During the Obama administration, Mike Pence — then governor of Indiana — opposed the U.S. government’s effort to protect LGBT rights nationally and internationally. He argued that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should not be recognized as a legitimate minority group separate from the rest of the population.
It would seem that Vice President Pence is slowly getting his wish.
In March, U.S. newspapers reported that LGBT people would no longer be counted in the 2020 Census. De-identifying LGBTs can be a step toward making collective organizing impossible — and enabling persecution. Chechnya’s alleged “LGBT cleansing” campaign shows us how denying a group’s existence can make it easier to persecute its members.
Last month, scant reports about a torture camp for gay men in Chechnya began to surface. A Chechen official has denied these reports, claiming that gays (as they are understood ontologically in the West) do not exist in Chechnya. Something similar happened in Iran when, in 2007, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad similarly claimed that there were no gay people in Iran — and therefore the government couldn’t be persecuting them. The argument is simple. Gays and their communities do not exist in Chechnya. Therefore, the region cannot be persecuting people who do not exist. As long as homosexuals are officially nonexistent, then so is the persecution.
The U.S. administration remained silent about these reports — a sharp change from the government’s strong defense of LGBT lives under the Obama administration. In September 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council broke ground when it appointed an independent monitor of LGBT persecution, a decision prompted by U.S. diplomatic pressure to have LGBT rights recognized under the international rubric of human rights. But under President Trump and Pence, we no longer live in that world. Russia, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the U.S. administration agree — however implicitly — that the normalization of gay life must come to an end. Chechnya — and other countries — have realized that they no longer need fear a U.S.-backed response, diplomatic or otherwise, for scapegoating, criminalizing, arresting or imprisoning homosexuals.
In other words, if Chechnya has indeed begun persecuting gay men, as international reports suggest, it is precisely because the government recognizes that the U.S. won’t organize any opposition.
With U.S. diplomatic pressure withdrawn, we should not be surprised to see renewed state-sponsored action against homosexuality around the world. Yes, an independent U.N. monitor remains, which in theory should make states think twice about systematically persecuting LGBT individuals. But this post is less meaningful when it’s no longer backed up by powerful international players.
Consider, for instance, what happened during the past decade, when Uganda proposed capital punishment and other severe punishments for homosexuality. In 2009, European countries cut aid to Uganda; in 2014, the United States did as well. While the proposed laws eventually passed, capital punishment was dropped, rewritten as “life imprisonment.”
Some scholars and observers have argued that these persecutions result from the ways that developed nations have organized same-sex attraction and gender variation into cultural and political identities — and then internationalized those identities. This postcolonial critique of the internationalization of LGBT rights goes like this. Activists in the global North have branded, categorized and exported “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” or “transgender” identities to parts of the world where everyone’s identities are organized differently around ambitions and desires. By doing so, this argument goes, developed-world activists have essentially placed targets on the backs of individuals with those desires, making them visible in places where they might otherwise have escaped notice.
From this perspective, imposing Western taxonomies of sexuality on nation-states and ethnic groups is what causes those states’ hypervigilance and inclination to prosecute and persecute. The idea is that when same-sex and gender-variant inclinations existed without cultural identities, they were undetectable — and what cannot be detected cannot be punished.
But in many places — including in the United States and Western Europe — gender and sexual diversity were persecuted and prosecuted before LGBT identities emerged or became visible. And ample historical evidence shows us that, even without an empire, societies and their religions can attack sexual and gender diversity.
Articulating LGBT identities is essential, because identities make possible communities — and therefore political organizing, and resistance to that persecution. When the Trump-Pence administration stops counting LGBT citizens, it is a way of saying that LGBT lives do not count — whether in Chechnya, Iran or at home.
Samar Habib is a writer, researcher and scholar who lives in California. Follow her on Twitter @samarhabib80.