We are experiencing a growing global polarisation on human rights, sexuality, and gender. In this politics of division, homophobia and transphobia are increasingly used to discredit the prevention of gender-based violence, weaken the rule of law, and question the universality of human rights.
Turkey’s defence for its decision to leave the Istanbul Convention (which aims to protect women against violence and, in its core, all victims of discrimination) followed a well-established script: it denounced the Convention’s modest acknowledgment of LGBT equality. President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun, said the Convention’s original intention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”, and it wasn’t compatible with Turkey’s social and family values.
Already the basic protection of LGBT people was deplored as a liberal western agenda. European governments and extremist parties utilise the same repetitive buzzwords for their own political agenda of “illiberal democracy”, like Poland and Hungary, and their threat to leave the Istanbul Convention as well.
This politics of division has grown globally over the past few years, denouncing LGBT equality as a symbol for a world gone wrong. Because, more often than not, it seems to work for their anti-democratic campaigns. A globally connected movement towards more intolerance, claiming to “protect family and religion” and a strong anti-gender agenda, makes itself felt in North America, Europe, Russia, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Hate, bullying, legal discrimination, rape, or murder due to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or intersex status occur worldwide. In 72 states, governments legitimise and sponsor violence. Even where LGBT people benefit from legal protection and growing acceptance within society, history still looms large.
The Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, formed in 2013 as a global space to reflect upon and advance LGBT equality, explores these politics of division. As a transnational network of leaders from 76 countries, we have witnessed that while there is rapid progress on LGBT equality in some nations, there is severe backlash in others. Often states and non-state actors use so-called “traditional” family values, their claim of an “attacked” national and cultural sovereignty, or a reference to religious traditions as a call to “defend” their notions of purity. Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, explores how these campaigns affect the notions of family, faith, and equality globally.
Being part of a family is a fundamental human condition as well as a human right. All of us long to feel at home with our birth families, our families of choice, and the families we raise. Equally, we all have the right to live safely within the cultures and countries in which we are raised. This sense of belonging, connection, and wellbeing are what we call feeling “at home”.
Yet, while much progress has been made in recent years, being truly “at home” remains out of reach for many LGBT individuals. So-called “traditional family values” are claimed to justify exclusion: of lesbian, gay, trans- and intersexual citizens from legal protection; of daughters and sons from their families, their neighbourhoods, their culture, and even their country.
As our Fellows discussed, laws and cultural practices often defended as “traditional” are relics of western colonialism and its moral and legal codes that stigmatised homosexuality and transgenderism. Neo-colonial missionaries make best friends with authoritarian rulers who use homo- and transphobia as an easy way to divide and rule.
The consequences are dire: a significantly higher rate of LGBT teenage suicides, a disproportionate percentage of LGBT youth being homeless, and an alarming increase in murders of trans and gender-diverse people between 2008 and 2020.
Our Fellows shared their personal experiences of acceptance, silence, or exclusion in their families and ways to heal and protect families in all their shapes and forms in the interview-based film, Family Is…? It is remarkable to see these struggles happen in families all around the globe. Why does this violence against LGBT children seem to find widespread open, or silent, acceptance?
Exclusion is not a family value. It is an attack on the social fabric of our lives and the core idea of family: safety, inclusion, and love. Exclusion impacts not only those driven from their homes but tears apart the incomplete families and communities they are forced to leave behind.
Faith communities and their LGBT people
Last year, the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, started the Global Online Forum on LGBT and Faith, bringing together members and leaders of faith communities from within Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, plus agnostics, atheists, anthropologists, and cultural believers.
Worldwide, LGBT people are increasingly insisting on their inclusion in faith communities and cultural traditions. Many religious congregations have begun to interpret their own beliefs in more inclusive ways in response to these calls and actions.
When we started, many of us still mentally held onto an imagined separation of LGBT and faith communities as two communities opposite each other. Listening to our Fellows, however, it became obvious that this juxtaposition is part of the problem. It does not do justice to the lived reality of many LGBT individuals around the world. LGBT people have been, are, and will be part of faith communities, and people of faith have been, are, and will be part of LGBT communities. We are not strangers to each other.
Faith communities unresponsive to the needs of their LGBT members counteract their core values of community, empathy, and respect. The politics of division often define communities by who belongs (we) and who does not belong (them). But LGBT people grow up within their families and often are raised within faith communities. They are not coming “from the outside”. Our Fellows urge the eradication of such long-held polarisations and not to invoke deities for a message of dehumanisation or hate.
Politics of division versus equality
Polarisation obscures a look at the reality on either side: countries claiming LGBT freedom often fall short of legal measures to ensure and protect LGBT equality. Look at the FRA survey on the discrimination of LGBT people in the European Union for further insight. Countries or regions branding themselves as “LGBT free zones” have active LGBT communities and inclusive cultural and diverse histories that they are now striving to censor.
Leaving the Istanbul Convention is divide-and-rule politics. It displays indifference towards the lasting effects of violence: violence against women; violence against LGBT children and their families; violence as endangering social cohesion. Yes, that undermines families. Yes, that relativises the safety of women and LGBT people. Yes, that helps to normalise violence.
But positive change is happening on a global scale: the monumental decision by the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalise homosexuality (which was also decriminalised over the past years in Botswana, Angola, Gabon, Mozambique, Belize, Trinidad, Bhutan, among others); Argentina’s landmark legislation in recognition of gender identity; the protection of LGBT rights in South Africa’s constitution; the EU Commission’s rebuttal of the obliviousness to history in claims of “LGBT free zones“.
The politics of division will not win. But how do we reduce the affective polarisation that threatens to destabilise our families, our faith communities, and our ethics of equality?