The “gender ideology” rhetoric that has taken root in Latin America and Eastern Europe resorts to vitriolic rhetoric to describe and “unveil” plots and conspiracies that frequently include the destruction of the family and the moral fabric of society.
In recent years, LGBT+ organisations in Latin America have had to deal with an increased level of organising by conservative groups and political parties. Resistance against any progress on sexual and gender diversity has always existed in the region, but social, legal, and political victories achieved by LGBT+ organisations in the last two decades are now being confronted with an intensified wave of detraction. One of the most salient aspects of this renewed resistance is the way in which detractors use carefully drafted discursive techniques that rely on catchy terms and oversimplistic expressions to capture and encompass a wide array of social issues and ideas they systematically oppose.
Indeed, one of the most notable expressions that has gained popularity in recent years is that of “gender ideology”. This expression has become one of the most common tools and political vectors to counter, reject, and vilify any initiative intending to promote equal rights for women and LGBT people. Even though it was coined by the Catholic Church in the 90s, the expression has also been embraced —and strategically exploited— by other Christian conservative and religious organisations, especially evangelical churches. As a matter of fact, groups and churches that had antagonised or had been reluctant to engage in ecumenical dialogue in the past appear now to have found common ground in their fight against this so-called “ideology”.
As Cynthia Rothschild points out, the “gender ideology” rhetoric that has taken root in Latin America and Eastern Europe resorts to vitriolic rhetoric to describe and “unveil” plots and conspiracies that frequently include the destruction of the family and the moral fabric of society. While fully ideological, these ideas are presented as “objective” notions supposedly detached of any “ideology”. In this way, promoters speak of “traditional values”, “life” and “the family” (in singular) as the core values they intend to defend from the menace posed by feminists or the global “homosexual lobby” under the logics of social enmity.
There is considerable nuance and variation in how local groups align with these ideas and how they frame them under their local political settings and circumstances. While some may fully hinge on religion, others frame so-called “gender ideology” as a plot deployed by “neo-Marxists”—which in turn appeals to sentiments of a foreign oppression that needs to be fought back and quashed, as was usually the narrative with international communist plots during the Cold War. In some contexts, nationalism strongly comes into play as well. As one of many examples, in a peculiar combination of many of these elements, the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Panama formally protested the raising of a rainbow flag in a central public square because “gender ideology” contravened the country’s history and the values of the Panamanian people.
Those who oppose the so-called “gender ideology” frequently resort to stir anxiety and fear in their audiences by spreading distorted and fake news supposedly revealing the “hidden agendas” of the social movements they oppose. To cite only a few common examples, they speak of the “genocide” or the “mass murder” of unborn babies when referring to abortion laws, to the plot to “pervert” and “confuse” children when speaking about comprehensive sexuality education, and sometimes the “new world order” is mentioned as the ultimate aim of those pulling the strings of this “global stratagem.”
The election of the first Latin American Roman Catholic Pope —the Argentine cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio— has also given new thrust to the idea that “gender ideology” needs to be resisted and combatted in the region. Even though Pope Francis has been portrayed by the media as “progressive” —and even “gay-friendly”, especially after he pronounced his now famous phrase “who am I to judge?”— his stance against the so-called “gender ideology” has not changed the least bit since he arrived in the Vatican. On the contrary, Bergoglio has repeatedly spoken of an “ideological colonization” that aims to defy God’s creation by erasing the differences between men and women and has also referred to “gender ideology” as something “wicked” by nature. Much of this language has been picked up by churches and other religious groups throughout Latin American. In a much celebrated document (technically called “apostolic exhortation”), the Pope himself has written on how same-sex couples do not “remotely” resemble God’s plan for a family and, in 2019, a whole document issued by the Vatican entitled “Male and Female He Created Them” once again reinforced the idea that trans identities and the lived experience of trans and gender diverse people do not align with God’s creation.
In the last few years, several right-wing administrations have openly endorsed these views and have adopted an outright hostile attitude towards any effort or initiative to promote equality for women or sexual and gender diversity. In several countries many supporters of these ideas have managed to effectively strategise to win elected positions in local and national legislatures. In Brazil, for instance, there is the so-called “evangelical bench”, integrated by more than 70 MPs that have either systematically introduced bills to dismantle LGBT-related legal victories or have consistently blocked progressive initiatives introduced by other MPs in the federal congress.
Also in Brazil, the election of president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 is yet another example of how right-wing parties that support the battle against the so-called “gender ideology” have been successful in gaining access to power and key decision-making positions in general. Bolsonaro’s well-known anti-LGBT stance was present in much of his presidential campaign and has continued after he took office. He has since appointed ministers and officials that are openly hostile to LGBT issues, including his minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, an evangelical pastor who upon being installed in her position proclaimed: “A new era is starting: Boys wear blue and girls wear pink!” Bolsonaro himself would reinforce his position on the matter in 2019 stating that “gender ideology” is “something of the devil”. He also justified several attempts to censor LGBT-related content as efforts to “preserve Christian values” and further describedfunding for LGBT-related screenplays as “throwing money away”. The effects of these disparaging statements cannot be underestimated in a country where levels of violence and attacks against LGBT people, especially trans women, is extremely high. These messages can easily legitimise hostility and violence perpetrated both by state officials and individuals.
Despite being one of the most prominent examples, Brazil is certainly not the only country where the notion of this so-called “gender ideology” has played a role in the political arena. In Colombia, conservative politicians stirring anxiety about the alleged “encryption” of “gender ideology” in the Peace Agreements of 2016 led to the victory of the “no” in the referendum organised to validate them by popular vote. This setback negatively impacted the peace process in general and the way in which the agreements deal with sexual and gender diversity in particular. In Costa Rica, building upon the local backlash generated by the Inter-American Court’s Advisory Opinion No. 24, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, a devout evangelical, received high levels of support in the 2018 presidential campaign while promising to repeal legal protections enacted in favour of LGBT people in the country. He was proudly presented as a defender against “gender ideology” and his views against same-sex marriage were a key element of his platform.
The right to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) appears to be one of the most intensively fought battlefronts by religious and conservative groups. Discussions around the protection of this human right —and any plan to implement public policies— tend to involve many of the false allegations outlined above, especially the ones related to “gender ideology” as a plot to eliminate all differences between genders, to generate confusion among children and to expose them to pornography, masturbation and early sexual initiation.
In Colombia, the materials prepared by the Ministry of Education in 2016 to address prejudice against sexual diversity in school curricula were confronted with unprecedented resistance from evangelical and conservative groups. These materials had been produced in partnership with UNFPA for the government to comply with a decision issued by the Constitutional Court in the case of Sergio Urrego, a gay teenager who committed suicide after being bullied because of his sexual orientation. Detractors organised demonstrations to protest against the “promotion of homosexuality” and the indoctrination in “gender ideology” among schoolchildren and the materials were eventually withdrawn.
In Peru, the organisation “Con mis hijos no te metas” (a Spanish expression for “don’t mess with my children”) vocally opposed a reform to the education curriculum that included CSE, again alleging that it promoted the indoctrination of children in “gender ideology”. The organisation gathered strong support from numerous Christian groups and organised massive demonstrations in Lima. In the following years, local branches of this group would be opened in other countries of Latina America, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and El Salvador.
In 2018, opposition to Law No. 61 on Sexuality Education led to large demonstrations in Panama. In El Salvador similar marches were organised under the motto “rescuing our values”. On that same year, the Argentine chapter of “Con mis hijos no te metas” led the opposition to an amendment to the Law on CSE that would have equalised the curricula imparted in all schools in the country, including public and private institutions. Arguments revolved around the alleged violation of parental rights and the “indoctrination” of children with “unscientific” ideas about sexuality.
Strategies followed thus far have not only consisted in blocking any laws attempting to implement CSE but have also included initiatives to explicitly prohibit the dissemination of so-called “gender ideology”. In 2017, the Ministry of Education and Sciences of Paraguay issued a resolution prohibiting the dissemination and use of educational materials referring to “gender theory and/or ideology”. In line with this normative backtracking, the minister of education called for the “burning of books with gender ideology” and the Paraguayan mission before the Organisation of American States (OAS) became one of the main supporters of anti-rights groups and positions before the organisation. In Brazil, two local districts (Novo Gama and Foz do Iguacu) enacted similar bans on so-called “gender ideology”. Even though these norms have been recently struck down by the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court, Bolsonaro promised to introduce a bill to prohibit “gender ideology” nationwide. In Guatemala, Bill 52/72 (“A bill to protect life and the family”) contains provisions that would explicitly enshrine the right to “refuse to accept as normal any non-heterosexual act, sexual diversity or gender ideology” [sic].
One particularly obnoxious initiative promoted by the organisation CitizenGo in several countries in the region was the so-called “Bus of Freedom” (also called the “free speech bus”). An orange bus with legends urging people not to be “tricked” into believing other than “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” was deployed in Chile, Mexico, and Colombia. In June 2017, the bus arrived in Cancun where the Organisation of American States (OAS) was holding its 47th General Assembly, and even though the plan was to park it in front of the building where the meetings were taking place, by order of the Mexican government, the bus had to park far away from the official access.
These are only but a few examples of how the use of the “gender ideology” framework has been used to raise fear and anxiety about —and therefore gather support against— equal rights for LGBT people across the region and how religious ideas have found a new way of gaining relevance in seemingly secular discussions. Even more, in certain fora, those who counter equality initiatives by labelling them as “gender ideology” have refined their tactics and highjacked the human rights discourse by basing their positions on questionable constructions of the rights to religious freedom and the right of parents to raise their children under the moral values of their choosing. The idea of “conscientious objection”, which matches the notion of “religious exceptions” discussed in several Global North countries, is also among the strategies used by these groups to combat family planning policies and to legitimise other forms of discrimination that would otherwise be illegal under existing legal frameworks.
In this context, grassroot and regional organisations are facing an unprecedented number of challenges that have only increased with the onset of the CODIV-19 pandemic. Actually, while having to deal with difficulties as basic as securing access to food and shelter amidst lockdown measures, organisations will require robust strategies to effectively engage and deal with many of the additional challenges posed by the promoters of the so-called “gender ideology”. In these uncertain times, it is hard to say to what extent this new wave of detraction will gain momentum and become a major obstacle for any further progress in the region, or whether in a few years’ time we will be able to say that most of the fake news and the distorted ideas of this so-called “gender ideology” have been effectively debunked.
Lucas Ramón Mendos is a lawyer, lecturer and researcher specialized in international human rights law and sexual and gender diversity issues. He currently serves as ILGA World’s Research Coordinator. He has worked as an attorney with the LGBTI Rapporteurship of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Williams Institute. He also served as an adviser on SOGIESC issues to the Human Rights Secretariat and as a defence attorney for asylum seekers in Argentina.