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  • Fahad Mirza

Digital Homophobia: A Transnational Threat to the Existence of the LGBTQ Community

Author: Fahad Mirza

August 31, 2023


Russian law enforcement officers block participants in the LGBTQ rally 'X St.Petersburg Pride' in central Saint Petersburg, Russia in 2019 [Image Credit: Anton Vaganov/Reuters]

Introduction


Members of the LGBTQ community are in danger. On May 24th, 2023, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin warning that in the run up to the 2024 election cycle, individuals could be motivated to commit violence, with a particular focus on targeting "individuals or events associated with the LGBTQIA+ community..." Additionally, LGBTQ people are nine times more likely than non-LGBTQ people to be victims of violent hate crimes.


Despite these worrying statistics, there has been a steady increase in LGBTQ visibility. A global survey of 30 countries reports on average, 9% of adults identify as LGBTQ. Additionally, 47% of people say they have a relative, friend, or work colleague who is lesbian/gay/homosexual, which is up 5 percent since just 2021.


Unfortunately, this rise in visibility has also resulted in a rise in anti-LGBTQ laws around the world. Oftentimes, the justification for enacting these laws is based on falsehoods surrounding LGBTQ individuals. These falsehoods are amplified by disinformation actors and strategically used by governments to drum up public support for draconian measures that seek to discriminate, harass, and execute LGBTQ individuals.


To illustrate the real-world impact of these rising challenges, we will look at Russia, Uganda, and the state of Florida — three places where governments have enacted hateful and dangerous laws that put LGBTQ communities in danger. In the following sections, we will examine these cases in detail and explore the disinformation narratives employed by each government to justify its discriminatory actions.


Russia


In a concerning development, Russia has revealed plans to implement an online surveillance system designed to identify and track various forms of 'prohibited data,' including what the government refers to as 'homosexual propaganda.' This system is set to analyze photos, videos, and texts on websites, social networks, and messengers for prohibited information, encompassing areas such as homosexual propaganda, drug production, and weapon manufacturing.


Looking back to 2013, the Russian legislative body, known as the Duma, passed a law targeting the spread of gay 'propaganda' specifically aimed at minors. However, this law took a more expansive turn in 2022, extending its reach to all age groups. As a result, publicly expressing one's homosexuality has effectively become illegal in Russia. The legislation not only covers advertisements and movies but also other forms of media. Violating this ban can result in significant penalties, with individuals facing fines of up to 400,000 rubles (approximately $4,329.00 U.S. dollars) and legal entities potentially being penalized with sums exceeding five million rubles (about $54,112.55 U.S. dollars).


Protesters holding anti-Vladimir Putin posters march past the British prime minister's residence on Downing Street in central London on August 10. [Image Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty]

Despite the fact that homophobic attitudes are popular in Russia, many experts agree that Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws are not the result of overwhelming public pressure but rather a political strategy by top Russian policymakers to paint the LGBTQ community as enemies of the state aligned with Western imperial forces. Experts see these laws as a continuation of the government's attempt to control the population and shut out what it deems as "non-traditional" values.


By selling itself as a defender of “traditional values,” Russia positions itself as an ideological leader in the region. Russian ideology resonates strongly in post-Soviet countries, and after Russia’s adoption of the gay-propaganda law in 2013, many post-Soviet countries considered similar iterations of a bill against “homosexual propaganda.”


The implementation of the “gay propaganda” law has also resulted in an increase in anti-LGBTQ violence and restrictions on LGBTQ projects and initiatives, from a ban on Pride events to the inability of LGBTQ organizations to register in Russia. Russian law enforcement has also refused to investigate assaults and violence against LGBTQ individuals and activists. This blind eye towards LGBTQ violence is most notable in Chechnya, a highly conservative, predominantly Muslim republic of Russia, where homosexuality is a deep taboo.


Demonstrators against the Chechen purges outside the Russian Embassy [Image Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images]

In February 2017, Chechnya’s law enforcement and security officials launched an anti-gay purge. Dozens of men were rounded up under suspicion of being gay and were subjected to days of detention in unofficial facilities, where they endured humiliation, starvation, and torture. Many of these men were 'disappeared,' never to be seen again, while others were returned to their families, barely alive, due to severe beatings.


Police involved in this purge scoured the victims’ cell phones, looking for contacts of other men who might be gay and/or torturing the captives into naming names. The police would then capture those named. Often, police would also out the victims as gay to their families and encourage their relatives to carry out honor killings, an all too common practice in Chechnya.


Over 100 gay men were subject to this torture, some of whom died. Victims who survived this ordeal reported that high-level Chechen officials visited these detention facilities to humiliate the detainees. Much like the anti-LGBTQ laws passed by the central Russian government, these actions were not done by a popular anti-LGBTQ uprising but rather were a move by the top-ranking Chechen officials to eradicate so-called “undesirables.” Similar tactics can be seen in other Chechen purges against Islamist groups and government critics.


Chechen authorities responded to allegations of the violent anti-gay purge by denying the existence of gay people in Chechnya, suggesting that families should kill their gay relatives, and accusing people who document or express concern about the round-ups of seeking to destabilize the Chechen republic.


The Russian federal government pledged to investigate the 2017 purge, however, no such investigation ever took place in earnest. Due to the lack of consequences for their actions, police in Chechnya then carried out another round of detentions, beatings, and humiliation in 2019. The new purge resultrted in 40 people being detained and at least two people dying in custody. Additionally, police refused to investigate a 22-year-old bisexual Chechen woman’s claim that her parents had her beaten and tortured at two separate conversion camps after being forcibly sedated with an injectable antipsychotic medication.


Clearly, widespread persecution of LGBTQ individuals is an ongoing issue in Chechnya, and the Russian government's refusal to investigate signals a flagrant disrespect for human rights. RUSA LGBT, an activist group of Russian-speaking individuals, has called the events in Chechnya a “queer genocide” and accused the Russian government of "covering up these atrocities."


Uganda


While the prohibition of same-sex sexual acts in Uganda traces back to its days as a British colony, it was only in the past few decades that the government's fervent campaign of homophobia truly gained momentum.


In the early 2000s, American Evangelical and well-known anti-LGBTQ activist Scott Lively began to visit Uganda to warn about the “LGBTQ menace.” In the U.S., Lively is largely considered a fringe extremist, but, in Uganda, his message was well-received. Lively himself described his work as “a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda in Uganda.” Lively has also worked closely with Ugandan pastors Stephen Langa, founder of the anti-gay organization Family Life Network, and Martin SSempa, an anti-gay activist.


Photo of Scott Lively [Image Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center]

In a lawsuit brought by the Ugandan LGBTQ group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a judge in Massachusetts asserted that Lively ”worked with elements in Uganda who share some of his views to try to repress freedom of expression by LGBTI people in Uganda, deprive them of the protection of the law, and render their very existence illegal.” Human rights advocates point to Lively and other American Evangelicals like him as setting in motion a series of draconian anti-LGBTQ laws in Uganda.


In 2014, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law, making homosexuality punishable with a life sentence in prison. This legislation, initially dubbed the "Kill the Gays" bill due to its initial proposal of the death penalty, underwent later amendments that resulted in the mandated punishment being changed to a life sentence.


This restraint would not last, however, and in 2023, the government of Uganda expanded this law to now prescribe the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," making it one of the world's toughest anti-LGBTQ laws. It calls for capital punishment against "serial offenders" and for those who transmit a terminal illness like HIV/AIDS through gay sex. However, it makes no distinction between intentional and unintentional transmission.


The 2023 law also significantly restricts the ability of LGBTQ Ugandans to participate in public life and engage in advocacy by calling for a 20-year sentence for "promoting" homosexuality. Human rights experts warn this law will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, expression, and association and will curtail liberty, privacy, and equality in Uganda. Ugandan human rights activist Clare Byarugaba called the move “state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia.”


Florida


Finally, we look at the U.S. state of Florida. In the U.S., several states have passed a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws in the past few years. Between January-May 2023, over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures. Of these, 220 of those bills specifically target transgender/non-binary people. A record 70 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted across the country, including:


○ Laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth: 15

○ Laws requiring or allowing misgendering of transgender students: 7

○ Laws targeting drag performances: 2

○ Laws creating a license to discriminate: 3

○ Laws censoring school curriculum, including books: 4


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks moments before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill. [Image Credit: DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Florida has been one of the most aggressive states in passing anti-LGBTQ bills. Governor Ron Desantis gained national attention late last year when he signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as it is infamously known. After being expanded in May, the bill prohibits any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from Pre-K through 8th grade, restricts reproductive health education in 6th through 12th grade, and bars schools from requiring students or employees to refer to each other with pronouns that do not align with their assigned sex at birth. It also prohibits transgender school employees from sharing their pronouns with students.


Another anti-LGBTQ bill signed into Florida law in 2023 was SB254, which criminalizes doctors for providing gender-affirming care to minors and grants a non-supportive parent an advantage in child custody disputes during divorce proceedings if the other parent is supportive of their transgender child’s healthcare. The bill also classifies gender-affirming care for transgender youth as “serious physical harm” against children.


Progressive lawmakers call the bill “fascist” as it would allow the state to take children from their parents when they are "at risk" or "subjected" to gender-affirming healthcare. The bill is written so that even a child of Floridian parents living out of state could trigger the law. One lawmaker said, “This is a greenlight to transphobic family members to engage in state sponsored kidnapping.” Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the ACLU in Florida has said, "These bills directly threaten transgender Floridians’ fundamental human rights and safety.”


Disinformation


In most contexts, anti-LGBTQ attitudes come from a desire to preserve “traditional values.'' A defining characteristic of Russian disinformation campaigns is their consistent repetition, and among the frequently reiterated disinformation narratives is the notion that Western "moral decay" poses a threat to "traditional values”. According to this narrative, the “effeminate West” is rotting under the onslaught of decadence, feminism and “political correctness” while Russia remains the last great defender of traditional values.


In November of last year, Putin signed a presidential decree stating that protecting “Russian traditional values” is a matter of national security. According to the directive, the leading threats to traditional values include “terrorist and extremist organizations, certain mass media and mass communications, and even activities of the United States…” It goes on to say that the destruction of the traditional Russian family unit with “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” has caused negative ideological and psychological impacts among the Russian populace.


Russian police detain a gay rights activist in St. Petersburg on June 29, 2013. [Image Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters]

By combining anti-Western and xenophobic attitudes into one message, Russian disinformation actors can present any opposition to Putin and his inner circle as morally compromised. Often calling others Satanists, pedophiles, and terrorists, Russian disinformation actors will do whatever they can to dehumanize those that Putin sees as his enemy, justifying brutal behavior towards these groups.

In the U.S., disinformation narratives regarding LGBTQ communities have added another layer to this hatred, and LGBTQ individuals are increasingly looked at as dangerous. While the idea that LGBTQ people are linked to pedophilia, mental illness, and violence is not new, there has been a surge of disinformation in recent years by far-right forces.


Graph showing tweets referencing the LGBTQ+ community alongside slurs between January 1, 2022, and July 27, 2022 [Image Credit: “Digital Hate: Social Media’s Role In Amplifying Dangerous Lies About LGBTQ+ People” Center for Countering Digital Hate]

A report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) examined an intense increase of hateful rhetoric targeting LGBTQ people on Twitter centered around the false and baseless lie that LGBTQ people ‘groom’ children. Through an over-time analysis, which quantifies tweets containing slurs like ‘groomers’ or ‘pedophiles’ in the context of conversations about LGBTQ people between January and July of 2022, CCDH researchers found that the volume of tweets engaging in ‘grooming’ discourse increased by 406% in the month following the passage of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida.

It should be noted that Twitter failed to act on 99% of the 100 most-viewed hateful tweets identified in this report when researchers conducting the study anonymously reported them using the platform’s reporting tools.


The study also found that the majority of grooming rhetoric was being spread by a small group of users as part of a coordinated and concerted effort to attack LGBTQ individuals and rile up extreme supporters of far-right disinformation actors. Tweets from the top 10 accounts found responsible for driving the grooming narrative garnered an estimated 48 million views.


Tweet from Representative Majorie Taylor Green. [Image Credit: “Digital Hate: Social Media’s Role In Amplifying Dangerous Lies About LGBTQ+ People” Center for Countering Digital Hate]

Five of the users responsible for driving the majority of the ‘grooming’ narrative on Twitter were:

  1. Marjorie Taylor Greene - Representative for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District

  2. James Lindsay - “Anti-woke” activist and author

  3. Lauren Boebert - Representative for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

  4. Christina Pushaw - Press secretary to the Governor of Florida

  5. Frank Drew Hernandez - Contributor to Turning Point USA

The report finds similar issues on Facebook, where researchers identified 59 ads promoting the narrative that the LGBTQ community and its allies are ‘grooming’ children. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, received a total of up to $24,987 U.S. dollars for these ads, which collectively garnered over 2 million views. Despite researchers reporting all 59 ads to Facebook for violating its hate speech policies, only one ad was eventually taken down.


Disinformation campaigns work a bit differently in Uganda than in Russia or Florida. Only about 4% of the country’s population actively uses social media compared to the U.S. where about 90% of the population uses social media actively, and about 72% in Russia. In Uganda, citizens must pay a “social media tax” ranging between 12-18%, which the government has claimed is to raise revenue. However, critics point out that this is likely an attempt to severely limit Ugandan free speech. In addition to these taxes, the Ugandan government has been found to impose internet blackouts prior to presidential elections. Needless to say, digital communication in Uganda is difficult for the average Ugandan.


Instead, radio is the most popular form of media consumption in Uganda, with over half (54%) of the population saying they listen to the radio news every day. Television is the second most popular source, with over a quarter (27%) of the population consuming daily TV news. Newspapers are the least popular news source in Uganda, with fewer than 1 in 20 citizens (3%) saying that they read newspapers every day, and 8 in 10 (81%) saying that they rarely or never read them.


As mentioned above, American Evangelicals played a significant role in shaping Uganda’s homophobic landscape. When their campaign first began, Uganda was in a very vulnerable place. They were contending with one of the highest HIV/AIDS-positive populations on the continent while also grappling with the aftermath of a civil war and the downfall of Idi Amin.


Ugandan Members of Parliament stand as they participate during the passing of the anti-Homosexuality bill, at a sitting inside the Parliament Buildings in Kampala, Uganda, May 2, 2023. [Image Credit: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters]

American Evangelical groups took advantage of this vulnerability to spread their hateful messages. Throughout the 2000s, they held several anti-LGBTQ conferences attended by thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers, and national politicians. These conferences were the key vector for spreading disinformation in Uganda.


A significant element of these disinformation campaigns revolved around generating widespread hysteria concerning homosexuality. In these conferences, the lecturers spread lies about how gay men often sodomized teenage boys, how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity” and how to turn gay people straight.


More than 20 U.S. Christian groups known for fighting against LGBTQ rights and other issues at odds with their beliefs have spent at least $54 million US dollars across Africa since 2007. One group, The Fellowship Foundation, spent more than $20 million U.S. dollars in Uganda between 2008 and 2018 alone and is connected to the writing of the 2013 “Kill the Gays” bill. These groups have lost support in the U.S. and are no longer taken seriously. As such, they now look to “dump their ideologies…where they feel they have more power,” resulting in them becoming some of the biggest spreaders of disinformation across Africa.


It should be noted that American Evangelical efforts to spread homophobic ideas abroad are not limited to Africa. Across various nations, American Evangelicals are leveraging their international networks of influence to facilitate tangible advancements for homophobic agendas, spanning from Japan to Italy.


As we can see, anti-LGBTQ disinformation narratives seem to focus on two main claims.

First, LGBTQ communities are degrading “traditional values.” It is important to point out that “traditional values” is a vague catch-all term, often encompassing ideas of religion, racial purity, and heteronormative family roles. The designation is purposefully non-specific so it can be used as a rallying cry for governments looking to veil their authoritarian actions in the guise of moral superiority.


Second, LGBTQ individuals are trying to hurt children. Nearly every argument made against LGBTQ rights peddles the false assertion that gay people are all pedophiles and groomers. The reason for this continued assertion is twofold.


  1. No one can argue for it. Obviously, it can be proven that an individual or group does not hurt children, but in public discourse, the point can never be argued away. Morally speaking, every good person wants to protect children, and there is no moral justification for hurting children. Therefore, disinformation actors can simply bombard enough content to make it an absolute fact in the minds of their targets that being part of the LGBTQ community means being a pedophile. Then, government forces benefiting/spreading this disinformation can mobilize the target population to agree with restricting LGBTQ rights if it means protecting children.

  2. Children are the best group to claim to champion because they cannot ask for anything in return. Despite the fact that there are LGBTQ children and teens, disinformation actors make the case that children are simply brainwashed by LGBTQ propaganda and they can be converted back to being straight. Although many children are intelligent and capable enough to understand what they want and believe, the opinions and identities of children are never taken seriously by such actors. Much like the term “traditional values,” children are used as a means to accomplish the authoritarian goals of a corrupt government.


Conclusion


The rapid rise in LGBTQ visibility in the past few years has brought with it an increase in animosity toward this community. There are governments and other powerful entities around the world that seek to reverse the flow of progress. Their ultimate goal is to erase the LGBTQ community. By enacting increasingly stringent laws, they hope to use fear and intimidation to force the majority of the LGBTQ population back into the closet.


Like any other authoritarian regime, the governments discussed seek to use disinformation as a tool to manipulate truths surrounding their actions. By scapegoating the LGBTQ community and waging a culture war, they hope that they can keep public attention off their own corruption.


There are a number of ways policymakers can fight back. They can invest in measures to help the public build resilience to disinformation. They can put more importance on accepting LGBTQ asylum seekers from countries where they have been or fear being harmed because of their orientation. They can prioritize having more LGBTQ visibility in high-ranking government officials, particularly in their foreign service. They can threaten to and/or actually withhold foreign aid to countries that enact harsh anti-LGBTQ laws and call these laws out as the human rights violations that they are. Finally, they can lead by example and work to put an end to anti-LGBTQ laws and actions on their own soil.


As we have seen, homophobia is on the rise globally, so it is more important now than ever to stop the spread of falsehoods and hate.


 

Glossary of Terms - Digital Homophobia
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Organizations Working to Combat Anti-LGBTQ Disinformation
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