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The visibility of LGBTI people in media and politics has increased. Political scientist Anne Louise Schotel researched the consequences of the growing visibility of LGBTI people for their political representation. She concludes that we need to be more aware of the diversity existing under the broad banner of LGBTI and the influence that deep-seated norms around sexuality and gender have on their rights and interests. ‘Visibility is often most beneficial to those who are able to closely match normative expectations.’
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In the past, LGBTI people were often ostracised from society and politics, stigmatised and even criminalised. In the Netherlands, this has fortunately changed. In the space of a few decades, LGBTI people have won public recognition and rights and they are increasingly represented in politics. But does that mean they are now fully emancipated?

Political scientist Anne Louise Schotel researched the consequences of the growing visibility of LGBTI people for their political representation, an issue that garnered a lot of attention in the media as she was conducting her research. ‘Political representation is about incorporating citizens’ voices, opinions and visions in the political process. The visibility of groups and their interests is a key part of this. But do all those groups under the LGBTI banner benefit to the same extent from the growing social awareness?’

She compared the situation in the Netherlands to that in Germany. ‘For a long time, the Netherlands was a frontrunner in promoting the interests and rights of LGBTI people. But today, Dutch policies take their cue from international developments, whereas Germany leads the way by introducing bills to protect the most marginalised groups under the LGBTI label.’ According to Schotel, these differences show that further progress around LGBTI rights cannot be taken for granted.

The research

Schotel researched to what extent LGBTI people are visible in politics and what politicians say about LGBTI-related topics. She mapped out how the current categories of sex and gender are established in norms and legislation and how these categories relate to a person’s rights and the possibilities available to them in the realm of politics. ‘Is a person properly seen by the state and by society when there is no category that accommodates them; for example, when their gender does not fit in with our conceptions of male or female?’ In addition, she analysed how LGBTI-related topics are featured in the media by examining over 15,000 newspaper articles: ‘Because the media also have a huge influence on systemic prejudices and on what positions political actors take on rights for LGBTI people.’

Contradictory consequences of visibility

With her research, Schotel has laid bare the contradictory consequences of visibility: ‘In the wake of the historical exclusion of LGBTI people, visibility is key to the successful representation of their interests in the political arena. But this visibility can trigger a strong backlash from people opposed to the expansion of the rights of LGBTI groups. And it can divert attention away from a LGBTI politician’s subject-matter expertise, such as when attention focuses entirely on their sexual orientation. Furthermore, being visible is often a choice for LGBTI people. They are only visible as LGBTI if they “come out of the closet”. That also puts them in a vulnerable position. Therefore, they often experience not being visible as the safer option.’

Deep-seated norms are very determinative

Schotel’s research also shows that the political representation of LGBTI people is strongly determined by deep-seated norms around gender and identity. ‘Visibility is often most beneficial to those who are able to closely match normative expectations. For example, a gay man’s experiences in the political arena can differ greatly from those of a transgender person.’

These deep-seated norms are reflected in how the media report on LGBTI topics. ‘In the Dutch media, for example, LGBTI rights are regularly reported on in the context of migration. In that context, the media employ those rights to juxtapose “our” values to those who allegedly don’t share them. In addition, the interests of transgender people are often stigmatised and reported on in a sensationalist way. Moreover, opponents often tend to dismiss advocacy for transgender interests as “gender ideology”.’ According to Schotel, this reporting also influences the likelihood of LGBTI people being successful in politics.

Who is represented?

Schotel concludes that we need to carefully consider whose representation we are referring to when we talk about LGBTI people, and that the debate about their rights and interests needs to be conducted on the basis of scientific facts and actual experiences. ‘Too often, these groups are the topic of discussions in politics in which they themselves don’t participate and which are fuelled by sensationalism, fear and gut feelings. Some progress has been made in this respect in recent years, but we cannot afford to become complacent.’

Thesis details

Anne Louise Schotel, 2023, Visible and vulnerable. The political representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people in the Netherlands and Germany. Thesis supervisors: Dr L.M. Mügge and Prof. A.J.M. Nijhuis