Why are homophobic attacks on the rise?

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Bethan Turner examines the toxic mix of mainstream politics, the alt-right and religious pronouncements that normalises bigotry.

"They started behaving like hooligans, demanding that we kissed so they could enjoy watching, calling us ‘lesbians’ and describing sexual positions… The next thing I know is that Chris is in the middle of the bus fighting with them.” So wrote Melanie, one of the women assaulted in a homophobic attack on a London bus in May. The incident sparked widespread condemnation, including from Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, arguably surprising, given her record, but more on that later.

The assault is part of what appears to be a significant rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ people. According to the Guardian, reports to the police of anti-LGBT+ hate crime have increased 144 percent from 2013/14 to 2017/18. Reports of specifically transphobic hate crimes have trebled over the same period. However, this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. According to a government report this year more than nine out of ten serious incidents go unreported.

Meanwhile, the US has also seen a rise in hate crimes over the last five years, in particular against black, Jewish and LGBT+ people, and in Brazil violent deaths of LGBT+ people hit an all-time high in 2017, with 445 LGBT+ Brazilians dying as a result of murder or suicide.

The common factor here is undoubtedly the rise of right-wing politicians, either in government or in far-right parties that find support for their ideas in the mainstream. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said in the past that he would rather a dead son than a gay one and that children can be beaten straight. During his election campaign the Guardian reported that Bolsonaro fans had been heard chanting “Bolsonaro will kill all queers”. There were reports of violent attacks on LGBT+ people by Bolsonaro supporters. One victim was a woman who was carrying a Pride flag and wearing an anti-Bolsonaro sticker — attackers carved a swastika into her flesh.

Donald Trump has also stoked the fires of homophobia and transphobia. His vice president Mike Pence has, as recently as 2017, supported groups that promote “conversion therapy” to “cure” gay people. Meanwhile Trump has banned trans people from the US military and is currently refusing to let US embassies fly the rainbow flag in June to mark Pride month.

However, the picture in the US is more contradictory than in Brazil. Unlike Bolsonaro, Trump has attempted to court LGBT+ voters. After the Orlando massacre in June 2016, when a Muslim gunman murdered 50 people in a gay night club, Trump claimed gay people should vote for him as he would “protect them from Islam”. Trump even waved a (upside down) Pride flag around at a rally during the presidential campaign. His campaign has also started selling “LGBTQ for Trump” T-shirts.

Sexual revolution

Obviously Trump doesn’t care about LGBT+ rights. But the legacy of the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s means that even right wing politicians in many western countries have to pay lip service to the idea of “gay equality”. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the subsequent advances that it enabled won LGB (and to a lesser extent T) people a much higher level of acceptance. However, as these movements declined their initial radical and revolutionary content was hollowed out, enabling politicians and corporations to try and tap into a new base of support — and money — by claiming to be “down with the gays”. Hence Theresa May, who voted against the repeal of the homophobic Section 28, feels she has to condemn a homophobic assault — despite having orchestrated the hostile environment, which is seeing LGBT+ asylum seekers deported back to countries where they face persecution or death.

This cynical support for LGBT+ rights combines with the rise of Islamophobic far right figures in the US and western Europe, who increasingly try to give a liberal gloss to their racism by painting it as a defence of LGBT+ rights. British Nazis do this frequently. Hence the existence of the English Defence League’s (admittedly small) gay division, or the emergence of lesbian Anne Marie Waters as the leader of racist party For Britain.

However, behind this thin veil of pro-gay rhetoric you find bigotry aplenty. At the 2018 UKIP conference pro-LGBT+ education in primary schools was described as “child abuse” by UKIP’s children and families spokesperson, and the party vowed to tear up anti-discrimination laws. Racist campaigner and columnist Katie Hopkins raised eyebrows recently when she came out in support of Muslim parents protesting against LGBT+ Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in Birmingham primary schools. Disgracefully, local Labour MP Roger Godsiff also came out in support of the parents.

The far right has been strangely quiet over the situation in Birmingham, given that it presents them with a golden opportunity to attack Muslims. However, in order to take advantage of this they would have to mount a defence of LGBT+ education, something UKIP at least is explicitly opposed to; its 2018 manifesto argues that it is a cultural Marxist conspiracy to indoctrinate children. This opposition was recently echoed by the Pope, who said that gender theory “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” And that this “ideology”, “leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” This should remind us that the Catholic Church is as capable as any other of promoting homophobia.

This support from mainstream figures feeds into the other obsession of the alt-right — their conviction that some combination of the left, feminists, and minority groups are working to undermine traditional western values and destroy straight white men. Hence the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson, who first became famous for his opposition to a bill in his native Canada that would extend hate crime protections to trans people, and constantly bemoans the decline of traditional gender roles. Other alt-right figures such as Ben Shapiro, Tomi Lahren, Carl Benjamin, and even gay people like Milo Yiannapoulis, are no strangers to a homophobic or transphobic rant.

Obsession with gender

The alt-right’s obsession with gender roles has resulted in particular hostility to trans people. Almost to a man (and they are mostly men) they insist that trans men are in fact women, trans women are in fact men and non-binary people are snowflakes trying to be special. In Britain this has resulted in some bizarre alliances between right wingers and “gender critical feminists” during the toxic debate about changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow trans people to self-declare their gender. Given this level of hostility it is unsurprising that that trans people have seen a greater rise in hate crime than cisgender LGB people.

However, the alt-right are trying to square a particularly round circle. They want to use questions of women’s and LGBT+ rights to attack Muslims while at the same time decrying the movements that gave us those rights and hankering for a return to the past. Think of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, or the obsession in Britain with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the man dubbed “the minister for the 1800s”. Of course, for much of the 1800s in Britain “buggery” was punishable by death and whatever supposedly “great” time Donald Trump wants to return America to we can assume that during it LGBT+ people had few if any rights.

In fact, a glance at history shows us why LGBT+ people should fear the rise of the far right. We don’t do well in times of reaction. Thousands of gay people were murdered or imprisoned by the Nazis. McCarthyism in the US saw homosexuals witch-hunted alongside suspected communists. In the 1980s with the decline of the movements of the 1960s and the rise of neoliberalism, we saw politicians do nothing as gay men died of AIDS. Currently in Egypt, as dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi cracks down on political opposition, we’ve also seen Egyptians arrested for waving Pride flags at concerts.

Gay subculture

The happier flipside to this is that periods of mass struggle have tended to be when we’ve seen the biggest advances on LGBT+ rights. It’s no coincidence that prior to the rise of the Nazis, Germany had both the largest left and largest gay subculture in Europe. Revolutionary Russia in 1917 took unparalleled steps, with homosexuality being decriminalised, instances of gay weddings, attempts at sex change operations and openly gay men serving in the Soviet government. Later in the 20th century, the defeat of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s also saw great strides for LGBT+ South Africans, with LGBT+ rights enshrined in the constitution of the new state, a world first.

The modern LGBT+ rights movement, which emerged following the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, was born in an era in which the US saw huge struggles against the Vietnam War and for Black Civil Rights and women’s liberation. Hence the Gay Liberation Front, the group that emerged from Stonewall, declared, “We identify ourselves with the Vietnamese, the Blacks, the workers, all those struggling against this rotten vile corrupt capitalist conspiracy.”

It is in these lessons from history that we should find inspiration when considering how to respond to today’s rise in homophobic attacks. With the prospect of Boris Johnson, who referred to gay men as “bum boys”, becoming prime minister, this is going to become an urgent task. One of the key lessons to take from Stonewall and its aftermath is the necessity of unity of the oppressed. In today’s environment that means uncompromising opposition to racism and Islamophobia, and any attempts to pinkwash it. It also means getting organised to mobilise on the streets against attacks on LGBT+ people, and defending LGBT+ inclusive education. We will not be cowed back into the closet, we must take on the bigots and the rotten society that gives them oxygen.