Gender and sexual minorities have become the sacrificial lamb that far-right authoritarians around the world are desperately presenting to the masses as a scapegoat for societal misfortunes. Everywhere from Brazil to Hungary, populists like Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán have tapped into the vitriolic sentiments evoked by the weaponization of political homophobia. Motivated by a desire to expand their authority and solidify their grasp on power, these far-right authoritarians have learned that anti-LGBTQ bias can prove to be an effective tool for one seeking to dismantle a democracy.
In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump once seemed implausible. His election stunned the nation and global community, initiating an immediate period of mourning for millions and a much longer period of reflection transcending American borders. Trump’s presidency stood as inflection point, reminding us all of just how fragile democracies remain. The four years that followed the 2016 election were marked by repeated, outward assaults on democratic processes and a sinisterly strategic rollback of LGBTQ rights tied to deeper efforts to weaken and dismantle democratic institutions in America.
While not as blatantly homophobic or transphobic as he was racist and xenophobic, President Trump led an administration that uplifted anti-LGBTQ voices and institutionalized efforts to eliminate protections for gender and sexual minorities, placing an already vulnerable community at greater risk for everything from homelessness to bias-motivated assault. His legacy will be that of a man who opened the floodgates of extremism in a selfish effort to obtain power, thereby catalyzing the most coercive elements of a far-right ideology that clung to his cult of personality to infiltrate the GOP and positions of power in the U.S. government.
In 2021 alone the Human Rights Campaign has identified seven states that have pushed forward legislation targeting the rights of LGBTQ Americans. After decades of progress, anti-equality initiatives are gaining steam and rights retrenchment appears to be a real possibility if another Trump-like figure assumes power in 2024 or beyond. Evidence of the GOP’s embracement of the most extreme elements of the far-right was recently revealed in the fact that all but three Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the Equality Act, justifying their votes by arguing that equality for gender and sexual minorities represented a threat to their deeply held religious values.
Annise Parker, the leader of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, also warned that, “homophobic and transphobic attacks on LGBTQ candidates are more frequent and more direct than we have seen in at least a decade.” Then there is the viral incident that occurred in congress with Trump’s far-right protégé Marjorie Taylor Greene. In the lead up to the vote on the Equality Act, Representative Greene posted an antagonizing anti-transgender sign facing the office of Representative Marie Newman who has a transgender daughter. This embracement of an anti-LGBTQ agenda lines up well with the core objectives and sentiments of white nationalist groups across the country, who many in Washington appear to view as their newfound political base.
South of the United States, another democracy of the Western Hemisphere is imperiled by the grasp of a far-right populist authoritarian who rose to power, in part, by spewing repulsive anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is actively exploiting existing biases within the general population to intensify aggression against gender and sexual minorities. During his campaign he openly stated that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one and rallied supporters by promising, “we will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.”
Since assuming power Bolsonaro has threatened LGBTQ rights and worsened trends in bias-motivated violence against this marginalized community. Activists in Brazil have argued that anti-LGBTQ violence in the country has its roots in, “Brazil’s culture of machismo and a brand of evangelical Christianity, exported from the United States, that is outspoken in its opposition to homosexuality.” Though most notable in the Brazilian case is the clear connection between Bolsonaro’s discriminatory rhetoric and his rise to power. Bolsonaro’s explicit use of political homophobia as a tool to deepen his authoritarian rule mirrors trends in the weaponization of political homophobia in Eastern Europe.
Clinging to the “traditional values” defense, Vladimir Putin deploys political homophobia as a tool to rebuild a Russian national identity and further differentiate itself from the liberal norms of anti-discrimination and equality promoted by the European Union. In 2013 the Russian government passed an anti-gay propaganda law which outlawed the discussion of LGBTQ identities with minors, making it illegal for students to speak openly with educators or distressed teenagers to seek the mental healthcare they require. Alarmingly, Russia’s anti-LGBTQ, traditional values campaign has since transcended borders and infiltrated the E.U.
In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice Party continues to challenge the democratic norms and rules of the E.U. While seeking re-election President Andrzej Duda called the “LGBT ideology” worse than communism and proposed a “Family Charter” that promised to ban same-sex adoption and LGBTQ topics in historical and sexual education. Upon successfully winning re-election in 2019, Duda lauded 90 Polish townships that declared themselves “LGBT-Free Zones”, remarking that LGBTQ-identifying individuals are “not people”. This blatant discrimination and dehumanization of a legally protected group under E.U. law calls into question whether such behavior will be tolerated in a member state.
Late into 2020, under the leadership of far-right president Viktor Orbán, Hungary passed a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex adoption, a measure also directly oppositional to anti-discrimination norms. Consequences have not yet been brought to bear by E.U. leadership despite ongoing threats by Orbán to further rescind LGBTQ rights in the country. In fact, he has taken an offensive position standing alongside Poland, pushing for other European nations to join them in their assaults on equality. During a WWI memorial ceremony Obrán called on Central Europe to unite with Hungary and Poland in preserving their Christian roots, arguing that, “Western Europe has given up on a Christian Europe…and instead experiments with a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration, and open societies.” These statements represent an explicit challenge to the foundational principles of the E.U. and the anti-discrimination laws that it is obligated to protect.
While the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislative proposals flaring up in the U.S. and Brazil are alarming and warrant immediate attention, the destabilizing nature of the outward assaults on gender and sexual minorities in Poland and Hungary represent an emerging threat for widespread democratic decline. As members of the E.U. Poland and Hungary are bound by the anti-discrimination laws that govern the entirety of the union. If E.U. leaders fail to protect LGBTQ rights in Eastern Europe now, they will be welcoming further discriminatory actions in other member states and turning a blind eye to authoritarians actively laying the groundwork for democratic decline and human rights atrocities.
Analysis on this issue is much needed, thank you Matthew! The rise of anti-LGBTQ propaganda and administrative decisions is alarming, and the continuation of this trend could unravel the threads that hold democracy across the world together. Far right wing populist leaders fan the fire of LGBTQ hate as a means to gain popularity among those that support said ideologies.
Anti-LGBTQ proponents are a very niche portion of the population, and the far right wing fixates on pleasing this group in order to achieve the amassing of supporters. “In a report released June 1, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights decried the tendency for political leaders to stir up prejudice through homophobic rhetoric, especially during elections,” (Reid). The topic of taking away homosexual rights is a highly controversial and sensitive topic. Thus, when a right wing politician utilizes this as a talking point, the fact that people have such strong opinions on it plays to their advantage in accumulating votes and popularity.
Politicians go about attacking LGBTQ citizens by leaning heavily on supposed moral ideals. Oftentimes, they refer to the Bible or other religious books of worship as their explanation for why they continue to berate and dehumanize members of the homosexual community. This works in such a way that makes it difficult to debate in a political setting. “It’s easy to criminalize one’s political opponents by accusing them of violating moral laws,” (Reid). In addition, the usage of religious aspects for backing their homophobic stances appeals to the majority of the population of any country, as the first and second prevailing religions of the world are Christianity and Islam, respectively. By appealing to religion, this in a way compels and pigeon-holes people to adopt the politician’s point of view about the LGBTQ community and their rights, lest they argue against their own religion.
In addition, right wing politicians’ hyper-concern with LGBTQ members tends to drag the attention away from other issues. Pressing matters such as foreign and domestic policy, taxes, the creation of jobs, or the education system are pushed aside when a politician rages about the supposed need to control the lives of this portion of the population, to the point where it almost purposefully acts as a distraction. LGBTQ citizens also are utilized as scapegoats in the right wing populist politician’s rhetoric. “By scapegoating a largely invisible and unpopular minority, states create a moral panic — a perceived threat to the social order…They’re a convenient change of subject for political leaders…” (Reid). Political leaders can use the homosexual community as the reason for the “downfall of traditional values” in which the country was built upon, and people being fearful of the supposed “deterioration” of their country create a problem that was not even there to begin with.
On top of this, the political attack on the LGBTQ community and taking away of important aspects of their lives—such as being able to marry a person of the same sex, or the ability for gay partners to adopt a child—creates a scenario where the democratic backsliding in the country is a very prevalent problem. The usage of homophobic rhetoric ignites controversy over the much argued subject, and the gathering of people with prejudice against LGBTQ members in the party further pushes the right wing even more so to the right, as well as causes increasing erasure of the center right wing party. The center right wing party stabilizes politics by balancing out the far right so that it does not become too overwhelming. With anti-LGBTQ movements pushing the Republican party further right, this throws off this equilibrium and threatens the delicate balance of democracy. Furthermore, the corrosive rhetoric of the far right populist politicians against members of the LGBTQ community is a dangerous weapon. The language of a populist in and of itself utilizes the innate fears of their target audience to persuade the population that action through their way of thinking will defeat these fears (Lipset). Thus, the rhetoric against LGBTQ citizens Inspires hatred and turns their followers against this minority group of the country. Significant rifts such as these promote nothing more than ubiquitous animosity that will only further lead to democratic erosion. “The way a society treats its minorities — including LGBT people — is a good measure of democracy,” (Reid). The continual mistreatment of LGBTQ members through politics–such as gay propaganda laws, outlawing same sex marriage, or even preventative measures against allowing homosexual couples to adopt children–can and only will highlight the worsening shape of the country itself.
Reid, Graeme. “Homophobia as a Political Strategy.” Human Rights Watch, 29 June 2015, http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/29/homophobia-political-strategy#.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. “The British Journal of Sociology.” The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy, vol. 6, no. 2, June 1955, pp. 176–209.
Allan Benedict Solacito
This is a great and very eye-opening article. I was not able to observe the issue of Anti-LGBTQ in this perspective. This is a great analysis and I wish we can have further discussion on this. It is clear to me now on a general sense that one of the ways authoritarians get to tamper democracy is through creating exigences. There are pressing issues, but they will be something else up or form a different enemy for the public to focus on. They will try to combat the issue to look like a hero despite the fact that there are much more important issues that need resolution.
I think it is also very important to look into the rhetorical vision of the public towards the LGBTQ community. I would love to write a paper and study on this on a communicative perspective as well. Why and how has anti-LGBTQ bias become an effective tool in dismantling democracy? What is the public’s perception of the LGBTQ and what triggered it? Was it just because those in power actively plant information to advocate against them? Or are these leaders just reinforcing a bias that has already been there in the first place; a deeply rooted bias? By answering this and deep diving in it, we can see why it is effective propaganda. Why do people consider them enemies?