Why there is no such concept as a “gender ideology”? And whose interests does it serve to?
There is no ideology of gender, for that suggests that there is a core set of beliefs or a single theory. In reality, there is a complicated world of gender studies with many different methodological approaches and academic forms. It is a lively academic field, which means that people argue about its presuppositions, its aims, and its definitions. It is interdisciplinary in character, and that means that sometimes scholars who work on gender in the sciences do not always connect with those who work in the fields of urban studies or performance act. It is a rich and array academic discipline, and it does not espouse a single view. If by “ideology” one means that this entire academic field which now traverses at least 80 countries in the world seeks to deny reality or proffer a false set of beliefs, then one fully misunderstands the kind of academic inquiry it is. It does not deny material reality, but it does ask how material realities come to signify as they do. The term “gender ideology” makes it seems that it is a monolithic theory and that its sole aim is to distort reality. But actually, it seeks to understand the reality of bodies, sexuality, family, kinship, reproduction, inequality, freedom, justice, masculinity, femininity, and all the ways of living gender that have not been adequately understood. If anything, it is an inquiry that seeks to offer real knowledge in the place of prejudice. The idea that teaching gender in the schools is “indoctrination” is simply false. No teacher tells a student how to masturbate or tells them to change their gender. That is nonsense. And yet, masturbation and sex change are topics that are spoken about in the world, ones that have been suppressed, and about which it would be good to have knowledge -clear, founded knowledge. The task of a teacher is to listen to a host of views on hard topics and to encourage conversation, but not to impose a truth on young people. To say that the taboo against homosexuality needs to be lifted does not mean that every taboo should be lifted. The taboos and laws against child molestation must be vigilantly maintained, for children are not yet in a position to make a knowing choice about their sexuality. Our task as parents and teachers is to provide a non-prescriptive and supporting environment for children to find their own way without being coerced physically or ideologically. I oppose all such coercion.
You’ve told O Globo newspaper that “fearing gender is like fearing a ghost” and stated that those who opposed to the gender studies act based on ignorance on the subject. In spite of the far-right wave led by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is a historically conservative country, and now also goes through a moment of anti-intellectualism—which includes cuts in education funding. How to fight ignorance in this scenario?
Brazil is also a place of impressive intellectual achievement throughout the humanities, the social sciences, psychology, theatre and performance, literary production and criticism. So my question is how the right-wing populism of Bolsonaro is targetting the universities and the class of intellectuals? The Church communities read pamphlets that summarize “gender ideology” for them, but that is not the same as reading the hundreds and thousands of books and articles that would provide a much more realistic and complex picture of the field. But books are suddenly dangerous: they should not be touched; they should not be read. This refusal to study the very object that they oppose not only belies the ignorance of the opposition but their commitment to ignorance. This is far too often a sign of emerging fascism in cultural life.
You have written on the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that you were shocked when far-right activists burnt an effigy of you (portrayed as a witch) during your visit to São Paulo, in 2017. Two years after and considering that these are the people who have taken over the political power in Brazil, what are your main takes on that episode? Have you been the subject of such kind of hostility somewhere else?
That was a singular experience for me, although I have been openly opposed in Germany, for instance, for my defense of Palestinian human rights. No one burnt an effigy, but some caricatures of my image circulated in the press. The fear in Germany is that if you criticize unjust Israeli policy that you are anti-Semitic. I am proud to be a Jew and I struggle, as a Jew, for greater justice for Palestine. The “witch burning” practice is one of the most misogynist practices in the history of the world, so burning an effigy of me as a witch was a celebration of misogyny. At the same time, they had to look rather trans, sporting a pink bra, suggesting that the masculine me was somehow in “drag”. In that way, they recognized me as masculine, or they confused their image of me as a woman to be burned or a trans person to be mocked. I am gender non-binary, and I think they did not quite know how to handle the attack on me: classic feminism? trans advocate?
For this project, I have tried to interview the man who launched a petition against you in 2017. He refused to talk to me, because of our editorial guidelines. This person was recently recommended by the Brazilian President as a “trustful source of information.” Is dialogue a possible strategy to deal with such agents? If not, what would it be? And how to face their digital and intellectual influence over society?
Dialogue is always an important goal, but every dialogue comes with its conditions. If you ask that person to show that he really has those signatures he collected against me and to dispute the claim that he produced bots in order to produce that effect, he will not, I would wager, lay bare his technology. Those who want to produce fake effects in the media will not want their fakery to be exposed.
Is it possible to deconstruct the distortion that has turned gender equality and gender freedom into an “ideology” set to indoctrinate and to destroy core values for the Catholic Church and the evangelists?
I believe that, as intellectuals, we have to continue to publish books and editorials that expose the falsehoods that are said about gender and feminist studies, queer, trans and travestis studies. We should make plain what we do, why it matters, and what we don’t do, and why we do not do it. It means going back to the basics of our field, explaining our thinking and our ethics.
In Brazil, evangelical churches have become the primary political force behind the efforts to fight the “gender ideology.” They have their own (and large) caucus in Congress and hundreds of TV and radio stations spread across the country, with a more radical attitude than the Catholic Church. They are also some of the main allies of President Bolsonaro. How to deal with such influence— considering its extraordinary asset: being based on people’s faith?
My sense is that it is possible to organize within the Church to introduce more knowing and humane perspectives. The tradition of liberation theology that predominated in the Evangelical Churches before the right-wing turn was concerned with the condition of the poor and of all who are marginalized. If we consider the facts of gender inequality in Brazil, the exposure of women and travestis and trans people to violence, then we are talking about the marginalized, the ones who fear for their lives, who live with too little to eat, whose work and housing has become precarious under contemporary economic conditions (the full invasion of neoliberalism into Brazilian life). It would be good to hold conversations in and among the Churches, to bring in gay and lesbian Christian organizations and their parents to introduce the idea of a more humane, ethical, and open-hearted approach to this topic that has stoked so much fear and hatred. I note as well that authoritarian powers gather support from those parts of the populace that they have successfully frightened. Whether it is the demonization of the Jews, the criminalization of the Mexicans, or the pathologization of the LGBTQI community and its cultural forms of expression, a minority is created to stoke the fear and hatred of the people. The authoritarian can then promise to “cleanse” the country of the marginalized, to restore the family to its traditional form, to reconstruct the social inequalities and forms of social marginalization that belong to “tradition.” So in the name of knowledge and in the name of humanity, we must stop those authoritarian powers, whether in the Church or the State, that seek to keep us ignorant, fearful, and full of hatred.
This interview was originally published in the Brazilian website Gênero & Número. SPW would like to thank Judith Butler for allowing us to publish her original text and translate it into Spanish for our audiences.