The Sochi Olympics are intended, as The Economist has noted, as a “celebration of Russia’s resurgence, a symbol of international recognition.” So far, the press coverage in the lead-up to tonight's opening ceremonies has instead highlighted the games as a “microcosm of Russian corruption, inefficiencies, excess of wealth and disregard for ordinary citizens.”
Under this last category, no issue has received as much attention over the past six months as the country’s fraught relationship with the LGBT community. This summer, the country banned the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and ended the foreign adoption of Russian children by gay couples. Putin did little to clear the air when he reassured the world that Russia’s gay visitors should feel “at ease,” so long as they “leave the children in peace."
Just 16 percent of Russians surveyed by the Pew Research Center this spring said society should accept homosexuality (with nearly three-quarters saying it should not). In contrast, 60 percent of Americans, 80 percent of Canadians, and nearly 90 percent of Germans and Spaniards said society should accept homosexuality. The least tolerant attitudes toward gay and lesbian people, according to the Pew survey, were found in less developed nations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
At the same time attitudes toward gays and lesbians have improved in many countries, they have regressed in others. When Pew compared these latest data to an earlier 2007 survey, they found that attitudes toward gay and lesbian people were markedly more positive in countries like the U.S. and Canada, where acceptance increased by 11 and 10 percent, respectively. But the opposite was true in Russia, which registered one of the biggest declines of any nation in the share of people who accept homosexuality – from 20 to 16 percent.
With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, we looked more broadly at the connection between attitudes toward gays and lesbians and key measures of economic and social progress. To do so, we used the most recent available data (from 2012) from Gallup’s World Poll, which covers 140 plus nations (compared to the 39 covered in the Pew survey). Gallup’s survey contains a question asking whether or not the city or area in which a person lives is “a good place for gays and lesbians.” The map below, by MPI’s Zara Matheson, shows the pattern for those who answered affirmatively.
The connection between attitudes toward gays and lesbians and economic development could not be clearer. There is a close statistical correlation between tolerant attitudes towards gays and lesbians and economic output per person, the basic measure of economic development (.72). The graph below shows this relationship visually.
Attitudes towards gay and lesbian people are associated with a wide range of other indicators of economic and social progress: level of entrepreneurship (.69), overall well-being and life satisfaction (.72), human development (.55), and urbanization (.56), according to Mellander’s analysis. Nations that are more tolerant of gays and lesbians also tend to have less corruption and more freedom and greater gender equality.
This connection between tolerance and economic development can and does work both ways. Many scholars have noted how economic development spurs more open-minded attitudes toward a wide range of groups. The political sociologist Ronald Inglehart observes a basic transition in advanced societies toward secular, rational, and self-expression values, as opposed to the more traditional, prejudiced, and religious values that persist in more disadvantaged societies. But tolerance and open-mindedness can also more actively spur the attraction of new talent and the openness to new ideas that contribute to economic growth. In a detailed cross-national study, Marcus Noland and Howard Pack of the Petersen Institute of international Economics found that attitudes towards homosexuality are also correlated with globalization and the economic performance of nations, controlling for other factors. Just as Silicon Valley benefits from an inflow of talent from around the world (studies show that anywhere from a third to half of its high-tech start-ups have someone who was born outside the United States on their founding team), more tolerant and open nations can also attract entrepreneurs, educated workers, and even gifted athletes, or the families that produce them.
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This summer, when the latest upheavals reached a fever pitch, The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan pointed to the post-Soviet economic origins of Russia's resurgent homophobia. “To the degree that a given society…is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity,” Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond told Khazan, “it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength.”
If Putin is looking for the Olympic medal count to also validate Russia’s cultural and economic dominance, that may not come to pass. Predictions for final medal counts by nation from Infostrada Sports indicate that several countries with higher levels of economic development – the United States, Norway, Canada, and Germany – are likely to best Russia this year. These countries are also among the most tolerant toward gays and lesbians. And who can tell what kind of sly political statements against homophobia and in favor of greater tolerance their athletes might make.
Top Image: Gay activists hold rainbow flags and placards as they protest at the steps of the Acropolis' museum during an event ahead of the handover ceremony of the Olympic Flame, in Athens, on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)