In the wake of President Trump’s surprise announcement last week that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the US military, Masha Gessen draws out the relationship between autocracy and LGBT oppression for the New York Review Daily. She argues that from Trump’s America to Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey, LGBT people are targeted by autocratic regimes because they represent a break from traditional forms of identity, which autocrats seek to shore up in a rapidly changing world. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
Many commentators immediately branded this move a distraction, an attempt to draw attention away from the Russian-conspiracy story, the health care battle, or anything else they deem more important than the president’s declaration that a group of Americans are second-class citizens. This is not only a grievous insult to transgender people but a basic failure to understand the emotional logic of Trumpism. This is a logic that Trump shares with most modern-day strongmen, and it was this logic that made his attack on LGBT rights so predictable, even while he was literally draping a rainbow flag over his body last year.
Trump got elected on the promise of a return to an imaginary past—a time we don’t remember because it never actually was, but one when America was a kind of great that Trump has promised to restore. Trumps shares this brand of nostalgia with Vladimir Putin, who has spent the last five years talking about Russian “traditional values,” with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has warned LGBT people against becoming “provocative,” and with any number of European populists who promise a return to a mythical “traditional” past.
With few exceptions, countries that have grown less democratic in recent years have drawn a battle line on the issue of LGBT rights. Moscow has banned Pride parades and the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” while Chechnya—technically a region of Russia—has undertaken a campaign to purge itself of queers. In Budapest, the Pride march has become an annual opposition parade: many, if not most, participants are straight people who use the day to come out against the Orbán government. In Recep Erdoğan’s Turkey, water cannons were used to disperse an Istanbul Pride parade. Narendra Modi’s India has re-criminalized homosexuality (though transgender rights have been preserved). In Egypt, where gays experienced new freedoms in the brief interlude of democracy after the 2011 revolution, they are now, under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship, subjected to constant harassment and surveillance and hundreds have been arrested.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is a telling exception to the rule: the government has touted its record on LGBT rights precisely to assert its otherwise tattered democratic credentials—a tactic the writer Sarah Schulman has termed “pinkwashing.” In other words, queer rights are anything but a distraction: they are a frontier, sometimes the frontier in the global turn toward autocracy.
Image: Marchers with photos of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Donald Trump, the KKK, and Adolf Hitler at the Pride Parade, San Francisco, June 25, 2017. Via NY Review Daily.