We talked with the editors of the recently published book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilising Against Equality, Roman Kuhar (University of Ljubljana) and David Paternotte (Université Libre de Bruxelles).
After decades of progress in terms of gender and sexual rights, certain parts of Europe are facing a wave of resistance to the so-called "gender ideology" or "gender theory". This opposition is manifested in challenges to marriage equality, the right to abortion, reproductive technologies, sex education, liberalism, transgender rights, antidiscrimination policies and even the notion of gender itself.
The book examines how an academic concept of gender, when translated by religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, can become a mobilizing tool, but also the target of social movements. The authors whose texts are included in the book analyze the situation in 12 European countries in an effort to understand the sources of these mobilizations, their specific manifestations in different countries and their dissemination beyond national borders.
Recently, a public consultation on the draft law on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention was held in Croatia. The consultation was very – how shall I put it? – lively, and hundreds of people posted comments criticizing the Convention on the grounds that it promotes the 'unscientific' concept of gender and aims to forcefully introduce "gender ideology" into the Croatian society and legislation. But what exactly is "gender ideology"?
Roman: “Gender ideology” or, as it is sometimes referred to, “gender theory” and “genderismus” gives an impression that it designates gender studies or specific post-structural theories about gender, but in reality it is a fully made up term initially created to oppose women’s and LGBT rights activism as well as the scholarship deconstructing essentialist and naturalistic assumptions about gender and sexuality.
The anti-gender actors present “gender theory” as a hidden agenda of radical feminists and LGBT activist in order to destroy the world as we know it – motherhood, fatherhood, family, our children … well, just anything, I guess. Some authors stress out that gender ideology is a new type of Marxism, new ideology that “left-wingers” came up with on the ashes of a failed project – i.e. communism. It is explained as a neo-colonial project in which the decadent West will impose its gender delusion upon the rest of the world.
In fact, the meaning of “gender ideology” is rather fluid – it can refer to anything from marriage equality to abortion, sexual education in schools, transgender issues and so forth. Our colleagues Stefanie Mayer and Birgit Sauer, who wrote the Austrian chapter of the book, call it an “empty signifier” as it can be filled in with different, sometimes even opposing meanings and topics.
The emergence of this discourse is associated with the developments after the 1994 UN Conference on population and Development in Cairo and World conference on women in Beijing 1995. During these conferences, the Holy See actively protested against the term gender. Instead they tried to put forward the idea of “equal dignity” of men and women, rather than equal rights regardless of gender, but they were unsuccessful. From this point onwards – at first mostly in Vatican documents but later also beyond these religious circles – gender started to represent “a strategic vehicle” or even a hidden plan of radical feminists and radical homosexual activists.
The French organization La Manif Pour Tous holds a protest
How do you define anti-gender movements in your book?
David: We call this heterogeneous set of actors “anti-gender movements” to insist on the fact that they are united by their common opposition to what they call “gender ideology” or “gender theory”. We also want to emphasize that we don’t regard these campaigns as a new episode in a very long struggle, but as a new strategy, sometimes imagined by very old actors, to face new challenges. As such, anti-gender campaigns form a new family in conservative movements, and should not be amalgamated with older actors in that field. The label “anti-gender movement” also allows us to insist on the commonalities between these campaigns across borders, for there are still regarded too often as a national phenomenon (e.g. a French, Polish or Brazilian exception). These campaigns take specific forms in specific countries, but they all take part into something bigger.
The book provides a comparative overview of anti-gender movements and discusses their strategies and rhetorical tropes. What would you say are the key characteristics and strategies of these movements?
Roman: The main strategy seems to be the following one: partial facts are combined with fictitious constructions, then shaped into common-sense claims, continuously repeated both in mainstream media and particularly through their social media, and then, finally turned into “mobilizing truth”.
David: Indeed. The discourse is always the same and can be traced back to a few authors: O’ Leary, Anatrella, Kuby, Peeters, and Schooyans. Their arguments were assembled by the Vatican and later spread all over the world. Since then, they have been repeated endlessly, up to the point most people don’t identify their common origin. What strikes us is that, although national triggers vary, the discourse and the modes of mobilization that follow look alike across borders. For instance, in the book, we have collected the logos of these movements in Europe: actually, these logos follow only two models across the continent!
Logos of anti-gender organizations and initiatives from across Europe
Anti-gender activists often emphasize the need to protect children from corruptive or perverted influences and ideas. What is the function of fear and moral panics in the discourse of these movements?
Roman: The movement is successful as it appeals to anxieties of people about the future of their families and particularly children. It is a well-known formula that the easiest and the most effective way to start an episode of moral panic is to proclaim the weakest link of your group endangered. And the weakest link are always children. In a society, such as Slovenian, where the phenomenon of the so-called “protective childhood” is widespread, such ideas are easily spread also among younger generations of parents. On the other hand, Slovenian movement is also actively addressing grandparents, claiming that their rights over grandchildren are limited and that even same-sex couples have more rights in the process of adopting children. We have seen something similar in Italy, but not elsewhere.
Can you name some other factors that facilitated the spreading of the anti-gender movement?
Roman: The movement emerged during the economic crisis, and strict austerity measures in some countries additionally fueled the general dissatisfaction with the political and economic state of affairs and particularly with political and economic elites. The austerity measures were of course not the main catalyst for the movement, but they helped the movement a lot – also because the leaders of the movement successfully created the identity of majority as an oppressed identity in the face of corrupt elites.
There is another dimension that links the anti-gender movement to the economic crisis and particularly to the economic perspectives of young men: what is at the core of the anti-gender movement is not only a fear of loosing femininity, but also of loosing »proper masculinity« - and masculinity – understood in traditional terms of breadwinner – is closely connected to the economic possibilities of these men ... so in the context where there are no good economic perspective for anyone, but particularly young men, anti-gender movement can be very successful. With its focus on corrupt elites the anti-gender movement provided people with the promise of a better future. The future, however, is in the past: our societies, they claim, should return back to the natural order of things where men and women are equally respected, but are not equal.
Anti-gender movements usually present themselves as national ('homeland' or 'nation' is one of the most often invoked concepts), although it is quite clear that they're much bigger than that. In what ways do the ideas and modes of action used by these organizations and initiatives travel across borders?
Roman: It is true that anti-gender protests are not single national phenomena. These movements display numerous similarities across borders, starting with their logos: with few exceptions the logo always features a silhouette of a “traditional family” – a mother, a father and two children – of opposite sex, of course. What is also interesting is that the East-West divide does not have a major explanatory power, for the basic “discursive and strategic alphabet” is the same across Europe.
David: These discourses all come from a single origin: the Vatican and the conservative fringes of the Roman Catholic Church. These campaigns, however, are not organized from a single office in Rome, but gather all sorts of actors at national level today. At least two forms of diffusion can be identified. Activists are looking at each other across borders. They see what works and copy it in their own country. This is how specific modes of action have traveled across Europe, such as some posters or slogans. On the other hand, these actors are increasingly connected across borders, both through formal organisations such as the World Congress of Families, and informal ties and exchanges. Information and strategies are also elaborated and shared through these transnational connections.
The Slovenian Civil Initiative for the Family and Children's Rights collecting signatures for the referendum on the Family Act
You say that "the relative success of these mobilizations cannot be understood without acknowledging the intersections between the Vatican’s concerns about 'gender ideology' and the current wave of right-wing populism taking place in Europe." What is the relationship between the two? Following on that, to what extent is the rise of anti-gender movements the result of a failure of progressive politics, as some claim?
Roman: We believe we should not mix up anti-gender movements and right-wing populism. Historically, these are two separate projects, although nowadays there seem to be a lot of intersections between the two. Gender theory as a buzzword started to catch up and received mainstream attention around 2012, 2013 … particularly during the French protests by Manif pour tous against marriage equality. But this was not a specifically French phenomenon as similar protests took place before - starting with Spain in 2005, followed by the Family Day in Italy in 2007, then there were protests in Slovenia around 2010 and organized protests against sex education in Croatia around the same time. In Poland gender ideology emerged around debates on gender violence and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, and, of course, in Slovakia gender was one of the keywords during their referendum campaign in 2015.
The success of these initiatives around Europe resulted in new non-religious actors taking over the idea of “gender ideology” as they could profit on the success of these movements for their specific goals, which could be in line with anti-gender movement or not (for example, in case of populist right-wing anti-immigration protests).
The anti-gender movement includes actors that go beyond religious affiliations and we can see a complex constellations of actors in each country. In fact – as stressed by Eszter Kováts and Maari Põim – the vague notion of “gender ideology” is a symbolic glue that makes cooperation between different actors possible, despite their numerous differences. Gender ideology is a common framework that squeezes different discourse into one big threat that different actors can connect to.
Seeing as anti-gender activists have co-opted the human rights rhetoric and many of the tactics used by civil society organizations, how can we oppose them? What counter-strategies do you propose, and how do you see these movements developing in the future?
Roman: I don't think we have any good solutions so far. This was also not the goal of our book – to provide recipes, etc. But the starting point is a better knowledge of these groups and how they function, and this is what we wanted to do with this book. Most probably the strategies cannot be the same across all different cultural and political contexts in Europe. In Slovenia, for example, LGBT activists tried to oppose anti-gender discourses twice during both referendums on marriage equality, but they did not succeed. During the first referendum campaign they tried to oppose it with rational, even scientific discourse, but it turned out that populist discourse is more effective when it comes to referendum campaigns. During the second referendum, they engaged into a more populist presentation of the topic – they focused on love and personal stories, but it turned out that fear, started by the anti-gender movement, was a stronger and more effective mobilizing tool.
However, the outcome of both referenda – much like in Croatia – was a quick adoption of nearly marriage-like legislation for same-sex couples. That kind of legislation could have been adopted years before, but it needed the exaggeration and populism of anti-gender movement to finally push some politicians to do all the way through with same-sex partnership legislation. I am not trying to say that anti-gender movement is good for the progressive policies, but sometimes it can be a tab on the balance.
David: Anti-gender movements are made of a very heterogeneous set of actors who would never have collaborated a few years ago. So we need to better understand how these different actors – conservative Catholics, far right activists, populists, etc. – can suddenly find a common ground and join forces. This is true these are well resourced and well structured. However, we should not overestimate their strength. They have also their conflicts, and this may be one of our strategies. In recent months, some progressive actors have fallen into despair. I think we shouldn’t. This is not the end of the world. What is new is that issues related to gender and sexual rights have become more contested and probably more polarized in many European societies. Having said this, the future remains open and therefore a field for struggle.