Chinese President Xi Jinping recently became the latest in a long line of autocrats to treat anyone who does not conform to conventional gender norms – especially gay and effeminate men – as a threat to society. But what is it about “non-manly” men that terrify dictators so much?
MOSCOW – The Chinese government has banned “sissy” and “sissy” men from television, as part of a vicious propaganda campaign that calls them “abnormal” and somehow in violation of the country’s morals . President Xi Jinping’s targeting of gay men – and anyone who does not conform to conventional norms of masculinity – should come as no surprise. Homophobia is an authoritarian mark.
When I was a student at Moscow State University in the early 1980s, one of my classmates – a soft-spoken literature lover – was kicked out, supposedly for plagiarism. But I’ll never forget when another classmate leaned over and whispered that in fact our expelled classmate’s crime was that he was “gay”.
Regardless of his sexuality, our classmate was clearly deemed too gentle for our “heroic” Soviet milieu. Indeed, even women had to be manly: Images of maids in orange waistcoats plowing snow and hammering nails were all too common in Soviet times. But for men, being nothing less than a quintessential “man of man” – with a swollen chest and a rifle at the ready – was, for all intents and purposes, criminal.
Dictators depend on order. They maintain their positions not by meeting the needs of the people, 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 pointed out, enforcing gender compliance is part of a larger campaign to ensure respect for state-endorsed political views.
State homophobia is also a hallmark of life in modern Russia. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin suddenly decided that homosexuality threatened his position. It is suspected that this has something to do with the lingering rumors that the relations between Putin’s ministers of power and his business partners are not strictly professional – or platonic. They may not be gay, but some (at least) are said to have sex with each other, partly as an expression of loyalty.
These are not the kind of rumors that a strong man like Putin wants to circulate. He is, after all, the same man who was photographed fishing in a Siberian lake and riding a shirtless horse. These photos quickly became popular icons in gay magazines around the world. For example, Russia passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda”.
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Much like the new Chinese rule, the law purportedly aimed to protect children from information promoting “denial of traditional family values.” In fact, it has dramatically reduced access to inclusive education and support services for LGBT people. Now, many in Russia are convinced that homosexuality is learned behavior. Even smart, educated people will gossip about someone they know as having “turned gay”.
But this law was only the beginning. One of the amendments passed in last year’s mock constitutional referendum banned same-sex unions and said marriage could only take place between a man and a woman.
This old, authoritarian, homophobic model is also emerging in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte once said 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 exist, but widespread discrimination and harassment persist. Earlier this year, after a wave of student protests, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “We will transport our young people to the future, not as LGBT youth, but as young people who existed in the glorious past. of our nation.
Even some putative democracies are embracing state-sponsored homophobia, as part of a larger illiberal shift. In Hungary, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has enacted a law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” or gender reassignment of minors. In Poland, “LGBT ideology free zones” or anti-LGBT “family charters” have been established in nearly 100 regions, towns and villages.
While Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States, he has adopted the same “macho” rhetoric as when he threatened protesters with violence. He even went so far as to boast about his testosterone levels and the size of his penis. Politically, aided by his ultra-conservative vice president Mike Pence, he has weakened protections for LGBT people and banned transgender people from serving in the military.
The United States has escaped Trumpism, at least for the time being. But the ranks of caricatured macho leaders nonetheless seem to be growing. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky had not previously presented himself as an aggressively male figure; one could have qualified his style of “metrosexual”. Today, however, he plays a beefy 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’ use of “hegemonic masculinity” – the idea that men must be strong, tough and dominant – to strengthen their position should not be surprising. Authoritarian states are inherently weak and dictators are inherently insecure. Thus, they are constantly trying to project their strength.
But in today’s rapidly changing world, ordinary people also feel insecure – especially those who believe that their traditionally “dominant” positions are being eroded. This makes them eager to embrace strong men who promise a return to order and predictability from a more socially rigid past.
In other words, people are afraid of change and think they need macho rulers and patriarchal rules to protect them. Who is the sissy now?