By Sonia Corrêa

In the first week of November, 2017, Judith Butler was viciously attacked in Brazil by a heterogeneous group of actors who define themselves as anti-gender,[1] a regrettable episode caught the attention of both the media and international and global North academics. This well-orchestrated political formation is not new and much less peculiarly Brazilian. As analysed by numerous of authors, including Butler herself in Undoing Gender, the origins of  this crusade must be retraced back to the 1990’s United Nations debates when, for the first time, at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, the term gender was inscribed in a document resulting from an inter-governmental negotiation. Six months later, at the Preparatory Committee Meeting for the IV World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995), in New York,  the term gender was openly attacked by US based right wing Catholic groups and it remained under suspicion until right before the conference. Significantly enough, in the Beijing Conference itself, the term was not openly attacked, probably because the Vatican and its allies had other urgent matters to cope with such as the sexual rights of women and sexual orientation as a non-justifiable basis of discrimination.[2]

Even so, the March 1995 New York episode anticipated an intense production of both lay and clerical documents devoted to attacking the concept of gender. In 1997, The Gender Agenda book written by Dale O’Leary – a North American conservative Catholic female journalist – was published and portrayed gender as a neo-colonial tool of an international feminist conspiracy.  By the mid 2000’s, the book had been translated into dozens of languages.[3]  Also in 1997, Cardinal Ratzinger, by then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in the book The Salt of the Earth, wrote that the concept of gender ‘dissimulates an insurrection against the limits man carry within him as a biological being’. From the early 2000’s onwards, the Vatican itself would deploy systematic theological critiques on gender as, for example, the 2003 Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Question, and the 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Man and Women in the World. As analysed by Mary Anne Case this shift meant the abandoning of the theological anthropology of sexual complementarity, which for a long time has guided Catholic doctrines of the matter.

Very differently from what is preached by their heralds, anti-gender campaigns have not been gestated at the ground levels of societies, but rather in the high spheres of international negotiations and theological lucubration. They constitute a transnational phenomenon that, despite the original connection with conservative Catholicism, nowadays counts on the adherence of many other religious forces. This does not mean that all religious people share these extreme negative visions of gender, nor that these campaigns are exclusively religious, as they have the support of secular individuals and groups whose profile cut across the intellectual and political spectrum, such as biomedical scientists and psychoanalysts, extreme right political forces – as those who attacked Judith Butler in Brazil – but also, in the case of Latin America, left wing politicians. One strong sign that anti-gender campaigns were taking form in the region was, for example, announced by the ex–president of Ecuador Rafael Correa, who, in 2013, dedicated one of his weekly TV programme to abominate ‘gender ideology’ as a tool being used to destroy the family.

Two years later in Brazil, eight state level assemblies had voted for the deletion of gender language in the educational policy guidelines, and in 2015 this language was attacked in federal policy documents.[4]  Then in October 2016, the Peace Agreement Referendum in Colombia was defeated by a small margin of votes and, as analysed by Viveros – in the campaign preceding the voting – anti-gender arguments were openly used by the forces opposed to the agreement. By early 2017, anti-gender campaigns flared in the context of the Mexico District Constitutional Reform and right after an anti-gender bus began circulating across the country. Two months later the same bus was traveling in Chile, right before the final voting of the law reform that left behind the total prohibition of pregnancy termination promulgated by the Pinochet regime in the 1980’s. Coinciding with Judith Butler’s visit to Brazil, a campaign against ‘gender ideology’ in public education curricula erupted in Uruguay, a country known for its deeply grounded secular culture. And, in Ecuador, a law provision aimed at curtailing gender based violence was viciously attacked by anti-gender conservative religious groups. As the media coverage of the attack against Butler began waning, the Bolivian Constitutional Court struck down the recently approved gender identity law arguing that the dignity of the person is rooted in the natural sexual binary of the human.

Black and white image of a demonstration with many women in the foreground carrying babies in slings and others holding banners and placards.

This image corresponds to a public manifestation happened in Brasil in 2015, against a draft bill aimed to limit the access to abortion in case of rape. This protest has been known as “feminist spring”. Photo credit: André Mantelli

But these frays are not exclusively  Latin American either. In the last few years, similar crusades have been underway in Western Europe, particularly in predominantly Catholic countries, such as Italy and Spain, where the anti-gender bus was invented. In 2013, when  the law authorising same-sex marriage was adopted in France, despite laicité and republicanism, a wide range of anti-gender manifestations have also flared-up. Campaigns are also underway in Germany and Austria and are even more pronounced and vicious in Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. In Australia, anti-gender groups were behind the call for a postal referendum against same–sex marriage. As analysed by Kaoma anti-gender arguments circulate in sub Saharan Africa within a frame that portrays gender and homosexuality as neo-colonial impositions.

 As we can see from these examples, anti ‘gender ideology’ crusades are neither a novelty, nor exclusively Latin American. Moreover, the semantic frame ‘gender ideology’ reveals itself as an empty and adaptable signifier,  encompassing a broad range of demands such as the right to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, to diverse families, education in gender and sexuality, HIV prevention and sex work, a basic basket that can be easily adjusted to the conditions of each context. Its discourses construct unusual analogies between feminism, queer theory and communism, a strategy that has echoes in contexts where this spectrum remains active, such as Brazil.

Above all, anti-gender proponents mobilise simplistic logics and imaginaries and constitute volatile enemies – here the feminists, there the gays, over there the artists, ahead the academics, elsewhere the trans bodies – nourishing moral panics that distract societies from structural issues that they should be debating, such as growing inequalities of gender, class, race and ethnicity. Although they use theological arguments, anti-gender campaigns speak the language of the Planet Animal. Their representatives, in fact, adhere to Darwin when they say that reproductive autonomy, the multiple forms of family and sexual fluidity not only contradict divine law but also the laws of nature. Following the wise reflections shared by Eric Fassin at the recent Colloquium Gênero Ameaça(n)do held in Rio de Janeiro, we can ask, nonetheless, if this natural order that they seek to protect would not be, actually, a fragile one. So fragile that it makes necessary the brutal investment in preserving it.

This is so, because, in social life, what is contained in the “anti-gender” umbrella are personal, collective and social experiences, more and more conceived, perceived and lived as expressions of human fluidity and plurality. Angry discourses against the visit of Butler just mobilise arguments in defence of nature as a strategy to counter these transformations. They attack feminisms and sexual politics claims to preserve or, indeed, restore political, cultural and social orders contrary to plurality, democratic deliberation and hospitality. Overall, any kind of politics committed to the possibilities of overcoming inequality and precarity.


[1] This grouping comprises the Movimento Brazil Livre (Free Brazil Movement) an extreme liberal but also moral conservative right wing formation that emerged in the context of the campaign for impeaching Dilma Roussef, the Movement School without a Party, sectors of the Catholic hierarchy, Evangelicals and the Jewish right wing.

[2] For more on the 1994-1995 United Nation debates around gender see Françoise Girard (2007) “Negotiating Sexual Rights and Sexual Orientation at the United Nations”

[3] In Brazil the book was published in Portuguese in 2008, right after the 2007 visit of Pope Benedict 16th (Cardinal Ratzinger) to the country.

[4] In 2015, pressured by the neo-liberal sectors of its political basis that called for the reduction of federal expenditures, President Dilma Roussef downgraded the National Secretaries on Human Rights, Women’s Policies and Racial Equality. The conservative religious group at the House deleted the language on gender equality of the executive branch decree that defined this alteration.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in #AgoraÉQueSãoElas on 5 November 2017, and this amended and extended version is reposted here with permission. The translation from Portuguese was done jointly by Engenderings editorial member Louisa Acciari and Sonia Corrêa.

Image of Sonia Corrêa Since the late 1970´s Sonia Corrêa has been involved in research and advocacy activities related to gender equality, health and sexuality. She is currently a research associate at the Brazilian Interdisciplinary Association for AIDS, in Rio de Janeiro, and visiting Leverhulme Proffesor at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. She also co-chairs Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), a global forum comprised of researchers and activists engaged in the analyses of global trends in sexuality related policy and politics. She has extensively published in Portuguese and English. The list includes, among other, Population and Reproductive Rights: Feminist Perspectives from the South (Zed Books, 1994) and Sexuality, Health and Human Rights, co-authored with Richard Parker and Rosalind Petchesky (Routledge, 2008)