The phrase is neither a legitimate academic term, nor a political movement but conservatives use it to sell a false narrative and to justify discrimination
Fri 30 Mar 2018
Costa Rica goes to the polls this weekend for a presidential runoff election in which economic concerns have unexpectedly been overshadowed by a debate over gay marriage.
The current frontrunner – rightwing evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado – leapfrogged 12 rivals to win February’s first-round vote, largely thanks to his pledge to ignore an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling which warned Costa Rica that it must guarantee same-sex couples equal rights to marriage.
What was even more remarkable than his sudden electoral surge was that Alvarado had managed to make the election in Central America’s most stable democracy hinge on an abstract – some would say specious – concept: “gender ideology”.
The phrase is neither a legitimate academic term, nor a political movement.
It is a theory drummed up by hard-right religious activists, who present it as a gay- and feminist-led movement out to upend the traditional family and the natural order of society. It’s a catchall phrase to sell a false narrative and justify discrimination against women and LGBT people. And it is winning elections.
The term first surfaced in the Vatican, in the mid-1990s, a time when sexual and reproductive rights were formally recognised by the UN, and when gender entered the lexicon of the global body. Gender equality was finally being protected and promoted by international legal obligations.
Advances in women’s rights threatened the Catholic church, which feared this would open the floodgates to abortion and promiscuous behaviour, and lead to the downfall of western civilisation.
By 1997 the notion of a “gender ideology” gained wider momentum with the publication of Dale O’Leary’s The Gender Agenda. This influential text – reportedly read by members of the Vatican – maintained that substituting the word “sex” with “gender”, in international spaces like the UN was part of a global feminist scheme to dissolve the family and remake society.
By the early 2000s, a transnational movement agitating against “gender ideology” was strengthening. And not just in Catholic Poland, Brazil and Ireland, but in reliably progressive countries like Germany and France.
One of the most remarkable deployments of gender ideology was during the 2016 Colombia peace referendum. After 52 years of civil war, Colombians were widely expected to vote for a peace accord. Yet in a stunning setback, voters rejected the deal by a narrow margin. It was Latin America’s Brexit moment.
One contributing factor was a fear campaign launched by peace opponents. They framed efforts to address gender-based violence and to ensure the political participation of women and LGBT people as the work of gender ideologues out to subvert the traditional family and Colombia’s Christian values.