Costa Rica’s recent general election was marked by fierce debates surrounding ‘gender ideology’ as prominent evangelical Christian candidates opposed to LGBT rights attracted widespread support. Gabriela Arguedas-Ramírez locates the roots of this movement in the context of a country in which neoliberal policies have exacerbated inequality and marginalised human rights.

Neoliberalism, anxiety and gender ideology [1]

The neoliberal economic system has triggered profound cultural, political and economic transformations, causing suffering and anguish to millions of people who live every single day, trying to cope with an overwhelming sense of abandonment, indifference and uncertainty.

In her book Strangers in their own land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explores the reasons and emotions that transformed this social discontent into votes for the Republican Party, even though neoliberal policies usually affect the underprivileged directly. She found out that the promise of belonging and returning to a world from which they feel expelled by migrants, women, or any other othered group reached the ears of those who were eager to feel that someone important was speaking personally and directly to them.

This situation becomes the fuel that accelerates the expansion of religious fundamentalisms, which is not a recent social expression, as Karen Armstrong explains in detail throughout her work. The battle between mythos and logos persists to this day, but now is reaching a new level of dangerous intensity.

The perception that certain ideals of Modernity have empowered projects of domination, threatening the survival of many cultures, is not at all exaggerated or unjustified, as the history of the last five centuries shows.  Today we also find communities built around religious beliefs and clinging to conservative ideas, values, customs and traditions that offer a sense of certainty and security, in a world where the social fabric has been gradually frayed in the name of “progress”, “development” and “modernization”. These communities offer comfort to thousands of people who feel left out by the hegemonic political and economic system. Yet, in this process of becoming part of a conservative religious community, they end up reinforcing the construction of identities and institutions currently being contested by marginalized social movements, such as nationality, masculinity, whiteness and heterosexuality.

It is in this context that the notion of “gender ideology”, as understood by the Vatican, has emerged. Here, in this piece, I aim to interrogate what has been the role played by this rhetorical construct in the global backlash we are witnessing against gender and sexual politics; and, more broadly, its role against the secular State and the basic elements of democracy.

The persistent patriarchal organization of social relations is a source of emotions that nourishes two important phenomena: religious fanaticism and neo-fascism. Misogyny, homophobia and racism have not been eradicated, despite significant and continuous struggles and political efforts made by different social movements. However, the exacerbation of these expressions and practices of hate and fear is not only connected to the socially and institutionally embedded misogyny, homophobia or racism, but it is also deeply connected with economic exclusions and uncertainty.

The narrative shared by the extreme right and religious neo-integrist/fundamentalist groups in their crusade against “gender ideology”, is that there are no such things as patriarchal gender roles, nor nothing historically or socially constructed in the notions of femininity and masculinity. There is only one truth that define what a man is and what a woman is, and that is sex, which within their ideology is something given by nature and God. Traditional gender roles offer these groups some sort of ontological certainty about the place that everyone should occupy in the world, and provide a clear and determined mission to fulfill, which allows them to feel a deep meaning of human existence. In this way, being a man or a woman is not a mere biological fact, but a way of being in the world, which is part of a transcendent project.

Hence, the rejection of feminist ideas that confront the naturalistic fallacy. For these neoconservative movements, there is a morality of sexual difference defined by nature. The notion of gender as a socio-historical product is incompatible with patriarchal values and traditions, which are structural within religious fundamentalisms. From a neoliberal perspective, the denial of feminist postulates and gender theory has to do with naturalized ways of perpetuating and justifying the sexual division of labor and the constant exploitation of women’s bodies, particularly of impoverished women and women of color (on this, see for instance Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici).

Catholic tradition, the defense of the family and the threat of “gender ideology”

In Costa Rica, during the 2017-2018 election campaign, the term “gender ideology” erupted into the political debate with such potent force that all political parties that had any chance of winning the election succumbed to its rhetorical power. The only political party that did not join the ultraconservative call against the “nefarious gender ideology” was the Citizen Action Party (PAC), which won the Presidential election in the second round, with 60.7% of the votes and less abstentions than the previous elections (2014). This party signed an agreement of national unity with other political forces, so that they could defeat the neo-pentecostal National Restoration Party (PRN).[2] The agreement was based on morally conservative ideas, but not as extremist as the PRN ideological program.

PRN won the first round, with an openly conservative religious, anti-feminist, homophobic, xenophobic and contrary to the Inter-American Human Rights System discourse. PRN’s presidential candidate, Fabricio Alvarado, even proposed that Costa Rica should denounce the American Convention on Human Rights (known as the Pact of San José). He called for a withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Human Rights Court as well as the elimination of the obligation to comply with the ‘Advisory Opinion OC-24/17’ regarding gender identity and LGBTQI rights, which was requested last year by the Government of Costa Rica.

Sadly, this was not the only candidate to offer the voters an incendiary, ultra-conservative, proto-fascist speech. Juan Diego Castro, from the National Integration Party (PIN) was leading the polls for a few months, displaying insults, exaggerations and heavy-handed rants, in a style quite similar to that of Donald Trump (in fact, he was nicknamed Trump-tico).

The emergence of these political figures is expected in a highly polarized society. And social polarization is a problem already entrenched in Costa Rica, which has been deepening for more than a decade. In a climate of social tension, increased inequality and expansion of religious fanaticism, it seemed that one of these two candidates had a high probability of winning.  The discourse in support of the protection of the traditional family, the nation and of Christian moral values was swiftly gaining support. This rise in popularity is attributed to its alliance with ultra-neoliberal economic groups and some radical sectors, which also trivialize the importance of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

The promise of stability, security and punishment to the public sector, which is perceived as corrupt and mediocre, injected conservative vigor into the polls. However, for a broad sector of the population, which has been described as both conservative and traditional – but Catholic – these discourses were already reaching a disproportionate and dangerous level.

Although the defense of the traditional family and the rejection of the rights of LGBTQI people are shared by the great majority of Costa Ricans, there are nuances that divide these groups. Catholicism is still strong in the country, which is a confessional (Catholic) state. The Catholic tradition during the 40s was key in the formation of the Welfare State, which consolidated some economic, social and cultural rights, such as healthcare and education, which allowed a solid middle class to flourish.

And while the Catholic hierarchy has been a key player in promoting fear through the so-called “gender ideology”, the Catholic people did not consider that this issue should determine the political-governmental destiny of the country. That is, the struggle against the “gender ideology” was not enough to keep all the conservative votes together.

The defense of the Rule of Law and of moderation as an imprint of national identity prevailed in the runoff. But there was something more: a cultural clash between Catholicism and neo-Pentecostalism. The Costa Rican society still feels mostly Catholic, although religious practices have changed in recent decades. There is a small part of voters who fight for the secularization of politics and the public space, but Catholic symbolism remains powerful. One of the most significant aspects of Costa Rican Catholicism is the cult of the patron saint of Costa Rica: The Virgin of Los Angeles, known as “La Negrita”.

“La Negrita” is the symbolic mother of all the Costa Rican people, who has protected them even before the formation of the Republic. The annual pilgrimage to celebrate the day of the Virgin is a holiday of national importance. This is why I believe that one of the political strategies that contributed to PRN losing in the second round was to publicly point out the close relationship between the evangelical pastor Rony Chaves and the PRN presidential candidate, Fabricio Alvarado. He (Alvarado) had made a number of public statements describing Chaves as his spiritual father. A few weeks before the second round, some newspapers published several statements by Rony Chaves against the cult of La Negrita and a video of Chaves saying he had gone to the Basilica of “Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles” to tell La Negrita (whom he called “Diablo”) that in Costa Rica there was no room for both of them, was circulating in social media.

So, even if conservatives concurred in the rejection of abortion, equal marriage, sexual education in schools and colleges, the right to gender identity (and everything that can fall into the category of “gender ideology”), a good part of Catholic conservative voters could not feel represented by the PRN, as leaders of that party had insulted the most sacred symbol of the popular Catholic faith. For that reason, I consider that what we experienced in the past elections in Costa Rica was not a clear confrontation between mythos and logos.  It was not just a struggle between the ideals of Modernity and pre-Modern yearnings. Rather, it was mostly a clash between part of the founding mythos of national identity and an “intrusive” religious mythos that is also associated with low socio-economical strata and low education levels. Although the neo-Pentecostal cults have expanded in the country, especially the so called “gospel of prosperity”, the deep emotional bond with the popular Catholic tradition that, in general terms, has been more temperate and democratic, is still very powerful.

Latent danger

Nonetheless, the fear towards “gender ideology” remains latent. Although it does not have a preponderant place in the public debate right now, as it did a year ago, by the beginning of the electoral campaign those who lead this ultraconservative struggle continue to organize small-scale activities and adding supporters, especially, parents. In addition, although the PRN has not won the Presidency of the Republic, it is indisputable that it had an overwhelming success in Congress. With 14 representatives, it is the 2nd largest parliamentary fraction.

This implies that their ultraconservative program can advance easily. They have already achieved one of their objectives in the negotiation process of the tax reform, by eliminating the value added tax to religious organizations. In addition, they have reached enough political support to cut the public funding for state universities. And soon, the Congress will consider a bill that Fabricio Alvarado signed while he was a congressman, to eliminate the National Institute for Women and create in its place the National Institute for the Family. It is clear that this is a reactionary agenda against all feminist conquests and freedom of thought, which is part of the transnational strategy against the “gender ideology”.

However, it would be a hasty generalization to assert that all the people who voted for the PRN representatives did so exclusively motivated by misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic ideas and emotions. Yes, it can be said that these emotional reactions were a determinant factor in the electoral game, but there is more to it than that. The vast majority of voters who supported the legislative proposal of the PRN live in the most impoverished and abandoned areas of the country, where evangelical churches have filled the gap left by the gradual weakening of the welfare state. At least some of those votes were a protest against the government and the other political parties (including the left party, Frente Amplio, which four years ago had obtained significant support in those areas); a message against state corruption and a gesture of loyalty to organizations that are providing moral, emotional and material support.

If we are concerned about the growing fanatical-religious movements and the growing support received by authoritarian political leaders whose discourse offers brutal messages of hatred towards women, LGBTQ people, racialized people, migrants, and also against the academic and intellectual communities, we must listen to what the majority of their supporters have to say, those who live in neighborhoods where usually there are only two options to cope with the harshness of daily life: the neo-pentecostal churches and the drug-dealers.

[1] This piece is part of a regional research project on anti-rights and anti-gender politics in Latin America, led by Sexuality Policy Watch. The present blog post shows the preliminary findings for the case of Costa Rica.

[2] It is crucial to bring to this discussion the historical account of how evangelical missions (and its ramifications) came to Central America and stablish their operative centers and alliances with right wing political parties and the local oligarchy during the Cold War. The U.S. foreign policy targeted Social and grassroots organizations related to the liberation theology, which was considered a leftist distortion of Catholicism. One of the political and cultural instruments used to halt their expansion was evangelicalism.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the LSE Engenderings blog.

About the author

Gabriela Arguedas-Ramírez is an Associate Professor at the School of Philosophy of Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), and researcher at the Women’s Studies Research Center (CIEM). She has recently been appointed as the new Director of the Master program on Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the UCR. Gabriela’s research interests look at the intersections between bioethics, natural science and feminist and gender studies. Since 2013 she has been doing research on the problem of obstetric violence, developing the term ‘obstetric power’. Her most recent publication is a chapter on Feminist food justice reflection on the politics of food, land, and agriculture in Central America.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.