A dangerous concept has emerged in Latin America, one with the power to rapidly mobilize voters and give new energy to the socially conservative agenda. It’s called “gender ideology,” and according to the conservative politicians and activists who coined the phrase, it redefines reforms that benefit women and LGBTI people—such as the right to same-sex marriage—as the “imposition” of a system of beliefs [link in Spanish] that threatens “Christian values” and corrupts society.
If the false narrative of gender ideology continues to gain momentum, the hard-won rights of LGBTI people and women could be endangered.
So far, the makeover has worked: last year in Colombia, for example, a campaign against gender ideology contributed to the rejection of a peace agreement struck between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
What the Colombia example also shows, however, is that the political forces behind gender ideology are mostly the same ones who spent decades fighting to deny the rights of women and LGBTI people. By rebranding politics in opposition to gender ideology and utilizing populist, fear-based messaging, socially conservative forces are able to attack the rights of LGBTI people and women with renewed vigor.
The concept first gained traction in Europe, where anti-LGBTI activists and politicians in Spain and France, among others, used the term while attempting to limit the rights of women and LGBTI persons.
Poland offers one of the most extreme examples. In 2013, Catholic bishops launched a campaign against gender ideology that was quickly taken up by socially conservative activists, groups, and politicians. Unsurprisingly, the campaign, which began with one bishop saying that gender ideology was a greater threat than communism and Nazism, also supported a contentious proposal to criminalize abortion.
Despite its fresh rebranding, gender ideology is based on two misguided assumptions that have long underpinned the movements against women’s and LGBTI people’s rights. First, that reforms benefitting LGBTI people encourage homosexuality, threaten the traditional concept of the family, and pose a threat to Christian values. Second, that men and women should abide by antiquated gender roles and that women’s engagement outside of the family should be limited.
By describing the rejection of these assumptions as an attack on Christianity itself, politicians use gender ideology to gain the support of conservative Evangelical Christians and Catholics, two voting blocs with significant political power across Latin America.
Nowhere was this strategy more effective than in Colombia during the lead-up to the referendum on the peace agreement. Drafted with the input of victims of the conflict, the Colombian peace accords were the first peace agreement to use a gender-based approach to ensure the inclusion of women and LGBTI people in the peace process.
While many in the human rights community considered this to be an exciting step forward, conservative politicians such as former president Álvaro Uribe framed the inclusion of the rights of LGBTI people and women in the peace agreement as an imposition of gender ideology, equating a “yes” vote in the referendum to a vote against Christian values and the traditional Colombian family, as opposed to a vote to end the 50-year conflict.
Rather quickly, other examples of this kind of fear-based messaging popped up across the region: in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Panama, to name a few. Just weeks after the campaign began in Colombia, protests against same-sex marriage took place in Mexico. In Peru, meanwhile, there were protests against the inclusion of sexuality and gender identity education in schools.
In both countries, the viral campaigns were shockingly similar to the one seen in Colombia, with comparable information and messaging—potentially a result of coordination between proponents of gender ideology in Colombia and those in other countries.
Because the gender ideology argument has proven so successful at mobilizing socially conservative voters, it’s likely that the phrase will play a significant role during next year’s presidential elections in Colombia and Mexico. To combat such attacks, supporters of women’s and LGBTI people’s rights should continue to shine a light on the contributions of women and LGBTI people, while also exposing the pernicious gender ideology argument for what it is—an attempt to exploit religious beliefs to gain political power and deny people their fundamental rights.
If those who support human rights don’t stand up now, and if gender ideology continues to spread across the region in 2018, it is likely that the gains made by women and LGBTI people in recent years will be under threat.