5 min

The global far right is riding a homophobic wave

From Russia to Poland to Brazil: how the far right weaponizes homophobia

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with permanent members of the Russian Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on June 21, 2018. Credit: EPA/Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin

There are many ways to tell the story of the resurgence of far-right politics in Europe and around the world. The year 2012 is as good a place to start as any.

That’s when Vladimir Putin, who had briefly given up the presidency to his flunky Dmitry Medvedev, returned fully to power.

Not that he’d ever really stopped exercising his authority. But the Medvedev presidency had brought with it some hope that Russia might steer away from the autocratic path it was on — recall Obama’s famous “reset” with Russia.

Putin’s return, in an election marred by corruption, ended any such notion. Instead, the country walked further into demagoguery. And among the first victims were LGBT people.

First it was Pussy Riot, the queer punk band that protested the election. A year later, the Russian Duma unanimously passed the infamous “homosexual propaganda” law that barred positive portrayals of gay people. That was quickly followed by a ban on same-sex parents adopting children.

Putin’s explicit homophobia and his appropriation of the Orthodox Christian faith made him a hero to right-wing Christians the world over, including in the US, where it prefaced the strange alliance between the evangelical wing of the Republican Party and the Kremlin.

The year 2012 was a pivot point for Hungary as well. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary had embraced European values and even joined the European Union. But in 2010, the right-wing Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, gained a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, with enough power to change the constitution.

Those constitutional changes, which gave Orbán his autocratic power, came into force in 2012. They also banned gay marriage and stripped LGBT people of any anti-discrimination protections.

Since 2012, Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary have become the twin templates from which the far right has been working. And an essential part of that playbook is to target LGBT people.

That’s been true even in the United States. President Donald Trump, the embodiment of irreligious decadence, bought the votes of an initially wary evangelical community by recruiting Mike Pence, most famous for pushing a law that would allow religious discrimination against LGBT people, as his vice-president.

Most recently, we can see this dynamic at play in Poland. Since 2015, the increasingly autocratic Law and Justice Party has held a lock on all the levers of power, except one: the judiciary. That has put Poland’s judges firmly in the crosshairs for years.

At the end of June, the Polish Supreme Court took a stand against LGBT discrimination by siding with an LGBT organization that was denied service by a print shop. The ruling party was furious.

“The Supreme Court in this case spoke against freedom and acted as a state oppressor by servicing the ideology of homosexual activists,” Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister, said. “The court acted against the freedom guaranteed in the Polish constitution to every citizen, no matter what worldview he holds.”

A few weeks later, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda plunged the country into a constitutional crisis when he dismissed dozens of judges, including the head of the Supreme Court.

The attack on Poland’s judiciary is the culmination of a years-long fight between different visions for the country: a cosmopolitan European democracy against a traditionalist, Catholic autocracy. LGBT rights are seen as having no place in the latter.

Just this week, Poland’s interior minister Joachim Brudziński urged police to prosecute a group of LGBT protesters who he said desecrated Polish national symbols by putting them on a Pride flag.

Of course it’s not just LGBT people who are targeted. In Europe, fear of African and Middle Eastern migration has been weaponized to fuel the rise of the far right.

And old prejudices that never went away are finding new state sanction. Romani people are being killed with impunity in Ukraine and Italy’s new far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini has called for a Romani registry that echoes the run-up to the Holocaust.

In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been declared an extremist group and are being rounded up and imprisoned. Orbán just won another election on the back of an overtly anti-Semitic campaign against billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

What links all of these sets of persecutions is that the very existence of the victims is seen as being incompatible with the nationalist programs being pushed by the new far right.

Romani people, descended from peoples who came to Europe from India 1,500 years ago, have always been perpetual outsiders; legally enslaved in parts of Europe until the 1860s, systematically murdered during the Holocaust and still subject to wide-scale discrimination. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to bow to any national symbol and Jewish people are viewed as having dual loyalties.

By going after LGBT people, far-right nationalists are able to hit many spots of prejudice at once. They are able to portray themselves as the defenders of a masculine, assertive Christianity against the effete cosmopolitans. And they can play off of the latent homophobia and transphobia of the populace.

The links between homophobia and far-right nationalism do have some variations from country to country. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (then known as National Front) has tried to move away from its overtly homophobic and anti-Semitic origins towards a kind of coalition politics that tries to enlist gay men and French Jews against Muslims.

In the last election, it was somewhat successful at increasing support from the LGBT community, with around one in five gay men backing Le Pen. But France’s general aversion to organized religion may have made that more of an appealing strategy there than elsewhere.

The next country to fall for this poisonous mix of homophobia and nationalism may very well be Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy.

By the end of the year, Brazilian voters may elect Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called the “most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world.

A proud defender of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which came to an end in 1985, Bolsonaro has been able to build up his popularity in part on his overt homophobia.

“They want to reach our children in order to turn the children into gay adults to satisfy their sexuality in the future,” Bolsonaro told Stephen Fry in 2011. “So these are the fundamentalist homosexual groups that are trying to take over society.”

Bolsonaro has feuded with Jean Wyllys, the only gay legislator in the Brazilian congress, whose party he called the “party of dicks and faggots.” Earlier this year, he filed a criminal libel complaint against Wyllys for calling him a fascist and racist, among other things that are clearly true.

Like other far-right leaders, Bolsonaro doesn’t limit himself to attacks on LGBT people.

His vile attacks against female legislators are too numerous to outline, but they include praising the torture that former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff endured at the hands of the military government and telling a congresswoman that she was too ugly to be raped.

He often engages in racist attacks against Brazil’s marginalized Black and Indigenous communities. He also argues that police should be given free rein to engage in extrajudicial killings of criminals, recalling the savagery of the current president of the Philippines.

While Brazil is not an intensely religious country, Bolsonaro is part of a rising wave of evangelical voters who have exploded to around a quarter of the Brazilian population. While he himself is nominally Catholic, his base is mainly evangelical. As with American evangelicals, Polish Catholics or Russian Orthodox Christians, Bolsonaro’s evangelical base is fusing Christian fervour — with all of its homophobic and transphobic underpinnings — with militaristic nationalism.

If Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the immensely popular former president, isn’t allowed to contest the next election, Bolsonaro very well could win. He leads in the polls and is continually gaining prominence. He even received a bizarre endorsement from Ronaldinho, one of the greatest soccer stars in recent Brazilian history.

In Russia, Hungary, Poland, the United States and Brazil, the backlash against LGBT rights has found common cause with the enemies of liberal democracy. Together, these forces are shaping the world into a far more dangerous place for LGBT people and other marginalized minorities.