LGBTQI+ rights are facing a backlash globally as part of a culture war against queer identities and existence. It is more important than ever that the policy and practice of atrocity prevention includes the vulnerabilities and resistance of queer people.
Research and policy on preventing mass atrocity crimes has often ignored the experiences of LGBTQI+ people. The intrinsic connections between violence against queer people and atrocity prevention should have been obvious from the outset: gay men, lesbian women, bisexual, and transgender people were specifically targeted as part of the Holocaust, alongside Jews and other minoritised groups. While the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust is well known, persecution of queer people was not widely included in documentation after the end of WWII. When gay men were released from concentration camps they were transferred to prison because homosexuality remained illegal in Germany at the time. This patterns of exclusion of queer experiences and resistance during mass atrocities has continued into atrocity prevention today, which is most often framed around a United Nations agreement on the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P.
Our recent report on Queering Atrocity Prevention, in collaboration with Protection Approaches, has found pervasive omissions of queer experience in academic literature on R2P as well as gaps in the ways that states frame R2P. States will regularly refer to other identity groups such as women or refugees, but not to LGBTQI+ groups who are often also at heightened risk during conflict. More promising steps can be seen in the academic discipline of Genocide Studies which has increasingly taken up research on queer experiences in recent years, such as the work of Matthew Waites, Lily Nellans, David Eichert, and Patrick Vernon.
Increased rights for LGBTQI+ people in Western countries, including the right to marry, can mask the continued backlash against these rights. For example in the UK reported violence against queer people doubled between 2016 and 2021. As noted in Australian Outlook, with the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills, LGBTQI+ rights are under attack in the US to the point where they have been described as one step forward, ten steps back. While thinking about protections for queer people through a metaphor of “progress” can be problematic in the sense that it establishes hierarchies between so-called “progressive” states and “undeveloped” or “regressive” states, there is currently a violent assault on queer people in the US and their right to exist and appear in public. This accompanies an assault on women’s reproductive rights. These attacks are not separate. They are deeply intertwined elements of patriarchal and heteronormative society that enable the targeting of individuals for their assumed identity and deviation from the patriarchal and cis-heteronormative rules of the game. All of which is now playing out in a polarising and international “culture war” that, while spearheaded by those in Global Right and animated further by President Putin, cuts across traditional Left and Right divides.
The effects of this can be seen playing out in the culture war around trans identities, particularly the scaremongering surrounding bathrooms and women’s sports. The practice of atrocity prevention teaches us that dehumanising and fearmongering rhetoric leaps easily from the page and the screen, creating the conditions for, and contributing to, the rise of persecution and identity-based violence. The history of atrocity crimes is clear that the persecution of LGBTQI+ people and queer communities commonly foreshadows the persecution of other groups.
The reassertion of patriarchal, heteronormative values and legislation commonly come before wider acts of violence. From Nazi Germany to genocide in Darfur, the breakup of former Yugoslavia, and Britain’s imposition of English penal codes (e.g., British Indian Penal Code of 1860), the imposition of “moral” codes that directly assault sexual and gender identities came before widespread state-led violence and atrocity crimes. These historical examples demonstrate the prevalence of violence underpinned by cis-heteronormativity, which fundamentally strives to eliminate anything remotely queer as a mechanism of power and control through stigma, shame, incarceration, and/or elimination.
A recent example where this is taking place is Russia. One of us, Dean Cooper-Cunningham, has argued that domestic state homophobia over the last decade has been paired with a heteronormative foreign policy and geopolitical posturing under Vladimir Putin. He calls this “heteronormative internationalism,” which is when states (or other political actors such as the Russian Orthodox Church or World Congress of Families) use political homophobia as part of its foreign policy and/or a geopolitical project.
For more than a decade now, Russia has positioned itself as the bastion of “traditional family values” in contrast to Europe, labelled “Gayropa” in Russian policy. Russian foreign policy includes a sexualised and gendered component in which Russia is constituted as the saviour of “Gayropa,” a sexually decadent space of moral decay. This practice has been hugely successful and has garnered support internationally. While we are hesitant to make any causal claims, such geopolitical projects have created conditions that enable the likes of Hungary and Poland to pass legislation targeting queer people as dangerous pariahs, and threats to order and the fabric of society, while also restricting reproductive rights.
In our recent policy report, we wrote that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intelligence reports of rumoured lists that include LGBTQI+ individuals, activists, organisations, and allies to be targeted upon successful Russian takeover, gives Russian heteronormative internationalism a new and important resonance. In addition to lists of LGBTQI+ organisations and individuals, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church blamed the war on the spread of “Western” pro-LGBTQI+ politics to Ukraine.
The construction of Europe and Europeanisation as a threat to Ukraine, which Putin has recently constituted as Russian, is part of Putin’s geopolitical project, of which heteronormative politics is a crucial constituent element. In this political moment, the effects of that heteronormative internationalism and Putin’s desire to balance against the supposed threat of the West are manifest for queer people living in Ukraine. The persecution of LGBTQI+ people has consistently been followed by oppressive politics and violence, even towards those who supported the scapegoating of queer people in the first instance. Policies developed to support “traditional family values” may first target queer collectives, but they usually very quickly turn to other agendas such as reproductive rights. We must be vigilant, not just of the way states like Russia use heteronormativity to legitimise identity-based violence, but of the way queer people are targeted in “the West.” What is happening in the US right now is the canary in the coalmine for aggressive authoritarianism and further identity-based violence. And as so-called “anti-woke” politicians make themselves known publicly and increasingly stack the ranks of mainstream political parties, including in the UK and Australia, the threat to queer people and other minoritised people is growing.
Persecution of queer people and the rollback of rights for LGBTQI+ people means that those of us working on atrocity prevention and R2P need to better understand the specific vulnerabilities, and resistance, of queer people. People with non-heterosexual sexual orientations and cisgender identities were always part of the community that R2P serves, however the implicit assumptions around cis-heterosexuality have marginalised queer persecution from the policy and practice of the atrocity prevention community.
Dr Jess Gifkins is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester researching United Nations negotiation practices and the responsibility to protect. She is the Queering Atrocity Prevention Research Fellow at Protection Approaches.
Dr Dean Cooper-Cunningham is Lecturer in Inequality at the University of Sheffield and his research sits at the intersection of feminist and queer theory, critical security studies, and visual politics.
The authors’ recent publication on ‘Queering Atrocity Prevention‘ can be found here.
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