Right-Wing Europe’s War on “Gender Ideology”
Last March, on a cold, early spring afternoon in New York City, a bright orange tour bus wended its way from Trump Tower, down Second Avenue, eventually parking in front of the United Nations’ glass-walled Secretariat Building. Wrapped around the length of the bus, in massive letters, was the tagline: “It’s Biology: Boys are boys…and always will be. Girls are girls…and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.”
The bus’s arrival was timed to greet the thousands of participants attending an annual United Nations summit on women’s human rights. Apart from a smattering of protestors, and a few idling police officers, the bus drew little attention from passersby—in part because the message was inscrutable. But the organizers made clear that the #FreeSpeechBus was protesting “gender ideology,” and in the process, attacking not just transgender adults, but transgender children.
The concept of gender ideology is a right-wing invention that intentionally misrepresents feminist, queer, and gender theory in order to justify discrimination against women and LGBTQ people. It was concocted by the Vatican in the mid-1990s, and has since spread globally. The Right claims gender ideology is being peddled by Western elites who want to destabilize the traditional family and the natural order of society. They use the label to delegitimize progressive social policies that support comprehensive sexuality education, LGBTQ equality, and abortion rights.
In Latin America, campaigns against gender ideology are well established. The Peruvian initiative “Don’t Mess with My Kids” is one of the most successful. It contests government efforts to include instruction on gender equality—which they claim would force homosexuality on children—in public schools, and it has spread throughout the region.
In the United States, similar conservative campaigns against sexual and reproductive health and rights and LGBTQ rights are all too familiar. Yet outside of activist and academic circles, the term gender ideology is not. Until the early 2000s, this was also the case in Europe. But over the last 15 years, a cohesive anti-gender ideology movement has emerged—not just in Catholic strongholds like Poland and Ireland, but also in progressive countries like Germany and France, and likely soon the U.S. as well.
The 2017 book, Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality, edited by Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte, traces the emergence of the anti-gender ideology movement from its ideological shaping in the halls of the Vatican to its current blossoming in Europe as an organizing tool against progressive social policies. Although the overlap between this European movement and the U.S.-culture wars is considerable, the European experience offers key insights into how the movement is operating, often in partnership with rising right-wing populist movements, as well as how civil society can respond.
Gender ideology is not a legitimate academic term, but rather one cultivated by the Catholic Church. In their introductory essay, Kuhar and Paternote trace the term’s origin to the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the World Conference on Women in Beijing the following year, where Hillary Clinton famously declared, “women’s rights are human rights.” Cairo marked the first time the United Nations recognized sexual and reproductive rights, and Beijing introduced the term “gender” into the United Nations’ lexicon. Both of these moments signified major gains for the women’s rights movement, and both events incensed the Vatican, which worried that countries would be further empowered to protect abortion access and LGBTQ rights.
But gender’s official definition within the United Nations was so vague—the Beijing Platform for Action said that gender “was intended to be interpreted and understood as it was in ordinary, generally accepted usage”—that it opened the term to multiple understandings. And so the Holy See and Catholic intellectuals began manufacturing their own.
A few years later the concept of a gender ideology began to take root with the 1997 publication of The Gender Agenda, by Catholic writer Dale O’Leary. This influential text—members of the Vatican are said to have read the book—argued that substituting the word gender for sex in spaces like the United Nations was part of an international feminist stratagem to remake society. According to O’Leary, feminists were undermining the idea of complementarity—that men and women fill distinct, immutable, corresponding roles—which, once gone, would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the family and society.1
By the early 2000s, opponents of “gender ideology” were making inroads in Europe, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. They cast gender as the secular phoenix rising out of Marxism’s totalitarian ashes. “Gender” was, in their words, “the new Marxism.”2
Kuhar and Paternotte explain that “gender ideology” was being deployed as a marketing tool to reclaim Christian cultural hegemony in secular spaces. One way this was done was by corrupting liberal language, which was increasingly becoming vernacular. “[T]he Church has reclaimed progressive notions such as gender or feminism and changed their meaning,” Kuhar and Paternotte write, “increasing confusion among average citizens and resignifying what liberal voices have been trying to articulate over the last decades.”3 It was, in essence, Vatican gaslighting.
Book contributors Stefanie Mayer and Birgit Sauer explore this idea further in their chapter, “‘Gender Ideology’ in Austria: Coalitions around an Empty Signifier.” A non-academic can get lost in the references to political theory and theorists, but the underlying point is clear: gender ideology is such a vacuous and ill-understood term that historically disparate social and religious groups can join together to oppose it. In Austria, this became particularly alarming when proponents of gender ideology linked with right-wing populist movements aimed against Muslim immigrants.
The connection is not intuitive; after all, polling indicates the majority of observant Muslims don’t support abortion or LGBTQ rights.4 But in Austria, anti-gender ideology activists made common cause with anti-Islamists. They did so by suggesting that women’s and LGBTQ rights activists and Muslims alike seek to reconstruct and control the political and social order; that both take advantage of anti-discrimination policies and protections; and that both want to crush Western Christian society.5
Mayer and Sauer’s chapter was written before the October 2017 Austrian legislative elections, when, for the first time, the People’s Party (which has historical roots in the Catholic Church and 1930s Austro-Fascism) cinched the election. Reconfigured for modern times, the People’s Party is staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. It also works closely with the right-wing Freedom Party, which was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, and which was the runner-up in the election.
While both parties are recognized for their anti-immigration positions, they have also weakened state mechanisms that protect women. In 2000, the two parties formed a national coalition government, and together downgraded and disempowered the Women’s Ministry by folding it into the Ministry for Social Affairs. They then added a “men’s section.”6
Mayer and Sauer were prescient. They anticipated that the gender ideology discourse might energize a new right-wing movement against Austria’s social-democratic society in favor of a nationalist, anti-pluralist one. And indeed, the recent election seems to bear this out.
As in Austria, the “anti-genderism” movement in Poland created a causeway between nationalists and religious fundamentalism. This alliance helped generate the conditions for the right-wing Law and Justice Party to win enough votes to form a majority government in the 2015 parliamentary elections. According to Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, who authored the chapter, “‘Worse than Communism and Nazism Put Together’: War on Gender in Poland,” Poland’s experience with anti-genderism originated with indigenous right-wing movements against gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights. They also take pains to note that it was greatly enabled by, and a part of, broader transnational mobilizations.7
The chapter title refers to a 2013 statement by Polish Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, who said that gender ideology is worse than the two despotic regimes responsible for the death and victimization of millions of people in the region. Pieronek’s reflections, suggesting that “gender” was yet another foreign ideological threat to Poland, found a captive audience in a population traumatized by decades of totalitarian rule.
Organizing against gender started in earnest in 2012. This is also the year the minister of justice justified his opposition to the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, on the basis that it was a “carrier of gender ideology.” Groups mobilizing against gender, which had formed a few years earlier, supported this position. They also had a targeted focus on opposing abortion, LGBTQ rights, and divorce. These views were consonant with those agitating against gender writ large, and the movements gradually coalesced against emerging issues like sexuality education and reproductive technologies. They were soon connecting with conservative Polish think tanks like the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, and eventually with European platforms working globally, like the Spain-based right-wing group CitizenGO (one of the main organizations that sponsors “Free Speech Buses” like the one that parked outside the United Nations building in 2017).
By 2015 the Polish movement against gender had a decidedly Western European patina; in August of that year a demonstration against the inclusion of sexuality education in public schools included high-profile speakers from Germany, England, and France.
While Polish people flocking to protest in plazas created arresting visuals, the movement against gender was also skillfully manipulating new technologies and social media to get their message further out. Embedded in the message was the idea that protections for gender were an EU imperative promoted by the “homo-lobby” and the “pro-abortion lobby”—that is, gender ideologues. This narrative benefited Polish Euro-skeptics who argued that joining the EU would result in the loss of Polish culture, religion, and identity.
Graff and Korolczuk point out that despite the appeal of the narrative, it didn’t decrease Poland’s support for EU integration. Indeed, a 2014 poll showed that 68 percent of Poles trusted the EU. Notwithstanding, conservative Poles succeeded in having their cake and eating it too. “Polish Eurosceptics have capitalized on this gap by arguing that Poland has the right to benefit from European integration economically, but must retain its cultural integrity as a Catholic country,” Graff and Korolczuk write.8
The Polish anti-genderism movement was particularly good at generating panic on the issue of protecting children. While this theme emerged in other European countries, such as France, there was no greater doomsayer on the issue then the Polish Catholic Church. (Which was unconscionable given that at that time the church was caught up in a priest sex scandal.) Still, they were sufficiently convincing that in 2014, the right-wing party Solidarna Polska (United Poland) formed the STOP Gender Ideology Parliamentary Committee.9
The following year, in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice Party won a majority in parliament, becoming the first Polish party to do so since the fall of Communism. Newly victorious, the party made Beata Kempa, leader of the STOP Gender Ideology Parliamentary Committee, head of the new right-wing government’s chancellery of the prime minister.
Anti-genderism was also officially part of Law and Justice’s policy of “Change for the Better.” The ministries of science and education committed to strip away the influence of gender, including pledges to remove “gay and lesbian studies journals from the official rankings of academic journals,” and promised to ensure that school “be free from various ideologies” and that “Children will study normal, classic subjects.”10
What was initially perceived by the public as a local effort to cover up pedophilia scandals in the Polish Catholic Church was in fact a nationally-driven alliance-building project between foreign, illiberal influences and a gendered form of nationalism.
Anti-gender activists in Poland and the rest of Europe exploit these strategies to great ends. And in places as unexpected as laïcité France, the religious battle to erase “gender” is fought using a secular arsenal.
In their chapter, “Resisting ‘Gender Theory’ in France,” Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Josselin Tricou describe a putatively “grassroots” movement that capitalized on conservatives’ anxiety over a 2012 Socialist Party victory and the expansion of LGBTQ rights. The movement, La Manif Pour Tous (LMPT, in English, “The Protest for Everyone”), was led by the Catholic Church, although that fact was not made public. Instead, it masterfully deployed a secular campaign against “gender”—and co-opted the “rights” framework—using defense of French national identity as its call to arms.
Anti-gender movements in France began stirring around 2010, over public schools’ embrace of “gender mainstreaming”: a globally recognized strategy for promoting gender perspectives and equality in all areas, including policy, research, and legislation.11
But it was the 2012 introduction of the same-sex marriage and adoption laws that brought the movement out of the shadows and into the public square. The first anti-marriage equality protests firmly linked gender ideology and same-sex marriage, echoing concerns that O’Leary first articulated in 1997. Protestors carried placards demanding “We want sex, not gender,” and “marriage for all=gender for all.”12
France’s fervent commitment to secularism, explain Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Tricou, compelled anti-gender activists to adopt non-religious language. At the same time, they benefited from the French Catholic Church’s largess and infrastructure, which helped when it came time to organizing protests against marriage equality. While public opinion in France is strong for same-sex marriage, LMPT was able to capitalize on widespread discomfort with same-sex parenting to generate a moral panic around concerns for children, same-sex adoption, artificial insemination, and surrogacy.13
Given prevailing social opinions in France, the one thing activists couldn’t do was directly attack LGBTQ people. That is, if they were going to express their contempt for same-sex marriage, they couldn’t do so in homophobic terms. Because they were forced to be both secular and kind, they ended up with a positive campaign that, on its face, seemed benevolent. Who doesn’t want to protect the children?
The LMPT protests were striking: drawing in huge numbers of young people deploying “secular slogans with secular historical roots in the French popular imagination that appealed to a sense of French collective identity,” Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Tricou write.14 This distracted attention from the movement’s right-wing, anti-LGBTQ agenda. They even appropriated gay iconography, playing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”—arguably an LGBTQ anthem—at protests and rallies.
The campaign ultimately failed. Despite the outpouring of opposition, same-sex marriage and adoption remain legal in France. But this didn’t represent a loss for the larger movement. In fact, Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Tricou believe this was a turning point in French politics. La Manif Pour Tous became an official political party in 2015, and with that, France, that most secular of countries, succeeded in forming a political party with Catholic roots and a dedicated anti-“gender ideology” platform.
Threaded throughout the many country case studies highlighted in Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe is the suggestion that the abstractness of “gender ideology” is what makes it so effective in the global marketplace of ideas. It can easily be repackaged for any country context. The ingenuity of the anti-gender ideology formula is its malleability to appear secular in France, unapologetically Catholic in Poland, and anti-Muslim in Austria. All this while working to disarm human rights for women and LGBTQ people across the continent.
What does this mean for the United States? The message of the #FreeSpeechBus may have stalled on the streets of New York City, and “gender ideology” may not yet be on the average American’s radar, but that’s probably just a matter of time. The organizing issue for U.S. anti-gender ideology activists will likely be the rights and dignity of trans people—the very issue the #FreeSpeechBus raised last year at the United Nations.
U.S. Catholic leaders are already looking ahead. At the close of 2017, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops focused its end-of-the-year pastoral letter on the theme “Created Male and Female”:
We come together to join our voices on a more fundamental precept of our shared existence, namely, that human beings are male or female and that the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female…
Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt. The state itself has a compelling interest, therefore, in maintaining policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology and supporting the social institutions and norms that surround it.
This is one of the few times that the USCCB has addressed “gender ideology.” What makes the statement so remarkable is that it claims scientific certainty to demand government intervention to codify the Catholic “socio-cultural reality of gender.” The Trump Administration’s attempt to ban transgender people from enlisting in the U.S. military may or may not succeed, but the emerging U.S. anti-“gender ideology” movement—which could ensure it succeeds at a later point—is just getting started.⬛