On Monday, as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki for their controversial summit, the New York Times Opinion section’s Twitter page circulated an animated video titled “Trump and Putin: A Love Story.” The newspaper described the video: “Donald Trump’s not-so-secret admiration for Vladimir Putin plays out in a teenager’s bedroom, where the fantasies of this forbidden romance come to life.” The shirtless men kiss passionately, ride unicorns through fields of rainbows and daydream about one another over pink and purple landscapes.
The video is deeply homophobic, using the possibility of gay sexuality to belittle both men. What’s more, it’s the product of a journalistic trend that uses gay romance as a metaphor for political weakness and inefficiency. As any feminist security-studies scholar will tell you, these lazy, dangerous narratives result from the entrenchment of masculinity and heterosexuality in U.S. foreign policy. They trickle down from the ways we talk about security in our military institutions, and they have profound implications for the safety and security of queer people around the world.
Gay romantic depictions of Trump’s relationships with foreign leaders often propagate when his diplomatic strategies are most ill conceived. After Trump initially canceled his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius called Trump’s cancellation notice a “breakup letter” and concluded that he “writes in the tone of a wounded suitor.” After the summit, the Boston Globe printed a cartoon that featured Trump and Kim sharing a milkshake and writing love letters against a backdrop of hearts, a unicorn and a rainbow. The cartoon asks, “Will it be true love or just a … ‘Singapore fling?’ ” The New York Times’s Frank Bruni (who is gay and often writes about gay rights) described Trump’s conciliatory attitude toward Putin’s interference in the 2016 election as that of a “besotted lover.” He called it “a classic tale of affections strangled and at times set free.” Last year, Stephen Colbert faced a backlash after looking into the camera and telling Trump, “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c— holster.”
These depictions attack Trump’s desire to appear powerful and legitimate abroad by emasculating and reducing him to a purportedly “unmanly” act. The persistence of such narratives in a liberalizing climate of gay rights seems perplexing. However, they result in part from the ingrained expectations of a particular type of manhood in U.S. institutions. Specifically, we can trace them to hyper-masculinity in the military.
Military recruits and strategists undergo socializations that force them to reject femininity and adopt alpha, warrior mentalities. Men are expected to control emotions; take risks; display aggression, violence and physical toughness; and promote overt heterosexuality. These processes are often sexual. For example, in some military training, soldiers chant, “This is my rifle [holding up rifle], this is my gun [motioning to penis]; one’s for killing, the other’s for fun.” Carol Cohn recalls working with defense strategists at a university’s center on defense technology and arms control, where she observed “white men in ties discussing missile size.” They spoke of “vertical erector launchers … deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’ ” In interactions with defense officials, she encountered discussion of “whether political leaders ‘had the stones for war.’ ”
Men constitute approximately 75 percent of U.S. military personnel, and the military remains the primary remnant of traditional, “manhood-making rituals.” This is important because, as Cynthia Enloe notes, U.S. foreign policy is remarkably militarized. The Pentagon exercises significant oversight in the government’s agenda, military actors carry out U.S. ambitions around the world, and traditional masculinity plays a critical role in U.S. presentation. It is through this lens that gayness becomes a tool of belittlement and a metaphor for failure.
Thus, it is not surprising that our leaders exhibit traits associated with masculinity in their foreign policy. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush began communicating more dominance and aggression in his speeches. Researchers concluded that Bush used words such as “kill,” “destroy,” “conquer,” “hunt,” “triumph” and “prevail” much more frequently in response to the attacks, along with other dominating language such as, “We will do whatever it takes to smoke them out and get them running.” President Barack Obama’s hesitancy to act as aggressively abroad as his predecessor prompted then-Fox News analyst Ralph Peters to call him a “total p—y.” The Times’s David Brooks concluded that Obama had a “manhood problem in the Middle East.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s press operation agreed to give the Atlantic an advance copy of a 2009 speech in exchange for the magazine calling it “muscular” in its coverage. Recently, Vice President Pence made an unscheduled stop in the Korean demilitarized zone to look stoically toward North Korea because, as he contended, “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”
Still, Trump seems pathological in his need to appear tough. He regularly lauds autocrats for their ability to operate with violent impunity. He praised President Rodrigo Duterte for his crackdown on drugs in the Philippines, an operation that includes the murder of suspected users and dealers. He fist-bumped Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for doing “things the right way.” In January, Trump tweeted about Kim, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” The penis-measuring overtones are not subtle. Nor is the insinuation that his “nuclear button” is Trump’s vehicle for signaling foreign policy acumen. It is perhaps the easiest setup for a homophobic joke, one that tears down this self-purported legitimacy through emasculation. The joke is that “gay” Trump and his summit buddies are not real men and are thus weak and incompetent in foreign policy. The joke is not funny.
Because gay-Trump metaphors conflate homosexuality with inadequacy and failure, they further the stereotype that gay people are weak political actors and security risks. This is not a new idea in the United States. During the McCarthy era, the government systematically questioned suspected gays, publicly disclosed information about their sexual habits and branded them as communists. Until 2011, the United States barred openly gay people from serving in the armed forces. The Pentagon and successive presidential administrations defended this policy on the flawed grounds that gay people would harm military effectiveness and pose a security risk. Those policies functioned on the very logic underpinning careless cartoons and videos about gay-Trump dalliances.
Trump-Putin and Trump-Kim romance narratives engender real harm in gay people’s lives. Using accusations of homosexuality, however satirical, to delegitimize powerful figures perpetuates the notion that gayness is shameful and that gay people are “less than.” Those ideas already threaten gay people’s safety. Putin’s administration all but made gay relationships illegal. Russia has at best failed to intervene in and at worst condoned the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Gay Russians face such oppression that the U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign projected messages in Helsinki during the summit demanding that Putin and Trump halt these persecutions. We know less about life as a gay person in North Korea, but reports from defectors suggest that the regime is not permissive of homosexuality. In the United States, the Trump administration is reversing anti-discrimination guidelines and appointing judges with anti-gay records. Gay Americans often face acts of violence.
Trump is astonishingly ill informed about foreign affairs. He undermines the U.S. intelligence community at the peril of our safety and institutional integrity. He is ineffectual, and even dangerous, in his foreign policy. Gay romance metaphors do not convey this reality — they obscure it. We should indict the conditions giving rise to these narratives and seriously consider the costs of linking gay sexuality with failure, security risk and shame.