By Hanna Baraban
“Better to be a dictator than to be gay,” claimed president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko six years ago, targeting Guido Westerwelle, ex-Foreign minister of Germany and the first openly gay man to hold such a high office in the EU. If such a verbal attack had come from the mouth of a Saudi Arabian, Qatari or Iranian leader, nobody would even have cared. But if the head of a secular European state, famous for the tolerance of its inhabitants, allows himself to utter such remarks, it changes the perception of relations between power and homophobia.
Unfortunately, representatives of the LGBT community feel pressure in many countries. Usually, scholars explain this phenomenon with religion (commonly underlining the Islamic narrative of heterosexual relations), cultural traditions or specific ideology (e.g., communism or socialism). However, the Belarusian example shows that specific governmental systems can also influence the level of homophobia of politicians and their electorate.
Severe anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, Uganda and Gambia, large-scale homophobic campaigns in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and North Korea… Different countries, languages, customs, even continents. Only one thing is shared– strong autocratic leadership styles, in some cases bordering on dictatorship. But why did these mercurial strongmen decide to make homophobia a crucial point of their political agenda?
First, heterocentrism and heterosexism, inherent in many countries, lead to a vision of a traditional family as the only possible form of organization of society, its micro-unit. Preserving normative gender roles, as well as distant and formal relations between the sexes, lead to control over expression, (Limonero, 2014) freedom of speech and, in general, manipulation of society. Perhaps, the most vivid example of controlling the population through traditional family values is the ultra conservative Catholic policy implemented by former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
The current rhetoric of autocratic leaders is not so radical thanks to emancipation and globalization. However, analysis of their discourse shows that modern dictators are still quite inspired by the ideas of their predecessors. Last year, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed his dedication to the protection of traditional family values because «their destruction is fundamentally anti-democratic». Watching the Russian President blame Western countries for betraying democracy may seem like the funniest thing in the world; but the sobering fact is that, after Putin’s command, some representatives of Russian LGBT-community received death threats, others were arrested, and the most fortunate managed to escape to the EU.
Secondly, it is widely known that dictators are not huge fans of everything and everyone unusual: Hitler hated Jews, Pol Pot – educated people, Idi Amin – foreign migrants… Nowadays, a trend of hostility towards gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals, and the perception of these communities as «other», «stranger», and even «threatening», often leads to the securitization of homosexuality. The aim of this process – to rally the threatened population around the leader (read: the guarantor of the state’s security), increase his popular support and, desirably, crack down on the LGBT community. For instance, according to the president of Senegal Macky Sall, actual infiltration of homosexuality per se threatens the social order and the integrité nationale. That is why in the African Country homosexuals are prosecuted not only by the law (up to 5 years of imprisonment), but also by their fellow citizens through active homophobic propaganda in media and cultural sphere (e.g., colorful performances about the fate that awaits gays after death). The aim of these actions is as old as the hills – increase the number of supporters of the dictator and get rid of nonconformists.
Thirdly, sometimes securitization of homosexuality implies a protest against the spreading of liberal ideas and Western dominance. On the one hand, the human factor can play a huge role here: fueled by visions of the enviable Western lifestyles – which are becoming ever more visible and ever less accessible – the resentment of the dictators is exacerbated by the visibility of a consumerist gay lifestyle that makes such moral «depravity» an easy target for feelings of discontent.(Awondo, et al., 2012) On the other hand, these homophobic campaigns are usually highly politicized and can be useful in the annihilation of pro-Western political opponents or IGOs in order to keep full power in one set of hands and close the door on the international community. Yoweri Museveni, the current President of Uganda, has achieved all of the above and even gone further: he has clamped down on all civil society in the Country because NGOs, in his opinion, «are promoting homosexuality». Interestingly, the never-ending debate about homosexuals has performed one more extremely important function: it diverts the attention of the population from day-to-day problems such as massive corruption, the extensive sale of land to foreign investors and the embezzlement of around 13 million US dollars of development aid intended for the north of the country, which has been devastated by years of civil war. (Schäfer and Range, 2014)
So, there are tons of reasons – from personal to political – why modern dictators are homophobes, pretend to be homophobes or simply choose homophobic policies. However, in the title of this article I intentionally pointed out that this does not apply to all dictators. Thus, after many accusations of being anti-gay, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro officially reiterated his total respect for those of all sexual identities. In Cuba, after the retirement of Fidel Castro, homosexuals have been given more breathing room – partially thanks to the advocacy of Raul’s daughter Mariela Castro. Nothing prevents these leaders to accuse American imperialists ofspreading the disease of homosexuality and go on a hunt for gays and lesbians. Why don’t they do it? In my opinion, because of the tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT-community in Latin America. Maduro and Castro simply don’t want to look like Medieval executioners in comparison with their relatively progressive neighbors. It’s a shame that African, Asian and even European dictators are not about to join this charming company.
Awondo, P., Geschiere, P., & Reid, G. (2012). Homophobic Africa? Toward a more nuanced view. African Studies Review, 55(3), p.160.
Limonero, I. Women, Transition and Social Changes. the Case of Spain, 2014. P.4.
Schäfer, R., Range, E. The Political Use of Homophobia: Human Rights and Persecution of LGBTI Activists in Africa. Frierich-Ebert-Stiftung, Africa Department, 2014. P. 6.