When Vladimir Putin demonized LGBTQ people as part of his 2012 presidential re-election campaign and subsequently imposed regressive laws forbidding the positive portrayal of homosexuality in Russia (the infamous "Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values", or 'gay propaganda law'), some commentators began referring to a 'pink curtain'. It was a somewhat ironic nod to the 'iron curtain' label applied to the totalitarian Soviet Union during the Cold War of the 20th century. Other eastern European right-wing politicians followed Putin's lead in scapegoating and demonizing queer people as part of their bids for power lent further validity to the label. On the flip side, some commentators began referring to the 'rainbow curtain' encompassing the more liberal and tolerant Western European countries.
There was a certain validity to these descriptors, but South African journalist Mark Gevisser draws a more analytically useful distinction in his use of the term 'the Pink Line'. He argues that the critical distinction is not simply between a tolerant 'West' and an intolerant 'East'. It's far more complex than that. There is a line – one that is moving, shifting, and intensely contested – but it cannot be drawn so neatly on a map.
The Pink Line, he writes, divides "those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open."
As much as that line appears in many cases to coincide with national borders, it operates on multiple levels, he explains. It can be drawn in places like Israel that might respect the rights of one group of queer people (gay Israelis) while treating another group (gay Palestinians) differently. It can be drawn in different counties of the United States, where one school board might adopt policies to support trans children with inclusive bathroom policies, while a neighbouring school board might do the opposite and push them out by imposing discriminatory rules.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal, the Pink Line could distinguish more permissive large cities – often havens of cosmopolitan liberalism – from their more restrictive rural counterparts. Or it could work in the opposite direction, manifesting in rural communities where Indigenous queer and gender non-conforming traditions are still respected, in contrast to large centres where police might actively be engaging in witch-hunts against expressions of queer identity. It can even emerge inside families, manifesting in parents who could be okay with their kid being gay but not with them wanting to take puberty blockers as part of a gender transition.
There is a line, but it's a more amorphous and complex one than many people realize.
Gevisser has been writing about the Pink Line since 2012 for a variety of publications. The author of Defiant Desire" Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa (Routledge, 1995) in addition to other books on South African politics, he's now compiled his globe-spanning body of research on the subject into a masterful book-length study that offers one of the broadest and most insightful surveys yet of queer struggles around the world. The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World's Queer Frontiers combines analysis and reportage to help readers understand the complex ways in which this Pink Line is manifesting and changing in today's world.
The strength of Gevisser's work lies in the power of his reportage. Analytical chapters alternate with extended reportage, constructing narratives of queer life that are rich, detailed, and deeply compelling. Unlike other journalists who base books on short stints in the field, Gevisser's work in this area spans over a decade, so the stories he tells offer a much more informed and insightful glimpse into the complexity of queer life around the world. His story of Amira and Maha, two Egyptian lesbians, spans the moment they met through their participation in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, their opening of a queer café in 2012, their closure of the café in the face of rising homophobic violence (spurred on in great part by the present military regime which seized power in 2013), and their escape from Cairo and resettlement in Amsterdam as refugees.
These stories don't necessarily have happy endings: the strain of those years took its toll and the couple split up by the end of the account, Amira returning to Egypt and Maha remaining in Amsterdam, deeply depressed by her daily experience of racism as a refugee in the Netherlands. Still, the story of their relationship and their struggle can't help but inspire their vibrant personalities and demands for recognition bursting from the page. Another journalist might have produced an entire feature on any one aspect of their story, but providing the entirety of the story renders the authentic complexity of queer lives much more visible.
There are no easy answers to problems faced by protagonists along the Pink Line, and the responses they come up with are complex and complicated, imperfect and fraught with danger. Knowing and understanding that is vital to producing effective responses to the very real problems generated by the Pink Line.
There's a lot packed into this study, which touches not just on the reality of queer experience in different parts of the globe but also on refugees and activists' broader challenges in those areas. In the opening chapter, Gevisser follows the story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a trans woman from Malawi who was arrested after marrying a man (gay marriage, and homosexuality more broadly, is illegal in Malawi, which doesn't recognize trans identities either) and sentenced to 14 years hard labour. After international pressure was applied, she was pardoned – Malawi's president made it clear on national television he was doing it under pressure – and resettled as a refugee in South Africa.
Gevisser relates the complexity of her resettlement: her dependence on donations from the United Nations and well-intentioned supporters (including Gevisser himself); her struggle to achieve financial autonomy while rightly feeling the world owes her for the hardship she's endured; challenges with alcoholism; navigating her rightful demand for dignity with the reality of a world that responds to refugees who have lost everything by turning its back on them and ignoring them. Refugee stories are complicated, and Gevisser doesn't shy away from presenting them in their full complexity: with respect, honesty, and a sympathetic ear toward the untenable position refugees find themselves in.
Gevisser constructs a broad and holistic picture of the global nature of the fight against homo-/transphobia. His in-depth reportage explores the lives of queer protagonists in Malawi, Egypt, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, India, and the United States. These in-depth features of people's lives are supplemented with political analyses of neighbouring countries and regions. The picture that emerges is that of a profound, viciously fought global battle in which queer people – gay men, lesbians, trans and gender non-conforming people – are fighting for their lives, dignity, and rights while also being deliberately scapegoated and targeted by authoritarian right-wing regimes around the world. In country after country – Russia, Hungary, Poland, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines; the list goes on – right-wing populists have seized power in considerable part by mobilizing hatred against queer people. Local tactics vary – from depicting queer people as traitors and 'enemies within' to the more seemingly sympathetic approach of pathologizing queer identities as a disease to be treated lest it infect the nation – but they all form a common playbook from which authoritarian regimes draw.
How these geopolitical struggles impact the lives of queer people vary. For example, Israel prides itself on being a model of liberal tolerance in the otherwise mostly authoritarian Middle East, cultivating a vibrant queer culture (albeit one challenged, sometimes violently, by Orthodox Jewish radicals and militants). Yet the Israeli secret service has also actively deployed programs to find, entrap and blackmail gay Palestinians as a way of gathering intelligence.
Even the authoritarian playbook finds a social utility in queers from time to time, beyond scapegoating them. While many authoritarian regimes argue queer people comprise an external threat to the nation, some right-wing politicians in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have flipped the argument on its head and use gay rights as an excuse to promote Islamophobia, arguing that queer positivity is an intrinsically European value that immigrants and refugees will threaten.
Media and popular culture also play a critical role in the Pink Line operation, Gevisser observes.
"In the twenty-first century, the Pink Line is not so much a line as a territory," he writes. "It is a borderland where queer people try to reconcile the liberation and community they might have experienced online or on TV or in safe spaces, with the constrains of the street and the workplace, the courtroom and the living room. It is a place where queer people shuttle across time zones each time they look up from their smartphones at the people gathered around the family table; as they climb the steps from the underground nightclub back into the nation-state. In one zone, time quickens, in the other it dawdles; spending your life criss-crossing from zone to zone can make you quite dizzy."
Indeed, it's often the visibility of queer identities that most worry authoritarian regimes. China is a case in point: the country decriminalized homosexual sex in 1997 and depathologized homosexuality in 2001. But as queer culture became visible and prominent, the regime got frightened and has responded with a sharp about-turn, banning "abnormal sexual relationships" on both traditional and online social media in the past five years, and going to extreme lengths to reinforce binary gender identities.
Are Things Getting Worse for LGBTQ People?
Writing in the 2005 collection Beyond the Pink Curtain, Gregory E. Czarnecki explains that "the anti-Semitism of years past has not yet been eradicated completely from Poland. However, its mechanisms have been used to stigmatise and discriminate against queers as queer visibility becomes more prevalent in Poland…A clear and direct connection can be seen between the theories of a 'Jewish conspiracy' and a 'homosexual lobby,' both of which are thought of as intentionally aimed at destroying the nation, state and family…The historical continuum of nationalism's tendency to exclude that which is not desired has used Jews in the past as its primary recipients for discrimination. Presently queers are serving as tangible targets for similar purposes in Poland."
He joins others who have noted the troubling link between anti-Semitism and homo/transphobia as a tool of authoritarian regimes. Former British MP Stephen Twigg warned that "the rhetoric of homophobia mirrors the tropes of classical Jew hatred, a shady crew behind the global forces of modernism and cosmopolitanism." Journalist and author Michelle Goldberg, writing in American Prospect Magazine, called homophobia "the new anti-Semitism." In fact, there's nothing new about it – the Nazis also rolled homophobia into their anti-Semitism, and the rise of homophobia in Eastern Europe has often been concurrent with a rise in anti-Semitism. But her point is well-taken: queer people are often at the forefront of groups targeted by fascists today in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Nazi era, with Jews and other minorities never far behind.
Although Gevisser doesn't dwell on this point but while reading The Pink Line, one can't help but remark on these parallels, on the cynical and deliberate way in which queer people are -- almost without thought -- targeted by power-grasping politicians in countries that used to be considerably more tolerant. Indeed, in many former colonized countries, homophobia has become a potent tool of post-colonial politics – a point which Gevisser discussed extensively. Authoritarian rulers throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere have decried gay and trans rights as "ideological colonization" and an idea that western countries are trying to impose on their former colonies. (As usual, it's important to avoid sweeping generalizations in regards to this sinuous Pink Line: on the African continent, countries like South Africa have been gay rights pioneers, while Angola and Botswana both decriminalized homosexuality in 2019; over in the Caribbean, Belize decriminalized it in 2016 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2018, with other legal battles in progress in the region.)
As for claims that gay rights are a colonial imposition, in actual fact the opposite is true. These regions have all had vibrant gay and gender-non-conforming cultures predating European colonization; queer and gender-non-conforming peoples sometimes held positions of respect. It changed when the anti-sodomy statutes of British and other European colonizers were imposed and used to persecute Indigenous queer expression in many of those areas. Gender non-conforming identities that either pre-dated or emerged outside of European colonization still exist: bakla and ba-baylan in the Philippines; kothis in South India; kathoey in Thailand; yan daudu in northern Nigeria; kodjo-besia in Ghana; goorjigeen in Senegal; bacha posh in Afghanistan; burrneshas in Albania; bissu and waria in Indonesia; the list goes on.
Gender, it appears, has never been considered a binary matter purely, despite the crusades being waged by modern populists to have it defined as such. The activists with whom Gevisser speaks sum up the tragic irony: in many of these countries, police are told that by stamping out queer and trans identities, they're destroying western imperialism, while in fact, what they're destroying is their own traditional culture.
Meanwhile, the actual American imperialists who spur on homophobic and transphobic efforts are doubtless laughing their way to the evangelical altar. The American right has greatly fueled the recent resurgence of homophobia and transphobia. Gevisser does a superb job of charting American evangelists' work and the work they've undertaken and sponsored in regions like Africa to build and spread a militant, radical hate movement against queer people. They've also played a key role in shoring up homophobia in Eastern Europe. In many ways, this constitutes a flanking maneuver: the Christian right lost badly in its efforts to impose discriminatory laws in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Its response was to take its message abroad, using its significant financial resources to seed an international hate movement in developing countries and wherever conditions were ripe for scapegoating a targeted minority. If anything, much of today's homophobia is a deeply intractable form of western neo-colonialism, adapted to local realities and disguising itself as a fictitious form of nativism.
Of course, traditional institutions like the Catholic Church have also had a role to play. Homophobic Catholic officials have been fighting a losing battle against LGBTQ equality ever since the 1970s; the brilliantly simple queer slogan 'love is love' has proven a difficult one for Christian leaders to argue with. But in recent years, they've tried a new tactic, sidestepping the 'love is love' issue to target gender identity and trans rights instead. Decrying "gender ideology" has proven a more tractable approach, enabling right-wing Catholics to target feminists and trans and gender-nonconforming people in one fell swoop, allowing them to shroud bigotry in a patina of scientific language.
One is reminded of the array of scientific studies over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries purporting to prove the 'natural superiority' of white people, based on everything from skull measurements to IQ tests. A similar process has been deployed against 'gender ideology', purporting to reinforce the 'natural' prevalence of traditional (read: Victorian-era patriarchal) gender binaries and their accompanying social roles. Fundamentally, most of that sort of science is pure bunk, but so is the very premise of the research itself: finding ways to use science to justify the retrenchment of repressive politics.
The weaponization of homophobia has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, and it's something to be deeply concerned about. Examples abound. Turkey was rapidly becoming one of the world's Muslim queer hotspots until President Erdogan seized power and began imposing repressive measures. What started with efforts to suppress Turkey's formerly vibrant Pride Parades just a few years ago has culminated in his proclamation on national television earlier this month that " The LGBT, there is no such thing."
A similar process has occurred in Indonesia, where regional autonomy movements have arisen by defining themselves in opposition to the state. If the state conveyed the perception of being liberal and tolerant, regional separatists sought to bolster support by appealing to conservatism. This, in turn, pushed the state in a conservative direction to compromise. The promise of a progressive Indonesia fell by the wayside as the country became a hotbed of horrific homophobic violence.
Also notable is the shift in Brazil. President Lula da Silva's progressive government and his successors (2003-2016) worked assiduously to promote anti-homophobia education in schools and society. Still, the right-wing accession of homophobic President Jair Bolsonaro (more through parliamentary coup than popular election) has seen a dramatic about-turn. Sao Paulo still hosts the world's largest Pride Parade, so hopefully, Pride culture will prove resilient enough to outlast Bolsonaro (who infamously said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one). It serves to demonstrate the rapid shifts that can occur between governments.
And of course, the United States bore recent witness to an effort along the same lines. Former President Trump and his Republican allies unleashed a host of homophobic and transphobic policies, and legislation aimed deliberately at undermining decades of progress in that country. The inauguration of President Joe Biden has led to an abrupt reversal of many of Trump's policies. But Trump's Republican allies in state legislatures continue his crusade, and there is also the question of what will happen if Republicans assume control of the federal government again.
Being homophobic and transphobic has become almost an article of faith for Republicans, such that no degree of rational discussion will budge. This was recently apparent to advocacy groups in Mississippi when the Republican-dominated state legislature passed repressive laws targeting trans youth in sports, without paying the slightest attention to the scientific evidence that such laws have no basis or merit in biological fact.
In this respect, one can't help but think there really needs to be a more expansive discussion in the US about responding to Trump-era homo-/transphobia. Simply repealing Trump-era policies is problematic and inadequate. It needs to be done to counter the entrenched weaponization of queer rights as a partisan issue. It wasn't so long ago that Republicans (albeit more grudgingly and in smaller numbers) were becoming accepting of gay rights. The fact that it's now become a partisan point of pride for Republicans to hate queer people and discriminate against them in policy is deeply troubling (and again, reflects the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of Nazi-era officials, many of whom had had friendly relations with Jews before it became politically expedient to persecute them).
Governments in the US (and elsewhere) will inevitably alternate between left and right-leaning parties. Queer rights (and the rights of other minorities) need to be recognized as fundamental rights that transcend party politics. There needs to be a more expansive and forward-thinking response to Republican homophobia; one aimed not only at targeting homophobia and transphobia within the Republican Party, but also at ensuring that no party is ever able to undermine equality gains or use hate to mobilize its followers.
The Pink Line is an addictive and compelling read, a literal page-turner that conveys in full measure the rich and, in many ways, beautiful lives of its protagonists. It's a must-read for anyone who desires a holistic understanding of queer struggle worldwide, and readers from a variety of interests and backgrounds will benefit from its rich assortment of personal stories, cultural insights, and well-framed policy debates.
It's also a profoundly alarming read. For most readers in the West, there's probably still a sense that civilization is on an upward trajectory; we are gradually evolving past age-old bigotries and moving toward a more enlightened era. This view holds that outbursts of homophobia and transphobia, like anti-Semitism, racism, and other hate movements, are brief stumbling points that primarily occur in 'less advanced' regions. This perspective is not just ignorant; it's dangerous.
The Pink Line reveals the scale of organized and deliberate hate being built into a loosely aligned global fascist movement that is already eating into liberal countries. (As Trump's presidency glaringly revealed, the UK is another country where transphobia is presently being used as a wedge to push the nation in a right-wing, totalitarian direction). This is an urgent global crisis, and to ignore it or hope it'll get better is to engage in the same sort of doomed prevarication that led countries to ignore the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gevisser's final chapter – aptly titled "On It Getting Better" – navigates this awkward reality while trying not to descend into hopelessness. The struggle is real, one might say. The individual stories he presents provide inspiring examples of queer people worldwide exerting agency to define themselves and shape their quest for a dignified life. Gevisser doesn't have answers; he aims to reveal the fundamental complexity of these processes. That includes how often well-intentioned western transnational advocacy, in fact, undermines local and Indigenous queer activism and fuels dangerous setbacks as well as occasional advances.
His book is a detailed and cautionary warning against simply trying to impose values on other countries through either hard or soft political means – this can and has backfired. But just as importantly, The Pink Line reminds us that respect for queer identity is not an exclusively western value and has expression in local and Indigenous cultures around the world. The implication here is that activists worldwide need to find ways to work together, respecting each other's differences and local realities, rather than trying to wrestle for control of a fractured movement or trying to impose a 'we know best how to achieve this shared goal' attitude.
At the same time, Gevisser acknowledges that societies can and must change. His chapters on India reveal that while that country has retained a vibrant and well-structured gender non-conforming culture in the form of hijra communities, the arrival of the 'trans' identity label – another non-conforming identity, and not the same as hijra – has offered new opportunities for visibility and equality for those Indians who feel the hijra structure is either inadequate or repressive in reflecting their unique identities. This has produced both tension and opportunity. Hijra society still affords important supports to its members, but trans is simply a more attractive and more comfortable identity for some people. For others, the equally distinct 'non-binary' identity might be more appropriate.
This cross-cultural migration of identities works both ways, Gevisser notes. Or at least it should – a truly decolonial approach to gender non-conformity would place equal value on newer labels like 'trans' and on Indigenous expressions like hijra. He sets a fine example himself, explaining that when he encountered the Indian sexual/gender identity 'kothi', he realized it reflected his own identity far better than the labels he'd grown up with. The world has a rich gender non-conforming heritage and body of cultural expressions. Celebrating and upholding all of them is an essential part of building a more inclusive and healthy future.