What are Anti-Gender Movements?
Trigger warning: this article discusses sexual violence, abortion and homophobia. Please feel free to skip if you find these topics triggering.
In this article we will be talking about anti-gender movements: what they are, their influence on legislation surrounding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and abortion in Poland, Hungary and Brazil, and why their actions harm women and marginalised communities. We will also look at how to counter their rhetoric by combatting fake news and speaking up for people’s rights.
What are anti-gender movements?
Anti-gender movements conflate sex (biology) and gender (a ‘learned behaviour’). This reinforces traditional gender roles and discriminates against women and marginalised genders.
Such movements are based all over the world. They may include ultra-conservative religious actors and NGOs.
According to this article, funding for anti-gender movements totalled $707.2 million in Europe between 2009-2018. Much of this funding comes from the US and Russia and their respective elites. Often, anti-gender campaigns also act as disinformation campaigns which frame abortion as ‘Satanic’ and depict homosexuality as an ‘agenda’ designed to endanger children.
Why are they against gender?
Although anti-gender movements have different origins, strategies and political leanings, they all tend to criticise gender as a threat to what is perceived as traditional family values (e.g. marriage and a nuclear family structure). Anti-gender supporters claim that gender is an ideology that undermines society as a whole. They believe gender threatens ‘heteronormative’ family structures and male superiority. Such campaigns have also equated homosexuality with paedophilia, arguing that recognising gender is also the acceptance of ‘sexual perversions.’
Anti-gender movements also compare gender to colonialism (whereby a state exerts control over a country and its people). Their backers claim that Western nations or those in the Global North impose the concept of gender onto the Global South, reminiscent of how such nations imposed their rule during colonialism.
Alternatively, followers of anti-gender movements argue that countries in Western Europe are forcing their values onto Eastern Europe. Following the collapse of Communism in the 1990s, Eastern European countries underwent extensive political and social reform to ‘catch up’ with the West. However, the use of this argument by the anti-gender movement erases the long-standing work of feminist organisations within Eastern Europe.
Where have these movements appeared?
Poland and Hungary
In Poland, the Catholic Church has a strong influence on the government. Starting in 2012, politicians and religious leaders began criticising ‘gender ideology’ using petitions against sex education, for example. They framed gender as a promotion of homosexuality and a threat to the nuclear family (one with heterosexual parents and children only) and a foreign ‘import.’ The normalisation of anti-gender rhetoric led to the creation of the parliamentary group ‘Stop Gender Ideology’ in 2014.
Two years later, the government unsuccessfully tried to impose a total ban on abortion, eventually instating a stricter policy in 2021. In 2019, the introduction of ‘LGBT-free’ zones in a third of the country allegedly targeted ‘LGBT ideology,’ rather than individuals, but led to strong criticism within Poland and from the European Union.
Nevertheless, the government went on to argue that LGBT activism during the pandemic threatened public health. It later proposed a withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in its objection to ‘gender ideology.’ The success of Poland’s anti-gender movement has been detrimental to women’s reproductive rights. At least two women have died after being denied abortion access, and one activist faces a prison sentence for supplying abortion pills.
Across the border, anti-gender ideology also shapes government policy. In 2018, the Hungarian government banned the teaching of gender studies in universities, three years before outlawing the teaching of ‘homosexuality and gender change’ in schools. The argument was that homosexuality was equivalent to paedophilia.
The Brazilian Supreme Court’s decision to recognise same-sex marriage in 2011 also spurred on the rise of anti-gender movements, as protesters objected to what they perceived as the promotion of gender ideology. Movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL – Movement for a Free Brazil), ‘Escola Sem Partida’ (School Without Party) and the ‘Evangelical Front’, which have branded feminism as ‘hate speech,’ campaigned against any mention of gender in schools and attacked freedom of sexual expression, respectively.
Indeed, President Bolsonaro himself has expressed sexist and homophobic views, and his supporters have attacked minorities during his campaigns. During his 2018 election campaign, he promoted a return to ‘traditional’ family values and opposed the country’s first female President. This fuelled the social media campaign #EleNao (#NotHim).
Why are these movements problematic? Why do we need to counter them?
In a nutshell, these movements are an attack on anything that doesn’t fit into a traditional and binary understanding of gender.
They influence government policies and national laws. They ‘reverse progressive legislation’, which threatens the rights of marginalised genders. The subsequent loss of legal protection may result in impunity for perpetrators as there are no criminal consequences. The rise of anti-gender movements coincides with the rise of attacks against trans people around the world.
Such attacks may not make the news or get the public outcry they deserve, as anti-gender movements fuel divisions and distrust against women’s rights activists and marginalised genders. Human Rights Watch argues that the rhetoric used by these movements creates suspicion against human rights defenders as well as a ‘climate of fear’ that prevents survivors from asking for help.
Finally, the anti-gender movement is dangerous because it is transnational. In other words, it crosses countries and continents, allowing actors to create international networks and share ideas which makes it harder to contain the issue.
What can we do to counter them?
Governments and private donors must make more funds available to grassroots feminist organisations to help survivors and counter anti-gender disinformation campaigns. Currently, less than 1% of funding globally goes to such organisations. These organisations need to have a say in policy making and implementation to ensure that governments are adequately supporting women and marginalised genders.
There need to be tougher laws in place for hate crimes and clearer definitions of what constitutes a hate crime in the first place. In the UK, there is currently a debate around whether misogyny should fall under this definition. Experts have also argued for the importance of gender studies in combating false information.
As individuals, we can donate to feminist and human rights organisations but, perhaps most importantly, we can also talk about these issues. We can discuss why ideas such as ‘LGBT-free’ zones are harmful. One thing that anti-gender movements capitalise on is polarisation. If we’re prepared to listen to and engage with other views, but fight against disinformation and prejudice, we can counteract the hatred that such movements try to spread.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka