Like populist leaders around the globe, newly re-elected Polish President Andrzej Duda has successfully exploited the culture war about LGBTQ “ideology.”
On Sunday last week, Duda was re-elected by a narrow margin and with the help of an assault on what he styled “LGBT ideology”: He campaigned on a “family charter” to protect Poles from this new threat, allegedly worse than communism.
Two of Poland’s near neighbors have in the past few years activated anti-LGBTQ politics in similar ways. In May, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government introduced a law that makes it impossible for trans people to change their gender on legal documents; and last month, Russians voted by a landslide to approve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s amendments of Russia’s constitution: among them is a clause that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
Already, Russian lawmakers are explicitly using the amendments to threaten freedoms associated with the liberal West: On Tuesday last week, Russian Legislator Yelena Mizulina, who is responsible for the nation’s anti-“gay propaganda” law, proposed legislation barring trans people from adopting children, or from establishing families — including getting married — after transitioning.
For the first time since 1918, “God” is written into Russia’s constitution, which now also mandates the teaching of “patriotism,” and urges citizens to resist (Western) falsification of their history.
“We are not just going to vote on legal amendments, we are voting for the country in which we want to live,” Putin said.
For which read: not Europe.
Leaders like Putin, Orban and Duda use LGBTQ people to draw what can be called a “pink line” against Western secular liberalism that allegedly threatens the “traditional values” of their homelands.
This plays on deep-rooted anxieties about globalization and the digital revolution, and the fear of a loss of control that comes with the opening of borders to new ideas and new people — or, in the case of LGBTQ people, those who have been there all along, but now demand to be seen.
This culture war tactic has undergone a significant shift in the past few years: Whereas it used to oppose “lifestyles” or “rights,” it has now set itself against “ideology.” This allows it to assume the status of a counter-hegemonic force — and also to claim, as more people come out of the closet, that it is “not personal.”
“LGBT are not people, but ideology,” Duda said when launching his charter.
In the past few years, conservative Christians have gravitated toward opposing “gender ideology,” of which “LGBT ideology” is a subset.
Archbishop of Krakow Marek Jedraszewski encapsulated the argument last year, saying that while Poland was “no longer affected by the red plague,” there was a “new one that wants to control our souls, hearts and minds — not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit: Neo-Marxist, not red, but rainbow.”
This call has particular power for eastern Europeans, given Soviet history, and is useful to politicians like Duda or Orban.
However, it has been deployed worldwide, from Latin America to Asia.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attained his popularity in part by piggybacking on a powerful grassroots religious movement determined to expel “gender ideology” from schools by banning sex education. He promised to restore the natural order in a “corrupt” and “decadent” country, exemplified by the way his leftwing predecessors granted rights to LGBTQ people.
US President Donald Trump has played to his base by withdrawing regulatory protections for transchildren in schools and banning trans people from military service.
Last month, the Trump administration removed protection for trans people from discrimination in healthcare — even as the US Supreme Court outlawed such discrimination in the workplace.
For populist politicians like Trump or Bolsonaro, this plays to a particular constituency: disaffected voters who perceive that they have been marginalized due to identity politics gone mad, and their needs have been subordinated to the interests of foreign, dark or queer outsiders.
Unsurprisingly, in a survey last year, 31 percent of young Polish men said they believed “the LGBT movement and gender ideology” was the biggest threat to Poland — more than the climate crisis or Russia.
The fight against “LGBT ideology” helped bring out the vote for Duda.
Despite his victory, the election results can as well be read differently. Before the election was initially postponed in May due to COVID-19, Duda was the runaway favorite, not least because of his government’s social welfare policies.
However, he only won by a tiny margin in the runoff against moderate liberal presidential candidate and Warsaw Mayor Rafa Trzaskowski.
Trzaskowski (mildly) supported LGBTQ rights during his campaign, and Duda used this to paint his opponent as Europe’s stooge.
The 48.8 percent of Polish voters who supported Trzaskowski did so in part because his pro-European modernism appealed to them: To many, particularly younger and urban voters, acceptance for gay and trans people is part of that.
Mark Gevisser is the author of The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers.
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