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Why Autocrats Fear LGBT Rights

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
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

July 26, 2017, was a personal anniversary for me: one year earlier I had written a piece in which I argued for setting aside the idea of a Trump-Russia conspiracy (yes, this idea was with us a year ago) for the much more important task of imagining what a Trump presidency might bring. I wrote that Trump would unleash a war at home and while it was difficult to predict the target, “my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable.” This was a thought exercise; even as I made an argument that I believed to be logical, I could not believe my own words. On Wednesday of this week, one year to the day since I made that prediction, President Trump announced, by tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military—a policy reversal that would directly and immediately affect thousands of people.

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.

The appeal of autocracy lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country.

One can laugh at the premise of the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda”—as though the sight of queerdom openly displayed, or even the likeness of a rainbow (this claim has been made) can turn a straight person queer. At the same time, in Russia queer people make an ideal target for government propaganda because the very idea of them serves as a convenient stand-in for an entire era of liberalization that is now shunned. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, queerdom was unthinkable. Afterward, it became possible along with so many other things: the world became complicated, full of possibility and uncertainty. It also grew frightening—precisely because nothing was certain any longer.

This fear cuts across geographic borders; it feels much the same in countries that were never Communist and in societies that were never apparently closed. The precipitous loss of economic security, the disappearance of lifelong careers, the rising sense of a world transformed by the movement of people across borders have all coincided with the growing visibility of LGBT people. In America, too, the sight of a queer person can conjure the fear of change.  

Trump’s campaign ran on the word “again,” the promises to “take back” a sense of safety and “bring back”  a simpler time. When he pledged to build the wall or to fight a variety of non-existent crime waves (urban, immigrant) he was promising to shield Americans from the strange, the unknown, the unpredictable. Here, too, queers can serve as convenient shorthand. By tweeting that he has decided to ban transgender people from the military, Trump shows that he is the autocrat that he was elected to be: he can control people by issuing an order. The order juxtaposes the military—the symbol of Americans’ security—with transgender people, who make so many Americans feel so anxious. 

Looking at a person who embodies choice—the possibility of being or becoming different—can be like staring into the abyss of uncertainty. In this sense, seeing a Pride march or a trans person can make a straight person feel very queer: it demonstrates possibility, making the world frightening. It speaks to the modern predicament the social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote about in his book about the rise of Nazism, Escape from Freedom: the ability to invent oneself. One is no longer born a tradesman or a peasant, or the lifelong resident of a particular quarter, or a man or a woman. This freedom can feel like an unbearable burden. No wonder the most notorious piece of American anti-transgender legislation—the North Carolina bathroom bill—focused on the birth certificate as the most important document. In mandating that people use public bathrooms in accordance with the sex assigned at birth, the law created a situation where some people who looked, acted, smelled like—who identified and lived as—women were required to use the men’s bathroom, and vice versa—but it established that one’s position in the world was set from birth.

For the last half-century, the American LGBT movement has bent to accommodate the belief that a person’s identity is already present at birth. “Born this way” has been the mantra that has enabled many of the political advances and much of the cultural acceptance for LGBT people, even as it has pushed out of view many queer people’s lived experience of choice. But no amount of reassurance that LGBT people “can’t help it” can alleviate the anxiety brought on by the spectacle of people transgressing gender roles. This is the kind of anxiety Trump addressed as a candidate and has addressed again with his apparent promise to purge transgender people who are already serving in the military. This is no distraction: it is the very heart of Trumpism.