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Why are Sweden's far right suddenly going after drag queens?

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson on the campaign trail.
Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson on the campaign trail. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Andrew Naughtie, Euronews
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Sweden Democrats are moving from an anti-immigration platform to something more like an American-style culture war

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A recent political TV debate in Sweden took a strange turn when the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, launched a broadside against drag queens.

Calling it “absolutely insane” that a drag queen called “Miss Shameless Winehore” is funded to read stories to children as part of Drag Queen Story Hour events, Åkesson signalled that his notoriously nationalistic party is increasingly focusing on “culture war” issues, not just its traditional anti-immigration platform.

Miss Shameless herself had a few things to say about his remarks. Clarifying that she does not use the surname “Winehore” at children’s events, she pointed out that a 2022 agreement that gave Sweden Democrats more political power than they’ve ever had requires all parties to adhere to the principle of keeping culture at “arm’s length”.

Sweden Democrats are not currently in government per se, but after their stunning performance at the 2022 election made them the Riksdag’s second-largest party, there was no way for the mainstream right-wing parties to take power without striking some kind of deal with them.

The upshot is that the Moderates, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats are running Sweden in a coalition that relies on a formal confidence-and-supply deal with a far-right party – one that many within Sweden and across Europe still consider beyond the pale.

And now that they’re more powerful than ever, Sweden Democrats are not just drilling down into their signature anti-immigration rhetoric; they are increasingly expounding other socially conservative ideas. And a nascent culture war over gender issues, including children’s encounters with drag queens, is top of their list.

One Sweden Democrat Riksdag member, Björn Söder, went much further than Åkesson with remarks earlier this year, tweeting that "Those who oppose the involvement of children in these adult games are now targets of this cultural elite.

"How could things go so wrong in (Sweden), where the adult world now no longer protects our children from the lust of grown men?"

That puts them in sync with the American Republican Party, some of whose top national figures have spent the last two years or so positioning transgender people and drag queens as public enemies. But why is this discourse showing up in Swedish politics, and why now?

According to Anders Hellström, a political scientist at Malmö University, Sweden Democrats’ shift toward issues of sex and gender partly reflects the way that politics more generally has moved in their direction.

“Many other parties also agree on their anti-immigration policies, which used to be depicted as extreme, but which are now elevated into government policy via the Tidö agreement,” Hellström told Euronews.

“Of course the governing parties go along with this, but even the Social Democrats, while internally divided, do not represent a radically different position. What was depicted as extreme yesterday has become normal today. This has given Sweden Democrats a boost in self-confidence, and in order to distinguish themselves, they are engaging in cultural debates.”

Deprived of their near-monopoly on anti-immigration animus, Sweden Democrats need another wedge issue to shore up their popularity with their conservative base. As Lund University’s Anamaria Dutceac Segesten sees it, the audience that’s receptive to their hardline views on families, gender and gender roles is not the dominant tendency in Swedish political discourse, to put it mildly – but it has been there for some time.

“For mainstream Swedish politicians, inclusivity and equality have been accepted goals for a long time, and are seen as reasons to take pride, internationally and nationally,” she said. “Despite this majority view, since the middle of the 2000s, an undercurrent of conservative opinion leaders have deplored what they called the ‘ideology’ and ‘ideologisation’ of gender.”

These ideas have been advanced by conservative writers like Ivar Arpi, a columnist for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In 2020, he and academic Anna-Karin Wyndhamn co-authored a book, “Gender Doctrine”, that advanced a head-on argument against the supposed way gender equality is being institutionalised and taught in state institutions and universities in what it calls “a radical and profound process” driven by “people in power”.

“Women are put in quotas behind closed doors,” reads the blurb. “Researchers remain silent for fear of reprisals. Knowledge is distorted when research funding is conditional on a gender perspective – whether you’re researching glaciers, Moomins or bridges. What’s happening at universities now will soon affect the whole of society.”

For a long time, this tendency remained mostly confined to blogs, books, and right-wing newspaper opinion columns, though it was hardly hidden. In one particularly sinister incident in 2019, a fake bomb was placed outside the National Secretariat for Gender Research in Gothenburg.

But Sweden Democrats’ political uptick in the last few years has seen the gender-conservative mindset starting to creep out into electoral politics.

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In a speech in 2020, Segesten recalls, Åkesson blamed the government’s failures during the COVID-19 pandemic on the “poor management of state resources”, which he claimed were being wrongly spent on “gender theories” instead of healthcare. And with their electoral success in 2022, the party began raising the pressure further.

“As Sweden Democrats gained power with their support for the current government,” she says, “they advocated for and succeeded in removing the idea of a ‘feminist foreign policy’, which was the orientation of the previous Social Democratic-Green government.

“So Sweden Democrats’ latest turn against drag queens – either as part of a TV show, or guiding children around in the National Theatre – is the extension of an anti-feminist position that wasn’t previously so public, but which has existed all along.”

Meanwhile, Miss Shameless intends to get on with her work with her colleague Lady Busty, who co-hosts story hours with her.

As long as we have a climate and a party with this horrible view of humanity,” she told Swedish Television, “I have a mission to make the world a little bigger and more loving with more acceptance and inclusion.”

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