Disinformation against LGBTQIA+ people is a threat to democracy


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”  – Eric Hoffer, social philosopher and author of “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements”

June is Pride Month, a time when the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual) community comes together in parades, observances and other events to celebrate their community as well as the progress that has been made on equality and justice. But the scourge of disinformation and hate speech against LGBTQIA+ people rages on and can be heard on the lips of far-right national leaders and other public figures. This disinformation is not only a threat to a vulnerable population but to democracy itself.

The LGBTQIA+ community is a favourite target of many far-right leaders, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. In the United States, France, Poland and elsewhere in the West, far-right leaders also frequently make homophobic and transphobic statements, encourage violence and pass laws to marginalise or even erase sexual and gender minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups.

These disinformation campaigns can have real impact on the lives and well-being of LGBTQIA+ citizens. Persistent disinformation and hate speech in Europe have led to violence against LGBTQIA+ people reaching its highest point in the past decade, according to the latest annual review from the European International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

In the United States, far-right leaders in the Republican Party have introduced over 300 legal measures to marginalise, erase LGBTQIA+ persons and deny medical care to transgender people

EU member states have enacted anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, such as ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland and a ban on LGBTQIA+ content in educational materials for minors in Hungary. LGBTQIA+ people in these nations also face employment and healthcare discrimination, and activists often endure harassment or violence.

These actions have prompted widespread criticism, but similar narratives elsewhere in Europe have spurred a rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ violence in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Spain.

Even Malta and Belgium, named the top two EU member states for LGBTQIA+ people to live in ILGA-Europe’s latest Rainbow Index, are not without their own problems. A survey in Malta showed that half of LGBTQIA+ persons feel unsafe in the country’s main nightlife district while in Belgium, one-third of LGBTQIA+ people in Flanders report being the victim of physical violence.

Meanwhile, in the United States, far-right leaders in the Republican Party have introduced over 300 legal measures to marginalise, erase LGBTQIA+ persons and deny medical care to transgender people. In Florida, authoritarian censorship such as book bans and the intimidation of teachers – both hallmarks of anti-democratic movements – have been made into law. Many of these same political leaders are also stirring up more stochastic violence against LGBTQIA+ persons and their allies.

The problem has become so acute that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently warned of increased threats of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community. The 11 May DHS bulletin stated that domestic violence extremists have increased threats of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community within the last years, citing that these “include actions linked to drag-themed events, gender-affirming care, and LGBTQIA+ curricula in schools.”

In much of Africa, it’s even worse with 29 countries criminalising LGBTQIA+ persons with penalties up to 10-20 years in prison. In three African countries – Nigeria, Mauritania and Somalia – homosexuality can even be punishable by death. Just this week, Uganda enacted a new law that includes a death penalty for same-sex acts and requires citizens to report LGBTQIA+ persons to authorities. This is all happening amid a flood of anti-LGBTQIA+ disinformation in East Africa being spread by far-right politicians, WhatsApp groups, organised protests and religious leaders.

These narratives also stir up violence against sexual and gender minorities, leading to deadly mass shootings and beatings of LGBTQIA+ persons globally

Historically, far-right authoritarian movements often use othering to gain power by identifying a group of people who are seen as ‘outsiders’ and using them as a scapegoat for the problems facing society. By positioning themselves as the defenders of the in-group, populists and fascists can gain support and build a power base, uniting people against a demonised ‘other’ to build their movement.

Whether their target be Jews, Muslims, immigrants, racial minorities or LGBTQIA+ people, the narratives and tactics are always the same.

There are many recurring disinformation attack lines that have been used against vulnerable populations throughout history and we see them in use today against the LGBTQIA+ community.

“They are not like us.” This narrative encapsulates the us-versus-them dynamic that authoritarian movements seek to build. By portraying the vulnerable minority as fundamentally different from the ‘normal’ majority, it creates a powerful sense of unity and belonging among those who are not part of the scapegoated group. It also reduces tolerance for diversity. This narrative has been used against LGTBQIA+ people, migrants, and racial and religious minorities to justify discrimination and violence by suggesting the ‘other’ is not deserving of the same rights and respect.

“They are a threat to our way of life.” LGBTQIA+ people, just like other vulnerable groups in history, are portrayed as a threat to the majority’s values, beliefs and safety. Among the most insidious are disinformation narratives claiming the targeted group is a threat to children. From the blood libel falsehoods against Jews that started in medieval Europe to the charges of paedophilia against LGBTQIA+ people in the United States and Europe today, this disinformation narrative relies on triggering the human instinct to protect children.

These baseless disinformation campaigns enlist average citizens by hacking their empathy and compassion for children to make them punch down on the vulnerable. In the United States today, LGBTQIA+ people and their allies are labelled ‘groomers’ by the far right and falsely accused of recruiting children to ‘become’ gay, transgender or bisexual. These narratives also stir up violence against sexual and gender minorities, leading to deadly mass shootings and beatings of LGBTQIA+ persons globally, including in the West.

“They are taking advantage of us.” By portraying the demonised group as somehow exploiting the majority for their own gain, this hate narrative against the LGBTQIA+ community is used to stir up resentment and animosity, and to justify discrimination or violence against them. This can result in legalised discrimination targeted at LGBTQIA+ people to deny gender-affirming care, HIV-prevention medication and other essential and life-saving care.

The fight to defend the humanity and equality of LGBTQIA+ people and other vulnerable populations is a fight for democracy and against authoritarianism

One additional theme that supports these disinformation narratives is that the ‘other’ is presumed guilty of any wild and unproven accusations.

Far-right movements target LGBTQIA+ people primarily because they view them as a threat to their vision of society. Fascism and far-right populism emphasise authoritarianism, nationalism and traditional social values. In this worldview, LGBTQIA+ people are seen as a challenge to traditional gender roles and family structures and, as such, are viewed as a threat to the supposed purity of the nation. So, authoritarian movements tap into fears related to safety, status and well-being to create scapegoats. They demonise these ‘others’ and leverage state power to suppress those they have deemed a ‘threat’ to society. This approach both mobilises far-right supporters and side-lines their opponents.

As we’ve seen more recently, far-right movements often frame their persecution of LGBTQIA+ people as a defence of traditional values and the nuclear family, depicting the majority population as the ‘victim’.  They see any other form of family or being as a threat, be it other sexual and gender identities, women’s empowerment or religious and racial minorities.

Additionally, far-right ideologies often promote a highly masculinised view of society, in which men are expected to be strong, dominant and aggressive. This worldview is threatened by the very existence of LGBTQIA+ people and women who challenge traditional gender norms and roles.

At its core, far-right and fascist ideology is built around the concept of exclusion; it seeks to create a homogenous society by purging any groups that are seen as ‘other’ or ‘deviant’. The targeting of LGBTQIA+ people is just one manifestation of the broader far-right agenda, which seeks to create a society that is highly stratified and dominated by an authoritarian patriarchal elite.

Once an extreme far-right movement attains and consolidates power through this strategy of ‘othering’, they often use state power to punish their political opponents, erode civil and political rights, and undermine institutions such as the judiciary or free and fair elections. They often justify these moves as necessary to preserve ‘law and order’, while also curbing the right to free assembly and free speech through anti-protest laws. But these things only occur if their divisive strategy of attacking and demonising vulnerable groups is allowed to happen.

So, the fight to defend the humanity and equality of LGBTQIA+ people and other vulnerable populations is a fight for democracy and against authoritarianism.

We can overcome dehumanisation and demonisation of LGBTQIA+ people by embracing them and welcoming them into our lives and communities

What are the best solutions to counter disinformation against LGBTQIA+ people? Here are a few recommendations on how the EU, its member states, civil society organisations, private companies and individuals can help combat disinformation against LGBTQIA+ people.

Firstly, current disinformation efforts are focused on other threats to democracy but don’t include narratives against the LGBTQIA+ community and other vulnerable populations.  This must change now so that proven efforts can also be applied to address and debunk false narratives against LGBTQIA+ people and other vulnerable populations.

Next, institutions, organisations and individuals must educate themselves and others about the threats facing the LGBTQIA+ community and support organisations that work to combat disinformation and promote LGBTQIA+ rights.

Perhaps most importantly, be an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. Doing so involves courage and sacrifice since allies can face social exclusion as well. However, this is necessary to protect the equality and humanity of vulnerable people and thus not allow authoritarians to hold sway in our societies.

Deny authoritarian movements their ‘devil’.  We can overcome dehumanisation and demonisation of LGBTQIA+ people (and other vulnerable groups) by embracing them and welcoming them into our lives and communities, reinforcing their humanity to counter hate speech and disinformation.

 Speak out against disinformation and discrimination when you see it. This can include calling out disinformation on social media and in other public forums, as well as supporting LGBTQIA+ friendly policies and leaders.

It’s up to the people from the majority who are not being targeted to refuse to let vulnerable minorities be pushed out of society. Most decent people already do most of these things but it’s clear that we all must do more to support and protect our fellow citizens and promote open, free and inclusive democracy.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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