by Marco Aurelio Máximo Prado

This contribution is based on the presentation given at the 11-12 April 2023 workshop on Mapping and resisting the gender phantasm in Latin America: Geographies of ‘anti-gender’ movements’, part of the AHRC-LSE project on Transnational ‘Anti-Gender’ Movements and Resistance: Narratives and Interventions. One of the speakers made her presentation available in a blog format in both English and Spanish, and one speaker in English and Portuguese. We are sharing them here as a collaborative effort between Engenderings and Sexuality Policy Watch


How does one think about the translation of anti-gender politics when it moves from the societal realm into state policy? I will address this question by looking at the Brazilian experience between 2019 and 2022 when anti-gender ideology was systematically embedded into state grammar and public policy.

A bit of background: in 2019, the ultra-right former Army Captain and long-time Congressman Jair Bolsonaro became the President of Brazil. Campaigns against gender within educational contexts led by Bolsonaro erupted around 2013; and five years later, they had transmuted into anti-gender cyclones that directly impacted the 2018 electoral process. In his inauguration speech, Bolsonaro announced a state combat on “gender ideology”. Although this declaration of “war on gender” was viewed by most mainstream analysts as mere rhetoric, it signaled a systematic penetration of anti-gender ideology into the grammar of the state. Anti-gender ideology thus became a mode of governmentality, the main features of which I will describe below.

Firstly, the contours of the political assemblage that, for some years, had been inciting fears in relation to the threats of “gender ideology” became much more apparent within this context. Before 2019, the connections across ultra-Catholic formations, “traditionalists”, evangelical fundamentalists, “homeschoolers”, ultra-neoliberal voices, and other actors propagating anti-gender discourse, seemed dispersed and even contradictory. But after anti-gender tenets entered the domain of statecraft, the consistency of their political and policy-related goals against “gender”, as well as their connections to each other, became much more apparent.

Regardless of their ideological differences and even power disputes, after entering statecraft, various actors gathered under the anti-gender umbrella cohesively around all efforts aimed at the “abolition of gender”, distorting its meanings in public policy amongst other strategies. Having control over federal structures and resources has also allowed these forces to recruit and engage many others in these policy initiatives aimed at vilifying “gender” while concomitantly infusing into the state machinery policy templates designed to protect the “family” or “family rights”.

The conversion of anti-gender ideology into state policy was achieved through its capillary translation via multiple channels of the federal state machinery.[1] Between 2019 and 2022, the phantasm of “gender ideology” and its various proxies – such as the strengthening of family ties or child protection – intensively circulated through federal channels that reach out to state and municipal educational and social services structures. This institutionalized propagation legitimized anti-gender discourses and related tropes, such as the incitement of moral and/or political panics concerning pedophilia or Communism (as the other face of “gender”). This diffusion has mainly reached local-level public servants engaged in social protection policies, but this dispersion also affected sectors of the general population directly served by these policies.

Finally, the propagation of anti-gender tropes was one key component of the longer-term ultra-right project of eroding democracy from within. Quantitative data is not yet available to show if officials or the general public exposed to this ideological “domestication” have or have not become more averse to gender and sexuality-related rights or to democratic values. But one could hypothesize that these mobilizations were paving the way for a potential second mandate for Bolsonaro – as seen in other cases such as Hungary – in order to consolidate an already anti-democratic grip.

Cohesion, capillarity, and temporality are therefore key features to better grasp the contours of anti-gender ideology penetrating existing rationales of governmentality. Furthermore, institutionalization also required basic instruments of governance, as for example, bureaucratic agents and structures able to re-design and implement anti-gender infra-legal norms adopted between 2019 and 2002, such as decrees, protocols and ordinances, as well as to manage key institutional processes such as financing. The latter resulted in the recruitment and commitment of technical personnel able to translate anti-gender ideological frames into concrete policy measures.

In the next section, I examine how these various elements intertwined in the operations conducted by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights (MMFDH). The Bolsonaro government created this ministerial body through a reshuffling of the previously existing ministerial body for Human Rights, Women´s Policies and Racial Equality. This combined Ministry was established in 2015 by the Dilma Rousseff administration and later renamed as the Ministry of Human Rights by the subsequent Temer administration. Under Bolsonaro, the name was once again changed to, not unexpectedly, include the word “Family”. In a move that was no less significant, the term “women” was retained, and “gender” was openly repudiated suggesting that the ultra-right government continued to promote women’s rights only on its own terms[2].

Photo credit: Nana Soares, reproduced with permission

The Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights: The hub of anti-gender diffusion

As said, the translation of anti-gender ideology to the state’s grammar and public policies required bureaucratic structures and personnel aligned with this ideological tenet. Consequently, in the case of the MMFDH, high-level positions were strategically occupied by ultra-conservative religious figures.

Damares Alves, the chosen Minister, was/is an evangelical fundamentalist pastor who brought to the Ministry other people belonging to this religious camp. However, many high-level ministerial posts were occupied by ultra- Catholics, such as Angela Gandra, the National Secretary of the Family, as well as right-wing militaries and figures linked to the so-called traditionalist stream led by Olavo de Carvalho.[3] Further, a few actors connected to neo-fascist formations were initially contracted for relatively high-level positions, but were dismissed in 2020 when their links with these formations were openly disclosed.[4]

Having this general snapshot of who embodied the ministerial machinery as the backdrop, in the following subsections I will examine three iconic cases of anti-gender governmentality.

How the Dial 100 Hotline was converted into a “gender policing tool”.

The Dial 100 Hotline was initially established in 2003 by the first Lula administration[5]  to receive reports of human rights violations. Subsequently, it became a crucial public policy instrument because it allowed for the systematic compiling and processing of data on these violations. However, the system was entirely disfigured under Damares Alves as the head of the MMFDH.

A first step in that direction was a full revision of the category of human rights violations, which both sanitized and distorted the previously established parameters. These modifications were transposed to a Taxonomy Handbook made public in 2020 in which the terms gender, homophobia and transphobia were entirely absent. In contrast, “gender ideology” was included to define a “new” human rights violation. This phantasmic category was created to be applied to those situations in which “gender ideology” was allegedly imposed on children and adolescents.

To invent this novilingua[6] typification of human rights violations, MMFDH appealed to and distorted Law 13431, approved in 2017 as a protocol to guide judicial procedures involving minors, which defined and legitimized the first Brazilian legal frame to address institutional forms of violence. The Taxonomy Handbook used this legal frame to justify why “gender ideology” is supposedly harmful, and that definition was be used to target primary and secondary school teachers who teach gender and sexuality courses. It could have also been applied to healthcare professionals working in facilities that provide care to trans children and adolescents. In late 2021, the press reported two cases of secondary teachers who were formally inquired by the civil police after having been accused at the Dial 100 Hotline as “propagators of gender ideology”. Other cases may have escaped the radar of the press and civil society organizations monitoring how the Bolsonaro’s anti-gender policies were violating human rights.

As the COVID vaccines finally began to be applied in early 2021, the Ministry, aligned with the overall negationist position of the government, also openly called citizens to resort to the Dial 100 Hotline to denounce “compulsory vaccination”. In January 2022, a lawsuit was tabled at the Supreme Court by civil society organizations, arguing that both these uses of Dial 100 Hotline constituted ideological persecution and infringed constitutional principles. In response, MMFDH simply removed the contents referring to “gender ideology” of the Taxonomy Handbook, while keeping the document online.

The anti-gender MMFDH policy frame was abolished by the Lula government, elected in October 2022. However no systematic assessment has yet been made of the detrimental effects of the disfiguration of the Dial 100 hotline on teachers and healthcare professionals. And, not surprisingly, as soon as the 2023 legislature began, a Federal MP aligned with Bolsonaro announced the creation of a civil society platform to monitor and complain about “gender and political indoctrination in schools”.[7]

Familism as a social technology of social control

As in various other countries where anti-gender politicians hold power, such as Hungary, Poland, Russia or Guatemala, the attack on gender leads to a familist policy frame.[8] The same happened in Brazil when MMFDH designed such a policy under the guidance of National Secretary of the Family, Angela Gandra. The policy frame combined multiple components to be established in a sequence. The first to be settled was the National Observatory of the Family, mimicking policy structures in other countries. One of its aims was to openly induce conservative academic knowledge production about “the family”.

Subsequently, an overarching family policy frame was put in place. The first document produced was the Strengthening Family Program (SFP),[9] aimed at promoting a privatized conception of the “family”. The program was based on technologies designed to re-mold perceptive schemes, communication models and behavioral patterns to supposedly sediment positive intrafamily relations, protect the family against external threats, and promote “family happiness”.

Photo credit: Sandy Millar

The familist frame is guided by the firm belief in “authentic selves” and the strength of individual will, and its primary intervention is to facilitate communication within the family. This paradigm fuels neo-liberal subjectivity and effaces the social political environment surrounding the “family” and the connections that extrapolate its boundaries. Structural social inequalities, hierarchies, and power differentials internal to families are discarded as “barriers to happiness” which cannot be solved by low-cost behavioral interventions. The question arises as to whether such a policy would adequately respond to the needs and demands of the large majority of Brazilian families that, between 2020 and 2022, were painfully coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and its drastic epidemiological and economic effects.[10]

The other key piece of the MMFDH family policy was The Family at the School program, which was built upon an old pre-existing federal scheme of cash transfer to local educational systems, to which new guidelines for family participation in school activities were added. Its most problematic aspect was that it authorized and induced parents to surveil teaching materials and school libraries, opening the door for blatant censorship of curricula and pedagogical materials within the public school system. As in the case of the Dial 100 hotline, these policy frames implied semantic shifts aimed at consolidating ultra-conservative family ideologies, which contaminated the pre-existing policy grammar of “strengthening internal family links” with anti-gender contents.

Lastly, the MMFDH issued a Family Policy Decree to install the family policy frame across the country at all administrative levels. The decree established several policy interventions in the public policy environment that impinged the visions analyzed above on various training programs, linking these contents to policies oriented toward reducing poverty. Through the multiple channels, discourses on the threats of “gender ideology” spread widely throughout the state machinery.

These strategies must also be placed against the backdrop of the ultra-neoliberal economy policy frames adopted by the Bolsonaro administration. As noted by Cooper (2019), neo-liberal austerity has given functions of care and social protection back to families, arguing that the state should not invest in these because they are to be seen as “private investments on human capital”. The neoliberal vision of care and social protection is that families are better placed to respond to these needs because such a shift allows for the deflating of the social protection costs of the state as made explicit by the National Secretary of Family in an interview to Folha de São Paulo in late 2021.

The epistemic layer of anti-gender policies

The MMFDH has also induced and funded conservative knowledge production on family structures and relations. This goal was announced and appraised by Minister Damares Alves in a public conversation with Bia Kicis, an ultra-right woman MP in the following terms:

Our plan is to leave a legacy for academia on strengthening the family and public policies for the family (…) We will revolutionize academia; this will be a significant change. Our PhDs will no longer be trained in gay saunas or other sexual orgies. They will be trained in public policies for the families”.

At a time when drastic cuts were experienced in funding for academic research in partnership with CAPES – the main federal agency for academic regulation and research investment – the MMFDH launched a special program to support studies on the “family”. Although the volume of financial resources granted to the program was meager, the initiative inevitably attracted much attention in such hard times. The program has mostly fulfilled the function of spreading ideological codes related to the centrality and relevance of the “natural family model” amongst junior researchers. Furthermore, it allowed for couching the then dominant anti-gender and pro “family” frame within a credible scientific aura.

To conclude

The systematic infusion and multifaceted diffusion of anti-gender ideology through state grammar and state machinery, witnessed in Brazil between 2019 and 2022 correspond to a peculiar type of anti-gender politics. This new formation unfolded from a longstanding political agitation that has incited fear and hatred of “gender ideology” at least since 2013. But when transmuted into statecraft, the contours and objectives of anti-gender politics became much more transparent, and the scale of its impact was drastically amplified. In the brief context-setting I offered in this article, a few of the features of this process of “statization” are to be underlined.

The first aspect to be noted is the ideological cohesion of the various and somewhat contradictory actors engaged in this kind of anti-gender statecraft. Secondly, the imaginary, semantic and affective traits of anti-gender social mobilizing, which had prevailed before 2019, were rapidly translated into public policies through solid processes encompassing bureaucratic expertise, financing and training of public functionaries at multiple levels. What was seen in Brazil also confirms what various authors have underlined: familist policy ideologies have a doubled function. They are deployed to both deflect the impacts of inequality, precariousness and the erosion of public-funded social protection, and to facilitate the implementation of drastic measures of state financial austerity.

It is not excessive to say that, between 2019 and 2022, a sort of institutional alchemy has been at play in Brazil that converted the phantasms of gender into very material state policies. If between 2013 and 2019 the main feature of the political agitation against “gender ideology” was the incitement of fears of multiple orders; when transported to the grammar of the state, anti-gender politics was predominantly associated with a rationale of state tutelage that should not be detached from the desire of those in power to infuse and gradually consolidate political docility in the face of the dominant logics of autocratic governance of social and private life. In these ways, the anti-gender politics of the Bolsonaro era are a striking case of anti-gender state-led politics that should be looked at more closely and deeply than what has been possible in these few pages.

Marco Aurelio Máximo Prado (he/him) holds a PhD in Social Psychology from PUC/SP and a postdoc from the Fulbright Foundation at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in the Chair of Brazilian Studies. He is also a Professor of the Graduate Program in Psychology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, where he coordinates the Center for Human Rights and LGBT+ Citizenship.

[1] Corrêa, S. & Prado, M. (2023, in print). Familist Ideology in Anti-gender Attacks in Education: Transnational Conservative Connections. Revista Educacao & Sociedade, Volume 45.

[2] The story behind the MMFDH is long. The first presidential Secretary for Human Rights was established in 1995, during the Cardoso Administration. In the first mandate of Lula (2003-2008), it assumed a ministerial status and was named the National Secretariat for Human Rights. In 2015, a ministerial reformation implemented by Dilma Rousseff merged it with the Secretaries for Women´s Policies and Racial Equality in the new Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights. After Rousseff’s impeachment, this new structure was renamed the Ministry of Human Rights. In 2019, under Bolsonaro, its name was changed to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and the new function of coordinating a national family policy was added to its mandate.

[3] Olavo de Carvalho, who died in early 2022, was a traditionalist or perennialist intellectual whose ideological stances were similar to the cosmovision deployed by Steve Bannon and Alexander Dugin. He was a main figure behind the Brazilian ultra-right turn of the 2010s and became a guru of the Bolsonaro family. His profile is analyzed in the book The War for Eternity authored by Benjamin Teitelbaum.

[4] One of these functionaries was Sara Fernanda Giromini, also known as Sara Winter, who began her political career as a “feminist” in 2011.

[5] It was initially created as a dial to denounce the exploitation of children and young people in 1997 by non-governmental organizations. Later on, in 2003, the Federal Government incorporated it as a public policy of complaints of vulnerable people linked to the national human rights watch.

[6] Novilingua is the term used by George Orwell to name the systematic semantic falsification used by the totalitarian regime in 1984, his famous dystopic novel.

[7] Federal Deputy Gustavo Gayer became a well-known figure in his state in 2020. Known as a Bolsonaro activist, he has appeared on radio and television programs constantly attacking the work of teachers, who he accuses of using the school environment to “indoctrinate” students. He is a member of a language course in Goiânia. Confronting education professionals has become his main agenda; promoting harassment of teachers and campaigns to monitor the content taught in schools are also part of his anti-gender campaign in education.

[8] A familistic logic is the defence of a single heterosexual and patriarchal family model either in a moral or even social dimension. The familistic notion reinforces the idea of a natural family model instead of a plurality of family formations in social history. In addition, the logic of familism defends the family as a privatist unity with the responsibility to invest in its members and provide care and protection rather than welfare policies organized by the state.

[9] The Programa Famílias Fortes (PFF-BR 10-14) was an adaptation to the Brazilian reality of the Strengthening Families Programme (SFP-UK), reworked in the United Kingdom by Oxford Brookes University after its creation in the United States in 1982 as a behavioral engineering instrument of the R. Reagan era. “It is a methodology of seven weekly meetings for families with children between the ages of 10 and 14 that aims to promote the well-being of family members, strengthening the processes of protection and building family resilience and reducing the risks related to problematic behaviors” (MMFDH, 2022).

[10] For a full account of the pandemic context see the Brazilian chapter of the e-book Anti-gender politics in the pandemic context in Latin America.