Beyond the culture wars: ‘Gender ideology’ and discourses of homophobia in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe
Stemming from a belief that what lies behind a new wave of opposition to LGBTQ+ rights goes far beyond simple homophobia, a study of the discourses and counter-discourses of anti-LGBTQ+ movements in relationship to new waves of populism and discontent with globalisation illuminates the broader issues at play, where ideas like ‘gender ideology’ are present.
Discourses of homophobia
In recent years, a new backlash against LGBTQ+ rights has emerged across Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and other regions. Social conservatives, such as religious groups, have mobilised in opposition to concepts such as ‘gender ideology’, in an attempt to paint LGBTQ+ rights as a nefarious ideology, a foreign imposition, and an attack on the ‘traditional’ family; and by extension, on the nation state. In response, LGBTQ+ Social Movement Organisations (SMOs) and activists alike have adopted new framing strategies to counter these arguments in order to advance sexual minority rights. ‘Framing’ refers to the cognitive and ideational processes whereby mobilising and counter-mobilising ideas and meaning are produced.1 Counter-framing, on the other hand, is defined as the “rhetorical strategies that challenge the original claims or frames.”2 In this article, we examine both discursive and counter-discursive frames of LGBTQ+ rights in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe.
A new enemy: Gender ideology
Across Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and other regions, the term ‘gender ideology’ has been increasingly used by social conservatives to counter advances in women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. In Spain, the ultra-catholic organisation Hazteoír sent buses emblazoned with transphobic slogans warning against the ‘gender ideology’ around several cities. In France, La Manif Pour Tousmobilised people against marriage equality and the teaching of ‘gender theory’ in schools. In Colombia, thousands of people protested against the supposed inclusion of ‘gender ideology’ in school curricula and a plebiscite on an agreement to end the 56-year civil war was narrowly voted down with many people citing the presence of ‘gender ideology’ as a motivating factor. In Brazil protestors greeted gender theorist Judith Butler at a São Paolo amongst cries of “witch” and “paedophile” and decried her “nefarious ideology”.[i]
This narrative suggests that ‘gender’ is an ideology along the lines of Nazism or communism, thought up by radical feminists and imposed around the world through international organisations such as the United Nations (UN), or through the education system. In an age where outright declarations of homophobia are restricted by anti-discrimination laws and hate speech legislation, ‘gender ideology’ is a new way for social conservatives to couch their opposition to issues such as marriage equality, improved sex-education in schools or adoption for same sex couples. It plays on fears that positive depictions of LGBT persons run the risk of ‘homosexualising’ society and exhorts ‘natural’ (namely, antiquated) gender roles. Its opponents claim to be acting in defence of the ‘traditional’ family and protecting children from confusing concepts such as gender roles, gender identity or sexual orientation. ‘Gender ideology’ is not lacking in geopolitical undertones. ‘Imposed’ from outside, opponents of ‘gender ideology’ claim to be saving the ‘natural’ family from nefarious foreign influence. This idea that education systems or peace agreements are being ‘colonised’ by Western concepts has a particularly powerful pull in Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, rather than seeing these anti-gender mobilisations as an expression of renewed religious fundamentalism, or deep-seated homophobia, we can best understand ‘gender ideology’ to be a kind of ‘symbolic glue,’ a catch-all term that encompasses a wide set of dissatisfactions with (neo)liberal democracy.4 These include: the increased importance of identity politics in relation to material issues; the increased influence of international organisations and the global economy on domestic politics; increased economic instability and ‘precarisation‘; and the detachment of political and economic elites from the rest of the population.5
The impacts of globalisation have affected the family unit in particular. Rapid urbanisation often tears families apart as family members move in search of jobs, leaving behind communities and support networks, as well as the disintegration of local culture.6 It is against this backdrop that rallies ‘in defence of the family’ have a particular pull.
Anti-gender activists also decry the ‘imposition’ of progressive reforms by organisations such as the European Union (EU) or the UN, calling these reforms ‘ideological colonisation.’ This narrative ignores the tireless work of local activists who struggle for the defence of LGBTQ+ rights. Far from passively accepting policies imposed by the UN or the EU, national governments are often capitulating to the demands of grassroots activists when recognising the rights of their LGBTQ+ populations. This narrative also obscures the complex colonial histories of family and (hetero)sexuality.
The role of organisations such as the EU or the UN in promoting LGBT-friendly policies around the world compounds people’s fears over a loss of their ‘authentic’ national culture. One might point out the irony of conservative activists decrying the imposition of ‘foreign’ ideas whilst belonging to international institutions such as the Catholic Church and using imported discursive models. However, the historic links between church and state mean that religious values are often ‘camouflaged’ within national culture, meaning it is easy for religious groups, themselves often being members of international networks, to avoid the accusations of ‘foreignness’ they level at their opponents.7
“Get to know us”: Activist responses
In response, LGBTQ+ grassroots organisations and activists in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe have devised effective counter-discursive frames to mobilise against conservative factions. A common thread in these frames is a tendency to emphasise the ‘local’ nature of LGBTQ+ rights and people, as well as the diverse scope of discrimination. By doing so, they undermine the narrative that LGBTQ+ rights are ‘externally imposed’, and, at the same time, demonstrate that minority rights are an issue of citizen and human rights, rather than a matter of philosophy.
In the Caribbean, for instance, LGBTQ+ advocates have done this by employing rhetoric that rejects colonialism and imperialism, shedding light on the hypocrisy of defending colonial-era laws in the name of national sovereignty. For example, in 2010, the Executive Director of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) in Trinidad and Tobago, Colin Robinson, stated:
our nation… [overcame] several forms of domination and repression: Colonialism, that says your land and your decision making do not belong to you. Imperialism, that says your resources do not belong to you… and slavery, that says your body does not belong to you… [as slavery has shown] when your body does not belong to you, neither do [sic] your sexuality nor your reproduction- they belong to master.8
Furthermore, the 2013 video campaign “We are Jamaicans” launched by the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) is another example of the ‘indigenous’ discursive frames used by LGBTQ+ advocates to counter anti-LGBTQ narratives. The videos are uploaded to You Tube for mass dissemination and highlights the “Jamaikaners” of LGBTQ+ persons who share their experiences living on the island and their perspectives about LGBTQ+ human rights.8 In one of the videos, Ricardo McKenzie begins by stating “I am Jamaican. Jamaica is my home, but I don’t feel very Jamaican, because I am gay.”10 The organisation, thus, sends the message that LGBTQ+ people in Jamaica are also citizens, “they are not different,” and therefore they deserve “respect,” including rights and protection, as every other citizen.
Similarly, in Poland, LGBTQ+ SMOs have also deployed autochthonous-centred approaches in mobilising against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. The Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia, KPM), developed an initiative in 2003 called “I am gay. I am lesbian. Get to know us”, whereby members of the gay and lesbian community and human rights activists were invited to speak with students in universities throughout the country.11 In the 2000s, lesbian and gay SMOs in Poland also organised marches, using language such as ‘equality’ and ‘tolerance’ as the names of their parades, underscoring that gay and lesbian rights in Poland were a human rights issue.
In Latin America, LGBTQ+ groups have adopted a similar position. In Uruguay, for instance, La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) shifted its emphasis from identity politics to a discourse, which accentuated the diversity of Uruguayan society to lobby for same-sex civil unions. Opponents of the same-sex union bill argued that it would bring an end to the ‘traditional family’, inferring that there was one type of family in Uruguay. In response, lobbyists for LGBTQ+ rights adopted language such as ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’, which not only appealed to a wide cross-section of society, including feminist groups, students, workers’ movements and progressive political parties, but also effectively undermined the ‘social homogenisation’ narrative used against same-sex civil union rights.
In this sense, the discursive counter-frames employed by LGBTQ+ organisations in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean converge in many ways. In all three territories, LGBTQ+ SMOs have responded to the ‘gender ideology’ and ‘foreign imposition’ narratives, which are used to deride LGBTQ+ rights, by showing that neither LGBTQ+ rights nor people are ‘foreign.’ Moreover, through the deployment of ‘indigenous-rooted’ discursive frames they have shown that LGBTQ+ people are very much citizens, and therefore the provision of rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people is a matter of human and citizens’ rights.
Beyond the culture clash
Successful discursive strategies must therefore avoid a ‘clash of cultures’ narrative, which locates LGBT+ rights in a particular geographical space (somewhere in “the West”), a particular intellectual context (universities inhabited by queer theorists) and a particular point in time (a progressive future utopia). The struggle for women’s and LGBTQ+ equality is far from over, even in those countries that are deemed most progressive. It is incorrect to characterise the West as an oasis of equality, something activists in these areas should be very clear on. At the same time, LGBTQ+ activists must also bear in mind that in many places the battle for the secular state is not completely won. An emotive, value-laden discourse could therefore be more successful than the dry, technical language often used by progressives. LGBTQ+ activists have tended to focus only on the positive aspects of modernisation, which has granted greater freedoms, rather than taking a mixed approach, which recognises the strains of fragmentation,‘precariousness‘ and rapid urbanisation.12 As a result, progressive politics are associated with a prioritisation of identity politics over material redistribution. In the future, useful counter-discourses might therefore consider a re-centring of redistributive projects in the framing of LGBTQ+ issues, which should stop conservatives from being able to blame ‘gender ideology’ for the increasingly fragmented social order and declining power of the nation state in the age of globalisation.
- Benford, R and Snow, D. (2000) Framing Process and Social Movements – An Overview and Assessment Annual Review of Sociology 26:611-639.
- Benford, R.D. and Hunt, S. (2003), cited in Ayoub, P & Chetaille, A. (2017) ‘Movement/ Countermovement interaction and instrumental framing in a multi-level world: rooting Polish Lesbian and Gay Activism’ Social Movement Studies https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14742837.2017.1338941 (30 May 2018)
- See https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil
- Grzebalska, W et al. 2017. Gender as symbolic glue: how ‘gender’ became an umbrella term for the rejection of the (neo)liberal order. Political Critique. http://politicalcritique.org/long-read/2017/gender-as-symbolic-glue-how-gender-became-an-umbrella-term-for-the-rejection-of-the-neoliberal-order/ (30 May 2018).
- Butler, J.(2006) Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized. London: Pluto Press, 32.
- CAISO (2010) Sexual rights: protection of sexuality as something good, natural, precious, essential – at the core of human expression…human freedom…human community. https://gspottt.wordpress.com/ 2010/03/23/sexual-rights-at-the-core-of-human-freedom/ (30 May 2018).
- JFLAG (N/d) We are Jamaicans: Telling the story of LGBT people and allies. http://jflag.org/tag/we-are-jamaican/ (30 May 2018).
- We are Jamaicans (2013) We are Jamaicans – Ricardo Mackenzie. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=oOM1p_lWTqY&t=23s(30 May 2018).
- 10Ayoub, P & Chetaille, A. (2017) ‘Movement/Countermovement interaction and instrumental framing in a multi-level world: rooting Polish Lesbian and Gay Activism’ Social Movement Studies https:// www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14742837.2017.1338941(30 May 2018)
Sian Creely holds an MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge, with a thesis focusing on the use of 'gender' by social conservatives as a byword for dissatisfaction with neoliberal democracy. Additionally, she holds a BA in European Social and Political Studies from University College London, where her dissertation looked at the metaphors of austerity. Her research interests lie in the globalisation of culture in relation to discourses of activism. Sian works freelance as a translator and arts journalist and gained further experience as an intern at UN Women. André Blackburn holds a MSc in Latin American Studies from the University of Oxford. Previously, he obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in International Relations and a BA in Spanish and History (First Class Honours) from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. From 2013 until 2017, he worked with the Embassy of Argentina in Port of Spain as the Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. His research interests include race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and development in Latin America and the Caribbean.