‘Pinkwashing’ and Homonationalism in the Radical Right

Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at University of California, Berkeley in September 2017.

Queer politics and queer interests occupy different, dynamic, and tense spaces in the radical right. Talk about LGBTQ+ issues have been consistently part of the conversation, sometimes through blatant homophobia, sometimes through accusations of “their” homophobia. The former speaks to the conservative roots of radical right groups, and reflects what is ultimately nostalgia, and a desire for a mythic past of nuclear and (preferably) nativist families who are headed by heterosexual couples. This nostalgia produces some common ultra-conservative social policies and a virulent form of anti-liberal politics, including anti-feminism, anti-migrant, and ultimately a default anti-LGBTQ+ position with regards to minority rights.

But, and somewhat paradoxically, there has recently been an attempt to bring LGBTQ+ people into the fold of radical right groups. While surprising on the face of it, it reflects in many respects the differences between the old radical right (or classical fascism) and the new. To be sure, there are similarities, including a belief in (or nostalgia for) a mythic and homogenous national character that is extremely exclusionary. But the new radical right appears focused on new targets that reflect the contemporary political landscape – the formation of the EU, the global threat of terrorism, and the digital age.

The UK-based anti-Islam movement, the English Defence League, for example, had its own LGBTQ+ division, and of course Milo Yiannopoulos was once the darling of the American alt-right. A claim to being pro-gay and pro-lesbian is important for groups that want to appear palatable to mainstream society where mainstream society has at least some outward-facing acceptance of equality, or where appearing anti-LGBTQ costs politically. To understand how this (at least) pro-gay and pro-lesbian rhetoric emerges from otherwise virulently exclusionary movements, it’s useful to turn to the concepts of homonationalism and pinkwashing.

Homonationalism and pinkwashing

Jasbir K. Puar (2007) coined the term ‘homonationalism’ to capture how tolerance and acceptance for LGBTQ+ citizens has become a benchmark against which states are measured in positive or negative lights. In simple terms, homonationalism can be understood as bringing LGBTQ+ people into liberalism and into the national conversation – the Obama administration in the United States, for instance, made gay rights a central pillar of its foreign policy. Homonationalism brings (at least some) LGBTQ+ people into the fold of citizenry, in a departure from historic exclusionary practices. Puar argues that this stands as evidence of social progression and modernity. “Gay rights”, then, are used as a way of demonstrating Western superiority over the backwards ‘others’ of the world. Homonationalism, according to Puar, makes pinkwashing possible. ‘Pinkwashing’ can refer to specific tactics, policies, or practices by states or groups that use gay-rights or LGBT-friendly policies to mask or to draw attention away from violent, exclusionary, or otherwise negative policies and practices. If homonationalism refers to the large-scale, historical and global processes at play, pinkwashing refers to the specific practices and policies of governments and groups.

In addition to potentially masking the many ways in which LGBTQ+ people (and quite notably trans people) are still vulnerable in Western European countries, homonationalism and pinkwashing have been carried into the discourses of the radical right in Western Europe. Interestingly the reverse is true in some countries such as Poland, where equality is held up as a dividing line between a stridently socially conservative and Catholic East vs. a socially liberal and Protestant West.

Liberal illiberalism in the radical right

Writing for the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Robert Deam Tobin (2017) argues that: “[the] acceptance of sexual minorities [by the radical right can be] seen as a triumph of liberal ideas from the Enlightenment, demonstrating the superiority of Western culture.” Tobin refers to this as the “right-wing liberal approach to homosexuality”, which celebrates “the liberty of gays in a pluralistic society”. This is picked up in the work of Benjamin Moffit (2017) and what he calls a “liberal illiberalism” of, in particular, populist radical right (PRR) groups. He uses this term to highlight how these parties selectively reconfigure traditionally liberal defences of discriminated-against groups – such as homosexuals or women – to attack elites and the supposedly illiberal Muslim “Other”. Bringing in more socially liberal ideas is good strategy, particularly for groups that are trying to put distance between themselves and negative associations.

In Western Europe (and for good measure the United States), homonationalism has become a racialised concept. Quoting Vice quoting Owen Jones: “Far-right groups… try to cynically appropriate gay rights for Islamophobia.” Here in the United Kingdom, the rights of LGBTQ+ people are something the radical right declares is in need of protection against the backward foreign cultures that have “invaded” Britain. In France, Marine Le Pen made similar claims that the FN would protect the LGBTQ+ community from “Islamist violence” in a reversal of her father’s position.

Why this matters

To be clear, the problems of homonationalism and pinkwashing are the use of the LGBTQ+ community as a smokescreen to mask the radical right’s violent exclusionary rhetoric against other marginalised groups, such as Muslims and migrants. Queer people of colour, queer migrants, and queer Muslims can still be, and often are, targets of the radical right. The pinkwashing of the radical right is, like the homonationalism of the United States post-9/11, complicated and problematic, often occurring at the expense of other marginalised groups even within the LGBTQ+ community. Violence against trans people, including lethal violence, is on the rise, with trans women of colour particularly at risk of violence and death.

It should raise questions of how far the support for LGBTQ+ people actually runs in these groups. For example, who are “the people” that need protecting from the “Others”? And, according to different contexts, who is in need of protection in one space may be different from those who needs protection in another. Across Western Europe, gay rights have become a banner of superiority in radical right nationalism, where the inclusion of some minorities has become a justification for the exclusion of others. We also need to be aware of the trend of faux homonationalism outside the radical right, and to not be complacent in the progress that has been made already when equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community is still far off.

Dr Megan A. Armstrong is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham. See her profile at:

© Megan A. Armstrong. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

 

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