Illustration by Alexandra Hochreiter

On Hate, its Objects, and the Poetics of Sexuality

George Paul Meiu


What is hate? How are the objects formed towards which it is directed? And why do sex and sexuality figure so centrally in defining the essential Otherness of various objects of hate in the contemporary world order? In this essay, I seek less a set of firm answers to these questions. Instead, I propose an exercise in the ethnographic imagination—a way to begin addressing them in more nuanced ways. Such an approach shall help us understand better how hate and its targets emerge and possibly also formulate different critiques of social inequalities premised on hate.

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George Paul Meiu


George Paul Meiu is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Basel and Chair of the Institute of Social Anthropology at the same university. He is a research associate in anthropology and African studies at Harvard University, where he was a professor until 2022. Meiu is the author of Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and Queer Objects to the Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and co-editor of Ethnicity, Commodity, In/Corporation (Indiana University Press, 2020). Meiu is also the producer of the video-podcast Ethnographic Imagination Basel.

Alexandra Hochreiter


Alexandra Hochreiter is a Romanian-born visual artist and illustrator with a background in architecture who resides near Vienna with her husband and their cat, Strudel. She tries to infuse a bit of magic into every illustration that she creates, looking at her subjects through a special lens, that allows fantasy to overcome reality. Whether working with traditional or digital mediums, she is completely absorbed in the intricacies of mixed media techniques, seeking to craft rich textures that mirror the complexities of her characters. As she delves into the artistic process, she navigates the delicate balance on the thin line she refers to as “controlled accidents,” exploring the unexpected and embracing the beauty found in the spontaneous moments of creation. Over time she surrendered to the tiny voices within and conjures people to allow extraordinary into their ordinary lives. Discover more of her work here and at @alexandra_hochreiter snippets from behind-the-scenes and daily life.

Daniel Popa


Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.

What is hate? How are the objects formed towards which it is directed? And why do sex and sexuality figure so centrally in defining the essential Otherness of various objects of hate in the contemporary world order? In this essay, I seek less a set of firm answers to these questions. Instead, I propose an exercise in the ethnographic imagination—a way to begin addressing them in more nuanced ways. Such an approach shall help us understand better how hate and its targets emerge and possibly also formulate different critiques of social inequalities premised on hate.


Highly mediatized panics over sexuality have been something of a hallmark of the last two decades. In February 2010, in the Kenyan coastal city of Mtwapa, some two to three hundred youths, religious leaders, and public transport operators gathered in front of a public health institution that had been providing care to sex workers and so-called MSM or “men-who-have-sex-with-men.” Protesters raided the building and called for the few men they had found in it to be set on fire. Christian and Islamic leaders supported this effort, inciting the crowd to “save this city from being turned to Sodom and Gomorrah” and thus restore heteronormative ideals of intimacy long associated with Kenya’s nationalism. The demonstration erupted after rumors of an upcoming same-sex wedding spread in town earlier that month. These rumors escalated residents’ longstanding anxieties over the rising presence and spectacular wealth of some gay men, sparking a full-fledged moral panic.

In February 2013, in Bucharest, Romania, dozens of rightwing protesters disrupted the screening of the queer-themed movie The Kids Are All Right at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Warning that “homosexuals are not Romanians,” protesters called on the movie’s audience “to go back to the [United] States.” Others called for their death. Imagining themselves as securitizing the idealized image of an (essentialized) Romanian peasant that they imagined the Museum to represent, Christian nationalist protesters sought to defend the nation’s presumed heterosexuality—its “family values”—from the “foreign” plight of homosexualilty. They imagined the latter as a foreign trend eroding national intimacies. In recurring anti-homosexual demonstrations at the Museum, the following years, protesters also held banners reading: “Romania is not Sodom and Gomorah.”

I juxtapose the two events above to dwell on their ostensible affinity. Surely, my immediate predisposition, as an anthropologist, would be to do quite the opposite: to demonstrate how an initial impression of affinity may occlude the extent to which each of these events mobilizes distinct cultural symbols and imaginaries as well as distinct historical desires and fears. Close ethnographic attention to their specific contexts would demonstrate precisely that. But I also juxtapose these events because I remember feeling both surprised and saddened by them. I had been doing fieldwork in Mtwapa since 2008 and came to learn that many of its migrant and migrant settler residents had moved there because they knew the city to be tolerant and welcoming. Meanwhile, born and raised in Romania, I had taken my “first steps” as a young, novice anthropologist under the mentorship of researchers at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. I remembered the institution as a countercultural space that often refused the normative nostalgias of an older, nationalist ethnology. So, I kept wondering what had changed in both cases.

A closer look at emerging trends in their broader regional and continental political economy reveals noticeable patterns. In East Africa, the case of Uganda is already well-known: President Yoweri Museveni’s dictatorial regime legitimized his nearly three-decade-long monopoly on state power by promising to protect Ugandans from the ongoing global plight of homosexuality. In 2009, a year before the Kenyan protest I described, Uganda introduced its infamous “kill-the-gays bill”—a bill condemning homosexuals to life in prison or, in some cases, the death sentence. Different versions of this bill have been contested over the last fourteen years only to be passed into law in 2023. Similar campaigns have taken place in neighboring Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania, but also across the African continent, if with different outcomes. In all these places, legal battles played out concomitantly with popular panics and protests, on social media and in the streets.

In Eastern Europe, in 2013 (the year of the protest at the Bucharest Museum), Poland called for the banning of so-called “gender ideology”—including discussions of LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, sex education in schools, and more (Graff 2014). Meanwhile, Hungary witnesses its own moral panics over “gender ideology” and same-sex intimacies, coupled with growing anxieties over its position in the European Union. And, at least since 2014’s Sochi Olympic Games, Russia declared an open war on its LGBTQ+ citizen. In Romania, similar panics and anxieties peaked with the “referendum for the family” (2018) as well as with debates over European Union regulations regarding the recognition of same-sex marriage. Like in the African context, here too, people expressed fear over sexuality as reactions against ongoing imperial powers (EU, globalization).

It is important to think the timing and affinities between the East African and Eastern European contexts as more than merely coincidental. Indeed, they cut from the cloth: a late capitalist political economy when sexuality—its politics and poetics—plays out in uncannily similar ways across the world. Instead of provincializing hate then, I argue, we need to understand its emergence as dialectical: an interplay between globally circulating grammars of identity and abhorrence (e.g., abstract categories such as the “homosexual” as object of hate) and their ability to resonate meaningfully with historical anxieties and aspirations in any given public, regional, national, or continental.


One of the first things we learn from doing anthropology is to know better than to assume that a sentiment, like hate, would mean the same thing across time and place. Surely, anthropology has delighted in ethnographic data showing how people in different cultures do things differently. Today, however, an anthropology of hate can no longer be a simple cataloguing of disconnected exoticisms. And that, in no small part, because we no longer live in a world that could be understood primarily as one divided into different cultures. Quite the contrary: we live in a world of global markets and globalized forms of governance, including nation states and transnational governing institutions. What interests me here then is a fact quite opposed to any simple idea of ontologized difference: namely that, with late capitalism, we witness also the globalization of the objects of hate.

Whether we speak of Brazil or Nigeria, Uganda or Indonesia, Kenya or Romania, dominant objects of collective hate—the imaginary bodies against which hate is directed—are, to a certain extent, quite similar: the migrant, the refugee, the ethnic, the person of color, the indigenous person, the homosexual, or the prostitute. What is more, we encounter these objects of hate ever more implicated in the logics of governance. Most prominently, for the last two decades, governance has worked through highly mediatized moral panics (especially around sexuality): fear of migrants’ sexual customs; of liberals’ (deemed—subservient to—”foreigners”) calls for sex education in schools; or of LGBTQ+ activists demands for rights and recognition, to name only a few. The state, itself often castrated by aggressive neoliberal market reforms, unable to sustain promises of welfare and infrastructure, seeks its legitimacy in the face of its citizens through the promise of moral securitization (Alexander 2005): “We are here,” political and religious leaders tell us, “to protect you and your children from the perversions of globalization.”

What is distinct about the global rise of the security state—a form of governance premised on the production of danger and the promise of securitization (Amar 2013)—are its accompanying grammars of hate. In my recent book (Meiu 2023), I approach this moment from a paradox. On the one hand, the objects against which political and religious leaders mobilize populist hate (often to distract from their own complicities in the neoliberal markets) are growingly modular. The migrant, the prostitute, and the homosexual, for example, are mobilized efficiently as objects of hate across the world. We often see panics over homosexuals emerge long before any concrete groups or individuals have been identified with this category in any given place (Bosia and Weiss 2013). On the other hand, for such globally modular objects of hate to be able to efficiently captivate national publics and instigate or channel their hate, it is essential, I argue, that these objects be made to resonate with the particular “cultural intimacy” (Herzfeld 1997) of different national or regional publics. This involves a certain poetic work. Making the sexualized object of hate presupposes, among other things, mobilizing fears, anxieties, and aspirations from other domains of life and displacing them onto such objects. How then, we must ask, is meaningful resonance produced between a globally circulating abstraction (e.g., the homosexual) and historically situated social experiences and sentiments?


The object of hate, I suggest, is itself assembled from other objects, materials, and things already invested with meaning—transformative potentials or imaginaries of doom—in the “cultural intimacy” of certain national or regional publics. Let me illustrate this claim briefly with an example that I have already discussed at length elsewhere: plastic (Meiu 2020). Early in my fieldwork on intimacy and citizenship in Kenya, I came across a homophobic Facebook post by a Kenyan man, saying that “homosexuality is a foreign plastic import that does not fit the chemistry of Africans.” What struck me was the comparison of homosexuality to plastic, a comparison I encountered repeatedly in other contexts. Claim circulated on social media, for example, that homosexuality is caused by microplastics consumed in water. And, in public confessions by evangelical men who had undergone a ritual “cleansing” of their homosexuality, homosexuality was said to have left their bodies in the form of a plastic snake. The parallels between sexuality and plastic were indeed striking. So, I decided to pursue them more systematically.

I recalled then that I had already encountered plastic prominently featured in ideas of autochthony and belonging in northern Kenya, where I did fieldwork since 2005. First, there was a category of urban masculinity people called plastic boys. Plastic boys were young men who descended from migrant families who had sought refuge among the autochthonous Samburu population, while fleeing interethnic violence elsewhere. Because these men did not belong to local clans and did not invest in forms of social reproduction associated with local expectations, Samburu used “plastic” to describe them as foreign, as people who did not belong. Second, plastic had long entangled itself in dilemmas over reproduction among local Samburu themselves. In rural areas, I encountered, for example, anxieties over a new affliction of women’s fertility called “plastic in the womb” (plastiki te kosheke) as well as prophets who would call on women to stop wearing plastic beads. Finally, in 2017, a panic emerged through social media with posts claiming that Kenyan markets were oversaturated with fake, plastic rice granules imported from China. In a context in which the Kenyan state was already dependent on Chinese capital for major infrastructural projects, Kenyans now worried they would die if they ate Chinese plastic rice. Across these instances then, a set of shared discursive grammars animated plastic’s salience: it was a foreign substance that could intoxicate local bodies and undermine their capacity to grow and reproduce. It appeared abundant, able to seduce in its as commodity only to intoxicate and kill as pollutant waste. Such historical experiences with plastic made this material readily available to describing categories of people too—people considered foreign, dangerous, polluting to the fabric of the societies in which they lived.

To say then that “homosexuality is a plastic import” is the kind of poetic work meant to make the abstract modular category of the homosexual (a global object of populist mobilization) resonant with social fears and desires specific to a place. In the Kenyan context, plastic is but one of the symbolically loaded objects that facilitate this poetic resonance. Already central in defining the foreign Other in contexts of ethnicized hate (e.g., against “plastic boys”), already present, as both cause and symptom, in struggles over bodies, wellbeing, and reproduction, plastic lends concrete legibility to news object of hate—whether xenophobic or homophobic.

In my book, I discuss several other such symbolically charged objects of poetic resonance. So, by no means do I wish to suggest that plastic is the only or even the most significant one in this process. But its example should illustrate how anxieties and aspirations come to be displaced from different domains of social life and later condensed onto newly constituted objects of collective detestation.


What does it mean to say then that the object of hate is assembled in any given context from different kinds of meaningful and resonant objects available there? Let’s take one other example and one explanatory anecdote, as precisely a further exercise in the ethnographic imagination.

On November 7, 2017, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, radical right conservatives, mostly evangelicals and Catholics, led a march to protest “gender ideology.” Chanting in front of the art institute where queer and feminist theorist Judith Butler was giving a lecture on democracy, protesters manifested their rage at her presence in the country. They saw her attendance to be a manifestation of what they perceived as the growing incursion of “gender ideology” in Brazilian society. What captured my attention were images of the protest itself. Amidst protesters raising crucifixes and banners that called Butler a “witch,” there also appeared an effigy of her: a life-size doll wearing a pink brazier, a black conic witch hat, and cardboard print of her face. Protesters proceeded to burn her in effigy, a ritual act that mimetically enacted the nation’s purification of the affliction of “gender ideology,” its exorcism from the intimate corners of their society.

Butler’s effigy reminded me of a ritual I had learned about in Romania. In the late 1990s, I was doing ethnohistorical research in south-eastern Transylvania. I learned then from elderly women about a ritual that had been practiced in times of plague pandemics until about the early twentieth century. Called “the plague’s blouse” (ia ciumei), the ritual involved women gathering in one household and, within a single day, spinning hemp into thread, weaving the thread into fabric, and sewing the fabric into a blouse. Then, they filled the blouse with straws, producing an effigy, which they then laid down on its back and lamented as if it were a dead body. Finally, they enacted a mock funeral procession in which the blouse was carried outside the village and left there. This ritual, elders recounted, cleansed the village of the plague. Thinking with the “plague’s blouse” of Butler’s effigy elucidates a set of imaginary techniques: the blouse renders concrete, material, tangible something abstract—i.e., the plague—that, for the villagers, existed only in name and its deadly effects. In this ceremony, a set of deep, collective fears and anxieties over something imaginable yet invisible were given body, material expression. This body, in turn, became the agent of affliction, some-thing onto and against which these strong affects could be directed. Its removal from the village then was a way to remove the abstract affliction from the community as such.

So too perhaps with the moral panic surrounding Butler in Brazil. Like the plague in my Romanian example, “gender ideology” presupposes something less tangible, something that exists but in name and its attributed effects. Its workings seem hidden, mysterious, its agents not readily visible or accountable. Butler, her image and her effigy, thus give body to this elusive trend. They render it material and concrete. The Butler effigy is the representation of the agentive sexualized body to be imagined as a source of intimate insecurity. What the story of the “plague’s blouse” does then is to show us how this body is ritually constituted, made to bear responsibility for a historical moment or trend—a scapegoat, if you will.

Like the “plague’s blouse” and the Butler effigy, the sexualized body as object of hate is a discursive and imaginary fantasy often held responsible for various social dilemmas, it is made to explain sometimes more than it actually can. But in doing so, it works to displace desire, to condense it, all along promising some concreteness, some ability to act, an ability to do something about one’s predicament, to take a step towards actualizing a different kind of future. In southern Transylvania, I only ever still encountered the expression “You’ve made a thing like the plague’s blouse” (ai făcut lucrul ca pe ia ciumei)—that is, quickly, superficially, badly. So too with the objects of hate. But there is another way in which objects of hate are akin to the plague’s blouse: they are made quickly from materials readily available in the “household.” As with plastics, these are materials already invested with meaning that then efficiently transfer collective anxieties on ever new objects of hate. A critique of hate must then also look at the materials through which it is assembled.


Amar, Paul. 2013. The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Alexander, M. Jacqui. 2005. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bosia, Michael J. and Meredith L. Weiss. 2013. “Political Homophobia in Comparative Perspective.” In Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression, edited by Meredith L Weiss and Michael J. Bosia, 1-29. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Graff, Agnieszka. 2014. “Report from the Gender Trenches: War Against ‘Genderism’ in Poland.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 21(4): 431-42.

Meiu, George Paul. 2023. Queer Objects to the Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in Kenya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meiu, George Paul. 2020. “Panics over Plastics: A Matter of Belonging in Kenya.” American Anthropologist 122(2) 222-35.

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