In June, the Hungarian parliament voted overwhelmingly to eliminate from public schools all teaching related to “homosexuality and gender change”, associating LGBTQI rights and education with pedophilia and totalitarian cultural politics. In late May, Danish MPs passed a resolution against “excessive activism” in academic research environments, including gender studies, race theory, postcolonial and immigration studies in their list of culprits. In December 2020, the supreme court in Romania struck down a law that would have forbidden the teaching of “gender identity theory” but the debate there rages on. Trans-free spaces in Poland have been declared by transphobes eager to purify Poland of corrosive cultural influences from the US and the UK. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention in March sent shudders through the EU, since one of its main objections was the inclusion of protections for women and children against violence, and this “problem” was linked to the foreign word, “gender”.
The attacks on so-called “gender ideology” have grown in recent years throughout the world, dominating public debate stoked by electronic networks and backed by extensive rightwing Catholic and evangelical organizations. Although not always in accord, these groups concur that the traditional family is under attack, that children in the classroom are being indoctrinated to become homosexuals, and that “gender” is a dangerous, if not diabolical, ideology threatening to destroy families, local cultures, civilization, and even “man” himself.
It is not easy to fully reconstruct the arguments used by the anti-gender ideology movement because they do not hold themselves to standards of consistency or coherence. They assemble and launch incendiary claims in order to defeat what they see as “gender ideology” or “gender studies” by any rhetorical means necessary. For instance, they object to “gender” because it putatively denies biological sex or because it undermines the natural or divine character of the heteronormative family. They fear that men will lose their dominant positions or become fatally diminished if we start thinking along gender lines. They believe that children are being told to change genders, are actively recruited by gay and trans people, or pressured to declare themselves as gay in educational settings where an open discourse about gender is caricatured as a form of indoctrination. And they worry that if something called “gender” is socially accepted, a flood of sexual perversities, including bestiality and pedophilia, will be unleashed upon the earth.
Although nationalist, transphobic, misogynist, and homophobic, the principal aim of the movement is to reverse progressive legislation won in the last decades by both LGBTQI and feminist movements. Indeed, in attacking “gender” they oppose reproductive freedom for women and the rights of single parents; they oppose protections for women against rape and domestic violence; and they deny the legal and social rights of trans people along with a full array of legal and institutional safeguards against gender discrimination, forced psychiatric internment, brutal physical harassment and killing. All this fervor ramped up during a pandemic time in which domestic abuse has soared and queer and trans kids have been deprived of their spaces for gathering in life-supporting communities.
Gender studies does not deny sex; it asks how sex is established, through what medical and legal frameworks
It is easy enough to debunk and even ridicule many of the claims that are made against gender studies or gender identity, since they are based on thin caricatures, and often verge on the phantasmagoric. If it matters (and let’s hope it still does), there is no one concept of gender, and gender studies is a complex and internally diverse field that includes a wide range of scholars. It does not deny sex, but it does tend to ask about how sex is established, through what medical and legal frameworks, how that has changed through time, and what difference it makes to the social organization of our world to disconnect the sex assigned at birth from the life that follows, including matters of work and love.
We generally think of sex assignment as happening once, but what if it is a complex and revisable process, reversible in time for those who have been wrongly assigned? To argue this way is not to take a position against science, but only to ask how science and law enter into the social regulation of identity. “But there are two sexes!” Generally, yes, but even the ideals of dimorphism that govern our everyday conceptions of sex are in many ways disputed by science as well as the intersex movement, which has shown how vexed and consequential sex assignment can be.
To ask questions about gender, that is, how society is organized according to gender, and with what consequences for understanding bodies, lived experience, intimate association, and pleasure, is to engage in a form of open inquiry and investigation, opposing the dogmatic social positions that seek to stop and reverse emancipatory change. And yet, “gender studies” is opposed as “dogma” by those who understand themselves on the side of “critique”.
One could go on at length to explain the various methodologies and debates within gender studies, the complexity of scholarship, and the recognition it has received as a dynamic field of study throughout the world, but that would require a commitment to education on the part of the reader and listener. Given that most of these opponents refuse to read any material that might contradict their beliefs or cherrypick from complex texts to support a caricature, how is one to proceed?
Still others claim that the very concept of “gender” is an attack on Christianity (or, in some countries, traditional Islam), and accuse the proponents of “gender” of discriminating against their religious beliefs. And yet, the significant field of gender and religion suggests that the enemies do not come from the outside, and that the dogma is to be found on the side of the censors.
For this reactionary movement, the term “gender” attracts, condenses, and electrifies a diverse set of social and economic anxieties produced by increasing economic precarity under neoliberal regimes, intensifying social inequality, and pandemic shutdown. Stoked by fears of infrastructural collapse, anti-migrant anger and, in Europe, the fear of losing the sanctity of the heteronormative family, national identity and white supremacy, many insist that the destructive forces of gender, postcolonial studies, and critical race theory are to blame. When gender is thus figured as a foreign invasion, these groups clearly reveal that they are in the business of nation-building. The nation for which they are fighting is built upon white supremacy, the heteronormative family, and a resistance to all critical questioning of norms that have clearly restricted the freedoms and imperiled the lives of so many people.
The vanishing of social services under neoliberalism has put pressure on the traditional family to provide care work, as many feminists have rightly argued. In turn, the fortification of patriarchal norms within the family and the state has become, for some, imperative in the face of decimated social services, unpayable debt, and lost income. It is against this background of anxiety and fear that “gender” is portrayed as a destructive force, a foreign influence infiltrating the body politic and destabilizing the traditional family.
Indeed, gender comes to stand for, or is linked with, all kinds of imagined “infiltrations” of the national body – migrants, imports, the disruption of local economics through the effects of globalization. Thus “gender” becomes a phantom, sometimes specified as the “devil” itself, a pure force of destruction threatening God’s creation (not, I gather, climate change, which would be a much more likely candidate). Such a phantasm of destructive power can only be subdued through desperate appeals to nationalism, anti-intellectualism, censorship, expulsion, and more strongly fortified borders. One reason, then, we need gender studies more than ever is to make sense of this reactionary movement.
The anti-gender ideology movement crosses borders, linking organizations in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and east Asia. The opposition to “gender” is voiced by governments as diverse as Macron’s France and Duda’s Poland, circulating in rightwing parties in Italy, showing up on major electoral platforms in Costa Rica and Colombia, boisterously proclaimed by Bolsonaro in Brazil, and responsible for closing gender studies in several locations, most infamously at the European University in Budapest in 2017 before it relocated to Vienna.
In Germany and throughout eastern Europe “genderism” is likened to “communism” or to “totalitarianism”. In Poland, more than one hundred regions have declared themselves “anti-LGBT zones”, criminalizing an open public life for anyone perceived as belonging to those categories, forcing young people to leave the country or go underground. These reactionary flames have been fanned by the Vatican, which has proclaimed “gender ideology” “diabolical”, calling it a form of “colonizing imperialism” originating in the north and raising fears about the “inculcation” of “gender ideology” in the schools.
Anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support authoritarian governments
According to Agnieszka Graff, co-author with Elzbieta Korolczuk of Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment, the networks amplifying and circulating the anti-gender viewpoint include the International Organization for the Family, which boasts thousands of participants at its conferences and the online Platform CitizenGo, founded in Spain, which mobilizes people against lectures, exhibitions, and political candidates who defend LGBTQI rights. They claim to have more than 9 million followers, ready to mobilize at an instant (they mobilized against me in Brazil in 2018 when a furious crowd burned the effigy of my “likeness” outside the venue where I was to speak). The third is Agenda Europe, consisting of more than 100 organizations, which casts gay marriage, trans rights, reproductive freedom, and LGBTQI anti-discrimination efforts as assaults on Christianity.
Anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments. The inconsistency of their arguments and their equal opportunity approach to rhetorical strategies of the left and right, produce a confusing discourse for some, a compelling one for others. But they are typical of fascist movements that twist rationality to suit hyper-nationalist aims.
They insist that “gender” is an imperialist construct, that it is an “ideology” now being imposed on local cultures of the global south, spuriously drawing on the language of liberation theology and decolonial rhetoric. Or, as the rightwing Italian group Pro Vita maintains, “gender” intensifies the social effects of capitalism whereas the traditional heteronormative family is the last bulwark against social disintegration and anomic individualism. All this seems to follow from the very existence of LGBTQI people, their families, marriages, intimate associations, and ways of living outside the traditional family and their rights to their own public existence. It follows as well from feminist legal claims to reproductive freedom, feminist demands to end sexual violence as well as the economic and social discrimination against women.
At the same time, opponents of “gender” seek recourse to the Bible to defend their views about the natural hierarchy between men and women and the distinctive values of masculine and feminine (although progressive theologians have pointed out that these are based on debatable readings of biblical texts). Assimilating the Bible to natural law doctrine, they claim that assigned sex is divinely declared, suggesting that contemporary biologists and medical doctors are curiously in the service of 13th-century theology.
It does not matter that chromosomal and endocrinological differences complicate the binarism of sex and that sex assignment is revisable. The anti-gender advocates claim that “gender ideologists” deny the material differences between men and women, but their materialism quickly devolves into the assertion that the two sexes are timeless “facts”. The anti-gender movement is not a conservative position with a clear set of principles. No, as a fascist trend, it mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces. It does not strive for consistency, for its incoherence is part of its power.
In his well-known list of the elements of fascism, Umberto Eco writes, “the fascist game can be played in many forms,” for fascism is “a collage … a beehive of contradictions”. Indeed, this perfectly describes anti-gender ideology today. It is a reactionary incitement, an incendiary bundle of contradictory and incoherent claims and accusations. They feast off the very instability they promise to contain, and their own discourse only delivers more chaos. Through a spate of inconsistent and hyperbolic claims, they concoct a world of multiple imminent threats to make the case for authoritarian rule and censorship.
This form of fascism manifests instability even as it seeks to ward off the “destabilization” of the social order brought about by progressive politics. The opposition to “gender” often merges with anti-migrant furor and fear, which is why it is often, in Christian contexts, merged with Islamophobia. Migrants, too, are figured as “infiltrating”, engaging in “criminal” acts even as they exercise their rights of passage under international law. In the imaginary of the anti-gender ideology advocates, “gender” is like an unwanted migrant, an incoming stain, but also, at the same time, a colonizer or totalitarian who must be thrown off. It mixes right and left discourses at will.
As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress.
That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.
Judith Butler is visiting distinguished professor of philosophy at the New School University. Butler’s latest book is The Force of Nonviolence (Verso)