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THE WORLD’S PINK LINES
“MR. PRESIDENT … DID YOU PRESS President Sall to make sure that homosexuality is decriminalized in Senegal? And, President Sall … You just said you embrace democracy and freedom. As this country’s new President, sir, will you work to decriminalize homosexuality in this country?”
These questions were put by an American journalist to Barack Obama and his host, the Senegalese president Macky Sall, at a press conference after the two had met in Dakar on June 27, 2013. The topic was inevitable: while they were flying over the Atlantic the previous day, Obama and his staff had erupted into cheers when they heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for same-sex marriage across the country.
The case had been brought to the court by an octogenarian widow named Edith Windsor, whose life partner of forty-four years, Thea Spyer, had died in 2009. DOMA barred recognition of same-sex marriages by the U.S. federal government, and Windsor had sued because this meant she could not collect spousal tax benefits after Spyer’s death. It was a perfectly telegenic test case, and in the majority judgment Anthony Kennedy ruled that DOMA had stigmatized same-sex couples by enshrining a “separate status” for homosexuals into law.
In 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law (under duress, he insisted), 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, and only 27 percent supported it. By 2009, just thirteen years later, this ratio had flipped, and Obama would later describe the “marriage equality” movement as “the fastest set of changes in terms of a social movement that I’ve seen [in my lifetime].” His own public turning point had been in May 2012: not uncoincidentally, just days after a Gallup poll revealed that, for the first time, more Americans supported same-sex marriage than opposed it. Now, a year later, on his way to Senegal, the president issued a statement from Air Force One: “The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.”
This was not the case in Senegal, where the penal code outlawed homosexual acts as “improper or unnatural,” a law now being applied after having been dormant for many years. In what had been a perfect storm, the centripetal world-shrinking energies of globalization had brought aggressive new strains of Islam from the Arab world to this West African Muslim country at exactly the same time as the global AIDS epidemic hit; it was a storm made only more severe in the following years as word spread—through the increasingly penetrating channels of online media and satellite news—of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage in the West.
In December 2008, the Senegalese government hosted a pan-African AIDS conference. The new label was “men who have sex with men” (or MSM): this formed a prominent part of the conference program, as did Senegal’s own MSM organization, AIDES Sénégal. The event caused an outcry from Senegalese clerics and Islamist politicians already inflamed by sensationalist media coverage of a “gay wedding” (an eerie premonition of what would befall Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi a year later). The authorities responded by raiding an AIDES Sénégal meeting and arresting those present. Nine men were sentenced to eight years in prison, found to be guilty of using their HIV outreach work as “cover to recruit or organize meetings for homosexuals.” They were eventually pardoned after five brutal months in jail, because there was no evidence of actual sexual congress. But their lives were ruined. Many fled the country.
The situation was little changed when Barack Obama arrived in Senegal four years later, trailing liberal Americans’ euphoria about the Windsor decision in his wake. I had visited Dakar a few months previously, and met leaders of the LGBT movement living underground and in fear. A prominent male journalist was in jail, as were several women: like almost half of the sodomy laws the world over, the Senegalese one criminalized lesbian sex, too.
Obama’s government had made the global protection of LGBT rights an American foreign policy priority in December 2011, when Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, had famously declared to the United Nations that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” Obama instructed state agencies “to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct” and “to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.” As a consequence, the State Department began reporting regularly on the matter, and Obama was surely briefed on the department’s 2012 Senegal finding, which was that “LGBT persons often faced arrest, widespread discrimination, social intolerance and acts of violence” in the country.
Now, at the grand colonial Palais de la République in Dakar, Obama responded that he had personally called Edie Windsor from Air Force One to congratulate her; the judgment was “a victory for American democracy.” The topic of decriminalizing homosexuality had not come up in his meeting with the Senegalese president, Obama said. He tried to respond with delicacy toward his host by drawing a line between personal beliefs and customs and traditions, which had to be “respected,” and the state’s responsibility, which was to treat all people equally. He explicitly linked his advocacy of LGBT rights to his country’s own history of racial discrimination: “We had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that [people are treated equally].”
When it was his turn to speak, the Senegalese president Macky Sall made the point often advanced by those who set “traditional values” against the notion of “universal human rights”: “We cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations … We have different traditions.” He put the issue into a time frame: while he insisted (incorrectly) that his country did not persecute homosexuals, his society had to take time to “digest” these issues: “Senegal … is a very tolerant country … but we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.”
In fact, Sall was a liberal with a human rights background who had previously made positive statements about decriminalization. And compared to other African leaders his comments were mild, even encouraging, in that they suggested a path to reform. But he was under pressure from the Islamist lobby and could also not be seen to be pandering to the West. He would later voice his frustration in an interview with the German magazine Zeit: “You have only had same-sex partnerships in Europe since yesterday and now you ask it today from Africans? This is all happening too fast! We live in a world that is changing slowly.”
The phrasing was revealing. No one—not the Zeit journalist, nor Obama, nor even the Senegalese human rights movement—was calling for his government to legitimize same-sex partnerships. Rather, Sall was being asked to reform his country’s penal code and decriminalize homosexual sex, given the way the law had been applied as a discriminatory tool in the country.
But there were two other assumptions in Sall’s statement that caught my eye, and that have helped frame the questions of this book. The first was that “we live in a world that is changing slowly,” and the second was that the people asking for change in Senegal were outsiders: the West, “you”; not Senegalese citizens themselves.
Was he correct?
* * *
AS I PONDERED MACKY SALL’S ASSUMPTIONS, I thought about another country where the Pink Line was being drawn, traced in this case over the disintegrating old marks of the Iron Curtain: Ukraine. In the precursor to the Maidan revolution and Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the country was wrestling in 2013 over whether to continue its application to the European Union, or to join Vladimir Putin’s new “Eurasian” customs union. This was the year that Putin took aim at the EU and its eastward spread, and the way he did so was by claiming to protect the “traditional values” of Orthodox Slavic society against a decadent secular West. The dog whistle for this strategy was to call Europe “gayropa.” In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, a Kremlin proxy erected billboards showing same-sex stick figures holding hands, with the slogan: “Association with the EU means same-sex marriage.” There was even a popular punning rhyme on the Russian television many Ukrainians watched: “The way to Europe is through the ass” (“V Evropu cherez zhopu”).
Accession to the EU did indeed require an embrace of “European” values, which included the protection of LGBT people against discrimination and violence. Ukraine and Russia had both abolished the crime of sodomy for consenting adults (in 1991 and 1993, respectively), a precondition to joining the Council of Europe. Now, as a new religious and political elite sought to establish itself in countries disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new legal status—and visibility—of gay people could stand in for the general lawlessness of the post-communist era.
This was a trend in the region, as nativist nationalist politicians began to use LGBT rights as a way of reestablishing a sovereignty they felt had been conceded to Europe. In Poland, the Kaczynski twins built their anti-European Law and Justice Party in no small part through the demonization of that country’s budding LGBT movement, a strategy that played a significant role in its 2019 election campaign. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz did the same, including through a 2012 constitutional amendment that outlawed same-sex marriage. In Poland and Hungary as in Russia, public homophobia was part of a greater project of asserting a national identity against migrants, another perceived negative consequence—along with gay visibility—of open borders.
At the same time that Russia began cracking down on migrants—particularly from Central Asian countries—it developed and passed its federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”: the “gay propaganda law” as it became known. The law outlawed any mention of homosexuality in the presence of minors, or in a medium where they might read it or hear it. This unleashed a wave of violent aggression, from witch hunts of teachers to brutal online entrapment and torture to violent attacks on public demonstrators. It had a particularly harsh effect on transgender women, who were seen to be the most visible—and freakish—face of Western debauchery.
Europe’s criticism of the law only went to prove its moral bankruptcy, President Putin said in a December 2013 tirade: the West’s trend of recognizing “everyone’s right to freedom of conscience, political outlook and private life” meant an acceptance of “the equality of good and evil.” For Putin, the primary evidence of this trend was the normalization of homosexuality: “a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in profound demographic and moral crisis.”
It was in the context of all this that I met Ukraine’s leading LGBT activist, Olena Shevchenko. She told me how she and her comrades were fighting for a much lower bar than marriage equality: to stave off a copycat anti-propaganda bill currently in parliament, promoted by Russian proxies and right-wing Ukrainian nationalists alike, and to seek protection from the burgeoning public violence against queer people, a function—as in Senegal—of their own increased visibility. But some of Shevchenko’s allies in Ukraine’s civil society movement remonstrated with her: it was not the right time to talk about these issues at all. Ukrainian society was not ready, and it might play into the opposition’s hands about being European pawns.
Shevchenko was a lawyer in her thirties who would become a leader of a female-only volunteer military unit during the February 2014 revolution. “Yes,” she said to me, “yes, they are right. Ukrainian society is not ready for LGBT rights. I agree. But Ukrainian LGBTs, themselves, they cannot be restrained anymore. They go online. They watch TV. They travel. They see how things can be. Why should they not have similar freedoms? Why should they be forced to live in hiding? The world is moving so fast, and events are overtaking us in Ukraine. We have no choice but to try and catch up.”
* * *
WHO IS CORRECT?
Senegal’s president Macky Sall, who believes that “we live in a world that is changing slowly”?
Or the Ukrainian activist Olena Shevchenko, who insists that “the world is moving so fast … We have no choice but to try and catch up”?
In the twenty-first century, the Pink Line is not so much a line as a territory. It is a borderland where queer people try to reconcile the liberation and community they might have experienced online or on TV or in safe spaces, with the constraints of the street and the workplace, the courtroom and the living room. It is a place where queer people shuttle across time zones each time they look up from their smartphones at the people gathered around the family table; as they climb the steps from the underground nightclub back into the nation-state. In one zone, time quickens, in the other it dawdles; spending your life criss-crossing from zone to zone can make you quite dizzy.
Like Aunty in her new Tambo Village home, the people I met while researching this book were subject to a whole range of influences, from the pulpit to the smartphone. But like Aunty, who came up with the idea for her chinkhoswe all by herself and was making her own life in Tambo Village, they all had agency. In this respect at least, Olena Shevchenko understood something that Macky Sall could not or would not see: the call for change might be supported by external players such as Barack Obama or the European Union, but it was being made by Senegalese and Ukrainian people themselves.
* * *
THIS BOOK IS primarily a collection of stories, then, with very singular protagonists making very personal decisions, in very specific places. These people drive their own stories; the rest of us—activists and policy makers, scholars and scribes and readers—try to catch up.
But this book is also an argument: about one way the world has been changing in the twenty-first century, and why this is happening.
It was no coincidence that the notion of LGBT rights was spreading globally at the exact moment that old boundaries were collapsing in the era of globalization. The collapse of these boundaries meant the rapid global spread of ideas about sexual equality or gender transition—and, at the very same time, a dramatic reaction by conservative forces, by patriarchs and priests, who feared the inevitable loss of control that this process threatened. These were the dynamics along the Pink Line, particularly in places where people came to be counted as gay or lesbian or MSM or transgender for the first time. In most societies, they had always been there, albeit in ways that were sometimes circumscribed or submerged or edgy, but now they claimed new status as they took on new political identities.
And they became enmeshed in a bigger geopolitical dynamic.
In the French presidential election of 2017, the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, said the world was no longer divided into “left wing” and “right wing,” but rather into “globalists” and “patriots”; Le Pen lost the election to Emmanuel Macron (who insisted he, too, was a “patriot”), but elsewhere in the world leaders with views similar to Le Pen’s scored major victories. Donald Trump came to power in the United States in 2016, using the word nationalist and alleging that those who embraced globalization were unpatriotic. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union the same year, and the new prime minister, Theresa May, famously said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Both the Trump revolution and the Brexit one that brought Boris Johnson to power in 2019 sought to reassert national borders against the free movement of trade, capital, and people most of all. The new politics was not only about erecting new walls, but also about making claims that older walls had been taken down too quickly.
Particularly in Europe, these new-look nationalist movements sometimes bolstered their agendas by claiming they were protecting not just jobs and citizens but values, too; by the time Le Pen was running for office in 2017, these values included the rights of LGBT people. The man who wrote this script had been the crusading Dutch anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002: openly gay, Fortuyn attracted mass support when he claimed that Muslim intolerance of homosexuality posed an existential threat to European civilization. His far-right successor, Geert Wilders, drove the agenda hard. When a troubled Muslim man killed forty-nine people at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, Donald Trump—then on the campaign trail—slammed “radical Islamic terrorism”; Wilders, fighting his own election campaign back home, capitalized on this: “The freedom that gay people should have—to kiss each other, to marry, to have children—is exactly what Islam is fighting against.”
Wilders lost the Dutch election but he influenced the agenda to such an extent that even the liberal incumbent, Mark Rutte, publicly conceded the growing Dutch “unease when people abuse our freedom … [when they] harass gays, howl at women in short skirts or accuse ordinary Dutch people as racists … If you reject our country in such a fundamental manner, I’d rather see you leave.”
In France, Marine le Pen played both sides: she opposed same-sex marriage but would not participate in the massive protests against it. In a television interview during a 2013 Russian visit, she agreed enthusiastically with her new Kremlin comrades that “homophilia is one of the elements of globalization.” But her deputy and chief strategist was the gay Florian Philippot, and she openly courted the gay vote in 2017 with the message that her policies were all that stood between them and Islam’s “hatred of homosexuals,” as she put it in a televised debate with Macron.
Other right-wing European parties followed suit. In 2018, a spokesman for the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang said that his party was the country’s most gay-friendly, because all the others were “willing to import thousands of Muslims who have very violent ideas against being gay or transgender.” And although the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) opposed same-sex marriage and wanted to limit sexuality education in schools, it had an openly lesbian leader—Alice Weidel—and a gay grouping within the party that insisted action against “Islamic orthodoxy” was necessary for the “survival” of LGBT Germans. In 2016 the AfD’s Berlin branch put up billboards stating: “My partner and I don’t want to get to meet Muslim immigrants who believe that our love is a deadly sin.”
In Western Europe, LGBT rights was being staked as a Pink Line against the influx of new migrants. At the same time in Eastern Europe, it was being staked as a Pink Line against decadent Western liberalism. In both instances, queer people themselves came to be instrumentalized politically as never before. They acquired political meaning far beyond their own claims to equality and dignity. They became embodiments of progress and worldliness to some, but stigmata of moral and social decay to others.
* * *
IN 2013, the Swedish mega–home store IKEA published a story in its online magazine about two women from Dorset, in the west of England, Kirsty and Clara, making a home with the company’s furniture: “We’re two mums bringing up our baby boy in Clara’s mum’s loft,” says Kirsty. “We’re not your average family in your average home, but if my nan can raise two sons in a tiny caravan, we can make it work in our little loft.”
The article was part of a global campaign by IKEA that reimagined the kinds of families inhabiting its warm, Nordic interiors. But in a neat illustration of the way new global trends come up against local realities, IKEA pulled the story from its Russian catalog because it worried its publication would fall foul of the new gay propaganda laws. There were rumblings in gay communities internationally about IKEA’s self-censorship, and some threats of a boycott; the following year, the company decided to stop publishing its catalog entirely in Russia rather than compromise its “values.”
At exactly the same time that IKEA pulled Kirsty and Clara from its Russian campaign, an episode of the newsmagazine Special Correspondent was aired on Russian national television purporting to be an investigation into LGBT rights but actually articulating, very crudely, the Kremlin’s position on the matter. The episode was titled “Play Actors,” to suggest that crafty Russians “played” at being gay to attract foreign funding. It set out to answer the following question: “Is Russia threatened by [foreign] homosexuals trying to infiltrate our country to organize a protest movement on the pretext that our state is oppressing gays and lesbians?”
When a panel of “experts” on the program hear that athletes of the same sex might hold hands in the opening ceremony of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in solidarity with LGBT Russians, some respond with gasps of outrage. The celebrated feminist writer Maria Arbatova—the only sensible person on the panel—chides them: “If sportsmen hold hands in the Olympics will something happen to the Russian federal budget? Will our sports records plummet?”
Vitaly Milonov, the country’s most outspoken anti-gay politician, explodes on air: “[If athletes hold hands] I’m not going to let my children watch TV.”
“Throw your TV away!” jeers Arbatova. “Let your children remain completely ignorant [about the world]!”
In this interchange was encapsulated the terms of the battle being fought, all over the world, along the Pink Line. If Arbatova saw Milonov as a fearful provincial, Milonov saw Arbatova as a rootless cosmopolitan. If she embraced the inevitable process of globalization in the name of progress and “human rights,” he was trying to protect his children from the consequences of this process, in the name of faith and “traditional values.”
This conversation, of course, is as old as the concept of modernity. Over sexuality in particular, it reaches back to nineteenth-century Europe, when scientists started codifying sexual behavior and societies began talking about it. It was a conversation that animated the discourse over the rights of homosexuals and “transvestites” in Berlin, and the Oscar Wilde indecency trials in 1895. And Stalin used it to trigger a moral panic against homosexuals in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when he recriminalized sodomy after a raid on several homosexual venues in Moscow (it had been decriminalized after the revolution). Explaining the move in Pravda, Stalin’s propagandist Maxim Gorky declared that it was time for the proletariat to “crush, like an elephant,” such symptoms of capitalist disease emanating from the West.
How different is this language, really, from that of people like Vitaly Milonov, or the African leaders who, in the early twenty-first century, sought to criminalize homosexuality further? Listen to David Mark, the leader of the Nigerian Senate and the man responsible for that country’s anti-gay legislation, talking in 2013: “There are many good values we can copy from other societies but certainly not this one”; the new law would “prove to the rest of the world, who are advocates of this unnatural way, that we Nigerians promote and respect sanity, morality and humanity.”
Both the Russian Gorky and the Nigerian Mark were setting themselves up, across the expanse of the twentieth century, as custodians of tradition and morality, against the juggernaut of Western liberal capitalism. And one of the most effective ways of doing this was through the staking of a Pink Line. This was a strategy increasingly deployed in the twenty-first century, as information about “gay rights” and “gay marriage” proliferated. At his ruling party’s 2003 congress, the Malaysian president Mahathir Mohamad said that Europeans wanted to impose an “unlimited freedom” on the world, one that included “the practise of free sex including sodomy as a right … Our way of life must be the same as their way of life. Asian values do not exist for them.” There was no more potent way to define “Asian values”—or “African values,” or “Slavic values,” or “Muslim values,” or “Christian values,” or “proletarian values”—than to set it against this abomination now being embraced by the secular West.
But even if this construct was not new, what gave it force in the twenty-first century was the speed with which ideas blew across this planet. “There is always backlash when people come out,” the veteran American LGBT activist Julie Dorf said in 2014, “but what makes this era different is that what happens in the USA today is known in Azerbaijan tomorrow. And what the right wing and conservative forces fear, is true: rights are rights are rights. When you do start to fight for the equality of LGBT people, it will at some point lead to calls for marriage equality, and that’s terrifying, even if marriage equality is not what activists are asking for today in, say, Nigeria or Russia. They are simply asking to live in peace and not be killed, to have the same basic protections as everyone else.”
The twenty-first-century conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity is a global one, although—like IKEA’s campaign—it has local or regional accents. In Russia and many African states, it has been, for some, about the most basic rights to freedom of association and safety, and, for others, about protecting children. In countries ranging from the United States to Mexico and France, the conversation has been about what a family looks like and who has the right to make one. In the Catholic countries of Europe and Latin America, the Pink Line became part of a broader conflict over “gender ideology,” and the accusation that humanity is meddling with a divine plan. In the Middle East the conversation blossomed as a result of the Arab Spring, as a budding queer movement made tentative first steps toward public visibility—and was described, too, as a negative symptom of this opening up. In much of Asia the conversation was carried on the winds of new social media, and also by rapid urbanization and industrialization, which meant vast new young populations away from their families for the first time. In different ways all over the world, the conversation now encompassed discussion about gender identity, and about a person’s right to change the categories of male and female, or to live between them. What these different Pink Lines had in common was the way they set something called “tradition” against something called “modernity.” The work of queer people along the Pink Line was often to reconcile these: to embrace a liberating notion of modernity while remaining part of their societies and communities.
All over the world, precisely because the conversation was new in many places, it was vibrant and often violent, as conservative forces blew back against the inevitable consequences of a newly globalized world and the ideas that it generated. It is too simple to call this backlash “homophobia” or “transphobia,” although it often deployed, or provoked, such fear or hate. It mobilized moral panic in which homosexual or gender-variant people became scapegoats, or bogeymen, or excuses to rally law and order, or evil forces against which nationhood was defined. In most instances, these campaigns purported to protect “traditional values” or “natural order” from the depredations of modern society; ordinary people from a global or cosmopolitan elite.
Having been personally moved by the Tiwonge Chimbalanga case, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon used the platform of the African Union in Addis Ababa, in 2012 to call on African countries to repeal sodomy laws. The ranking African in the Vatican, Cardinal Robert Sarah, responded harshly: “You cannot impose something stupid like that. Poor countries like Africa [sic] just accept it because it’s imposed upon them through money, through being tied to aid.”
This was the great shibboleth of the global anti-gay discourse, from Maxim Gorky and “Play Actors” in Russia to Cardinal Sarah and Aunty’s persecutors in Malawi: homosexuality was a commercial transaction, a form of “recruitment” that set out to exploit poor people, or young people, or dark people, and to compromise the values in which they were reared.
* * *
IF THIS WAS a script that reached back into history, its first modern application, in the era of “gay rights,” was in Iran’s 1979 revolution: the fierce condemnation of homosexuality, including the death penalty under Sharia law, was one of the ways the new rulers differentiated themselves from the Western decadence of the Shah’s regime (another, of course, being the severe constraints on women). There are no reliable figures for how many alleged homosexuals have been executed since 1979, but thousands have gone into exile.
Now, in 2015, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement about how Iranian youth were exposed to threats more dangerous than ever because of “communications media that can spread a wrong thought or comment.” Iran was “not involved in the military war” anymore, but “in political, economic and security wars—and, above all, the cultural wars.” Khamenei was not talking, specifically, about homosexuality, but about the broader diffusion of Western values into the country. In other statements, he made it clear that homosexuality—and same-sex marriage in particular—was the prime avatar of this “stampede on human values.”
Such notions took root even in the more tolerant parts of the world. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, had always been one of the world’s more easygoing ones, but during an uncharacteristic crackdown on queer people in 2016, the minister of defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu, branded the LGBT movement more dangerous than even a nuclear war, because “we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed.” He called this “a proxy war” in which “another state might occupy the minds of the nation without anyone realising it … Everything we know could disappear in an instant—it’s dangerous.” Like Khamenei, Ryacudu was acknowledging the ineffectiveness of conventional warfare—of borders themselves, really—against this new threat. It was a moral war, and it needed to be fought on moral terms, in cyberspace rather than along physical borders.
In May 2017, the conservative Hungarian president Viktor Orbán hosted a global initiative called the World Congress of Families, led by American Evangelicals and Russian Orthodox conservatives. In his opening speech, Orbán linked his severe anti-immigrant policies with Christian “traditional values,” and boasted about how his country’s fences had changed history by stemming the tide of migrants entering Europe. In another part of the world, Donald Trump had just been elected president after a campaign that expressed a similar faith in walls.
But another keynote speaker in Budapest underscored the unfixed nature of these new battles. The speaker’s name was Jack Hanick, and he was a Fox News founder who had moved to Moscow to help set up Tsargrad TV, “God’s TV, Russian Style” as the Financial Times called it. Hanick projected an image from The Brady Bunch onto a big screen: The 1970s American show might have had a male patriarch and a stay-at-home mom, he said, but with its “blended family” it represented nonetheless the beginning of an inexorable moral slide into Modern Family, the twenty-first-century sitcom that “idealizes same-sex marriage.” “This is a war,” Hanick said, “but it is not a war to be waged in the physical world.”
If television was “at the centre of a spiritual war,” as Hanick put it, so, too, was the Internet. Hanick’s employer at Tsargrad TV was Konstantin Malofeev, a right-wing oligarch-activist who had set up Russia’s Safe Internet League: in the name of child protection, the league set out to patrol cyberspace by learning lessons from China. The architect of “the Great Firewall of China,” as it became known, was a man named Fang Binxing. At a forum on the subject in 2016 hosted by Malofeev, Fang insisted that “if borders exist, they exist in cyberspace too”; he also alleged that the American government directly controlled the companies that dominated cyberspace. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are, of course, barred from China.
China had decriminalized homosexual sex in 1997 and depathologized homosexuality in 2001. But as the country’s queer population became increasingly visible through Western media and online, its cyber-marshals soon turned their attention to it. In 2016 and 2017, the government put out a list of “abnormal sexual relationships” banned from television and the Internet: these included “same-sex relationships” along with “incest,” “sexual perversion,” and “sexual abuse.” In 2018, Sina Weibo—the Chinese Twitter—announced it would remove any graphic material that was pornographic, bloodily violent, or homosexual, in order to comply. This prompted the largest protest China had yet seen over LGBT issues. The hashtag #IamGay was posted more than 500,000 times, and viewed more than 530 million times; tens of thousands of people tweeted their own stories about being queer or having queer family members or friends. Weibo retracted quick time.
In different parts of the world, people found community and information—and sex—online, but the increased connectivity also brought new threats to security, from cyberbullying and unanticipated exposure to online entrapment. At an international LGBT conference in 2012, I heard how opponents of the Assad regime in Syria were blackmailed with evidence of their activity on gay hookup apps. In the years following, dozens of Egyptian men were entrapped by the vice police through Grindr, and the company disabled its global positioning function in the country in response.
In Russia, a journalist named Elena Klimova used social media to provide resources for queer youth with an initiative called Children-404: 404 being the error number on the Web for a page that no longer exists. “One family in 20 has an LGBT child in it, and those children are society’s invisible ‘Children-404,’” Klimova wrote. Hundreds of youths participated, joining a closed group on VKontakte, the Russian social media platform, or sharing their portraits and stories on open pages. At the very same time, another group, called Occupy Pedofilia, used VKontakte to entrap gay men, and then post horrific videos of their torture and assault.
Thus were the Pink Lines of the twenty-first century staked: by IKEA and Grindr, by Modern Family and Weibo, as much as by the policy makers in the U.S. State Department and the Kremlin, the technocrats at the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the activists on the frontlines on both sides.
* * *
ON DECEMBER 18, 2008, the fiery French human rights minister Rama Yade drew the first Pink Line across the floor of the United Nations General Assembly when she introduced a declaration, on behalf of the European Union, condemning “violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms based on sexual orientation or gender identity.” Sixty-six states supported the declaration. Fifty-seven others immediately signed a counter-declaration, protesting that the move interfered illegally in their domestic affairs and could result in “the social normalization, and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including pedophilia.”
Later, Vladimir Putin’s Russia would come to lead this counter-movement at the UN, but at this point Russia stayed out of the fray—it did not sign either statement, and almost all the signatories of the counter-declaration were from the Muslim world or from Africa. But the Pink Line’s frontiers were not as predictable as one might have imagined: the sixty-six supporters of the Yade initiative demonstrated a fascinating new geopolitics. The United States was not a signatory—yet. George W. Bush’s Republican administration was still in office and the debate over marriage equality was raging domestically: the Americans seemed to think that to support the declaration would influence states’ rights to decide such matters for themselves. Soon after Barack Obama was inaugurated a month later, the U.S. would sign on.
And while the Yade initiative might have been driven by Western European trailblazers, ten of the signatories were from Latin America and an astonishing fifteen from Eastern Europe. This would lead to the nationalist backlash in the years to come, but at this point an official embrace of LGBT rights was seen in Eastern Europe as a mark of modernity, of membership in the new global post–Cold War liberal consensus—and, of course, most significantly, as a ticket into the European Union.
In Latin America, too, new post-totalitarian democracies were coming to embrace “la diversidad sexual”—“sexual diversity”—as a symbol of their new openness, in defiance of their autocratic predecessors and the powerful Catholic Church, often seen to be in collusion with the dictators. In 2002, Buenos Aires had become the first jurisdiction in Latin America to offer same-sex couples the same benefits as straight ones, and in 2009, Mexico City passed a raft of laws making it the most progressive place in the Americas outside of Canada: same-sex marriage was legalized, as was adoption by same-sex couples, and the voluntary legal changing of gender identity. What was remarkable, in Latin America, was the way the struggle for gay rights vaulted over that for reproductive rights. By 2019, same-sex marriage was legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and much of Mexico. But abortion on demand was legal only in Uruguay, in Cuba, and in Mexico City. The victory of the LGBT rights movement, across the region, was to brand same-sex unions as being about love and family; it could thus counter the Catholic Church’s influence in a way that abortion rights activists struggled to do.
Although the discussion at the United Nations was initiated by European countries and—in the Obama years—godfathered by the United States, it was increasingly led by Latin American countries, to counter the “cultural imperialism” allegation. The African and Islamic states refused even to discuss it. The issue came to a head in 2016, when—after four years of fierce debate—the UN’s Human Rights Council voted by the slimmest of margins to appoint an “independent expert” to investigate violence and discrimination against LGBT people; a watchdog, in effect.
The African Group of states went to the General Assembly to object, and the former U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power later told me that she and her team spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fend off efforts to kill the initiative. In the end the African Group’s gambit failed by a narrow margin, 77 votes to 84: the expert could start his work. Presenting his 2019 report, Victor Madrigal-Borloz stated that in much of the world, a “criminal” ignorance arising from prejudice made it impossible to estimate the number of LGBT people affected by violence and discrimination. In the absence of data, “policymakers are taking decisions in the dark, left only with personal preconceptions and prejudices.”
In 2016, almost all of Africa and the Muslim world had voted to stop the appointment of the expert; almost all of Europe, North America, and Latin America had voted for him to begin his work. There were some surprises among Muslim countries—Albania and Turkey voted for the initiative to proceed. But the swing region, it turned out, was East Asia.
In 2008, the only Asian country to sign the Yade declaration had been Japan. In the years following, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam signed on too (Taiwan, not a member of the UN, became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2019). With the exception of the Philippines, these countries were outside of the theocratic influence of Christianity and Islam; ideologically as well as economically, they seemed to have less to fear from globalization, and were influenced by arguments about the economic benefit of being open to LGBT rights, from tourism and multinational corporations. Also, like the countries of Latin America, their distance from their former European colonizers, if this had happened at all, was sufficient that there was no political capital to be gained from staking a Pink Line against neocolonialism, as there was in Africa.
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“SHOULD SOCIETY ACCEPT HOMOSEXUALITY?”
This question was asked by the Pew Research Center in its quadrennial Global Attitudes & Trends survey, in July 2013. Of the 39 countries polled, tolerance levels were much higher than anticipated in Europe and North America: Spain, 88 percent; Germany, 87 percent; Canada, 80 percent (the U.S. was far behind, at 60 percent). But they were so low as to be negligible in Africa: Nigeria, 2 percent; Uganda and Senegal, 4 percent. So, too, in the Muslim world: Pakistan, 2 percent; Egypt and Indonesia, 3 percent. Latin American and Asian countries ranged across the spectrum. Pew called its survey The Global Divide on Homosexuality, and its overarching conclusion was that there was “greater tolerance” toward homosexual people “in more secular and affluent countries,” although Russia and China were exceptions: 16 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
However limited such polling might be, it offers the only empirical comparative indicator of global attitudes toward homosexuality, and the correlation between these and the law. Scholars have defined a useful “ladder,” when it comes to homosexual rights. On the lowest rung are “basic rights”: to live without fear of discrimination and harassment. Higher up are “sex rights”: the repeal of anti-sodomy legislation. And on the top rungs are “love rights”: to cohabit, to marry, and to make families. The countries that are highest on the legal ladder are generally those highest in the Pew tolerance rankings—although it was not always clear which was the chicken and which the egg: Does a tolerant society create just laws, or do just laws forge a tolerant society?
There are some outliers to the equation, however, and one of the most notable is my home country: although South Africa was at the very top of the rights ladder given that “love rights” were entrenched by marriage equality, it notched only 32 percent on the Pew Center’s 2013 tolerance index. Brazil and the United States were the other outliers, also near the top of the rights ladder, but both with middling tolerance levels. What these three countries have in common is that they are worlds-in-one-country, multiethnic societies with high inequality rates: at the time of Pew’s 2013 survey, South Africa had the second-highest Gini coefficient—which measures inequality—in the world; Brazil, the 19th; and the U.S., the 39th, out of 157 countries.
A 2016 survey on South African attitudes painted a more complex portrait. Of those polled by the state’s Human Sciences Research Council, 72 percent said they disapproved of homosexual activity. Nonetheless, 51 percent felt that homosexuals deserved the same rights as all other South Africans, and should not be discriminated against. The Other Foundation, which commissioned the research, consequently named its report Progressive Prudes, as if to suggest that we South Africans carried the Pink Line inside us: even if we accepted that these people deserved rights, we disapproved of what they did.
Was this the legacy of a post-apartheid human rights dispensation that had vaulted ahead of social attitudes? And if so, did this data confirm Macky Sall’s complaint about being asked to move too quickly in Senegal? I felt the opposite: if anything, it was a measure of South African “tolerance,” insufficient though this might be, that so many people respected the rights of those they disapproved of. It also suggested that you could indeed change attitudes by changing the law, or providing moral leadership, even if backlash complicated the process.
I had seen this, personally, very early in the South African democracy—in 1997, when I had reported the story of a young Soweto couple. When Sbongile Malaza’s grandfather found out about her relationship with Pretty Robiana, he turned a gun on Pretty and assaulted them both, calling their relationship “satanic” and “un-African”; they fled Soweto and sought refuge in a women’s shelter. When Pretty laid charges of attempted murder, she received an unexpected response from the newly appointed local police commander, a black woman: “The constitution is here now,” she said. “You people have decided you want to lead this life and it comforts you, so let’s call the family together and … make peace.” The commander convened a meeting with both families and made Pretty, in her mid-twenties, sign an affidavit taking responsibility for nineteen-year-old Sbongile, still at school.
When the commander told Sbongile’s family that “there’s nothing illegal about this relationship,” Grandfather Malaza changed his tune: he started negotiating with Pretty for the payment of bride-price. It was, I wrote at the time, “a startling example of how people change their ideologies to fit in with new hegemonies.” I cited Tsietsi Thandekiso, the gay pastor who married them: “Homophobia in the townships is superficial … We are living through a time where it’s actually not such a big deal to be gay … There are gays on the streets, gays in the taverns. It’s become part of life.”
He might have been overly sanguine. Asked by the Progressive Prudes survey two decades later whether they found lesbians to be “disgusting,” 64 percent of the black respondents agreed (as opposed to 44 percent of the white respondents). Asked whether they found cross-dressers to be “disgusting,” 71 percent of the black respondents agreed (compared to 49 percent of the white ones). But given the commonly held assumption (one I realized I shared) that a Pink Line divided pale people from dark ones in my country as elsewhere, these discrepancies were not nearly as great as I had anticipated: 29 percent of my white compatriots found me disgusting, while 61 percent of my black compatriots did not. Indeed, compared with the Pew Center’s figures for other African countries, and given the levels of religious devotion in black South African communities, the tolerance level of the black South Africans surveyed was remarkably high: 57 percent said they would accept a gay or lesbian family member.
In 1996, when South Africa adopted its post-apartheid constitution specifically protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation, the digital revolution was expanding its reach in the country. Rights and information arrived at the same time, and in their wake an urban black queer subculture asserted itself, on the streets and in popular entertainment. Pretty and Sbongile were part of a vibrant scene in Soweto, and there was a thriving black gay bar and club scene in Johannesburg. In 2004 black activists launched Soweto Pride and there were queer black celebrities all over television. In these same years, South Africa’s black middle class mushroomed, due to the African National Congress government’s policy of Black Economic Empowerment. More black people than ever before received university educations and became professionals. Progressive Prudes confirmed that educated South Africans—black or white—were more likely to be tolerant toward homosexuality and gender-fluidity than uneducated ones.
But there were some very disturbing findings, which suggested how much more challenging life was for Tiwonge Chimbalanga than for me, even though we were both, supposedly, in the same LGBT basket. I was stunned to read that 73—there was an actual number—of the 3,115 respondents said they had physically assaulted “men who act like women.” Another 218 said they might do so in the future. Seventy-nine respondents—there was another number—said they had physically assaulted women who “dressed and acted like men in public.” Another 143 said they might do so in the future. The percentages were small, but the numbers said something about how quickly fear or ignorance turned to hate and violence in South Africa, a country where there were unacceptably high levels, anyway, of interpersonal and gender-based violence, linked to high unemployment and alcoholism rates.
This helped to explain the fact that I lived with little fear of hate-inspired violence, while just twenty kilometers away Aunty was the frequent victim of assault. And why one of her neighbors in Tambo Village had started a shelter for black working-class lesbians, given how many had become the victims of what is called “corrective rape” since a black lesbian subculture began asserting itself in the townships. This violence, particularly against butch women, was a lashing out by some young men, at a time of intense economic instability, at a new category of putatively empowered people whom they believed had usurped them and were stealing their jobs and their women.
I was a white gay man, living on the “secular and affluent”—as the Pew report put it—side of a Pink Line that divided not only the world but also my new home city of Cape Town; Aunty was a poor black transgender woman, living on the other. There were many components to this Pink Line between us: I lived behind walls, drove a car, and was gender normative; she lived in a crowded yard, was a pedestrian, and was gender nonconforming. I was painfully aware that I crossed this Pink Line every time I drove just twenty kilometers along the False Bay shore, from my seaside bungalow in Kalk Bay to her shack in Tambo Village.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gevisser