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Global Autocracy and LGBTQ Rights

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

As 2017 came to a close, anyone who thought Donald Trump would diverge from the majority of his party and champion the rights of LGBTQ Americans has been proven spectacularly wrong. Indeed, once Trump ascended to the presidency, he swiftly moved to consolidate power through appeals to his core supporters. One of these appeals involves attacks against the LGBTQ community, as a significant portion of Trump’s base fear, or outright oppose, social change in the form of LGBTQ rights. The Human Rights Campaign identified 17 times the Trump-Pence Administration attacked the LGBTQ community in 2017, from rescinding Title IX guidance for transgender students, to terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (an estimated 75,000 “Dreamers” are LGBTQ), to Trump’s tweeted transgender military ban, to, most recently, instructing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to avoid using the word “transgender” in official documents, thus undermining critical research such as the impact of HIV/AIDS on transgender Americans.

How do we make sense of Trump’s reversal on LGBTQ rights (if we stretch our imaginations and believe the statements he made on the campaign trail)? Some have suggested that Trump is creating chaos by lashing out at a vulnerable community–particularly the transgender community–to deflect from ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian Federation. As an aspiring autocrat–a leader who seeks supreme power and sees himself as the sole source and arbiter of truth–anti-LGBTQ attacks are, in fact, at the heart of Trump’s consolidation of power and vision to “Make America Great Again.”

While considerable attention has been paid to Trump’s attacks on LGBTQ Americans, less time has been devoted on the part of the mainstream media to reporting on concurrent LGBTQ rights violations around the globe. Though we have been told what is happening in places such as Chechnya, Egypt, India, and Uganda, most reports do not delve deeply into why this level of LGBTQ persecution is happening at this moment, or how LGBTQ rights serve as a litmus test of sorts for creeping authoritarianism. LGBTQ rights are essential to understanding Trumpism and the rise of global autocracy. Americans concerned with the preservation of democracy should pay increased attention to global LGBTQ rights violations, particularly in Chechnya and Egypt.

The Campaign to Criminalize Gay Men in Chechnya

Chechnya is a mainly Muslim, highly conservative region of the Russian Federation ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, an authoritarian leader loyal to President Vladimir Putin. Homophobia in Chechnya has increased due to Putin empowering regional leaders to interpret and implement “traditional values” in the way they see fit. Though Chechnya has long been on the radar of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, for its oppressive stance towards LGBTQ Chechens, February 2017 saw the beginnings of a crackdown in which there was an organized campaign to detain gay men and men perceived as gay.

Reports now indicate that over 100 gay men have been abducted, detained, tortured, or killed at a center near the city of Grozny. Victims who have come forward have described being interrogated, beaten, having their phones searched for evidence of gay content, and given little food or water. Some have referred to the crackdown as a “gay purge” or “gay genocide.” The treatment of gay Chechens has prompted international protests, such as those led by the New York City-based activist group Voices 4 Chechnya, and political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called on Putin to intervene. Canada has also offered political asylum to LGBTQ Chechens.

When asked about the allegations in July of 2017, Kadyrov tellingly stated that “there were no gays in Chechnya” (BBC). A Chechen government spokesman, Alvi Karimov, also denied the reports, stating: “You can’t detain and repress people who simply don’t exist in the republic.” Far from dismissing the allegations, Kadyrov, as an autocratic leader, revealed his regime’s true intentions–to symbolically and literally purge Chechnya of queers as a way to consolidate power through appeals to an imagined past in which gender and sexual roles are clearly defined and individual rights and freedoms are severely limited. Through using gay Chechens as an example, the Kadyrov regime has sent the message that acting outside of traditional heteronormative roles will not be tolerated.

Egypt’s Proposed Anti-LGBTQ Legislation

Egypt, too, has seen a crackdown in LGBT rights, beginning in 2013 when current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted former President Mohamed Mursi and gave the Egyptian military unchecked power. As such, many have labeled al-Sisi as an authoritarian and a dictator. The crackdown expanded in September of 2017 when, during a concert, a group of activists raised a rainbow flag at the Music Park Festival in Cairo as a public expression of LGBTQ rights. Though homosexuality is not expressly illegal in Egypt, since September, at least 70 suspected gay men have been arrested after images of the flag raising circulated online. Some have been tortured and subjected to anal examinations in an attempt to find proof of homosexual behavior. The government has found legal workarounds, charging LGBTQ Egyptians with “debauchery” or “prostitution.” Furthermore, Ryad Abdel Sattar, a member of the Egyptian Parliament, introduced legislation that would criminalize homosexuality. As part of this bill, those engaging in or promoting same-gender relations could face prison sentences of up to 10 years. The bill also stipulates that positive media coverage of LGBTQ people or issues can be met with punitive action and up to 3 years of jail time. Like Trump and Kadyrov, al-Sisi has sought to consolidate power and shape reality in a way that denies the changes sexual liberation could bring to Egyptian society.

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Photo Credit: Abi Benitez via GAYLETTER.

Why Do Autocrats Attack LGBTQ Rights?

Autocrats desire and seek extreme power. Accordingly, they see themselves as possessing the authority to define the truth and as the sole source of truth, sowing seeds of distrust in institutions and alternate perspectives. If LGBTQ people are at odds with the autocrat’s truth, with the vision of reality they desire to create in order to benefit themselves and remain in power, then they will not only seek to undermine LGBTQ rights and protections–they will attempt to eradicate LGBTQ people altogether. Donald Trump, for example, has sought to make LGBTQ Americans and their concerns invisible in order to project the image of an America returned to a time during which his base felt comfortable and unchallenged by American minority groups and their demands for equity and justice. These attacks go beyond limiting or reversing rights and protections to rewriting reality in a way that denies not only the legitimacy, but the very existence, of LGBTQ people.

Trump’s revision of reality to exclude LGBTQ people has played out in multiple ways, including the removal of LGBTQ issues from the White House website, supporting notions of “religious freedom” that would provide a license to discriminate, such as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, terminating DACA, and attempts to ban transgender Americans from the armed services. Since taking office, Trump has not spoken publicly about LGBTQ Americans aside from taking a jab at Mike Pence by telling reporters that the Vice President wants to “hang them all.” That Trump so casually and cavalierly repeated this chilling statement illustrates he does not take the lives of LGBTQ Americans seriously. He is only willing to engage LGBTQ issues when they are useful in bolstering his position as an aspiring autocrat.

Trump and his administration have shown particular ire for transgender Americans. This is unsurprising for two primary reasons. First, a broad awareness of transgender people and transgender rights represent one of our most recent social changes. Therefore, in order to regress to a vision of America in which the majority of Trump’s base felt safe and empowered via their white and heterosexual privilege, transgender people and their rights must be made invisible. Second, in living their lives as themselves in the face of a society that tells them they are wrong and should not exist, transgender people embody notions of agency and freedom fundamental to democracy. They express and live a truth that is at odds with the autocrat’s desire to define reality in traditional and limiting ways that do not threaten his hold on power.

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen further explains that Trumpism is anti-modern, defined by a return to an imaginary past, and rooted in biological essentialism–a world in which our identities and roles are clearly delineated at birth. Thus, Gessen provocatively argues that:

“Queer rights are anything but a distraction: they are a frontier, sometimes the frontier in the global turn toward autocracy” (NYR Daily).

Trump’s anti-LGBTQ attacks, in other words, should not be read as mere distraction from the Russia probe, his sexual misconduct, his general incompetence, or his other nefarious activities. Rather, attacks on LGBTQ people and rights are a gauge on the health of democracy and how our government and institutions are withstanding Trump’s blows as he moves to consolidate power as a would-be autocrat.

LGBTQ rights, both at home and abroad, are not a side issue or a distraction from more important matters. They are essential to understanding Trumpism and the rise of global autocracy. Those of us concerned with the preservation of democracy and democratic values would do well to pay close attention to Chechnya, Egypt, and anywhere LGBTQ lives are under threat of attack or erasure. Even activist groups like Voices 4 Chechnya and RUSA LGBT (at least on their websites) do not overtly discuss connections between autocracy and LGBTQ rights violations. If we focus only on the effects of these attacks and not their root cause–growing global authoritarianism–then efforts to liberate LGBTQ people, and perhaps all people, will ultimately fall short.

LGBTQ Americans pose a challenge to Trump and his narrow worldview, because there is perhaps nothing more democratic than living one’s truth, thereby insisting there are multiple ways to be in the world. Democracy is about accommodating multiplicity, whereas autocracy denies the full range of humanity in order to consolidate power in the hands of a few. When we assert the value and existence of LGBTQ people, we disrupt the vision of the autocrat and open the possibility of a more shared, democratic, and humane reality.

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