The fight against so-called “gender ideology” has well and truly arrived here in the United States, not only in venues like the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women—a common marketplace for anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion ideology—but in parents’ groups and even anti-transgender feminist organizing across the country.
“Gender ideology,” as Gillian Kane explains in her piece for The Public Eye from 2018, is “in essence, Vatican gaslighting.” In more substance, “gender ideology” is a catch-all term used by various factions of the global right to disparage any advocacy or organizing that could be construed to disrupt a narrow theological or secular understanding of the traditional family. The term is sufficiently broad to encompass everything from feminism writ-large to advocacy against female genital mutilation, advocacy for human and civil rights for LGBTQI people, and advocacy for comprehensive reproductive care and sex education. Even support for migrants and refugees has been tarred as gender ideology, implying that (non-white) migrants threaten the integrity of (white) traditional families.
In her article, Kane details the growing war against so-called “gender ideology” across Europe. “[O]ver the last 15 years, a cohesive anti-gender ideology movement has emerged—not just in Catholic strongholds like Poland and Ireland, but also in progressive countries like Germany and France, and likely soon the U.S. as well.” Kane cites the Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality report of how “[T]he Church has reclaimed progressive notions such as gender or feminism and changed their meaning,” and as editors Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte write, “increasing confusion among average citizens and resignifying what liberal voices have been trying to articulate over the last decades.”
And like the spread of anti-gender-ideology rhetoric in Europe and South and Central America, the messages are spreading in the United States from the top down: from groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Policy Alliance, and the Family Research Council down to the smaller state and local groups whom they fund and platform.
As I noted in openDemocracy on November 2019, one example is the Sex-Ed Sit-Out campaign, organized by “Activist Mommy” Elizabeth Johnston. Sex Ed Sit-Out encourages parents in the US, Canada and Australia to remove their children from school for a day in protest against classes that “sexualize” children and expose them to “gender ideology.” Johnston doesn’t advertise her personal ties to US ultra-conservative movements, but they’re easy to find. This campaign is dressed up as one mother’s crusade to protect her kids. But its website discloses a list of anti-LGBTQI, Christian right partners including the Family Research Council, CitizenGO, the Institute for Faith & Family, The Ruth Institute and the Liberty Counsel.
Of course, there is space to criticize the condition of comprehensive sex education in the United States, but the scientific consensus points not to the risk of “sexualizing” children, but in fact the opposite. “Continued public and political debates on the morality of sex outside marriage perpetuate barriers at multiple levels,” found Dr. Kelli Stidham Hall and her colleagues in an article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “—by misguiding state funding decisions, molding parents’ (mis)understanding of programs, facilitating adolescents’ uptake of biased and inaccurate information in the classroom, and/or preventing their participation in sex education altogether.”
Another example of the flexibility and mutability of “gender ideology” in North America is its adaptation by anti-transgender feminists, who rail against “transgender ideology” and “gender identity ideology.” “Transgender ideology” is a term popularized by Ryan T. Anderson at the Heritage Foundation, and handed down to the anti-transgender feminists whom the Heritage Foundation platforms. Gillian Kane’s characterized the Vatican’s use of the term as “gaslighting”—so too do anti-transgender advocates gaslight. “Transgender ideology” is ill-defined, ever evolving. Is it Orwellian Newspeak, as anti-trans feminist Julie Bindel implies? Is it the understanding and support of transgender and gender non-confirming people, as Ryan T. Anderson seems to say? Or is it simply existing as a trans person?
“Transgender ideology” is being weaponized in the fight against transgender student athletes, broadcasted in the headlines of right-wing media outlets.
In response to the growing utility of the term, Political Research Associates has taken seriously its role of convener and organized a global group of advocates, activists, researchers, and analysts who monitor the spread of “gender ideology” rhetoric and its impact on reproductive health and rights, LGBTQ equality, feminist advocacy, and liberal democracy. Meeting quarterly by video, this Gender Ideology Monitoring Group shares resources, builds solidarity, and increases efficiency of communication. Between meetings, members share research, reports, news alerts, and requests for information and support.
If you would like to join PRA’s Gender Ideology Monitoring Group, please complete this form with your interest in the group, your organizational affiliation, and your experience in the area. The semi-formal group currently comprises members from five continents, and we strongly encourage researchers and activists from the Global South to reach out.