Stella Maxwell
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The Right-Wing Is Weaponizing Gender Panic

Gender Ideology

The Trump Administration’s leaked gender memo, the recent transgender military ban, and the expansion of the global gag rule aren’t coincidences. They are part of a well-coordinated, funded global movement designed to control our communities by restricting the rights and bodily autonomy of women, LGBTQI communities, and people of color — eerily reminiscent of Reagan era oppressive tactics.

For LGBTQI communities, this kind of backlash is not new. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration demonized our communities, as did right-wing forces around the world, spreading the false notion of the "gay plague" and blaming men who have sex with men for the transmission of the HIV virus. LGBT people were denied equal access to healthcare, faced intense violence, were stigmatized, stripped of basic rights, and often forced into the shadows. But we fought back.

Today, we know the far-right are sewing those same seeds of paranoia, creating gender panic with the use of an intentionally ambiguous organizing framework termed "gender ideology"by some and "anti-gender ideology" by others. Originating in the 1990s, gender ideology is a construct that depicts efforts to expand rights for women, LGBTQI people, and people of color, as radical, dangerous, and elitist, arguing that we are a threat to traditional family values.

What we have been less aware of is that this gender ideology movement is extremely well-funded, and well-organized across sectors and regions. While we don’t have a comprehensive map of the funding of these movements, we know the size and scope is significant. For example, the gender ideology movement’s receives a lot of funding from churches and we know their budgets are sizable; for example, Chile gave the Catholic Church $16 million in one year alone, and Russia gave the Russian Orthodox church $189 million over three years. Of course, not all of this is to oppose gender and sexuality rights, but it demonstrates the scope and capacities of these institutions.

More specifically, the World Congress of Families is one of the most influential far-right networks which "seeks to unite and equip leaders, organizations, and families to affirm, celebrate, and defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society." In 2019, they hosted a conference in Verona less than a year following their last in Moldova, with a speaker lineup that included the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, the President of Moldova, an MP from Malawi, and the President of the WCF’s parent American organization, the International Organization for the Family.

From Poland to Brazil and Colombia to Kenya, gender ideology movements are showing up across the world and are growing in size and power. By bringing together right-wing authoritarian leaders, legislators, and civil society and religious leaders to develop policies which paint us as threats to the natural order, they are gaining legitimacy by the day, and directly restricting our rights and freedom. Their strategies take the form of police violence, anti-immigrant rhetoric, restricted access to sexual and reproductive rights, white supremacist ideologies, and the use of gender paranoia to mobilize masses of people toward these conservative agendas.

Many of Astraea’s grantees have been on the frontlines of this battle. In 2016, Colombia was making inroads in the fight for gender justice after coordinated organizing from local LGBTQI activist groups. A progressive subcommission was formed as part of the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — to ensure a sufficient gender focus in the accords. This was the first peace agreement to use a gender-based approach to ensure the inclusion of women and LGBTI people. Concurrently, the Colombian Education ministry, led by openly lesbian Minister Gina Parody, released educational materials for teachers to prevent discrimination against LGBT students.

However, these actions resulted in major critique from former Colombian president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe — leader of the opposition — and his followers, "uribistas." They vehemently argued that the government had used the peace deal as an opportunity to promote a "confused gender ideology." On Facebook, a flyer posted by uribistas read, "Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology."

The Colombia example reveals how the political forces behind gender ideology have existed for decades, fighting to deny the rights of women and LGBTI people. Today, they have rebranded to exist directly in opposition to gender ideology and utilize populist, fear-based messaging to attack the rights of LGBTI people and women with renewed vigor. Álvaro Uribe framed the inclusion of the rights of LGBTI people and women in the peace agreement as an imposition of gender ideology. By doing so, he equated 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.

The global anti-gender ideology movement has built and funded a network that knows few boundaries and has core shared goals — across different religions and bridging secular and religious divides. They have found messaging that resonates, and they have not limited themselves by issue, population, or even geography in their funding strategies. Where they see an opportunity, they show up.

This fear-based organizing is in direct response to the success of progressive feminist-led movement-building; appropriating our well-honed strategies to their own ends. But we have been building power in well-coordinated, cross-regional, cross-sectoral ways, for decades. From increased political power of women in U.S. Congress to the repeal of Section 377, criminalizing homosexual activity in India, progressive grassroots movements made those changes happen.

What’s needed is for us to bring the kind of committed funding and support to our movements that far-right groups are bringing to anti-gender ideology movements. In the same way that lesbians advocated alongside gay men’s groups during the AIDS crisis, we must come together in community once again. Moving beyond the binaries the gender ideology movement wants to force upon us, we must stand with all our people; lesbian, gay, trans, intersex, bisexual, non-binary, and more. We must show up for the entirety of our communities, in all their identities and diversities, because from bathroom bills to abortion bans, these are attempts to control ALL our bodies and freedoms.

This is precisely why the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice exists. We’ve been resourcing the grassroots for over 40 years, are one of the first women’s funds in the world, and the only one solely dedicated to LGBTQI rights globally. This unique vantage point puts us at the nexus of the very communities most under attack — LGBTQI communities, people of color, and women. We exist to shift power to these very communities, particularly those whose voices are most often silenced, but who as the most impacted, are best suited to make lasting change.

Here in the United States and around the world, our communities continue to challenge white supremacy and conservative politics, fighting for basic rights. Grassroots LGBTQI activists are saying "we exist, we will not be silenced, we deserve to live a life of dignity and abundance." We need to believe in the power of our movements, we need to invest in them, and we need to do it together.

J. Bob Alotta is executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

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