A couple of weeks ago, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany's upstart right-wing populist party, met in Cologne to decide its future. The AfD, which has a strong chance of entering the German parliament in the national elections in September, was in the midst of a dramatic showdown between its far right and more mainstream wings. Frauke Petry, the chemist and former businesswoman who has been the public face of the party since 2015, had announced that she wasn't interested in being the party's chancellor candidate for the election—an attempt to pressure members to move toward the mainstream.
It didn't work. The party instead selected two members of the conservative wing to represent it in the election, including Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old management consultant from the central German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In typical AfD style, Weidel is highly skeptical of the EU in its current form, once accused Germany's Central Council of Muslims of "never having distanced itself credibly from Stone Age Shariah," and has agreed to campaign with a member of the party who has argued that Hitler wasn't "absolutely evil." In less typical AfD style, she is also in a relationship with a woman, with whom she is raising two children.
The combination of gayness and right-wing nationalism is nothing new per se—in academic and activist circles, the term "homonationalism" is often used to describe the overlap—but the recent populist wave in Europe has marked a turning point in gay people's willingness to publicly embrace the populist right. Depending on which poll you're reading, between 16.5 percent and a quarter of French LGBTQ voters supported the Front National (FN) late last year; according to another, more informal poll by the gay dating app Hornet, over one-third of gay men overall planned to vote for Le Pen in the second round of the recent French election. A 2016 survey by a German gay magazine found that nearly 17 percent of gay male readers supported the AfD.
And it's not just France and Germany—in the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Austria, right-wing populist parties have registered surprising success with openly gay voters, complicating the widely held assumption that LGBTQ people are innately more likely to support left-wing parties.
Alex Tassis, the head of the AfD's Alternative Homosexuals group (a group of LGBTQ AfD supporters), believes it will soon be the most popular party among gay men in Germany despite the fact that it officially opposes gay marriage—a "luxury problem," as Tassis called it when I interviewed him. Like many other gay AfD supporters, Tassis's primary concerns are "Islamization," which he believes threatens Germany's Western values, and multiculturalism, which he called a "West Coast fantasy" that doesn't belong in the country. "If you are gay, you have to see the way the social environment is changing, now through Merkel's refugee politics," he said, referring to Merkel's decision to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015. He added that "gender mainstreaming," a term right-wing Germans use to describe vague conceptions of gender equality, "is a psychological disease."
Tassis also doesn't believe gay people have a moral duty to support other marginalized people, like refugees: "Humanitarianism," as he called it, is a "decadent millionaire upper-class immorality." He added: "Gays need to distance themselves so it's clear on which side we'll stand in the future."
Patrick Wielowiejski, a PhD candidate at Berlin's Humboldt University who has been studying gay and lesbian members of the AfD, said that although gay people have been voting for conservative parties for decades, this recent populist wave has marked the first time that large numbers of gay people have done so publicly. "If they voted for them in the 70s and 80s, they were probably closeted people with nationalist beliefs," he said, "but what's new is that they stand up and say, 'We are gay or lesbian or homosexual, and we are voting FN or AfD.'"
Wielowiejski believes this shift might be the unintended consequence of the success of the European gay rights movement. During the 1970s, many LGBTQ activists in Germany and elsewhere wanted not just to gain rights for themselves but fundamentally change society's views of sexuality and gender. "They didn't want to be recognized as a minority," he said. "They said, 'You are afraid of homosexuality because it threatens your masculinity,' and wanted to integrate gayness into society."
But as gay rights activism adopted a more identity politics-focused strategy in the 80s and 90s, centered on the argument that LGBTQ people were a minority in need of protection, it opened the door for the groups like the Alternative Homosexuals. As Wielowiejski put it, this approach meant that many gay people became satisfied with being accepted as a minority and felt comfortable ignoring other social injustices that didn't directly affect them. "This kind of politics can easily be combined with nationalism," he said.
The rise of gay people to leadership positions in the parties also serves as a kind of fig leaf for the parties' more extreme xenophobic policies. Although Weidel is the first queer high-ranking member of AfD, there are numerous LGBTQ people in leadership positions in the Front National, including Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen's closest advisor.
The AfD has made some targeted attempts to reach out to gay voters. Last summer, the Berlin branch of the party launched a billboard campaign that featured a gay couple saying: "My partner and I don't want to get to meet Muslim immigrants who believe that our love is a deadly sin." The mayor of Berlin called the campaign "disgusting." This attempt to reach out to gay and lesbian voters allowed the AfD to portray itself as a "tolerant" bulwark against the "intolerant" invaders—i.e., Muslims and other foreigners—even as it condemns pro-gay policies like same-sex marriage.
Beate Küpper, a social psychologist at Germany's Hochschule Niederrhein University who has studied the far right, argues that there are more psychologically fraught explanations for many gays' attraction to right-wing populism. "If I push people down, I automatically look better, relatively speaking," she said. She pointed to several studies that have shown that minority groups have a tendency to "close the door after themselves, or kick downwards"—which is to say, to work against the interests of other minorities once they have gained rights themselves.
For gay people who still feel ostracized or marginalized in their daily lives, publicly joining or supporting right-wing populist parties allows them to demonstrate their belonging to the majority: "It's a protection mechanism." In the case of Alice Weidel, Küpper said, her anti-Muslim rhetoric allows her to distance herself from her outsider identity as a lesbian. "We've seen it in group conflicts; when groups of youths beat someone else, it's usually not the leaders that are doing the beating—it's the ones that are lower on the hierarchy," she said. Weidel, for her part, has attacked the media for focusing on her personal life.
Unsurprisingly, Alex Tassis isn't a huge fan of Küpper's analysis. "This kind of psychologization is what the Nazis did," he said. "You can read in SS magazines how they did it." He is, however, very happy about Alice Weidel's prominent role in the party, which he sees as a step forward for gay visibility in the party. "I welcome it," he said. "Being gay is not a problem in the AfD. The AfD is concerned with other things."