by Kath Browne and Catherine Nash
This is the first blog in a series of posts on transnational anti-gender politics jointly called by the LSE Department of Gender Studies and Engenderings with the aim of discussing how we can make sense of and resist the current attacks on gender studies, ‘gender ideology’ and individuals working within the field.
Gender ideology is a term favoured by the Catholic Church and other more traditional and/or conservative groups, to describe what they argue are social and cultural trends undermining the supposedly natural and unchallengeable differences between biological men and women as proscribed by their faith. Any activities potentially undermining this complementarity such as same-sex marriage, or asserting the indeterminacy of strict male/female boundaries are regarded as destructive to society and civilization as a whole.
Yet this narrow focus on the concept of gender ideology does not capture the expansive, multiple and diverse resistances to sexual and gender equalities that are gathering momentum transnationally. In our research since 2012, we have explored these resistances in the UK, Canada and Ireland, and the ways they go beyond mere objections to diverse gender identities (Browne and Nash 2017; Browne et al 2018; Nash and Browne 2014). We use the term ‘heteroactivism’ to describe these developing ideological resistances to sexual and gender rights and how these resistances have specifically local geographies yet are also working across national boundaries. Heteroactivists seek to assert not only the supremacy of binary genders as a matter of law and policy but to undermine LGBTQ and other liberalizing social policies through the passage, for example, of religious discrimination laws, free speech policies supporting attacks on academic freedom and supporting speakers who distain trans rights, parental rights claims undermining public school education on sexual and gender minorities and related liberal or progressive actions seen as undermining the ‘natural order.’ Heteroactivist organisations are diverse in their composition depending on the nature of the issue at hand making it impossible to predict their social or cultural constitution. For example, visible opposition to a new sexual education curriculum in Ontario Canada was made up of a range of men and women who crossed religious, racial and class lines. Conversely, those supporting Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor who opposes the use of trans pronouns in his classroom, are arguably predominantly young, white men.
Recent successes, which are seemingly unrelated to heteroactivist activities, can be directly linked to a desire to undermine LGBTQ people as well as broader liberal causes. For example, the recent requirement that all universities in Ontario pass free speech policies and punish ‘inappropriate’ student protests are just such examples. For those of us at institutions of higher learning, we need to be aware of these resistances, and to work towards an understanding of these issues, as well as developing clear and appropriate responses. This will include a more organised and transnational response by scholars and the development of robust defences of academic freedom in teaching and research.
Claims about the natural order are more expansive than assertions about binary gender and can be bound up with claims about the superiority of western societies, heterosexuality and normative gender roles within ethnic nationalist, white supremacy and anti-immigration rhetoric. But this is not the same in different places, and across Europe, white/European supremacy can also use gay friendliness and the dangers of ‘other religions/people’ to promote their agendas. Here ‘civilised’ societies that ‘accept gay men and lesbians’ can be seen as ‘clashing’ with those (usually Islamic) societies where homosexualities can be subject to state suppression and violent retribution. These arguments can also be used to ‘liberate’ places like Afghanistan and Iran as a justification for violent conflict and war. Further, resistances to gender and sexual equalities do not map neatly onto far-right movements, and within the ‘liberal left’ Sinn Féin Party in Ireland, for instance, politicians opposed the recent repeal of the 8th amendment which would allow access to abortion and healthcare.
In order to understand these resistances (and indeed to counter them), we need to understand the specificities of ‘place’ in their constitution. Where gender and sexual equalities are firmly entrenched, resistances can take unusual, even contradictory forms. For example, our work in the U.K. shows how resistances can be seen to support civil partnerships, in order to campaign against same sex marriage. Key to these strategies is the desire to avoid accusations of homophobia (as well as trans- and bi-phobia). Nevertheless, resistant approaches can obliquely conjure up older myths about gay men as pedophiles. For example, in the Irish same-sex marriage campaigning of 2015, anti-same sex marriage advocates evoked images of predatory gay men seeking to gain access to children through surrogacy (Browne, Nash and Gorman-Murray, 2018). Opponents avoided claiming that gay parents are inferior in terms of childrearing by focusing instead on the importance of a mother and a father.
The shape of these careful, well thought out resistances is very much crafted in place, linked to particular laws, cultural norms and values, histories and contestations. Building resistances requires being attuned to what people might deem reasonable or acceptable give the progression (or not) in sexual and gender rights taking place. In Canada, for example, mainstream debates about the sex education curriculum in Ontario rarely mention religious objections given the legal climate that would make such arguments unlikely to succeed. Instead, opponents focus on parental rights claims asserting the primary role of the parent in children’s education which opposes state ‘interference’ and ‘indoctrination of children’ through the teaching of an inclusive curriculum.
We have been studying and writing about these resistances in Canada, the U.K., Ireland and (with Andrew Gorman-Murray) Australia. As well as understanding these groups within their local and regional context, it is important to grasp the transnational character of these resistances. While the Catholic Church, with its global reach, is clearly engaged in opposing so-called ‘gender ideology’, these are also more conservative and secular groups promoting a heteroactivist agenda at a global scale.
These groups are becoming increasingly skilled at developing more universal claims about freedom of speech at universities for example. Arguments purport that universities should be places of debate and not protect ‘snowflakes’ who cannot encounter different views, while developing specific arguments related to the particularities of the UK or Canadian context, for instance around the National Union of Students in the UK No Platforming policies. Free speech discourses in both those countries are distinctive from say the first amendment framings in the US and need to be understood as such. Nevertheless, advocates assert there is a transnational free speech crisis across university campuses in order to promote changes in free speech policies from those that allow no platforming and the uninviting of speakers to policies such as those issued recently by Ontario which suggested that protests should not be allowed to disrupt the speakers themselves.
In a nutshell, we are finding growing support for heteroactivist claims. This is because these resistances are not framed as direct attacks on LGBT and queer people, which makes it easier to gain support as many people either have queer relations or work with or know someone who is LGBTQ. That said, debates about trans rights still clearly take the form of often very personal and direct attacks. These groups are increasingly better organized, more connected and better able to strategically react to local issues such as the no-platforming of conservative speakers by drawing on these wider transnational arguments and in some cases, funding and expertise.
The term ‘gender ideology’, coined by the Catholic Church and used by Pope Francis is not a sufficiently robust analytical tool. We need to understand these power relations, pushbacks and victories through concepts that enable explorations of the interconnections and solidarities that are key to our contemporary era; heteroactivism is one analytical frame, more are needed. More than this, we need to understand that this blog, and those in the series will be read, re-interpreted and re-presented in ways that seek to counter sexual and gender advances. These discussions are not only speaking to those who are supportive, they are used as evidence for those who seek to dismantle reproductive freedoms and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans rights. Their most powerful tools are often our words.
Dr. Catherine Jean Nash is a Professor, in the Department of Geography and Tourism Studies, Brock University. Her research interests include geographies of sexuality/queer/ feminist and trans geographies, mobilities and digital technologies. Her research has been funded by three Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grants SSHRC, the Australian Endeavour Grant and the Australian IRIS grant. Her scholarship examines the historical geographies of Toronto’s gay village, queer women’s bathhouse spaces, trans urban spaces, new LGBTQ neighbourhoods, LGBT mobilities and digital geographies as well as methodological and pedagogical issues. Dr. Nash is currently working with Dr. Kath Browne tracing transnational oppositions to LGBTQ rights in Canada, the UK and Ireland, and with Dr. Andrew Gorman-Murray on new mobilities and digital life and the transformations in LGBT and queer neighbourhoods in Sydney, Australia and Toronto, Canada. She has published in a wide range of journals and she is co-editor with Dr. Browne of Queer Methods and Methodologies: Queer Theories in Social Science Research. She is also the co-author of the first and second Canadian Editions of Human Geography: People, Place and Culture.
Prof. Kath Browne is a Professor of Geographies of Sexualities and Genders at Maynooth University. Her research interests lie in sexualities, genders and spatialities, where she seeks to use research to make a difference to people’s lives. She is the lead researcher on the Making Lives Liveable: Rethinking Social Exclusion’ research project and has worked on LGBT equalities, lesbian geographies, gender transgressions and women’s spaces. She works with Catherine Nash and Andrew Gorman Murray on understanding transnational resistances to LGBT equalities. She has authored over 100 publications including journal articles and she co-wrote with Leela Bakshi Ordinary in Brighton: LGBT, activisms and the City (Ashgate, 2013), and Queer Spiritual Spaces (Ashgate, 2010), and co-edited The Routledge Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities (Routledge, 2016) and Lesbian Geographies (Routledge, 2015).