Who is afraid of ‘gender ideology’?
Maria Manuel Baptista
CLLC Universidade de Aveiro
‘Antigender’ campaigns already started in the mid-1990’s, as a reaction to the Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995) conferences, culminating in the publication, in 2003, of Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions (Schooyans, et al, 2006). Since then, with the Spanish ultraconservative and nationalist movements, which are at the forefront in this regard, and with the support of the Roman Catholic Church, Europe witnessed the beginning of an antigender movement, that, with direct or indirect international ramifications, spread to Russia in the course of a decade.
The capitalist economic organization, right-wing conservative politics and religious conservatism find in gender a sort of empty referent against which they fight, giving the impression of a united front on behalf of the return of ‘common sense’ and of ‘balance’, of a ‘restrained’ attitude in a situation that, as they say, ‘has gone too far’.
We are interested, firstly, in asking why the concept of ‘ideology’ has appeared in the global public space articulated with gender issues. In effect, the concept of ‘ideology’ refers, since Marx, to the idea of a ‘false conscience’ (Marx, 2017/1867). The discourse that articulates this concept to gender issues argues that it is about ‘denaturalizing’ sex, a process that would find itself exclusively conditional by political interest in action in ‘gender ideology’. We remain, however, without knowing what these obscure and unacknowledgeable interests would be and whom they should be allocated to: are these class interests? economic group’s? women’s interests? left out LGBT groups’?…
On the contrary, the ‘true consciousness’, as far as gender is concerned, would be that it would only be divided in two fundamental types – masculine and feminine – and that the corresponding social roles are determined by the biological sex, namely by forms of hierarchization and power, with which an alleged biology, totally aligned with the capitalist economic system, would be in agreement, as well as the conservative and religious line of thought which operated in the framework of an ontology and an axiology based on a timeless and ahistorical truth.
Witnessing the international growth of campaigns against so-called ‘gender ideology’, a study published in 2017 developed a cartography of Anti-gender Campaigns in Europe, seeking to investigate what it designated as ‘mobilization against equality’. In this book, edited by Kuhar and Paternotte, the authors understand the phenomenon in a triple dimension: as a discourse, as a strategy and as a national phenomenon, present mainly in European countries such as Spain, France, (francophone) Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Poland, Croatia, Hungary and Russia.
Despite the many contextual differences between these countries (in some, the discussion even started off being almost confidential, while, in others, there was a quick transition into intense public activity), there are some common elements to all of them, concerning what they denominate as campaigns against ‘gender ideology’. These are the targets, the authors, the strategies and the rhetorical tropes.
According to the researches, the most common antigender group formation process departs from a mobilization against national government measures which transpose international recommendations, targeting feminist activists, LGBT movements and specific elites (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017, p. 256). In other cases, these movements emerge as a way to avoid public policies on gender. Regarding the targets, they attack “the essence of sexual citizenship: issues related to control over one’s physical body, possibilities of self-realization through one’s identity and social protection in the context of legal recognition of (non-heteronormative) partnerships” (ibidem).
However, to these central items one could add, according to the concrete contexts, five thematic clusters detected by the researchers: LGBT rights (marriage and adoption by same-sex couples), reproductive rights (contraception and abortion – the latter at times linked to euthanasia, under the conceptual umbrella of ‘death culture’ – and reproductive technologies), sexual and gender education (fearing an encouragement of deviant sexual behaviors and the sexualization of children, as well as an encouragement of non-traditional gender roles, advocating for the education of children about religious values in the family; while also intending to replace the designation of ‘gender violence’ with ‘domestic violence), gender studies (which waste public funding and are not scientific enough, skewing interpretations and forging data that discriminate against men and destroy the family), and democracy (since public life is destabilized by not taking into consideration the natural differences between men and women, becoming a totalitarian ideology, by the elites, and, as such, antidemocratic).
Also, following the intercultural comparison study that we have been mentioning (Kihar & Paternotte, 2017), the actors of these antigender movements in Europe are very diverse and present variable constellations, according to the specific contexts: “family associations, anti-abortion groups, religious conservatives, Catholic dignitaries, nationalists and populists, far Right groups and others” (p. 259). In any case, they structure themselves in accordance with what the authors designate as the 3 N’s, “which is understood either as an attack on: Nature, Nation and Normality” (pp. 259-260). In addition to these entries, there is the religious factor, mainly the catholic church, but not only, especially in the countries in which its prestige is higher, being a little more discrete in those in which it is lower.
Lastly, the study’s authors underline that these antigender groups’ strategy isn’t antiquated nor discreet, but colorful, cheerful and happy, even capturing elements of the Gay Parades, now using techno music and a modern, pop, hip and young image. Additionally, they intensively and massively use the internet and social media, promoting powerful national and international lobbies. As for the rhetorical tropes, they seek to stimulate different forms of ‘moral panic’, often working on the framework of the ‘innocent child’, victim of the ‘gender ideology’ (p. 265).
Around the world, the expression ‘gender ideology’ has entered the public space and particularly the political debate. The expression seems to answer a question which no one poses explicitly, but to which we must return in order to understand what we are talking about when we talk about ‘gender ideology’. And that question is only one: are we willing to create a community in which all lives are worth being lived? And, more specifically, in the name of what are some lives less worth living than others?
Judith Butler’s answer to this question is very clear: “on the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized, that they fit no dominant frame for the human, and that their dehumanization occurs first, at this level (…) then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization that is already at work in the culture” (Butler, 2018/2004, p. 35).
It is, thus, a matter of discussing the limits of the human, a question dear to philosophy, ever since its Greek beginnings, as well as a central question in religious, medical, psychological etc. discourses.
What we propose to do in this 7th International Congress on Cultural Studies is to face this issue, but not departing from an abstract and idealized historical, social and political frame. As is custom in Cultural Studies (theoretical context on the basis of which we will develop the approach to this question), we aim to question the political, economic, social and historical materiality that gender issues and their performativities call upon and articulate in times of democracy under threat.
In the face of this framework, which we identify not only in Europe, but in many parts of the world, and that is transversal to diverse historical-cultural coordinates and to different political regimes, we are forced to conclude that gender issues, gender studies, policies that promote gender equality and freedom, seem to strike something very deep in human beings and in the way in which they organize themselves, distributing power unequally. It is what is revealed to us by the magnitude and violence of antigender movements, whose activity signals precisely that the emperor has no clothes, but that, on the other hand, if we can silence this evidence, it’s as if he continues clothed and there is no elephant in the room.
It is in this cultural and political context that the 7th International Congress on Cultural Studies, under the topic Gender Performativities in Democracy Under Threat aims to call forth proposals for debate and performances around the following fundamental axes:
- Gender, between the real and the virtual in (in)formal spaces: censorship, hate speech in the media and technological capitalism;
- Social gender performances: patriarchy, formation of masculinities and bodies in gendered public and private spaces;
- Dissident bodies, technobodies, transhumans and post-humans: political resistances produced through and on the body;
- Feminisms and dissidences: race/ethnicity and intersectionality, cyberfeminisms and ecofeminism;
- Bodies, Sex Economy and Health: rights, pleasures, autonomies and violences;
- Public policies, gender, sexuality and agency in the educational context: teacher education, sex education and citizenship as resistances and strategies of non-normalization.
Butler, Judith. (2018/2004). “Violência, Luto, Política” [“Violence, Mourning, Politics”], Baptista, M. M. (Org.), Género e Performance: Textos Essenciais 1. Coimbra: Grácio Editor, pp. 21-51.
Kuhar, R., & In Paternotte, D. (2017). Anti-gender campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against equality. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Marx, Karl. (2017/1867). O Capital, Lisboa: Edições 70.