What’s been called part of the “global war” to destroy marriage, “your latest right-wing conspiracy,” and the driving idea behind the “anti-LGBT backlash in Latin America,” but “doesn’t really exist”? Gender ideology. While it would be nice to report that the phrase is merely a malapropism, it is a very deliberate concept spawned by conservative religious groups. “Gender ideology” is becoming the catch-all metonym of a growing global movement opposing gender equality, abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption, comprehensive sexuality education, and transgender rights.
Though its use is documented as early as 2003—and its precursors further back into the 1990s—the transnational circulation of the phrase has increased notably in the past two years. This is particularly true in Latin America, which has been deeply influenced in recent years by La Manif Pour Tous, which organized mass protests against same-sex marriage in France in 2013; Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical elaborating on the dangers of “gender theory” for the “natural order of creation”; and the work of the vocal Spanish organizers of HazTeOir, whose Spanish-language editorials are read by more than 3,000 visitors a day, including many in Latin America.
Those who have coined and elaborated on the phrase “gender ideology”—a somewhat epithetic exonym—use it to condemn the sinister, misguided, and politically motivated ideological falsehood that gender is a social construction. They argue that the proponents of “gender ideology” advocate for the elimination of sexual difference from the world based on denial of biological fact and the assertion that sexual difference is inherently oppressive. But in actual usage, the term is much looser in meaning and is broadly deployed to denounce a wide range of policies, attitudes, and apocalyptic trends. The imposition of gender ideology, in fact, is said to destroy “traditional marriage,” the “natural family,” the “natural social order,” and life itself.
The transnational circulation of gender ideology in the Americas
Gender ideology has been gaining traction and racking up miles. Over the past few years, it circulated in anti-gender initiatives across Europe, beginning in haste after 2012. Its use in Latin America dates at least to 2013, when Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa denounced the “dangerous gender ideology” of “fundamentalist feminists” in his televised address to the nation.
But the latter half of 2016 witnessed a “gender ideology” explosion—most notably in Latin America. In the past six months alone, it has served as an organizing principle for mass marches and viral videos in Mexico and Colombia; been casually used in political discourse by politicians in Ecuador and Brazil; featured in position statements in the United States, Canada, and Australia; and appeared in the Pope’s speeches against abortion in Poland.
In Colombia, a controversy over government educational manuals brought tens of thousands of protestors into the streets in August 2016 to reject the Santos government’s “imposition of gender ideology.” The controversy started in 2015 when the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Education to revise national school curricula to be more inclusive. Soon after a draft was released, a conservative politician accused out lesbian Education Minister Gina Parody of violating parental rights and using the Education Ministry to facilitate the “gay colonization” of the nation. Unprecedented national rallies in defense of the “traditional family” followed.
As a result, Santos shelved the revised curricula, denounced gender ideology in a national address, and—in a fateful decision—transferred Parody to head the government’s “Yes” campaign for the upcoming Peace Accords referendum. The events mirrored those in neighboring Ecuador in 2014, where accusations of government-imposed gender ideology similarly convinced President Correa to remove the national sexual health and education program from the direction of out lesbian Public Health Minister Carina Vance, and convert it into Plan Familia, which would reinforce the “conventional family” as the basis of society.
Within weeks of Colombia’s massive protests, similar rallies were held in Mexico against gender ideology. After Mexican President Peña Nieto proposed a series of proposals in May 2016 including the federal legalization of same-sex marriage, a new umbrella coalition, Frente Nacional por la Familia, emerged to oppose the platform in defense of the family. The nationwide protests they organized in September 2016 took direct aim against the Nieto government’s “imposition of gender ideology.” The demonstrations of unprecedented size gathered tens of thousands of protesters in 16 Mexican cities. Pro-family advocates began to circulate viral videos educating viewers about the dangers of gender ideology, some directly copied from earlier French videos. The Senate rejected Nieto’s same-sex marriage proposal in November.
Then, just weeks after Mexico’s and Colombia’s mass marches, gender ideology was activated again in Colombian political discourse as the country prepared to vote on the Peace Accords in a national referendum in October 2016. Conservative opponents of the Peace Accords re-mobilized the political constituency that had come together in August, arguing once again that the Peace Accords constituted an effort by the Santos government to impose gender ideology on the nation by using peace as an excuse—a charge even former President Uribe supported. Once again, viral videos making the case on social media gained more than one million views as they pointed to the Accords’ mention of LGBTI persons and the existence of a Gender Commission—a body in fact tasked with addressing the devastating effects of Colombia’s protracted conflict on women. Their rhetoric rendered a “yes” vote for the Peace Accords a “no” vote for the family. The Peace Accords lost by a mere 54,000 votes among 13 million.
The recent circulation of gender ideology in the Americas has not been confined to Latin America but has increasingly shown up in the US and Canada as well. For example, in August 2016, the American College of Pediatricians, an obscure pseudo-scientific organization and active voice against bathroom choice in the US, denounced “gender ideology” as dangerous and harmful to children, adding that “facts—not ideology—determine reality.” Meanwhile, Breitbart News, formerly headed by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, has been among the most enthusiastic reporters on gender ideology in the US throughout 2016 and into 2017. Much of the logic and argumentation of the recent wave of anti-trans and religious freedom efforts from North Carolina to the White House is derived from this same basic set of ideas.
The rise of the global pro-family movement
It is not a coincidence that gender ideology discourse is taking off at a time of growing conservative consolidation and organizing globally. This discourse is both an indicator and result of this trend, as evidenced at the end of 2016 by the signing of the Universal Declaration on the Family and Marriage—dubbed the “Cape Town Declaration”—organized by the newly launched International Organization for the Family (IOF). IOF, largely an outgrowth of the World Congress of Families, is tasked with leading the global pro-family movement. The statement, symbolically released on International Human Rights Day and consistent with many other recent efforts to embed “the family” in human rights law, makes human rights claims for the protection of “traditional values” and “the natural family.”
While the language and demands of this movement are not particularly new, the rise of the religious right that Susan Harding studied in the US two decades ago is now a global, transnational force—and the subject of my developing doctoral research. Important differences characterize this resurgent pro-family movement that demand close attention, from its global scope to its explicit targeting of human rights frameworks to its central emphasis on gender—that is, this obsession with “gender ideology.”
But also at play are contestations over the composition of facts and “truth” and the status of ontological categories, global social and political orders, and certainty in a time when objectivity has been called into question: factors that draw us in and implicate us as theoreticians of gender and sexuality. Examining the “backlash” against gender ideology as in part a response to the productions of queer theories and politics raises new and urgent theoretical and political questions. If the latter half of 2016 has shown us anything, it is that contestations over gender and the status and composition of truth and objectivity are far from settled or irrelevant.
Annie Wilkinson is a PhD student in anthropology at University of California at Irvine and writes about her developing dissertation research on gender ideology and the global pro-family movement in Mexico.
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