When Vladimir Putin demonized LGBTQ people as part of his 2012 presidential re-election campaign and subsequently imposed regressive laws forbidding the positive portrayal of homosexuality in Russia (the infamous “Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”, or ‘gay propaganda law’), some commentators began referring to a ‘pink curtain’. It was a somewhat ironic nod to the ‘iron curtain’ label applied to the totalitarian Soviet Union during the Cold War of the 20th century. Other eastern European right-wing politicians followed Putin’s lead in scapegoating and demonizing queer people as part of their bids for power lent further validity to the label. On the flip side, some commentators began referring to the ‘rainbow curtain’ encompassing the more liberal and tolerant Western European countries.
There was a certain validity to these descriptors, but South African journalist Mark Gevisser draws a more analytically useful distinction in his use of the term ‘the Pink Line’. He argues that the critical distinction is not simply between a tolerant ‘West’ and an intolerant ‘East’. It’s far more complex than that. There is a line – one that is moving, shifting, and intensely contested – but it cannot be drawn so neatly on a map.
The Pink Line, he writes, divides “those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open.”
As much as that line appears in many cases to coincide with national borders, it operates on multiple levels, he explains. It can be drawn in places like Israel that might respect the rights of one group of queer people (gay Israelis) while treating another group (gay Palestinians) differently. It can be drawn in different counties of the United States, where one school board might adopt policies to support trans children with inclusive bathroom policies, while a neighbouring school board might do the opposite and push them out by imposing discriminatory rules.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal, the Pink Line could distinguish more permissive large cities – often havens of cosmopolitan liberalism – from their more restrictive rural counterparts. Or it could work in the opposite direction, manifesting in rural communities where Indigenous queer and gender non-conforming traditions are still respected, in contrast to large centres where police might actively be engaging in witch-hunts against expressions of queer identity. It can even emerge inside families, manifesting in parents who could be okay with their kid being gay but not with them wanting to take puberty blockers as part of a gender transition.
There is a line, but it’s a more amorphous and complex one than many people realize.
Gevisser has been writing about the Pink Line since 2012 for a variety of publications. The author of Defiant Desire” Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa (Routledge, 1995) in addition to other books on South African politics, he’s now compiled his globe-spanning body of research on the subject into a masterful book-length study that offers one of the broadest and most insightful surveys yet of queer struggles around the world. The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers combines analysis and reportage to help readers understand the complex ways in which this Pink Line is manifesting and changing in today’s world.
The strength of Gevisser’s work lies in the power of his reportage. Analytical chapters alternate with extended reportage, constructing narratives of queer life that are rich, detailed, and deeply compelling. Unlike other journalists who base books on short stints in the field, Gevisser’s work in this area spans over a decade, so the stories he tells offer a much more informed and insightful glimpse into the complexity of queer life around the world. His story of Amira and Maha, two Egyptian lesbians, spans the moment they met through their participation in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, their opening of a queer café in 2012, their closure of the café in the face of rising homophobic violence (spurred on in great part by the present military regime which seized power in 2013), and their escape from Cairo and resettlement in Amsterdam as refugees.
These stories don’t necessarily have happy endings: the strain of those years took its toll and the couple split up by the end of the account, Amira returning to Egypt and Maha remaining in Amsterdam, deeply depressed by her daily experience of racism as a refugee in the Netherlands. Still, the story of their relationship and their struggle can’t help but inspire their vibrant personalities and demands for recognition bursting from the page. Another journalist might have produced an entire feature on any one aspect of their story, but providing the entirety of the story renders the authentic complexity of queer lives much more visible.
There are no easy answers to problems faced by protagonists along the Pink Line, and the responses they come up with are complex and complicated, imperfect and fraught with danger. Knowing and understanding that is vital to producing effective responses to the very real problems generated by the Pink Line.
There’s a lot packed into this study, which touches not just on the reality of queer experience in different parts of the globe but also on refugees and activists’ broader challenges in those areas. In the opening chapter, Gevisser follows the story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a trans woman from Malawi who was arrested after marrying a man (gay marriage, and homosexuality more broadly, is illegal in Malawi, which doesn’t recognize trans identities either) and sentenced to 14 years hard labour. After international pressure was applied, she was pardoned – Malawi’s president made it clear on national television he was doing it under pressure – and resettled as a refugee in South Africa.
Gevisser relates the complexity of her resettlement: her dependence on donations from the United Nations and well-intentioned supporters (including Gevisser himself); her struggle to achieve financial autonomy while rightly feeling the world owes her for the hardship she’s endured; challenges with alcoholism; navigating her rightful demand for dignity with the reality of a world that responds to refugees who have lost everything by turning its back on them and ignoring them. Refugee stories are complicated, and Gevisser doesn’t shy away from presenting them in their full complexity: with respect, honesty, and a sympathetic ear toward the untenable position refugees find themselves in.
Gevisser constructs a broad and holistic picture of the global nature of the fight against homo-/transphobia. His in-depth reportage explores the lives of queer protagonists in Malawi, Egypt, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, India, and the United States. These in-depth features of people’s lives are supplemented with political analyses of neighbouring countries and regions. The picture that emerges is that of a profound, viciously fought global battle in which queer people – gay men, lesbians, trans and gender non-conforming people – are fighting for their lives, dignity, and rights while also being deliberately scapegoated and targeted by authoritarian right-wing regimes around the world. In country after country – Russia, Hungary, Poland, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines; the list goes on – right-wing populists have seized power in considerable part by mobilizing hatred against queer people. Local tactics vary – from depicting queer people as traitors and ‘enemies within’ to the more seemingly sympathetic approach of pathologizing queer identities as a disease to be treated lest it infect the nation – but they all form a common playbook from which authoritarian regimes draw.
How these geopolitical struggles impact the lives of queer people vary. For example, Israel prides itself on being a model of liberal tolerance in the otherwise mostly authoritarian Middle East, cultivating a vibrant queer culture (albeit one challenged, sometimes violently, by Orthodox Jewish radicals and militants). Yet the Israeli secret service has also actively deployed programs to find, entrap and blackmail gay Palestinians as a way of gathering intelligence.
Even the authoritarian playbook finds a social utility in queers from time to time, beyond scapegoating them. While many authoritarian regimes argue queer people comprise an external threat to the nation, some right-wing politicians in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have flipped the argument on its head and use gay rights as an excuse to promote Islamophobia, arguing that queer positivity is an intrinsically European value that immigrants and refugees will threaten.
Media and popular culture also play a critical role in the Pink Line operation, Gevisser observes.
“In the twenty-first century, the Pink Line is not so much a line as a territory,” he writes. “It is a borderland where queer people try to reconcile the liberation and community they might have experienced online or on TV or in safe spaces, with the constrains of the street and the workplace, the courtroom and the living room. It is a place where queer people shuttle across time zones each time they look up from their smartphones at the people gathered around the family table; as they climb the steps from the underground nightclub back into the nation-state. In one zone, time quickens, in the other it dawdles; spending your life criss-crossing from zone to zone can make you quite dizzy.”
Indeed, it’s often the visibility of queer identities that most worry authoritarian regimes. China is a case in point: the country decriminalized homosexual sex in 1997 and depathologized homosexuality in 2001. But as queer culture became visible and prominent, the regime got frightened and has responded with a sharp about-turn, banning “abnormal sexual relationships” on both traditional and online social media in the past five years, and going to extreme lengths to reinforce binary gender identities.