Don’t get me wrong, as a supporter of liberal democracy, gay rights, and, yes, Die Mannschaft I loudly celebrated Leon Goretzka’s equalizer against the surprisingly strong Hungarian side, as well as his “One Love” celebration, but I also do share some of New Statesman’s international editor Jeremy Cliffe’s discomfort with how Hungarian players and supporters were held collectively responsible for the intolerant policies of their authoritarian leader. In fact, the whole “liberals versus Hungary/UEFA” struggle feels a bit off.
Deeply queasy about the way the Hungarian football team is being made an international proxy for the homophobic policies of the Orbán regime. https://t.co/XlbUZe1d4s— Jeremy Cliffe (@JeremyCliffe) June 23, 2021
Of course, like most big sports associations, UEFA is incredibly hypocritical in its selective approach to mixing football and politics. Leaving aside that all sports are politics, as they are always expressions of cultural and political norms, an international tournament of teams representing political units like the state are by design deeply political. But UEFA itself is promoting an “Equal Game” campaign that “fights discrimination” on the base of (at least) gender, race, and sexuality, a profoundly political issue in today’s polarized world. And, yes, Hungary’s authoritarian strongman Viktor Orbán has explicitly made football part of his nationalist and populist campaign, investing massive amounts of public money in privately owned stadiums. But I want to focus on the less noted hypocrisy of the other side.
For over ten years Orbán has been assaulting liberal democracy in Hungary, facing little to no serious opposition as he undermined and weakened the rights of migrants, women, and workers. And now, not just because of the new draconian law that criminalizes “LGBT content” in schools but seemingly even more because of the politicization of this issue in the EURO 2020, it is “too much” for a majority of EU member states? Are “gay rights” really so important to these politicians or is there something else at play here?
As many activists have noted, and criticized, for years now, “gay rights” has become a new marketing tool for businesses, politicians, and states. Companies are “pink washing” by using the rainbow colors in their logos and products, hoping to make them more attractive to liberal and young segments of the population. This makes sense, as for many products, and in many countries, the benefits of this value signaling are potentially significant and the costs low. But the benefits for actual gay rights are also low. Take BMW, which embraced the rainbow colors ahead of the Germany-Hungary game, but also invested more than 1 billion dollars in a new car plant in Hungary a few years ago. If they really want to advance the situation of LGBTQI people in Hungary, they can keep their logo in blue and white and threaten to pull the plug on their Debrecen plant if Orbán does not withdraw his recent law.
In politics, pink washing is the use of “gay rights” to attack a political opponent and boost the own modern or tolerant credentials. It has become such a prominent aspect of Northern European far right groups that we have an academic term for this, homonationalism. Some European far right groups use gay rights to attack Islam and Muslims as “backward” and “intolerant”, while at the same time claiming “modern” and “tolerant” status for themselves – Israeli governments have been doing this for years as well. Yet, both the European and the Israeli (far) right remain largely blind to the vicious homophobia that exists within their own societies.
What is taking place in Europe today seems to me like homoliberalism, i.e. the use of “gay rights” to explicitly attack Hungary but implicitly claim tolerance for yourself. In other words, this is more about the politicians and governments themselves than about Hungary. Even worse, it barely is about the LGBTQI community and their rights, either in Hungary or in the own country. For instance, while Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte is now presenting himself as the principled defender of gay rights, he has been governing with a “soft” homophobic party (CU) and been instrumental in mainstreaming and normalizing a hardcore homophobic party (SGP). Similarly, several of the 17 EU member states that called upon the EU to fight “anti-LGBT discrimination” do not legally recognize gay marriages (e.g. Cyprus, Italy) or some form of civil union (e.g. Latvia), which even Hungary accepts!
If they (and we) really care about the LGBTQI+ communities and their rights, we should stop cheering the pink washing and homoliberalism and hold our companies and politicians accountable for what they do rather than say. And, even more importantly, we should make pride and the rainbow flag again about celebrating and protecting our LGBTQI communities (at home and abroad) rather than using it as a strategy to attack a political enemy and cheaply boast about our own imperfect record.
Check out Cas Mudde’s podcast show Radikaal. In the latest episode, Léonie de Jonge, assistant professor at the University of Groningen and author of The Success and Failure of Right-wing Populist Parties in the Benelux Countries, talks about right-wing populist parties in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, what explains their different levels of success, and the right role for the media in covering the far right.
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