The Pink Line by Mark Gevisser review – the world's queer frontiers

An engrossing study, full of stories, of the extent to which the world has changed in its attitudes to LGBT people

A decade ago, in an American midwestern town, when I wondered if I was the only gay man within a 1,000-mile radius, I was assured that gay men were plentiful, a dime a dozen. When I asked for evidence, I was introduced to an app called Grindr. Once we keyed in our address, we saw that several houses nearby had someone gay in residence who was also on Grindr and, so, too, in many more houses in the blocks around and deep into the countryside. 

Grindr was, it seemed, one new piece of technology to help gay people feel less alone. Mark Gevisser, in The Pink Line, his journey along the frontiers of gay liberation and repression, writes: “By 2017, Grindr had 27 million users in 192 countries.”

Any blanket optimism, however, about Grindr as a force for good is open to question. In Egypt the app became a way to entice gay men to disclose their location so that they could be identified by the authorities. “By 2014,” Gevisser writes, “the police started to use online entrapment again.” Hook-up apps such as Grindr “made the job that much easier; in response, Grindr disabled its GPS function in Egypt in September 2014”.

We have to be cautious about how we view the fact that in China, as Gevisser writes, “by the second decade of the century, Blued, the largest gay app on the planet, had 40 million users”. While many of those who used the app found it convenient for hook-ups, they went on living conventional heterosexual lives under pressure from family and society.

A gay rights activist is detained for attempting to hold a protest rally in Red Square, Moscow.
A gay rights activist is detained for attempting to hold a protest rally in Red Square, Moscow. Photograph: Reuters

The “Pink Line”, as Gevisser sees it, is sometimes a clear demarcation between liberalism and prejudice, but the line can waver in response to protest and pressure, or become dotted or faint. While in some countries there has been great progress, in others, such as Egypt, Russia, Nigeria and Kenya, increased gay visibility and demand for rights have resulted in a growth of open animosity against gay people.

This is a valuable book not only for the quality of Gevisser’s analysis and the scope of his research, but because he spends a good deal of time with the people on whose lives he focuses. He does not just sail into such cities as Cairo, Nairobi, Kampala, Ramallah and Istanbul, interview a few gay locals, deplore their plight and depart. He sticks around; he finds people whose lives he can follow over a couple of years. He hangs out with them, enjoys their company; he renders them in all their complexity. 

Gevisser is also alert to the connection between gay freedom and other forms of liberty. His account of the reasons for the increasingly intense repression of gay people in some countries is astute and nuanced. His book is, at times, a history of the recent darkening of the human spirit itself, as much as it is a book about gay politics. It also shows how stirring up hatred against gay people is part of an agenda to win power. The pink line is a lever that can be pulled by politicians such as Putin in Russia, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orbán in Hungary to usher in a set of rightwing policies in the name of family and nation, in the name of purity from contamination.

When the author places them in the context not only of gay politics but of national politics, his human stories become fascinating. He finds two lesbians in Cairo who, having tasted the freedom that came with the Arab spring, have since found every reason to wish to leave Egypt. The evocation of the time when anything seemed possible makes the aftermath all the more bitter. 

Riot police face rightwing demonstrators protesting against a Pride march in Budapest, Hungary, 2012.
Riot police face rightwing demonstrators protesting against a Pride march in Budapest, Hungary, 2012. Photograph: Balázs Mohai/EPA

In 2013, when the question “Should society accept homosexuality?” was polled in various countries, Spain said yes by 88%, the US by 60%, but only 16% of Russians said yes, and only 2% of Nigerians, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Indonesians. While life became more difficult for gay people in these countries, there were places where the struggle for equality bore some fruit. One was Mexico: in the Mexican 2012 census, 229,773 households were made up of same-sex couples (about 1% of the total) and three-quarters of these had children. In the US, the same percentage of households had same-sex couples, but only one quarter of these had children. In 2009, Mexico was the first jurisdiction in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage. So, too, in India where, in a set of eloquent and erudite judgments in 2018, the supreme court decided that the laws against homosexuality were unconstitutional.

Some of Gevisser’s personal stories are heart-rending. One of his subjects writes of the immediate aftermath of her decision to live as a woman in Russia: “The body was uncomfortable but the soul was rejoicing.” In these sections, Gevisser becomes almost a novelist as he makes clear how many barriers this woman and others like her have to cross every day in order to survive.

Tolerance of gay people brings economic growth to some places. But no two cities are the same. Lagos, for example, is a hub for many multinational companies, one of the most affluent places on the African continent, with a huge middle-class population that is “literate, wealthy and wired”. But homosexuality is still illegal there and a Pride parade would be “unimaginable”. While Israel, on the other hand, is proud of its openness to gay culture, its government has blackmailed gay Palestinians into becoming informers. Thus, the pink line and the Green Line briefly intertwine.

Many of the stories told in this engrossing book, such as the account of a love affair between an Israeli and a Palestinian, have their roots in the past, but there are also sections that seem to belong to the future. Gevisser finds a young American interviewee who says: “I am pansexual but homoromantic. This mean I have no problem having sex with any gender, but in a relationship I would only date women or genderqueer people. I am genderqueer myself, which means I use ‘they’ and ‘their’ pronouns.”

Demonstrators in Times Square, New York, protest against Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people in military service, July 2017.
Demonstrators in Times Square, New York, protest against Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people in military service, July 2017. Photograph: Pacific Press/REX/Shutterstock

In 2012, when he came out online, Stephen Beatty, son of Annette Bening and Warren Beatty, “wittily listed his intersections”: “I identify as a transman, a faggy queen, a homosexual, a queer, a nerd-fighter, a writer, an artist, and a guy who needs a haircut.” Beatty wanted his identity to be “legible to people”. But others found that their non-binary status, making them illegible, suited them better. One of them told Gevisser: “I like it that people don’t know whether I am male or female, or have to ask me. Because, honestly, I myself don’t know what my gender is, and so when people are unsure how to place me, that reflects how I feel inside.”

During his presidency, Donald Trump has rolled back transgender rights as part, Gevisser writes, of his “efforts to consolidate his conservative Evangelical base, for whom ‘gender ideology’ has become the new evil; the latest bulwark against assaults on ‘the family’ now that same-sex marriage was legal and supported by a majority of Americans.” But the numbers seeking transition continue to rise, and the world has begun to change accordingly. “By 2018,” Gevisser writes, “about half of the US’s 34 women’s colleges accepted transgender women.” By 2017, one-third of Fortune 500 companies “provided insurance that offered transition-related health care to its employees and their families”.

Such images of progress are tempered by stories from other places that are less encouraging. The freedoms being won by transgender people in the US, for example, are mirrored by the lack of freedom enjoyed by their colleagues in other countries. What keeps them going is an astonishing bravery, a willingness to be the first to demand freedom in a dark time. The Pink Line can see light and hope in this, but Gevisser is clear-eyed and wise enough to have a sharp sense of how tough the struggle has been, and how hard it will be now for those who have not succeeded in finding shelter from prejudice.

• The Pink Line is published by Profile (RRP £25). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


Colm Tóibín

The GuardianTramp

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