MOSCOW – China’s government has banned “sissy” and “effeminate” males from television, part of a vicious propaganda campaign that brands them as “abnormal” and somehow in violation of the country’s morals.
President Xi Jinping’s targeting of gay men — and of anyone who doesn’t conform to conventional standards of masculinity — should not be surprising. Homophobia is an authoritarian trademark.
When I was a student at Moscow State University in the early 1980s, one of my classmates — a soft-spoken lover of literature — was expelled, supposedly for plagiarism. But I’ll never forget when another classmate leaned in and whispered that, in fact, our expelled peer’s crime was that “he was gay.”
Whatever his sexuality, our classmate was clearly deemed too gentle for our “heroic” Soviet milieu. Indeed, even women had to be virile: Images of worker-maids in orange vests plowing snow and hammering nails were all too common in the Soviet era. But for men, being anything less than a quintessential “man’s man” — chest puffed out and rifle at the ready — was, for all intents and purposes, criminal.
Dictators depend on order. They maintain their positions not by meeting the people’s needs, but rather by controlling as many aspects of life in the country as they can. This includes defining exactly how people should behave and portraying heterodoxy as untrustworthy and even dangerous. In China, as Rana Mitter has pointed out, imposing conformity with regard to gender is part of a broader campaign to ensure compliance with state-approved political viewpoints.
State-sponsored homophobia is also a feature of life in modern Russia. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin suddenly decided that homosexuality threatened his position. One suspects that this had something to do with persistent rumors that relations among Putin’s power ministers and business associates are not strictly professional — or platonic. They might not be homosexual, but some (at the least) are believed to have sex with one another, partly as an expression of loyalty.
These are not the kinds of rumors a strongman like Putin wants floating around. This is, after all, the same man who had his photo taken fishing in a Siberian lake and riding a horse shirtless. Such photos soon became popular icons in gay magazines around the world. So, Russia passed a law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda.”
Much like China’s new rule, the law supposedly aimed to protect children from information promoting the “denial of traditional family values.” In fact, it drastically reduced access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services. Now, many in Russia are convinced that homosexuality is a learned behavior. Even intelligent and educated people will gossip about someone they know being “turned gay.”
But that law was just the beginning. One of the amendments passed in last year’s sham constitutional referendum outlawed same-sex unions and affirmed that marriage could take place only between a man and a woman.
This old homophobic authoritarian model is also showing up in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte once said that he had “cured” himself of homosexuality — as if it were some kind of shameful disease — with the help of “beautiful women.” While the country’s constitution allows same-sex marriage, its family code does not.
In Turkey, LGBT rights do exist, but widespread discrimination and harassment persist. Earlier this year, after a wave of student protests, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation’s glorious past.”
Even some putative democracies are embracing state-sponsored homophobia, as part of a broader illiberal turn. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has passed a law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” or gender reassignment to minors. In Poland, “LGBT Ideology Free Zones” or anti-LGBT “Family Charters” have been established in nearly 100 regions, towns and cities.
While Donald Trump is no longer president of the United Sates, he embraced similarly “macho” rhetoric, such as when he threatened protesters with violence. He even went so far as to boast about his testosterone level and his penis size. On the policy front, aided by his ultraconservative vice president, Mike Pence, he weakened protections for LGBT people and instituted a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
The U.S. has escaped Trumpism, at least for now. But the ranks of cartoonishly macho leaders nonetheless seem to be growing. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky did not previously present himself as an aggressively masculine figure; one might have described his style as “metrosexual.”
Today, however, he plays a strapping nationalist, often clad in military gear, defending his homeland from the Russian threat. He recently challenged Putin to meet him in the war zone on the border between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Russian republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
These leaders’ reliance on “hegemonic masculinity” — the idea that men should be strong, tough and dominant — to bolster their position should not be surprising. Authoritarian states are fundamentally weak and dictators are fundamentally insecure. So, they are constantly attempting to project strength.
But in today’s fast-changing world, ordinary people are feeling insecure, too — especially those who think that their traditionally “dominant” positions are being eroded. That makes them eager to embrace strongmen who promise a return to the order and predictability of a more socially rigid past.
In other words, people are afraid of change and think they need macho leaders and patriarchal rules to protect them. Who is the sissy now?
Nina L. Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler), most recently, of “In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.” © Project Syndicate, 2021
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