Commentary: Autocrats Militarize Homophobia to Consolidate Power

By Clara Ferreira Marques / Bloomberg Notice

Hungary’s parliament this month approved legislation banning school materials and other content for young people deemed to “promote homosexuality.” The effort to marginalize the LGBTQ community and link it to pedophilia has outraged many European states and is straining the 27-member Union.

Discrimination against gay and transgender people is an increasingly popular ploy for strong men to distract from faltering popularity, and this is no exception. Personal, political and economic scars will last.

The bloc’s most reactionary governments have been testing the limits of what is allowed for some time, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who frequently scoffs at the misdeeds of immigration and liberalism, often leads the charge. It has already, among other measures, effectively banned adoption for same-sex partners and made it impossible for Hungarians to legally change their sex. This new law, ostensibly on child protection, makes inclusion even more difficult.

The sad reality is that there is nothing original here. Orban’s Fidesz party was inspired by the 2013 Russian law banning propaganda on “non-traditional sex,” a significant setback for a country that first decriminalized homosexuality in 1917 (and then again in 1993). Such legislation legitimizes homophobic rhetoric, reduces much needed support for LGBTQ youth, and, research shows, increases tolerance for violence against individuals. Attitudes have deteriorated: A 2018 survey found that 63% of Russians believed in a concerted effort to destroy Russian values ​​through gay propaganda. In Poland, ruling nationalists have also made homophobia a key part of the 2020 presidential campaign. In an interview with Orban on Sunday, Czech President Milos Zeman called transgender people “utterly disgusting.”

So why are countries like Hungary, Russia and Poland, but also African countries like Uganda, moving in this direction when much of the world is making progress on LGBTQ rights? It is devastatingly simple. It is much less about sexual orientation than about fueling fear, about tightening control; and keep leaders in power.

Consider what was happening in Russia when the 2013 law was passed and what is happening in Hungary today. Eight years ago, the Kremlin was grappling with street protests after Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency after a stint as prime minister. He had not yet felt the strengthening of public opinion linked to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Orban suffers the consequences of a disastrous management of the covid-19 pandemic which has left Hungary with the rate of highest per capita mortality after Peru. Next year he will face his tightest election in over a decade in power, thanks to a united opposition. He has already launched similar attacks against migrants, asylum seekers, Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros and the large Roma minority.

LGBTQ communities, unfortunately, are particularly suited to getting caught in the crossfire. Not because homosexuals or transgender people threaten the state. In fact, says Yiu-tung Suen, founding director of the sexualities research program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it’s the opposite. They are easier to present as the bogeyman precisely because they are invisible and indistinguishable from the crowd, often reluctant to speak out – and even go out – in hostile environments. Conspiracy theories are thriving. Richard Mole, professor of political sociology at University College London, points out that because gay and transgender people are more important abroad, it’s easy to present anything LGBTQ as imported, a Western funded “ideology.” from abroad; and the opposite of what is described as traditional values. Associating homosexuality with Western ideas in general is also an excellent way to delegitimize opponents.

There is often, as in the case of the new Hungarian law, the defamation of pedophilia, the protection of children being used as a pretext for repressive measures. Russia used the same coverage to crack down on social media platforms successfully used by opposition voices.

Creating an invented ‘other’ is a powerful distraction tactic, so powerful that Orban, for his part, has been able to gloss over high-profile sex scandals, even one involving a close ally being caught fleeing a crime scene. all-male party during lockdown by going down a waste pipe. And it is so linked to authoritarian control that it is undoubtedly a mark of deterioration of political discourse. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers who have defended freedoms, including those of LGBTQ citizens, are now largely in prison or exile, leaving pro-Beijing worshipers to speak out against the Gay Games the city is due to host next year. like “dirty money”. (The chief of the territory then made more conciliatory comments).

This instrument is also not used only in autocracies. The Republican Party in the United States is trying to galvanize its grassroots by seeking to deny gender-affirming medical treatment to transgender youth and regulating their participation in sports, overcoming the concerns of parents and doctors.

The prejudice is above all personal, the lives of families and ordinary citizens being made miserable, even intolerable.

But executioners hurt everyone, including themselves. Lack of inclusion leads to lost productivity, high turnover and wage gaps. Human resources are underdeveloped and poorly allocated, and potential is wasted. The investment goes elsewhere. There is a clear link between LGBTQ rights and stronger economies, possibly both ways. The Williams Institute, a research center that studies law and public policy on sexual orientation and gender identity, found in a 2014 study of 39 countries, most of them developing, that an additional right of the Global Index on Legal Recognition of Gay Orientation was associated with an additional $ 1,400 in gross domestic product per capita. The Human Development Index was also positively correlated, reflecting better education and better health.

This episode will certainly not improve Hungary’s already troubling brain drain among educated young people, made worse by the government’s tighter grip on universities. Orban is worried enough to demand tax breaks for those under 25 ahead of the election. He may have paused to consider the impact of a decision that has cast a veil even on the Hungarian national football team. Freedom is easier.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and a writer and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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