One of the more striking rhetorical tricks of Donald Trump’s venomous anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant speech on the mass shooting in Orlando was Trump's repeated invocation of the LGBTQ community as a cover for his proposal to exclude Muslims from the US solely based on religion.
"The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why we should admit anyone into our country who supports violence of any kind against gay and lesbian Americans," he declared. "Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone who doesn’t share their views."
To American audiences, this is striking rhetoric from the Republican nominee for president. It was little over a decade ago that the incumbent Republican president was calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and to this day few in the party have come out in favor of marriage equality. Trump’s main primary rival was once introduced at a campaign event by a pastor who, before ceding the stage, called for gays and lesbians to be executed.
But from an international vantage point, Trump’s maneuver here is totally predictable. While new to America, using gay rights as a smokescreen through which to advocate anti-Muslim policies is a favorite trick of the European far right, and has been for more than a decade. Trump’s innovation is taking advantage of the US’s pro-gay trajectory in recent years to adapt the technique for American audiences.
European far-rightists love to pit LGBTQ people and Muslims against each other
The first politician to master this line of argument was the Dutch activist Pim Fortuyn, whose just-founded political party took second place in the 2002 Dutch elections, nine days after Fortuyn himself was assassinated.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp notes, there are more than a few parallels between Fortuyn and Trump. They both rose to political power seemingly out of nowhere by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. Both proposed blanket bans on Muslim immigration. Each terrified the center-right establishment in his country.
But Fortuyn wasn’t a businessman; he was an openly gay former sociology professor, a former Marxist who moved rightward with age. His core argument against Muslim immigration to the Netherlands was his contention that Islam posed a threat to Western progressive values on, among other things, LGBTQ rights. "In Holland, homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality," he noted at one campaign event. "In what Islamic country does that happen?"
Since Fortuyn's death, his place in Dutch politics has been taken by Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, currently the third-largest party in Dutch parliament. Wilders is straight, but like Fortuyn he repeatedly invokes LGBTQ rights to argue for anti-Muslim policies, including an immigration ban, prohibition of the Quran, and a tax on Muslim women's headscarves.
"Islam is a totalitarian ideology. Muslims are its victims. Just imagine you’re a gay person in a Muslim family," Wilders wrote in a recent op-ed. "the more Islamic apostates there are, the less misogyny, the less hatred of gays, the less anti-Semitism, the less oppression, the less terror and violence, and the more freedom there will be." Despite currently being on trial for hate speech, Wilders, and his party, is currently leading polls for the Netherlands' next election.
Marine Le Pen, of the Front National in France, is among the most successful far-right leaders in Europe and has a good shot at finishing first in the initial round of presidential elections next year. She's also fastidiously courting the gay vote by appealing to the specter of Muslim homophobia. A poll last year found that her party was winning a quarter of Paris's gay voters, compared with only 16 percent of straight ones — despite Le Pen’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Sébastian Chenu, co-founder of the French gay rights group GayLib, has joined Le Pen's team as an adviser and future candidate. "FN traditionalists complained loudly that their party was being taken over by a gay cabal," the Spectator's Rachel Halliburton reports.
And so it is in many European countries. Alternative for Germany (AfD), the German anti-Muslim party, is led by politicians with a strong social conservative background but has moved left on gay rights in recent years. Swedish far-rightists organized a pride parade going through Muslim neighborhoods, intending to highlight anti-gay attitudes in the Muslim community.
There are exceptions — Austria’s Freedom Party is quite anti-gay — but broadly speaking, the use of gay rights as a rhetorical tool against Islam is quite common on the European right.
This tactic has been limited in the US — until Trump
Radical anti-Muslim bigots in the US, often with ties to Wilders and other far-right European politicians, have latched on to this approach as well.
Pamela Geller, one of the most vociferous and vocal anti-Muslim writers in the US, took out ads on San Francisco buses quoting anti-gay statements by figures like Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, saying, "The ads will increase awareness about the subjugation and oppression of gays under Shariah law. The gay community should be standing with me, not against me."
She was at it again after Orlando. "Where are the left-wing, the gay and LGBT organizations denouncing the Islamic texts that inspire such mayhem and murder of gays?" she asked in a blog post. "Where is that fierce gay leadership condemning Muslim oppression of gays under the sharia? The silence is deafening."
Frank Gaffney, another vocal anti-Muslim bigot and former adviser to Ted Cruz, has made similar comments, expressing bafflement at left-wing solidarity with Muslims: "the antipathy of the Islamists to homosexuality yet being supported by people who prize homosexual rights and have many of them in their ranks."
Gaffney and Geller have close ties with the European far right; both have worked repeatedly with Wilders on events in the US. But despite Gaffney's ties to mainstream Republican politics, they’ve remained mostly on the fringes of the conservative movement.
That’s what makes Trump's remarks so striking. They represent a moment in which this particularly vicious brand of Islamophobia, including the use of pro-gay rhetoric as a smokescreen, can go mainstream and become the defining ideology of the Republican Party for a whole election cycle.