Student blog | Inaugural Lecture by Prof Richard Mole: Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe
By barboraposluch, on 9 June 2022
WRITTEN BY ALINA VRABIE, BA HISTORY, POLITICS AND ECONOMICS 2ND YEAR STUDENT AT SSEES
Through his inaugural lecture entitled ‘Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe’, Professor Richard Mole guided us through an insightful analysis on how LGBT identities have been politicised in the region and how they are intertwined with populism.
Following an address from the SSEES Director, Professor Diane P. Koenker, and from the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, Professor Sasha Roseneil, Richard began his lecture with a short research timeline and explanation of his research interests. In particular, Richard’s research activity centres around understanding how and why states treat their sexual minorities in specific ways.
His lecture begins through operationalising homophobia. Particularly, he highlights a mismatch between the degree of legal rights granted to LGBT groups in specific European countries and the societal support for legal equality for these groups. These differences are particularly noticeable in the case of Poland and Hungary, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, have strong populist parties in power.
The question thus arises: why do populist parties weaponise homophobia?
Richard begins to answer this question by first defining populism. Through the definition he uses, developed by Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, populism is generally seen as a thin ideology that divides the society into “corrupt elites” and “pure people”. He then explains how East European populism overlaps with nationalism, resulting in a promise by populist parties to restore traditional values.
As such, populist discourse in these cases tends to limit the definition of “pure people”; in Poland, for example, it restricts the term to “catholic, ethnically Polish heterosexuals”. This limitation permits the delegitimization of opposing views, making way for narratives such as the anti-LGBT one. This logic is illustrated by the anti-LGBT zones legislation in Poland.
Richard’s lecture then shifts focus towards explaining the implications of this anti-LGBT discourse: namely why politicians say they initiate such legislation and why they actually do so.
When seeking to justify such legislation, politicians usually adhere to a series of reasons why queer individuals are seen as a threat to the nation: they fail to contribute to biological reproduction, they fail to contribute to cultural reproduction, they fail to adhere to traditional stereotypes of gender roles and they deviate from religious norms. In Poland’s case particularly, LGBT individuals are also seen as disloyal, often turning for help towards the West and not domestically. This also plays well into the populist rhetoric that homosexuality is a Western import.
When assessing why politicians actually choose anti-LGBT legislation, Richard highlights politicians’ need for a scapegoat, turning the LGBT community into a distraction from other state issues, such as economic problems. Moreover, this discourse strengthens their support among the conservative electorate and helps to generally deligitimise liberal politics.
Richard then delves into the research that he conducted together with Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala on nationalism and homophobia. Namely, he explains the distinction they made between nationalism as “national in-group satisfaction” and “national collective narcissism”. Their research finds a direct relationship between the latter and homophobia, identifying that individuals scoring highly on collective narcissism are more likely to also display homophobic attitudes. This research ties in perfectly with Richard’s thesis on the connection between populism and homophobia.
The lecture concludes through circling back to the LGBT-free zones case and its political aftermath, with mentions on the international and LGBT community response to the situation. As the general populist discourse tried to reframe queerness as an ideology championed by the West, the Polish LGBT community itself began reclaiming national symbols. Richard finishes his lecture by emphasising the importance of LGBT activism given that the instrumentalisation of homophobia by populists is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
The event ended with a heartfelt reflection from Professor Michael Worton, who pondered the hardships spotlighted through Richard’s lecture in regards to nationalism and populism across the region.
Overall, Richard’s lecture was an eye opening synopsis on the socio-political climate the LGBT communities in Central and Eastern Europe face. His research proves to be a vital means to reach causality between the anti-LGBT phenomenon and populism, explaining the factors underpinning the persistence of LGBT oppression in the region.
A recording of the Lecture is available to watch on UCL SSEES YouTube Channel.