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”Anti-Gender” movement. Why has gender become an issue?

October 14, 2021

This article is based on the master’s thesis research “Anti-gender movement and political response. The case of Romania”, presented by Carmen Radu/Front Association in September 2019, at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Political Science Department.

What is “gender ideology”? 

The “war on gender ideology” could be schematically defined as a social movement against a broader area of progressive politics: women’s rights and LGBT rights, education for gender equality, sexual education in schools, reproductive rights, gendered-based violence, civil partnership, same-sex marriage, gender related legislation. Gender is employed here as a “symbolic glue” for conservative politics, with the current mobilization being considered a “cover up for fostering a deeper and profound change in the European political and value system”.

Anti-gender campaigning is being visible all over Europe, coming from a powerful transnational movement mobilized against the term “gender”. Such an anti-gender concept was inexistent and unthinkable some years ago. This current mobilization is against the concept of “gender” as an ideology proposing a cultural revolution threatening the “traditional family” and “natural masculinity and femininity”.

It seems goals previously enjoying a wide acceptance (such as arriving to full gender equality) and considered on an irreversible path are starting to be shadowed by the anti-gender movement happening across many European countries, such as Croatia, Germany, Italy, France, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

When did gender start to become an issue?

The term “gender ideology” was first employed by the Vatican in 1994 and 1995, after the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and The Fourth International Women’s Conference in Beijing. These events moved forward the agenda for women empowerment and reproductive health, which went against the Catholic Church position, who explained their negotiating defeat by coining the “gender ideology” explanation as a project trying to dissolve sexual differences and start a cultural revolution that undermines the importance of the family as a natural bond between a man and a woman and the only safe space where sexuality issues could be addressed.

But the actual anti-gender movement and campaigning started to be visible in the next decades. Researchers have managed to draw the chronology of events, showing its quick and simultaneous development in several countries. In Germany, “marches for life” (against abortion) were gaining visibility in 2008. In Hungary, a progressive law by the leftist government on gender equality education in kindergartens was changed by the conservative government in 2010 after public pressure. In Spain, protests occurred in 2010 against a law decriminalizing abortion that was met with opposition from the Church and pro-life groups. In 2011 in France, right-wing MPs asked the Education Minister to remove gender notions from school books. Also in 2011, Slovakia faced backlash to developing a human rights strategy, as conservatives and Church members considered it to be spreading “gender ideology”. In 2012 the new Constitution of Hungary banned same-sex marriage and stated that human life starts at the conception. The same year, on the account of using the term “gender”, Poland started to backlash legislation that would protect women against violence. The heated discussions caused Polish people to declare “gender” as the word of the year in 2013.

Researchers point out to 2012 as the birth year for public visibility for anti-gender movement, when “La Manif pour tous” against same-sex marriage in France took Europe by surprise, in a country where sexual liberation was already considered a victory. Massive protests were organized for nearly two years, which paved the way for similar movements starting to shape in other countries too, almost simultaneously (Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia or Slovakia).

After 2012, the backlash was strengthened by the powerful involvement of the Church. Bishops in Slovakia criticized gender equality as being the fight against traditional families formed between a man and a woman – they fear that gender policies imply a free choice for one’s sexuality, thus overcoming the biological gender. In many CEE countries, bishops and priests start reading anti-gender content in churches.

How did the anti-gender movement become political?

Although there is consensus among researchers regarding the international scope of the anti-gender movement and its implications in political systems, the causes and effects of such a movement are not obvious. Explanations could come, simultaneously or independently, from the existence of populist parties, a weak progressive movement, the lack of a meaningful left-wing movement, the crisis of the neoliberalist agenda and even a crisis of liberal democracy.

The transnational mobilization has a local flavor concerning their used strategies. Either attacking a specific policy proposal (wide ranging from tackling violence against women or sex education in schools) or as “a form of prophylaxis” against future policies - mostly in the area of same-sex marriage where any progressive attempts were prevented before crystalizing into policies, as seen with referendums organized in many CEE countries.

In the years following their mobilizations, actors like conservative and religious NGOs, right-wing parties, Church members, have managed to reach thousands of people, to put pressure on politicians to stop progressive laws and even to change constitutions.

Besides national input, an important battlefield against “gender” are European institutions, pointing to the political influence of this movement and its transnational influence. There is a growing concern in the European Parliament that this backlash is endangering advances in ensuring access to human rights for women and girls and slowing down the path towards gender equality in Europe. The power of conservative lobbyists was visible numerous times in the latest years, when important proposals by the European Parliament were even met with aggressive email campaigning against their authors, such as MP Edit Estrela, the author of Estrela report from 2013 on sexual and reproductive rights, which was not adopted due to the powerful reactions against it. The Lunacek report on homophobia and discrimination of sexual orientation was met with the same mobilization in 2014. Or the Tarabella report in 2015 on progress on gender equality.

What strategies does the anti-gender movement use?

This combination between a populist style and conservative right-wing claims has made anti-gender campaigning successful all over Europe. Gender thus became a “Trojan horse” for covering up much more than fighting gender equality and minority rights – anti-gender threatens liberal democracy.

Researchers have addressed the political foundation of this movement by identifying the use of populism as style and conservative right-wing as claims. It is well accepted that populism has this capacity to be combined with other ideological directions. By using referendums and public petitions, anti-gender activists claim to give a voice back to the people. In some countries, campaigners are coming from governing political parties, transforming anti-gender into a state policy.

Referendums to ban same-sex marriage from constitution started to be organized, all using the same recipe: conservative and religious NGOs spread their ideas against “gender ideology” as a threat to families and national identities, then gather signatures from the people, then pressure politicians to organize the referendums. And in many cases, they receive support from politicians. In 2013, Croatia banned same-sex marriage from the Constitution after a referendum. In Slovenia, a progressive bill that would have made the country to be the first in the region to allow same-sex marriage, was rejected with a referendum in 2015. Still in 2015, Slovakia organized a referendum on families, which was invalidated because of low turn-out. The same situation as in Romania, the referendum for families from 2018 was also invalidated due to a low presence.

But although there are transnational perspectives and similarities, there are local differences in the actors or the used strategies. In some countries, the Church is playing a crucial role in feeding this movement (Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia), while in others it’s the right-wing populist parties that are driving the movement (Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Spain). Or a combination of both (Poland and Bulgaria).

To further develop the analysis on how anti-gender campaigners managed to position themselves as political actors, it’s worth mentioning a programmatic document that came into light in 2013, which shows how the movement is being organized. “Restoring the natural order: an agenda for Europe” is issued by a pan-European advocacy network supported by the Catholic Church, building a clear strategy for backlash against existing legislation on human rights in the areas of reproduction, sexuality, discrimination, LGBT issues. Agenda Europe strategy includes identifying distinct themes and specific legislation that they could change or initiate, all in the name of fighting “gender ideology”.

The normative framework of their claims: the world is based on a Natural Law, which human beings cannot change, but that is being challenged by the cultural/sexual/feminist revolution “dissociating sex from its primary function of procreation”, which will bring about the end of Western civilization and Christianity, unless we make urgent changes in areas such as marriage, family, the protection of life, equality and non-discrimination policies.

This is the normative framework on which the anti-gender movement is based. Derived from the Church’s philosophy and teachings, it invokes dystopian, hyperbolic and fear-inducing metaphors that are being instrumentalized by a populist and conservative agenda.

The movement’s strategy is to reframe and twist gender discourse and gender norms, as part of a broader strategy to influence political decisions. Agenda Europe document details this strategy as follows:

-        Play the victim: using the weapons of the opponents against them (LGBT or feminist movements that are fighting against oppression and discrimination) and turning religious people as the real victims of this cultural revolution.

-        “We have rights too”: anti-gender issues are reframed as rights (for example, the right of parents to get involved in the education of their children).

-        No frontal attack on progressive actors, but attack institutions/policies/declarations: this strategy is best visible in the backlash towards the Istanbul Convention, national constitutions and other pieces of progressive legislation.

-        Become respectable and presentable at national and international level, in order to gain access to key positions in political institutions and access to funding.

 What could progressive actors do to prevent such backlash?

This well-organized and well-planned strategy has taken progressive actors by surprise. Ever since the movement has become more vocal and has gained more political power, some researchers have started to analyze and evaluate progressive responses in order to come up with the right reactions that would limit anti-gender influence.

The direct result of anti-gender campaigning has been policy backsliding in some countries, with researchers identifying multiple dimensions, such as reframing existing policies, undermining their implementation or (de)legitimizing discursively their objectives.

The fight seems unequal and disproportionate. Progressive actors lack access to funding and are facing overall hostile reactions from institutions while the media usually ignores their campaigns. This is the reason why researchers include among their recommendations for progressive action that European institutions and political actors should provide funding for further research and for developing the needed platforms that progressives could use for a more efficient mobilizing.

Anti-gender campaigning seems to find a fertile ground in a conservative, populist environment. Nevertheless, progressive efforts from the feminist and LGBT organizations may delay or prevent backlash.

 List of references

Datta, Niel, 2018: «Restoring the Natural Order»: The religious extremists’ vision to mobilize European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction, The European Parliamentary Forum on Population & Development. EPF is a network of members of parliaments from across Europe who are committed to protecting the sexual and reproductive health of the world’s most vulnerable people. Retrieved from: https://www.epfweb.org/node/689

European Parliament 2013: Policies for sexuality education in the European Union. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/note/join/2013/462515/IPOL-FEMM_NT(2013)462515_EN.pdf

Grzebalska, Weronika, 2016: Why the war on “gender ideology” matters-and not just to feminists: Antigenderism, Visegrad Insight. Retrieved from: http://visegradinsight.eu/why-the-war-on-gender-ideology-matters-and-not-just-to-feminists/

Grzebalska, Weronika, and Soós, Eszter, 2016: Conservatives vs. the “Culture of Death”: How progressives handled the war on “gender”? Brussels: FEPS Young Academics Network

Juhasz, Borbala and Pap, Eniko, 2018: Backlash in Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Rights, European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/supporting-analyses

Kováts, Eszter and Põim, Maari, 2015: Gender as symbolic glue. The position and role of conservative and far right parties in the anti-gender mobilization in Europe, FEPS – Foundation for European Progressive Studies in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Krizsan, Andrea and Roggeband, Conny, 2018: Towards a Conceptual Framework for Struggles over Democracy in Backsliding States: Gender Equality Policy in Central Eastern Europe, Politics and Governance, Volume 6, Issue 3, Pages 90–100

Kuhar, Roman; Zobec, Aleš, 2017: The anti-gender movement in Europe and the educational process in public schools, CEPS Journal 7 (2017) 2, S. 29-46

Kuhar, Roman. and Paternotte, David., 2017: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilising Against Inequality. London: Rowan & Littlefield International

Paternotte, David and Kuhar, Roman, 2018: Disentangling and Locating the «Global Right»: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe, Politics and Governance, Volume 6, Issue 3, Pages 6–19

Roggeband, Conny and Krizsán, Andrea, 2018: Reversing gender policy progress: patterns of backsliding in Central and Eastern European new democracies, European Journal of Politics and Gender. Information cited from a paper presented by the authors at the General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research, Oslo, 2017. Retrieved from:  https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/7a8826f1-2907-447c-8a4f-85ee2b1d8c84.pdf (p.26)

Zacharenko, Elena. 2016: Perspectives on anti-choice lobbying in Europe. Study for policy makers on opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe. Study commissioned by Heidi Hautala, Member of the European Parliament and Co-Chair of the European Parliament Working Group on Reproductive Heath, HIV/AIDS and Development. Retrieved from: http://www.heidihautala.fi/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/SRHR-Europe-Study-_-Elena-Zacharenco.pdf

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