Publicado originalmente en Antifacist Europe.
In recent years, Europe has seen a growing presence of far-right movements, religious fundamentalism and the discourses associated with them. The “anti-gender” agenda has played an important role in this rise and is part of a clear strategy to gain institutional, social and media power, in an effort to undermine liberal democracy in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Though its intensity and orientation vary according to each country’s political context, this agenda is important because it brings together very different forces and ignites social mobilisation around moral panics, allowing extremist parties to create their own social and cultural base. While these nationalist platforms always revolve around immigration – and Islamophobia – they have managed to connect these themes with gender issues and attacks on the rights of women and LGTBIQ people. Family – which in this vocabulary is directly connected with the issue of “gender” – race and nation are at the core of their political projects.
With the arrival of these political alternatives in the upper echelons of power – in Poland and Hungary, for example – and in the parliaments of all Western European countries except Ireland, such “anti-gender” discourses have gained legitimacy and space within society. Against this backdrop, hate crimes and attacks against feminist and LGTBIQ activists are on the rise, and new bills that curb or roll back rights are being passed into law.
The first thing we notice when we approach the anti-gender universe is the diversity of its actors. They include politicians and far-right parties, as well as media influencers and intellectuals. But the prime players are churches and Christian fundamentalist religious leaders and their lobby groups, which work closely and energetically with European institutions. Within this diverse constellation, we should not forget the role of religion-based civil society groups, such as Ordo Iuris in Poland or Hazte Oír in Spain, whose active political role is enabled by ample financial backing. According to a report by the European Parliament, between 2009 and 2018 more than €629 million was spent on anti-gender campaigns. The heterogeneity of this landscape allows anti-gender actors to be active at different levels – local and transnational, religious and secular, within government and civil society – thus broadening their sphere of influence.
In fact, gender issues constitute the main field of discursive and practical coordination within this plurality of actors at the international level, thanks to forums such as the World Congress of Families. Based on the “defence” of the family and concepts like “gender ideology” – coined by the Catholic Church – these actors attack reproductive rights such as abortion, question the importance of sexual education and seek to reinstate traditional binary gender differences based on biology.
For them, defending the “natural” family means defending the existing social order and protecting “our” way of life, which is understood in terms of national or Western supremacy, often associating “Western culture” with Christianity and conservative values. It is important to remember that their most important and most widely shared narratives are those related to falling birth rates in Europe “because of feminism”. The most hyperbolic version of this claim is the theory of the Great Replacement, which associates falling birth rates with “the substitution” of European – or American – populations by immigrants, especially Muslims. In this case, the defence of the family is coupled with a xenophobic, anti-migrant agenda; with gender and racial issues forming two sides of the same coin in a broader supremacist project. This framework is also present in gatherings such as the demographic summits promoted by the Hungarian government since 2018, the latest of which took place last September in Budapest.
Although Christian fundamentalisms around the world clearly draw supporters from the anti-gender agenda, not all far-right parties follow the same ultra-conservative line. Many have had to adapt to the social consensus in secularised countries, where societal values have undergone profound transformations since the 1960s. Therefore, in places such as France, Germany or Scandinavia, they try to tone down their conservatism on gender issues, at least at the level of rhetoric. The French politician Marine Le Pen, for example, claims not to be against abortion, and the Dutch Party for Freedom has stood out for its defence of equal rights for women and same-sex couples. However, recent phenomena such as the current French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour or the Vox party in Spain show that new, overtly anti-feminist discourses and programmes are still emerging in these countries.
In fact, in Western Europe, far-right movements often disguise their Islamophobia with the notion of “defending” women and LGTBIQ people from the threat of Islam, which is always portrayed as fundamentalist and backward. These strategies are known as femonationalism and homonationalism. Their discourse also associates migration with sexual violence and insecurity more broadly, which allows them to pursue an authoritarian and repressive “law-and-order” agenda, including measures such as harsher sentencing and the creation of new crimes. Of course, this “defence” of women is often highly strategic, and is compatible with conservative positions that either promote the return of women to their traditional roles as mothers and caregivers or are not supportive of measures to achieve real equality.
However, in Eastern Europe, the anti-gender agenda is being pursued through more brutal tactics, including direct attacks on LGTBIQ people. This agenda has been key for the alliance between nationalism and religious fundamentalism, and has contributed to the electoral success of the far right, beginning with Viktor Orbán’s presidential victory in Hungary in 2010. Since then, anti-gender positions have become embedded in these governments’ policies, and serve as justification for the ongoing dismantling of democratic institutions, as well as for different kinds of attacks on NGOs and feminist activists. Orbán aims to lead this anti-rights crusade with the support of Putin’s Russia, which uses the anti-gender agenda – and its alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church – as part of a wider strategy to meddle in the region.
Key features of the anti-rights agenda
One of the main goals of anti-rights groups is restricting sexual and reproductive rights, and abortion has been one of the key historical battles in this area right around the world. In Poland, the Constitutional Court restricted the already limited right to abortion in the country with a ruling pushed by a religious organisation and the government, while in Slovakia a similar attempt was stopped in parliament by a single vote.
In Western Europe, where the right to abortion is widely accepted, the strategy has been to limit access to it through various tactics, such as harassment outside clinics, the conscientious objection of medical professionals, or proposing that it be excluded from the public health system, as suggested by many far-right parties.
Gender equality legislation
In Eastern Europe, the adoption of the international consensus and the implementation of domestic legislation in compliance with treaties related to gender issues are being met with significant resistance. Even though this is true of all pro-equality laws, the ratification and implementation of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention – the most important international treaty regarding violence against women – has sparked an important battle in recent years. In Bulgaria, for example, the treaty was ruled unconstitutional following a proposal by the executive. In 2020, the Polish government said that it will withdraw from the treaty. That same year, the treaty was rejected by the parliaments of Slovakia and Hungary. Like other items in the anti-gender agenda, this matter has served to strengthen the nationalist discourses of far-right movements, which claim to oppose the EU because it is trying to impose “foreign values” that go against their national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, fierce opposition to sex education and gender equality programmes in schools has united forces across Europe in another key international battle that is also being waged aggressively in the US and Latin America. In Hungary, for example, a recent law banned all content aimed at minors that discusses homosexuality from an egalitarian perspective, including books, films and other materials. In other countries, activists who produce such educational material are being persecuted and have been victims of smear campaigns. This issue manages to tick the boxes of the moral panics favoured by social conservatism, as it touches on matters related to sexuality, feminism, and gender and sexual identity – and puts “childhood at risk”. (It should be noted that these campaigns are fuelled by an overabundance of fake news, such as those that link homosexuality with paedophilia.)
In Western Europe, the most overtly anti-rights positions are held by Christian fundamentalist movements such as La Manif Pour Tous in France or Hazte Oír in Spain. These organisations continue to oppose widely accepted achievements such as same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, while also trying to block the attainment of new rights – for example, through gender identity laws – and speaking out against transgender people.
In Eastern Europe, however, nationalism and traditional ideas of masculinity converge to fuel a more virulent strain of homophobia. The churches in countries like Poland, Russia and Hungary, as well as some political leaders and parties, have made LGTBIQ people into scapegoats. The region is experiencing a genuine crusade against sexual and gender diversity, which translates into a rise in homophobic violence and the curtailment of LGTBIQ rights. This has been the case in Hungary, which has amended its constitution to prevent same-sex couples from adopting – same-sex adoptions were also banned in Poland – and the recognition of transgender people. And in Poland, where around 100 municipalities have recently been declared “LGTB-free zones”. These developments have sparked clashes within the EU, with the European Commission threatening to block regional funding if LGTBIQ rights are not upheld.
In Eastern European countries, the new “enemies of the nation” are those who fight for liberal rights, for gender equality, against gender-based violence, or simply to be recognised as gay, transgender or lesbian. They are seen as traitors of the nation – which ultraconservatives attempt to associate with traditional values – and as allies of the EU, which is seeking to impose its “gender and LGTB ideology” and is thus a threat to national sovereignty. The ultimate goal of the gender wars being waged in the region is to launch a massive attack against the EU and its perceived values. However, as Wendy Brown explains, we should not forget that, besides heteropatriarchal norms and family forms, what’s at stake in all European gender wars is: “property ownership and wealth accumulation, retention, and transmission – in short, all that reproduces and legitimates historical powers and ordinances of class, kinship, race, and gender”.
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 The term “anti-gender” may be misleading for some English-speaking readers. Amongst religious conservatives in various non-English-speaking countries, particularly in Europe, “anti-gender” is a term that can mean being against the right to abortion, LGTBIQ rights, children’s rights and equality overall.