Gay men are being rounded up in Chechnya for harassment, arrest, torture, detention and even death. The Kremlin has said that there is no reason to believe this is happening. Chechnyan officials have variously denied these charges and claimed that there are no gays in Chechnya. In the midst of this cruelty and madness, this last claim deserves to be considered.
Christian Rudder, cofounder of OK Cupid and author of Dataclysm, reports on a curious thing about gays in the US. A Google engineer discovered that searches for gay porn are fairly constant, at 5%, across states, from Alabama to Wyoming, California to Massachusetts.
(How rare is 5%? Less rare than naturally occurring blondes, who show up in the population at a rate of about 2%.)
Even though searches for gay porn - and, presumably, gays - is fairly constant across states, the rate at which the population self-reports as gay varies wildly. 1.7 percent of the folks in North Dakota and 5.1 percent of the folks in Hawaii claim to be gay (Per Gallup's numbers.) Reality varies little but the ability to report on it does.
What determines whether people report as gay? Public acceptance. Gays in Mississippi or North Dakota are less free to admit to their orientation than are gays in Rhode Island or Hawaii because their neighbors are less likely to accept them. (One of the more poignant things that Rudder reports is this: women's search for "is my husband gay?" go up in states that are less tolerant of gays.)
The claim that there are no gays in Chechnya is of course a denial of reality. It also, of course, sustains a reality, one in which 5% of the population loses the lottery that says, "Winners get to be open and honest about who they love and find attractive."
Progress results in autonomy. A person with a computer has more options, more choice about what to do with her evening than person who only has a typewriter. A person with an education has more career options than someone who never learned to read. A person in a tolerant community has more options about who to marry - or even whether to get or stay married - than someone in an intolerant community. Progress means more freedom to define a life and less pressure to conform to the ideals of strangers who don't only fail to understand you but don't even love you.
There are 7 billion people on the planet. It's impossible to keep track of what they're all doing with their genitals or sexual imaginations and absurd to try. Beyond the absurdity of it, though, is this cruelty of telling people that it's a crime to be who they are. One of evolution's most curious tricks is this matter of making each person an individual. The societies that most thrive are the ones that accept this and find a way to leverage what's unique in each person rather than ignore or suppress it. While only 5% of the population is gay, their demand to be accepted for who they are ought to resonate with everyone for this simple reason: everyone has something about them that even close friends and family might find confusing, perhaps offensive.
And you don't even have to be this interested in what is marginal in each of us to care about any marginal population. There is a simple acceptance of reality that is required in dealing with minorities in your population and in dealing with technology and science. Reality is what it is and people who start with a denial of reality tend to have a poor track record in technological or scientific breakthroughs. Not many Nobel Prize winners come out of Chechnya. Until they begin accepting reality rather than denying it, not many ever will.