In a televised meeting with Russian cultural leaders on Friday, Vladimir Putin held up J.K. Rowling as a victim of the West’s irrational “cancel culture” for her refusal to satisfy “the demands of gender rights.” In some ways, Putin’s anti-trans statement was just the latest in a long line of aggressive assaults on LGBTQ rights in his country. At the same time, though, his adoption of one of the major recent cultural grievances of the American right—even parroting their precise language—appeared to be a transparent effort to align himself with conservatives from Europe and the United States during a time when he has lost credibility with this group following the launch of his catastrophic war against Ukraine. As Republicans, in particular, become more and more open with their desire to roll back hard-won rights for LGBTQ people in the United States, they have found themselves again emulating tactics of demagoguery and hate that have been a mainstay of the Russian leader for more than a decade. In this approach, members of the GOP—such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who on Monday signed the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law by declaring he would not be cowed by “big corporations” and “Hollywood” elites who oppose the hateful measure—and Putin are political kin.
The creation of ungodly monsters from within is an effective distraction from complex social problems that demand nuanced and politically imperfect solutions. Putin entered his third term in office in 2012 with declining popularity and growing nationwide protests. For the next decade, Putin tightened his grip on the Russian people in large part through the enforcement of exclusionary and divisive “traditional values.” By 2013, Russia passed the federal anti-gay propaganda law criminalizing the distribution of materials “aimed at creating nontraditional sexual attitudes” or equating “the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations.” These nationalist, value-based policies silenced and criminalized Russia’s already marginalized LGBTQ community often by appealing to sacred text. This rhetoric has made it impossible for LGBTQ people to be “good Russians.” Instead, they are conspirators with Western “foreign agents” working to destroy Russia from within. Putin stated this view more plainly in a recent speech in which he described cultural foes of his authoritarian rule in Russia as “gnats” that needed to be “purified” from Russian society and not so subtly targeted LGBTQ people. “I don’t condemn those who have villas in Miami or the French Riviera, those who can’t live without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedoms,” Putin said. “It’s not a problem. The problem is that many of those people are mentally there (in the West) and not here with our people, with Russia. They don’t remember or just don’t understand that they are just … expendables used for the purpose of inflicting the maximum damage on our people.”
Putin’s equation of “those who can’t live without … gender freedoms” with being part of a “fifth column” has long been part of his approach to politics. Russia’s 2013 federal law was modeled on a string of regional bans passed in the early 2000s. While the scope of the 2013 federal law was dangerously vague, the proponents of these state-level laws did not mince words. Local leaders explicitly tied homosexuality to pedophilia. A court denying the creation of an LGBTQ Pride House in Sochi declared that “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” directly threatens Russian society, and that efforts to combat homophobia were inherently “extremist.” The court concluded that these “extremist” efforts inevitably incite “social and religious hatred” and posed direct threats to “Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While amassing troops on the border of Ukraine in 2021, Putin intensified his rhetoric characterizing LGBTQ equality as evidence of strategic Western aggression against Russia. Speaking directly against Western “gender ideology” that recognizes the existence and health needs of transgender people, Putin told a reporter that it is a “simply monstrous moment when children are pushed to believe from early on that a boy can easily become a girl, and vice versa. They are pushed to believe they have a choice, imposed while parents are swept aside. Calling a spade a spade, this is close to a crime against humanity dressed up in the name and under the flag of progress.”
Compare all of this to the approach of Republican politicians elected to statewide office. We saw in last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson how Sen. Ted Cruz grabbed the spotlight to demonize trans people, while a raft of anti-trans bill have been passing state legislatures all across the country. The backers of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, signed into law on Monday, explicitly and implicitly link the law to homophobic tropes that LGBTQ people were seeking to subject children to their “predations.” Meanwhile, the law’s drafters have made the language so vague as to criminalize the most innocuous possible speech, while also giving lawmakers deniability that this is not what they were doing.
Indeed, there is little daylight between Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies and erasing messaging and that of the American right. Hardline Christian Right and conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation offer a chillingly similar message arguing that LGBTQ-inclusive school policies and nondiscrimination laws are dangerous, radical “gender ideology.” These groups engage in well-funded, strategic campaigns against recognition of transgender people and broader LGBTQ equality, relying on a range of unfounded scare tactics. Just last month, the Heritage Foundation published a report decrying the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Gender Equity and Equality as a plan to make “gender ideology a central theme in the American experiment.” The report concludes that trans-inclusive healthcare and nondiscrimination policies are a “frontal assault on the freedom to act in accordance with” the need to “defend marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and defend the immutability of biological sex.” This messaging isn’t new, but it has reached a renewed fever pitch in the last few years in American politics.
As American conservative leaders struggle to keep up with the fragmentation of a pluralistic and diversifying society, political pressure and power diffusion foster the creation of artificial enemies in the name of national pride. Supported by powerful conservative interest groups American leaders are promoting doomsday warnings against the recognition of LGBTQ identity, the enforcement of civil rights laws, and the provision of gender-affirming care. During floor debates last year on the Equality Act, legislation that would incorporate protections for LGBTQ people in existing civil rights statutes, Florida Rep. Greg Steube read from the Bible and stated that “When men or women claim to be able to choose their own sexual identity, they’re making a statement that God did not know what he was doing when he created them.” He then offered his fellow members of Congress a grave warning: “The gender confusion that exists in our culture today is a clear rejection of God’s good design. Whenever a nation’s laws no longer reflect the standards of God, that nation is in rebellion against him and will inevitably bear the consequences.”
Dire warnings against LGBTQ-induced devolution of civil society are not reserved to the elected branches. The trope of the destabilizing impact of equality and queer existence is engrained in the political ether. During the Supreme Court oral arguments for Bostock v. Clayton County and Stevens v. Harris Funeral Homes in 2019, Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested that recognition of Title VII protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity would result in “massive social upheaval.” (Gorsuch ultimately voted to outlaw anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination along with the majority of the court, but that likely had more to do with his particularly quirky brand of maximalist textualist jurisprudence.)
It’s worth noting that the strategic incorporation of divisive, alienating rhetoric for political gain is a classic tool of an autocrat. The fact that across all branches of government a growing number of American leaders are relying on it should scare, but not surprise us. Politically insecure leaders rely on religiously based divisive messaging because it works. The theology of autocracy, meanwhile, uses the mantel of the church to promote nationalistic conformity while also channeling fear and anger toward communities that can’t or won’t conform. With little political risk or accountability, American politicians have embraced the well-worn Putin narrative that transforms the lives of individual LGBTQ people into coordinated political acts of defiance and national threats.