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Demonstrators wrapped in LGBT and European Union flags are seen on August 30, 2020 in Warsaw, Poland.  © 2020 Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto via AP

During Pride month in June, LGBT rights once again became a flashpoint in Europe, where the rights of LGBT people have become a wedge issue, deployed for political effect. This simmering conflict is coming to a head between Hungary and Poland and the EU.

What is happening in Europe raises questions about the limits of EU membership for states that flout basic norms.  But it also has global resonance, as the latest manifestation of a familiar trope, the attempt to relegate LGBT people to the terrain of religion, morality and culture, not human rights.  

This dispute played itself out with considerable animosity at the UN, in 2014, around the establishment of a mandate focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity. States opposed to the mandate , including Egypt on behalf of the OIC, and Botswana on behalf of the Africa group, and Russia, objected to the establishment of the mandate, as the Russian Federation stated: “The notion of sexual orientation and gender identity did not exist in international law.”

At its  most recent Universal Periodic Review, the UN system to monitor human rights, Egypt refused to recognize the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” notwithstanding the routine arrest, imprisonment, and torture of LGBT people there.

Since 2016, Indonesian officials have used an anti-pornography law to arrest gay men in private settings, while a Malaysian government task force in June proposed amendments to sharia law to curb “promoting the LGBT lifestyle” on social media.  Honduras institutionalized discrimination, passing a constitutional amendment in January that entrenched harsh restrictions on reproductive rights and the prohibition on same-sex marriage.

In Ghana, 21 people were arrested in May for participating in a paralegal workshop on documenting human rights violations against LGBT people. Police justified the arrest on the grounds that the training session was promoting homosexuality and that the gathering was an unlawful assembly. And a recently proposed bill on ‘sexual rights’ and ‘family values’  is so onerous it beggars belief.

LGBT organizations continue to face obstacles to registration, such as Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM), who appealed their case to the High Court in October 2020, after the Eswatini Registrar of Companies refused their application to register on grounds that “ESGM’s objectives were unlawful because same-sex sexual acts are illegal in the country.”

In the Middle East, the chokehold of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed once again how LGBT people, who already face healthcare discrimination and economic marginalization, are scapegoated in times of crisis. In North Africa, Tunisia has intensified its crackdown on LGBT organizing and increased persecution of LGBT people during the pandemic, arresting LGBT activists and assaulting them at protests. Algeria justified its abusive conviction of 44 LGBT people at a private party because they had broken Covid-19 related quarantine measures. Meanwhile, gay and bisexual men “outed” on same-sex dating apps in Morocco had nowhere to go after being kicked out of their homes during a country-wide lockdown.

The showdown in Europe is looming over core EU values, with LGBT rights and equality at front and center. LGBT rights have long been symbolic shorthand for political difference between zones of Russian and EU influence. One marker of this has been the proliferation of copycat ‘gay propaganda’ bills in a number of countries in the region that followed in the wake of Russia’s blueprint, passed in 2013, shortly before  the Sochi Olympics.

LGBT rights as a divisive issue within the EU, putting Poland and Hungary on a collision course with the bloc, is a more recent development, stemming from the election of right-wing nationalist governments in those countries. The stakes are high, not only for LGBT people directly affected, but for fundamental human rights and the future of the EU.   

It is no coincidence that Poland’s far-right nationalist government engaged in a frontal assault on an independent judiciary and has put civil society and the free press under considerable pressure. On the eve of the 2020 presidential elections, the sitting president from the ruling Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), Andzrej  Duda, endorsed the symbolic ‘Family Charter.’ The charter opposed same-sex marriage and adoption rights as well as comprehensive sexuality education in schools, couched in the language of protecting the ‘traditional family.’ 

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic, populist prime minister, has attacked academic institutions, curtailed independent media, and routinely vilified vulnerable groups — first migrants, then LGBT people — in the name of protecting Hungary from perceived foreign influences and threats. Not surprisingly, the latest salvo, a law that equates pedophilia with homosexuality and bans the ‘portrayal or promotion of homosexuality’ or gender variance in the presence of children, comes ahead of next year’s elections

An August government decree implementing the anti-LGBT law, poised to come into effect in September, forbids shops from displaying anything that may be associated with promoting or portraying homosexuality, sex change, or gender identity. Shops within 200 meters of churches or schools may not sell such items at all.  Think rainbow flags, for example.

Meanwhile, in July, in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, a planned March for Dignity that formed part of Pride celebrations was cancelled after far-right protestors violently attacked participants and journalists and ransacked organizers’ offices, amidst inadequate police protection.  A cameraman who suffered serious injuries during the homophobic mob violence, was found dead days later. “We cannot come out to the streets full of oppressors supported by the government, patriarchate and pro-Russian forces, and risk the lives of people” the organizers said in a statement.

‘LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology,’ Poland’s president Duda said in June 2020 during an election campaign rally. His statement  which dehumanizes LGBT people, and relegates them to a threatening ideology has gained traction in recent years because political leaders kept repeating it. The ‘anti-gender movement’ has successfully mobilized this rhetoric in Europe, Latin America and Africa, to push back against progress on women’s rights, LGBT inclusion, and in particular the notion of gender self-determination for trans people. In 2016 Pope Francis, notwithstanding his conciliatory remarks towards gay and transgender people, characterized discussion of gender diversity in schools as ‘ideological colonization.’

This goes to the heart of why LGBT rights are seen as so threatening, and why they become such a potent symbol in a rhetorical clash between ‘traditional values’ and ‘human rights.’  LGBT rights are projected as a marker of modernity, a foreign influence, and an assault on the family and tradition.  When Duda and his ilk cast “LGBT” as an ideology, not people, it is effective because ideologies seem destabilizing, menacing, whereas people evoke sympathy.

It is not in their political interest that the general public recognize that “LGBT” is people. People like A.M., refused access to her children by Russian courts solely because she is trans. People like Nur Sajat, persecuted by the Malaysian religious officials for expressing her gender identity. People like Agnes, a lesbian in Ghana, who said that when her family heard that she was associating with LGBT people, they chased her out of the house with a machete. In Spain, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the killing of Samuel Luiz, a gay man beaten to death outside a gay club in what police are investigating as a possible hate crime.

To attack LGBT rights has political currency, but it is individual LGBT people who bear the brunt.  

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