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From Budapest to Boca Raton, Illiberal Politicians Target LGBTQ Populations
Homophobia is a Constant Throughout a Century of Authoritarianism
“Viktor Orban wins crushing re-election victory,” tweeted far-right ideologue Rod Dreher about the Hungarian prime minister, who will now serve a fourth term in office. “Groomers hardest hit. @GovRonDesantis, you are onto something!”
Sometimes a tweet perfectly illuminates a political moment. This one brings together the Republican adulation of Orban as a model illiberal leader, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s seeming embrace of authoritarian policies, and the global right’s strategy of labelling supporters of democracy as “groomers,” or people associated with sex trafficking and pedophilia.
What Dreher’s sycophantic tweet really celebrates is the prominence of anti-LGBTQ platforms in far-right politics from Budapest to Boca Raton. DeSantis recently signed the so-called "Don't Say Gay" Bill into law: it limits K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue schools or teachers that engage these topics.
And in Hungary, April 3 also saw a vote on a referendum, billed as “child protection” from gay propaganda in schools, that continues Orban’s repression of the country’s LGBTQ population. A 2021 law already outlawed any depiction or discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientations in schools, television, and advertising. It followed a 2018 ban on gender studies in higher education and the end of legal recognition of transgender and intersex people in 2020.
These developments are as predictable as they are horrifying. Anti-LGBTQ persecution is a constant among authoritarian governments around the world. Far-right regimes that uphold White racial privilege repress gays, but so do Communist states. Anti-colonial regimes such as those of Mobutu Sese Seko, which rejected White racial supremacy, were equally brutal.
Wherever strongmen rule, gays pay the price. Silencing and punishing those who engage in “nontraditional sexual relations,” as a 2013 Putin law terms them, has been central to authoritarian claims of defending the country and upholding “tradition.”
Authoritarian biopolitics is not just about encouraging the right elements of the population to procreate –fearmongering about declining White Christian birthrates recurs from the Fascists to Orban and Tucker Carlson –but also about removing the wrong elements from the public sphere, by silencing them, locking them up, or worse.
What the Hungarian lesbian activist Dorottya Rédai describes as the “emotionally and psychologically devastating impact” of being “treated as an enemy” has been part of LGBTQ life under authoritarianism for a century.
Benito Mussolini was the first right-wing dictator to persecute gays, and his policies are less well known than those of the Nazis. Policing “deviant” and demographically “unproductive” individuals was the flip side of his “Battle for Babies,” designed to increase Italy’s birth rate. “Is this terror, gentlemen? No, it’s not terror, it’s social hygiene,” he told Parliament in 1927, referring to the regime's crackdowns on “anti-social” and “degenerate” groups. “We remove these individuals from circulation just like a doctor does with an infected person.”
The Fascists had always imprisoned gays for brief periods on charges like pederasty, or interned them in psychiatric hospitals. In the 1930s, they increasingly imprisoned gays, often for years, to isolate them from the rest of society. From 1938-1940, San Domino, on the Tremiti islands in the Adriatic, functioned as a gay penal colony. There, you could be openly queer, but only because you were a prisoner, with no running water, electricity or toilet facilities.
Almost a century later, we hear the same rhetoric about declining White Christian birthrates and the same pro-family arguments. “Europe has become the continent of the empty crib,” said Hungarian President-Elect Katalin Novák in 2019, when she was minister for family and youth affairs, sounding much like Il Duce.
So, it’s unsurprising that Orban’s party and government have gone after LGBTQ individuals with vigor, associating homosexuality with pedophilia and seeking to manipulate parents’ fears about what their children are exposed to outside the home.
Rédai’s 2020 children’s book, “A Fairytale for Everyone,” which adapts well-known fairytales into stories with heroes from LGBTQ, disabled, Roma, and other marginalized populations, was branded by the Hungarian government as homosexual propaganda. “Regarding homosexuality, Hungary is a tolerant, patient country,” Orban said. "But there is a red line that cannot be crossed…leave our children alone!”
The April 3 referendum exploited the fears such comments are meant to stoke, with questions worded to elicit the answers the government desired. “Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?” Unsurprisingly, 92-96% of respondents answered no.
"Hungary must defend itself because the Western left wing is attacking. It is trying to relativize the notion of family. Its tools for doing so are gender ideology and the LGBTQ lobby," Orban claimed at his 2021 Demographic Summit. Former Vice President Mike Pence was in attendance, as were other GOP luminaries who see Hungary as a model for an illiberal America, starting with the targeting of LGBTQ individuals on a large scale.
The mechanism for this targeting is a huge wave of bills, nearly 200 total around the United States, to take away protections for gay and transgender youth, restrict their activities, and silence discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools, all under the cover of “parents’ rights" agendas. De Santis's “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida has plenty of company.
Such legislation does not reflect majority opinion in the United States. According to a recent Public Religion Institute survey, 8 in 10 Americans support laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, housing and more, and 68% support same-sex marriage, up from 54% in 2014. But the GOP doesn’t care about that. It is now an authoritarian party and intends to impose an ideologically-determined agenda on the nation.
It’s no accident that Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s spokesperson (who previously worked for the Koch Brothers-backed Stand Together foundation), supports the idea of having a similar referendum on LGBTQ education in America, nor that she congratulated Novák on Orban’s victory. She, like Dreher, knows that DeSantis is “onto something." Targeting gay people is the way to get ahead in today’s GOP. That’s bad news for America’s LGBTQ population.