Over the past three decades, the protection of the rights of LGBTIQ+ people has seen rapid progress in many countries and regions. However, the rise of populist authoritarianism poses a threat to these gains, as the abolition of sexual freedom is often a key element of repressive political projects. The progress and setbacks in my country of origin, Colombia, are representative of the process by which democracy is used to undermine rights.
In 2016, Colombia emerged as a legal haven for LGBTIQ+ people. This year culminated in court victories representing Constitutional Court rulings that guaranteed a variety of family rights for same-sex couples, including marriage and adoption, and the protection of LGBTIQ+ students in schools. Towards the end of the year, however, there was another extraordinary event. In a bid to end decades of brutal armed conflict, the Andean country put a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to a plebiscite. In an unexpected development, a narrow majority of 50.2% rejected the deal after a tense and polarized campaign.
A key issue that mobilized the No electorate was the moral panic caused by the inclusion of provisions related to gender, women’s rights and LGBTIQ+ people in the peace agreement, including a definition of gender and the explicit recognition of these groups of the population as victims of the armed conflict. Various extremist groups have rejected these regulations, claiming they impose a “gender ideology”, capitalizing on the controversy that gender and sexuality education in schools had sparked shortly before.
After the suicide of a student strange who have suffered serious acts of harassment and discrimination at school, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to implement an existing law that sets out measures to protect LGBTIQ+ students from discrimination and recognizes diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity as a principle of comprehensive sexuality education. Conservative organizations attacked the decision and claimed it imposed a “gender ideology” on children, and social media became a battleground where the fate of peace in Colombia was confused with that of LGBTIQ+ people.
Many Colombians bowed to the arguments of conservative organizations and equated the peace agreement with the Court’s ruling on education policy, believing that the peace agreement itself promotes “gender ideology” through inclusive provisions on gender and LGBTIQ+ people. Again, social networks—this time in combination with polls—were the arena of this mobilization. There were political actors who spread outrageous falsehoods about the peace agreement on social networks such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, which had a strong impact on public perception of the plebiscite. Various political actors are promoting the idea that if the peace agreement is approved, “gender ideology” will be enshrined in the constitution and society will be “homosexualized.”
This juxtaposition between winning in court and mobilizing hostility toward LGBTIQ+ people in the streets made me question the efficacy of implementing legal reform as a primary strategy for advancing the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. Six years after the peace agreement was rejected by plebiscite, I can appreciate that what happened in Colombia was not an isolated incident, but is now an integral part of a new authoritarian strategy that manipulates democratic institutions to undermine the rights of women and LGBTIQ+ people .
Movements against the rights of LGBTIQ+ people formulate national, regional, and global strategies that rely on political authoritarianism, disinformation, and community mobilization. An important rhetorical aspect of anti-gender movements is the use of the language of human rights to undermine the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, for example by using religious freedom or parental rights as a basis for attacking minority rights. This strategy of political homophobia represents the greatest threat to the rights of LGBTIQ+ people worldwide.
In many parts of the world, and as never before, legal recognition of the rights of LGBTIQ+ people is rapidly gaining ground, often led by democratic institutions such as elected officials or independent judges. One cornerstone is the progressive decriminalization of same-sex behavior, and another is the expansion of same-sex marriage. However, this legal evolution coexists with threats such as those seen in Colombia. There are highly organized groups that mobilize based on abstract and unfounded fears, articulate conservative agendas framed in a “gender ideology” that allegedly threatens the family and corrupts children, and thus capitalize on polarized elections, constitutional reforms, or institutional crises.
In turn, these actors are often linked to authoritarian political projects that use social media to spread disinformation and smear campaigns. They instrumentalize fears related to children and their well-being to rally public support by appealing to entrenched and dangerous stereotypes of LGBTIQ+ people as immoral and corrupting children. In some contexts, these actions help enact anti-LGBTIQ+ laws and at the same time generate political benefits for authoritarian leaders.
This new form of contempt for LGBTIQ+ people is embodied in laws that censor public expressions of identity, such as expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity, under the pretext of “protecting children.” The “gay propaganda law” that exists in Russia is a typical example of political homophobia that tramples on the rights of young LGBTIQ+ people and has a more general and chilling effect on the public expression of gender identity.
In recent years, Hungary has passed laws banning discussion of LGBTIQ+ issues, ending legal gender recognition for transgender and intersex people, and amending the constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual union and effectively ban adoption by same-sex couples. To justify its homophobic rhetoric, the government organized a homophobic referendum at the same time as the national elections in April. The referendum was declared invalid because civil society encouraged citizens not to vote in the face of this action by the organizations that opposed it; The National Electoral Commission fined some organizations for opposing the referendum.
Poland, and more recently Romania, have taken steps to pass similar laws. A bill in Ghana’s parliament that prohibits any form of support or expression regarding the rights of LGBTIQ+ people also discriminates against these people.
In America, there are more and more legislative projects against LGBTIQ+ people. For example, in the United States, over the past five years there has been an avalanche of laws aimed primarily at trans and non-binary youth in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. In Brazil, Human Rights Watch analyzed 217 bills and laws that limit comprehensive sexuality education, including information about sexual orientation and gender identity, or prohibit so-called “indoctrination.” Lawmakers from Guatemala and Peru presented drafts with similar provisions, although in Guatemala the draft was withdrawn.
The struggle for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people must be understood as part of a larger effort against authoritarianism: a political regime based on the erosion of human rights and freedoms, especially of the most vulnerable groups. We need to do more to understand the tactics used by groups promoting authoritarianism, especially on social media. In turn, we must formulate recommendations and strategies to end the abuse of social media and hold technology companies accountable for allowing the spread and expansion of hateful and harmful messages.
Finally, the legal actions being promoted and the progress being made must continue to strengthen the mobilization of the LGBTIQ+ community and our allies. In the current situation, law without social mobilization to support it is vulnerable to authoritarian retreat.
*Mauricio Albarracin-Caballero is deputy LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch @malbarracin
This article was previously published in English at The Advocate, how targeting LGBTQ+ rights is part of the authoritarian playbook.
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