khan, who authored the legislation, referred to Massachusetts as a “trailblazer” of civil rights and professed that all should be prepared to fight for the elimination of discriminatory behavior. Myself, being in attendance, was ecstatic to hear this news. Growing up in a small, heavily Christian oriented Massachusetts town, I had bore witness to several members of my own age group and younger struggle to come to terms with their sexuality and gender orientation for fear of being rejected by family, friends, and the community. Although I was certain that the bill would pass the house, I still let out a sigh of relief when the votes had been counted in its favor.
Two days ago, April 9th, Governor Charlie Baker signed bill H.140 into law making Massachusetts the 16th state in the country to ban the practice of gay conversion therapy on minors. While this is of course a great success and comes at a time where much of US is actively fighting for more inclusive policies, one would be hard pressed to find this type of progressive legislation in a country like Azerbaijan.
The country of Azerbaijan has long had a less than ideal relationship with the LGBT community to say the least. While same-sex activity was legalized in the year 2000, there is currently no legislation concerning anti-discrimination in housing, goods, services, employment, marriage, or even hate crime protection. 2019 marks 20th consecutive year that the Freedom House report has found fault with the country’s treatment of those in or affiliated with the LGBT community and concluded that violence has only escalated for the past two decades. A mere 10 days ago on April 1st, fourteen people were openly rounded up in the country’s capital of Baku as authorities began a new wave of crackdown violence against transgender sex workers, even going so far as to arrest a woman who attempted to stop a group of men from attacking one of the trans women. This unfortunately seems to be a common occurrence in a country which just last September detained dozens of people on dubious charges, beating and using electric shocks on some of them to coerce bribes and information about other gay men.
This vicious trend of “homonegativity” hasn’t been limited to Azerbaijan either. Countries such as Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and even Italy and Switzerland have also been less than accepting to the LGBT community according to reports by ILGA Europe. Violent political threats and attacks to various segments of the population are undoubtedly a symptom of democratic backsliding, which comes as no surprise in countries which are already experiencing severe democratic decline. In post-communist Eastern European states, such as Azerbaijan, cultural inflexibility has played a large role in influencing homonegative behavior. Over 96% of the Azerbaijani people identify with Islam, which traditionally forbids homosexual acts. This in turn promotes dangerous rhetoric and modes of thinking that cast homosexuals as immoral, dangerous, and diseased, while many consider homosexuality to be a personal failing.
While a regressive religious culture undoubtedly has had a profound impact on the matter, uneven transitions to democracy in post-Soviet Eastern Europe may also inspire such behavior. Christopher Cadwell, Senior Editor of The Weekly Standard, alludes to the rejection of “Western” values as many in the region see democracy as what happened to Russia between 1990 and 2000, and simply do not want anything to do with it…even if that means a full rejection of the LGBT narrative. And while few in number, some politicians and commentators in Azerbaijan opposed to Western values have equated homosexuality with being European and have often portrayed Western Europe as a place where “men have sex with and marry men”.
Back on the ground in Massachusetts, some Republican House legislators also had some less than inclusive remarks regarding the LGBT community. “Let’s say an 8-year-old boy comes in and says, ‘I’m an 8-year-old girl.’ Maybe that therapist — and many therapists I’ve spoken to have brought this up — wants to push back a little bit. Maybe that child isn’t transgender, maybe that child’s gay, maybe that child’s bi. Why not give every opportunity for that therapist to explore that? Why can’t the therapist say, ‘No, you’re not?’” said Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk who made local headlines when he played an active role in defending the practice of conversion therapy on minors and was one of eight Mass. Republicans to vote against the bill. Thankfully, Dooley’s dissent did little to sway the trajectory of the vote, but his language sparked a visceral response from many members of the House and the audience…myself included.
LGBT people are not invisible, and their rights shouldn’t be either. While many sections of the community experience widespread violence and hatred, like those in Azerbaijan, one would hope that the Massachusetts legislature would serve as a beacon of hope to those who suffer at the hands of injustice.
Lipka, Michael. 2013. “Eastern and Western Europe divided over gay marriage, homosexuality.” Facttank: News in the Numbers (http://pewrsr.ch/1du6kF8): Pew Research Center.
Caldwell, Christopher. 2017. “How to Think about Vladimir Putin.” Imprimis 46(3): 1-7. https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/how-to-think-about-vladimir-putin/
The juxtaposition of progressive Massachusetts LGBTQ+ legislation with the “homonegativity” of an Azerbaijan democratic republic in turmoil forced me to confront the relationship between American progressive ideals and cultural inflexibility. What expectations should Americans have for the implementation of progressive legislation in resistant democracies, especially those engulfed in serious conflict such as Azerbaijan? At the center of your argument, you assert that “violent political threats and attacks to various segments of the population are undoubtedly a symptom of democratic backsliding.” This argument seems to indicate that the structural obstacles in Azerbaijan’s democracy must be confronted in order for more progressive legislation to be passed. Although I agree that democratic backsliding is oftentimes correlated with violence, I would like to push back on the assumption that the existence of violent contention is necessarily a direct indication of democratic erosion. Functioning democracies are intended to smooth over disagreements, but it is dangerous to assume the existence of violent disagreement is a result of democratic instability. This line of reasoning can lead to the caveat in which we assume progressive legislation coincides with healthy democracy. The international community fell prey to this caveat when Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman successfully used a series of progressive reforms to cover his consolidation of power and move towards authoritarian tendencies. Even in Massachusetts, officials representing segments of the population who may be closer aligned with the views of Azerbaijan pushed back against the bill, showing that contention is, in some ways, an essential part of democracy. How ethnocentric is it to thrust American progressive ideals upon other countries and then call them “cultural inflexible” when they resist? This is at the source of the Azerbaijani backlash against Western values. What good is a beacon of hope if it will be resisted as a symbol of Western values?