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False Defenders: Western Populist Right-Wing Discourses on Homosexuality

Written by: Thomas Sørensen & Manfredi Pozzoli /Edited by: Emanuela Lipari

Right-wing narratives on homosexuality are far from static. The gradual triumph of value-based Western liberalism throughout the 20th century has meant that Western right-wing movements have conformed many of their stances on social issues vis-à-vis the liberal ‘cultural hegemony,’ while still maintaining ‘conservative’ positions on economics.

Despite their newfound ‘cultural liberalism’ some contemporary European and North American right-wing parties have managed to adopt series of xenophobic discourses – especially towards the growing diaspora of majority Muslim people from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Within these discourses, which often attempt to make a claim of moral superiority vis-a-vis progressive movements, LGBTQ+ identities are portrayed as being threatened by the ‘tide’ of ‘uncivilized’ migrants from Muslim-majority countries. This trend is analysed by Jasbir Puar in her framework of ‘Homonationalism’, which she describes as “a deep critique of lesbian and gay liberal rights discourses and how those rights discourses produce narratives of progress and modernity that continue to accord some populations access to citizenship – cultural and legal – at the expense of the delimitation and expulsion of other populations.”

This weaponization of the acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights to frame Muslim immigrants as foreign to Western society is representative of a longer trend in which some right-wing actors have used the existence of LGBTQ+ communities to further nationalist goals. The absorption of liberal values however has flipped the narrative from seeing homosexuality as threat imported from outside, to seeing its acceptance as proof of the nation-culture’s superiority over the Other.

A New Right-Wing View on Homosexuality?

In a 2016 blog post, titled ‘Muslims, Free Yourselves and Leave Islam’, Dutch politician – and leader of the Party for Freedom – Geert Wilders asks his readers to imagine themselves as ‘gay [people] in a Muslim family’; then, he asks to imagine what facing the ‘Islamic culture of fear [and] oppression’ must be like. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front has been courting LGBTQ+ voters through warnings of Islamic intolerance. Even in traditionally Catholic Italy, where civil unions for same sex couples were legalised in 2016, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, has joined her progressive colleagues in condemning the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in MENA countries. In the past 20 years, and especially since the beginning of the European migrant crisis of 2014, these narratives have become increasingly common among Western conservative politicians.

The proliferation of liberal ideas has seen changes to all areas of the political spectrum, from Tony Blair’s New Labour to Angela Merkel’s CDU. The values of liberalism even as they have become dominant in most parties have not fundamentally changed the xenophobia present in certain strands of conservative nationalism and now it may actually enhance it. In many instances, populist variants of conservative nationalism focus on situating increasingly neoliberal right-wing economic policies within an Islamophobic framework. However, the rhetorical use of the LGBTQ+ community as a minority community separate from wider society is still present, with the nationalist parties having pivoted from excluding them to framing themselves as “protectors of the marginalised.” The has resulted in parties like Denmark’s Conservative People’s Partyelecting an openly gay leader while having slogans such as “stop Nazi-Islamism” on their political billboards. The absolutist definition of Muslims (and, by extension, of all migrants from the MENA region) as being opposed to liberal values in all degrees underpins the calls for the exclusion and rejection of these members of the community.

Homophobia, Anti-Communism and Nationalism

The rhetorical use of homosexuality by nationalists as a way to deny foreigners access to the community of the nation is nothing new. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, there increasingly became an identification of ‘the foreign’ with ‘sexual deviance’, as exemplified by 1907-9 ‘Eulenburg affair’. In this instance, a German high commanding officer was accused of having divulged state secrets to a French diplomat he was supposedly in a same-sex relationship with. In the aftermath of the Eulenburg case the French and British society increasingly began to identify the German diaspora and the homosexual community with one another. The notion of being queer as a “German vice” was institutionalized, especially as the Great War caused a flare-up in nationalist rhetoric. Homosexuality was no longer merely a moral issue – it was seen as direct threat to the nation itself. Being queer in war-time Britain or France meant being an agent of the Germans and by extension a national traitor. As Florence Tamagne writes in her book on homosexuality in interwar Europe, the homophobic nationalist rhetoric showed the fragility of early attempts at homosexual emancipation which were “always at the mercy of the whims of ever-shifting public opinion — which was concerned with respectability and ready to name sacrificial victims, in a crisis, in order to redeem the “sins” of the nation.

European exponents of this strand of early-20th century Nationalism thus created a direct link between the homosexual community and the ‘non-national’ Other that they sought to persecute in order to ‘strengthen the nation in the war effort’. This alienation of the Other by discrediting them as queer was carried over further into the sphere of ideological politics with right-wing nationalists increasingly identifying not only the non-national Other as ‘sexually deviant’ but also the far left. This would be strengthened by the left-wing’s progressive stance on homosexuality, particularly following legalisation of homosexual relations by the Soviet Union in 1918.

This increasingly hysterical ‘anti-communist homophobia’ would be strengthened during the inter-war period and, later, flare up especially in the early Cold War, during the so-called ‘Lavender Scare’ in the US. Borrowing directly from McCarthyism, hard-line American ‘cold-warriors’ portrayed homosexuals as ‘security threats’ due to their perceived vulnerability to Communist subversion. Again, the link between ‘homosexual’ and ‘foreign’ was stressed: for Nebraska Congressman Arthur Miller homosexuality was an old ‘Oriental’ practice that had been inherited – and apparently ‘weaponised’ – by the non-Western Russians. In the 1950s, close diplomatic and security relations between Western states ensured that the same rhetoric employed in the US was ‘exported’ over to Canada, Europe, and Australia, thus stereotyping the image of the ‘homosexual-communist agent’ as a recurring trope.

The Superficiality of Narrative Change

If analysed through Puar’s ‘Homonationalist’ framework, it becomes apparent that the recent liberal turn espoused by certain right-wing parties is only superficially indicative of a significant ideological shift; indeed, ‘old’ nationalist ontologies, especially the perspective of the ‘outsider-insider’ distinction, remain unchanged, despite otherwise aesthetic changes in rhetoric. According to Moffitt, these current narratives are primarily products of a type of ‘opportunism’: by employing a populist style of rhetoric, right-wing parties such as National Front arbitrarily include marginalised groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, in the ‘righteous people’ that are threatened by the ‘dangerous outsider’. The result is that “the narrative of progress for gay rights is thus built on the back of the racialized others.” Recent shifts in political opinion may be the most apparent cause of the widespread use of these narratives: faced with an ageing base of support, nationalist parties are looking to bring in younger voters who tend to be more tolerant towards LGBTQ+ identities.

This is not to say that the appearance of these themes represents a deep cultural shift. At best, the virility of these populist narratives demonstrates a certain ambivalence over the theme of homosexuality, and more broadly on LGBTQ identities, among certain right-wing, nationalist factions. While being portrayed as part of the ‘vulnerable’ people, LGBTQ communities are often still associated with the dangerous ‘elites’ that feature prominently in all populist narratives. Indeed, politicians like Meloni, while decrying the risks of ‘Islamic intolerance’, still repeatedly warn the public about the dangers posed by ‘gay lobbies’ and academic ‘gender theory’ to the Western-Christian ‘spirit’ of their countries. This is also present in the more conservative factions of the right-wing who display equal ambivalence towards the LGBTQ+ community. Prominently, the Danish People’s Party has opposed same-sex marriage whilst simultaneously claiming that homosexuals are under pressure from ‘intolerant Islamic groups.’

In the post-colonial world, the West seems to have halted its ‘civilizing mission,’ yet maintains, in the nationalist-conservative mindset, a sense of moral superiority which stems in part from its efforts to legally enforce and uphold LGBTQ+ rights. Despite this, the racial and ethnic Other is still viewed in absolutist terms. Internal homophobia may have been drastically censored by some right wing governments in recent years but the non-white population – especially those from MENA and sub-Saharan Africa – are still stereotyped as ‘uncivilised.’ This ultimately relies on ignorance, as the majority of Western nationalist governments largely neglect the nuances of LGBTQ+ life in parts of the MENA region, where there is evidence of sporadic legalisation and tacit acceptance of homosexual relations.

Overall, the variety of uses and narratives over LGBTQ+ communities and rights found in certain populist right-wing discourses in Europe and North America demonstrate the complexities associated with the political role of identities that, until recently, existed outside of the realm of mainstream politics. The shift away from the traditional rhetoric that linked homosexuality with foreign subversion, to one in which it is portrayed as a primarily ‘fragile’ inside identity threatened by the ‘uncivilised foreigner’ has allowed nationalist movements, politicians and groups to turn the acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights into a ‘clash of civilizations’ scenario, in which Western liberalism is threatened by the ‘tide’ of – primarily – Muslim outsiders.

Bibliography

Tamagne, Florence, History of Homosexuality in Europe, Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939: Vol. I & II (Algora Publishing, 2004)

Vērdiņs, Kārlis, and Ozoliņs, Jānis, eds., Queer Stories of Europe (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2016)

Birken, Lawrence, ‘Homosexuality and Totalitarianism’ in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Routledge, 1997), pp. 1-16

Moffitt, Benjamin, ‘Liberal Illiberalism? The Reshaping of the Contemporary Populist Radical Right in Northern Europe’ in Politics and Governance; Lisbon Vol. 5, Iss. 4, (2017): 112-122. https://search.proquest.com/docview/2001911453?accountid=11862&pq-origsite=primo

Dudink, Stefan P., ‘Homosexuality, Race, and the Rhetoric of Nationalism.’ in History of the Present, Vol. 1, no. 2 (Routledge, 2011), pp. 259-64

Wilders, Geert, ‘Muslims, Free Yourselves and Leave Islam!’, Geert Wilders Blog, (June 4, 2016).  https://www.geertwilders.nl/index.php/94-english/1996-muslims-free-yourselves-and-leave-islam

Perkins, Alisa, ‘Negotiating alliances: Muslims, gay rights and the Christian right in a Polish-American city’ in Anthropology Today, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 2010), pp. 19-24

Puar, Jasbir, ‘Rethinking Homonationalism.’ in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 336–39

‘US Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 81st Congress, Second Session’, Vol. 96, Part 4,  (US Government Printing Office, March 29-April 24, 1950), pp. 4273-5668.

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