In Poland two months ago, more than 200 schools planning to hold a “Rainbow Friday” to promote tolerance for sexual minorities had to cancel the event, under orders from the increasingly authoritarian government’s Minister of Education.
In the United States, as part of the Trump administration’s attack on transgender rights, the Department of Health and Human Services is circulating a proposal that would ban any definition of gender other than “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate," according to a New York Times report.
On Jan. 1, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called “the Trump of the Tropics,” becomes president of Brazil. The swaggering, far-right, populist leader once boasted: “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.”
We know the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the United States and now parts of the developing world has put racial and religious minorities at risk. But LGBTQ citizens also have reason to fear.
“Inevitably you have the narrative of us-versus-them," said André du Plessis, executive director of Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, which advocates for LGBTQ people globally. “Inevitably, it is minorities who get excluded. And LGBT people are part of that larger issue of persons being targeted. This is happening around the world."
In 2017, for the 12th consecutive year, the number of countries that became less free was greater than countries that became more free, according to the democracy watchdog Freedom House. And 2018 is not likely to be judged better.
“Democracy is in crisis,” the organization concluded in its latest report. “The values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault and in retreat globally.”
From Washington to Warsaw, Bulgaria to Brazil, strongmen – they have all been men – have risen to power promising to become the voice of the forgotten majority. Once in power, they bolster support by demonizing opponents and persecuting some combination of racial, religious and sexual minorities.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a good example. His government, which exercises increasing control over the media and courts, has rejected European Union declarations of equality for LGBTQ citizens. While Hungary is prepared to tolerate the presence of sexual minorities, Mr. Orban told a reporter, if ”the community of homosexuals starts being more provocative, I think that the current peaceful, calm equilibrium will be no more.”
Populism and intolerance are on the rise throughout Eastern Europe. In Romania, where same-sex marriage is already illegal, the government tried to amend the constitution to specifically forbid it. The effort failed because too few people voted in the required referendum to make the result valid.
Security for LGBTQ citizens is deteriorating in Western Europe, too. At least some of the “yellow vest” protesters in France have shouted homophobic slurs. A local councillor and his same-sex partner were attacked by protesters in a village near Lyon.
In Britain, where rising intolerance of immigrants helped fuel the vote to leave the European Union, the number of LGBTQ people who were victims of a hate crime or incident rose to 16 per cent in 2017 from 9 per cent in 2013, according to a YouGov poll.
“Wherever populism is on the rise, anti-LGBTIQ violence is also on the rise," said Jessica Stern, executive director of the New York-based OutRight Action International, which advocates for sexual minorities globally. When people hear “the head of state, or people in positions of power criminalize, demonize, dehumanize the LGBTIQ population, they start to think that we’re less than human," she said. “And so of course there is a rise of violence at the community level.”
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which has mostly targeted Muslims and immigrants, has also made sexual minorities more vulnerable. A 2018 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which monitors violence against sexual minorities, recorded an 86 per cent increase in the homicides of LGBTQ persons in 2017 over 2016. On average, one LGBTQ person was killed each week.
The attacks occurred, “during a time when our communities are witnessing the few civil rights protections and policies being rolled back and discrimination being instituted into law,” the report stated.
One uncertain question is whether the rise of illiberal governments in the Western world encourages authoritarian governments in developing countries to target their own LGBTQ populations with impunity.
A senior Tanzanian official, for example, recently announced a campaign against homosexuals in the country’s capital of Dar es Salaam, with appeals to the public to help turn them in.
“We’re never going to be able to have a direct trace to say ‘Because Trump tweets X, Y happens in Tanzania,’" said Mr. du Plessis. However, “in the last few months, it has not been just our North American queer activists who have been objecting to Trump, it has been our African activists who are saying ‘what he is doing is hurting us here.’ It resonates everywhere,” he said.
For as long as populism remains on the march, the rights of LGBTQ citizens will be more threatened, their safety more fragile. But that march may not be endless. The midterm elections of November, which handed the House of Representatives to the Democrats, suggests the time of Mr. Trump might be starting to ebb in the United States.
In Hungary, demonstrators have clogged the streets of Budapest in opposition to the government’s increasing control over the courts, the media and the economy.
In Tanzania, the government backtracked on its pogrom against homosexuals, after protests from countries such as Canada, which provides foreign aid.
Graeme Reid, director of the LGBTQ program at Human Rights Watch, said whatever Mr. Trump or his advisers might say or do or tweet, American embassies and departmental officials continue to press for human rights and the protection of sexual minorities overseas.
“It’s not as black and white as I might have envisaged,” he said.
The road to freedom and protection for minorities – racial, religious, sexual – is long and far from straight. We are in a bad stretch. But we can at least hope for better 'round the corner.