Tuesday

29th Sep 2020

Column

Fake civilisational conflict: How authoritarians abuse LGBT+ rights

There is something perplexing these days. Wherever one goes, nationalist governments attacking the LGBT+ community.

A week ago Polish police detained almost 50 people who demonstrated in favour of LGBT+ rights and may press criminal charges against them.

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  • "One may think that nationalism and anti-gay sentiment are natural ingredients of far right-policies, but they don't have to be"

At the end of March, at the height of the Corona-pandemic, the Hungarian government prohibited the change of sex on official documents.

In Russia, government propaganda has for many years portrayed gay rights as an indication of Western decadence.

One may think that nationalism and anti-gay sentiment are natural ingredients of far right-policies, but they don't have to be.

The man who established the modern Dutch far right, Pim Fortuyn, was gay and railed against Islam's rejection of personal liberties such as gay rights.

After he was assassinated in 2002, Geert Wilders followed the same script.

In the 2017 French presidential debates, Marine Le Pen said that her policies were all that stood between gay people and Islam's "hatred of homosexuals".

Libertarians, who we sometimes find on the right, make a case for personal freedoms while social conservatives can also make the case for equal treatment on issues like marriage (and some do).

After all, they see marriage and family as the most natural basic and stable form of human organisation, so why should this idea not apply to gay couples?

And yet, virulent anti-LGTB+ rhetoric and actions have become part and parcel of nationalist and extreme right-wing groups and parties around the world. Why?

I have no doubt that many people still feel that a gay relationship or different sexual identity are not 'normal' and should not be treated as such.

But I doubt that these sentiments are so wide-spread and virulent to naturally take the political centre-stage in so many different countries.

Sometimes, it is obvious.

In 2018, the Romanian government scheduled a referendum to enshrine that marriage can only be between a man and a woman as a provision in the constitution.

But despite many efforts to mobilise voters, only 20 percent of them turned out, making the poll invalid. Romanians simply did not care enough.

Political calculation

I think the best explanation for the prominence of widespread anti-LGTB+ rhetoric is a political calculation, especially in non-democracies. Many authoritarian regimes know that they are not popular.

They know that public participation and honest elections are their Achilles' heel. So they want to change the conversation. And they have been quite successful in doing so.

Of course, authoritarians continue to claim that they are actually democrats. But now they add: "Even if not, it does not matter that much, because we better protect our way of life."

They have transformed the all-important division between democratic and authoritarian regimes into a different opposition: Traditional-conservative versus progressive-liberal policies.

Who cares about the details of democracy if you are in a civilisational struggle?

Wherever you go these days, authoritarian projects will be magically connected to such social-conservative agendas.

Russian president Vladimir Putin changed the constitution to be able to rule with no end - the set of amendments also included a ban of gay marriage.

Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orbán wrote a letter to the European People's Party (EPP) to defend his parties many changes to Hungary`s democratic institutions. What did he talk about? Christianity and gay marriage.

And this is how I interpret Warsaw's police crackdown on demonstrators last weekend. Emboldened by the victory of Andrzej Duda in the recent presidential elections, the PiS government will continue to attack democracy's institutions, such as independent courts.

It already hinted that private media will be their next battlefield.

By notching up the attack against LGTB+ people, the government creates the fog of a cultural war behind which it keeps changing democracy's playing field in its favour.

How should pro-democracy actors respond?

They should refuse the traditional-versus-progressive framing that only serves authoritarian governments. They should instead expose the fake culture war scenario.

The Polish government is free to adopt conservative policies and to promote family values.

Neither the EU nor the European Convention on Human Rights have a position on gay marriage.

It is left to member states to decide on that, enjoying discretion for identifying alternative means of recognition of same-sex relationships.

But being socially conservative is different from being authoritarian. Courts must continue to be independent to judge whether policies are in line with the constitution and human rights protections.

Discrimination

Clearly, public authorities cannot advocate for discriminatory policies, as is the case with the infamous "LGBT-free zones" declared by many Polish municipalities.

Instead of exposing the instrumentalisation of vulnerable communities for authoritarian projects, we accept the framing of a civilisational struggle.

Now many people and well-meaning analysts juxtapose 'illiberal democracy' and 'liberal democracy', which implies that there are different forms of democracy, one more conservative, the other more progressive.

This is exactly what authoritarians want us to believe.

But there is only one democracy. It protects basic rights and freedoms within which freely elected governments can implement their policies, conservative or progressive.

Governments can adopt policies that are particularly family-friendly or particularly supportive of LGBT+ rights - they can even do both as long as they respect democracy's rulebook.

Whatever our own political positions, neither conservative nor liberal policies are a problem for democracy: authoritarian projects are.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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