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.