”It has to do with power and participation“

2 Jul 2021

LMU sociologist Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky talks about the LGBTQ movement’s new-found social prominence.

© Omer Messinger/ Alliance

Professor Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky holds the Chair of Sociology with a Focus on Gender Studies at LMU. In this interview, she discusses the politicization of gender issues, the symbolic significance of the rainbow icon, and the LGBTQ movement’s bittersweet loss of its strident image.

Hungary now has a new law that is explicitly directed against homosexuals. In Czechia, the Head of State refers to transgender people as ‘repulsive. In Russia, homophobic attacks – often on the part of the security services – are a daily occurrence. Do developments like these indicate that the queer scene faces the prospect of a new Iron Curtain?

Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky: I wouldn’t regard these developments as symptoms of an East-West divide. There is an inherent link between certain forms of authoritarian, illiberal, anti-pluralistic politics and a strong, backwardly directed, and highly problematic view of everything connected with gender diversity. We see it in Eastern European countries, but not only there. It also came to the fore during Trump’s term of office in the US, and is evident in Bolsonaro’s Brazil and in some countries in Asia. In these societies, rights are being denied and particular groups are subjected to defamation. Attempts are being made to discredit specific attitudes and ways of life, and some forms of sexuality are criminalized.

Can these phenomena be understood as relics of collectivized societies in which individuality as such was looked on with suspicion?

Villa Braslavsky: That factor certainly plays a role, but it’s not the only one. There are anti-pluralistic movements in Western Europe and North America that take precisely the opposite tack. They talk about the ‘homo lobby’ and ‘brainwashing’ in order to suggest that queerness and LGBTQ represent a new species of totalitarian ideology. But the opposite narrative is also in circulation. It tries to present these liberal, emancipatory developments as a typical expression of decadent, Western, ultracapitalistic and globalized values. So projections in both directions are evident. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly an authoritarian collectivist tradition which has always been suspicious of the liberal approach to individual rights, including those that relate to sexuality, gender and partnership.

On the occasion of the Euro 2020 football match between Germany and Hungary, Munich’s Mayor Dieter Reiter suggested that the Allianz Arena be illuminated in the colors of the rainbow. Did that surprise you?

Villa Braslavsky: No. It was an instance of the politics of symbolism – which should not be underestimated. Why not? – But I can also understand the response of the UEFA: “We’d like to do it, but unfortunately, we’re not in a position to do it.” What I think is far worse is the fact that no active professional footballer in Germany has yet come out publicly. I don’t believe for a moment that that’s an accident.

So, is our society really so open-minded and tolerant? How diverse are we?

Villa Braslavsky: Diversity is not simply saying “oh, look how colorful it is here!” – but that is part of it. I would say that, as a society, we in Germany have come a long way, relative to where we were not so many years ago. We now see ourselves as a diverse, heterogeneous and pluralistic society. But this new awareness of differentiation is also bound up with questions of power, participation, inequality, with inclusion and exclusion. These are important issues in education, politics and cultural affairs and should not be seen in terms of purely symbolic gestures. Otherwise, we may yet run into problems.

How do mean? Where do you see the problem?

Villa Braslavsky: In the meantime, diversity and LGBTQ and their symbols have become a market factor, and many businesses now use them to improve their own image. But that’s not what diversity as a critical concept is all about. Its purpose is to highlight the link between diversity, in the sense of variations in social position or influence, and questions of power, inclusion, inequality and discrimination. Here, a great deal remains to be done.

Has the LGBTQ scene itself changed? Has it grown in prominence and self-confidence?

Villa Braslavsky: It has itself become more diverse, and there are many different tendencies and styles. But there is also considerable frustration in relation to its marketability and ready incorporation into the mainstream, which some would define as its gentrification. There is a significant strand of critical opinion which takes the view that all of this has little to do with the original, historical – and still relevant – battle for participatory rights, for an end to stigmatization and the threat of violence. This includes criticism of the fact that the loud and strident elements of the culture, the glitter and excess, the ostentatious parades that many people find vaguely disturbing, have been turned into the sort of spectacle one expects to see during the carnival season. There is certain melancholy that this is not what was originally intended. The aspiration was not to adopt the mores of the heteronormal middle class, but to fight for a society that was freer, more relaxed, more various.

On the other hand, the movement has accomplished a lot.

Villa Braslavsky: Yes, and there is a great deal of appreciation for the visibility that has been achieved, and acknowledgement of the efforts of the pioneers. The issues have also changed somewhat. Today, there is more emphasis on human rights generally, on displacement and forced migration, on international solidarity. There has been a move away from the self-satisfied attitude of “we’re doing quite well here”. All of these differentiations point to conflicts between different tendencies, differences of opinion with regard to priorities, the appropriate forms and the most urgent demands.

In Germany too, there have been attacks on people who do not conform to the heterosexual norm.

Villa Braslavsky: Certainly, there are those who still experience violence here. There‘s plenty of evidence for that, and it has been well studied. Here too, growing up as a queer teenager involves its share of drama – in the family, at and after school. Adolescents and young adults still have to cope with feelings of anxiety, shame and insecurity, and may be exposed to mobbing and violence – not only in rural areas or in strongly Catholic regions.

Is this something that tends be obscured by the euphoria implied by the rainbow icon?

Villa Braslavsky: Yes. In my view, the enjoyable, symbolical and commodified celebration of gender diversity tends to conceal rather than emphasize the serious aspects of the issue. However, I don’t wish to decry the impact of the glitter and sparkle of the public face of the LBGTQ movement. Insofar as it does not insist on dramatizing the problematic nature of the topic, it constitutes a form of normalization. – it opens doors and demonstrates the possibilities.

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