The GOP Wants Us To Consider Gender An Ideology

This article was originally published here

For conservatives, the battle over transgender rights is an existential clash set to determine the fate of the United States, Christianity, and the West.

One of the right’s most prominent anti-trans commentators, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, casts it in apocalyptic terms. “I truly see the fight against gender ideology as the last stand for Western civilization,” Walsh said during a talk at the University of Iowa in April. “If the sane side loses this, it’s over.”

Like Walsh, many of the conservative activists, think tank researchers, and politicians leading the charge to ban gender-affirming care and roll back civil rights protections for transgender people frame their anti-LGBTQ politics as opposition to “gender ideology,” a nebulous term used by conservatives to suggest that increasing social acceptance of transgender people is part of a politically motivated left-wing plot to undermine traditional gender roles and society’s moral foundations.

On March 25, during former President Donald Trump’s first rally for his 2024 presidential campaign, in Waco, Texas, he promised a cheering crowd, “We will defeat the cult of gender ideology to reassert that God created two genders, male and female.” Trump has said that if he is elected, he will ban gender-affirming care for minors and adults, a stance favored by far-right social conservative groups like the American Principles Project, which has run transphobic political ads and advocated for anti-trans policies across the country. Other Republican presidential candidates have followed his lead, using similar framing in stump speeches and in interviews.

Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), used similar language last year to defend one of his most infamous policies: the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which bans public school instruction in gender and sexuality before the third grade. In DeSantis’ telling, that legislation is part of his administration’s resistance to “woke gender ideology.”

It’s even found its way into the text of federal legislation. The Stop Sexualization of Children Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last year by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), warned that many school curriculums are promoting “gender ideology.” The bill was not brought up for a vote.

Only in recent years has the term become popular in the United States, although the politics associated with it are deeply rooted in American cultural conservatism around sexuality and gender. While its exact origins as an anti-trans slogan are unclear, Camille Robcis, a historian at Columbia University who is writing a book about the history of the phrase, says that “gender ideology” was, at first, deployed by Catholic conservatives close to the Vatican in the 1990s to oppose the expansion of women’s and LGBTQ rights in United Nations treaties. Then as now, conservatives viewed so-called gender ideology as part of a plot to undermine the family, in their worldview composed of a married man and woman and their biological children.

The term quickly found purchase outside the Catholic context, according to Robcis. “So originally in the mid-1990s, when it emerges, it’s mostly to talk about abortion, but then it’s mostly used against gay marriage, then it moves to other things, but now, in the U.S., it’s very much against trans rights,” she told the American Independent Foundation.

Robcis said that the right-wing use of the term begun at a 1994 United Nations Conference in Cairo, but the conservative reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Bejing, China, is “when it all kind of explodes.” Catholic conservatives representing the Vatican at the 1995 conference began to fear that diplomats and women’s groups who wanted to include the word “gender” in the conference’s official report were attempting to covertly smuggle in a radical, far-left feminist agenda, Robcis said.

In the wake of the conference, the term “gender ideology” began to be used among Catholic leaders. Dale O’Leary, a conservative Catholic writer and blogger and a participant in some of the Beijing proceedings, brought the term to greater prominence with her book “The Gender Agenda,” published in 1997, which gave voice to conservatives’ gender anxieties. The book, Robcis said, became popular within the Vatican at the turn of the century.

Since then, “gender ideology” has been used by a diverse constellation of fundamentalist religious groups, authoritarian political leaders, and social movements to oppose expanding LGBTQ and women’s rights across the globe.

“It’s not at all consistent what it means. Sometimes it’s abortion, sometimes it’s gay righ movements. ts, sometimes it’s LGBT, or sometimes it’s trans rights,” Robcis said. “And that shifts historically and geographically.” So-called gender ideology, Robcis noted, is a leading concern of Pope Francis, as it was of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Abroad, attacks on “gender ideology” have become an integral part of authoritarian movements. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the leader of the right-wing populist Fidesz party, frequently inveighs against the evils of “gender ideology.” His government has cited the term to oppose European Union treaties and to shut down academic departments in gender studies.

In 2022, Fidesz passed a constitutional amendment that functionally banned adoption by same-sex couples by defining the family as a man and a woman. Earlier this year, the country’s president vetoed a bill that would have allowed citizens to report same-sex families who raise children to the government for violating the “constitutionally recognized role of marriage and the family.”

Robcis noted that the term is a particular fixation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used it extensively in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a way to distinguish Russia from the rest of Europe and to attract like-minded governments, such as Hungary’s. “All of Putin’s rhetoric justifying the invasion of Ukraine has been around gender ideology,” Robcis said. “It serves as a kind of way to also promote his own illiberal government.”

Robcis argues that the phrase is fundamentally empty: “There is no gender ideology. Only the people who oppose it say there is such a thing.

“There’s a thing called gender studies, and that’s an academic field, and gender operates also in the realm of law and public policy. It’s usually taken as a synonym for women or for sex, but there is no gender ideology as such,” she added.

Regardless, defenders of traditional gender roles have used “gender ideology” to challenge the expansion of human rights, sometimes successfully. In Colombia, religious conservatives used the term to rally opposition to gender and LGBTQ equality provisions in the peace deal that ended the country’s decades-long civil conflict. To appease conservatives, negotiators pared back that language in the final deal, which passed in 2016, according to Open Global Rights.

Experts say that the idea of “gender ideology” acts as a unifying symbol, bringing together diverse ideological groups by giving them a common enemy.

“In the Eastern Europe case, and I think in the U.S. case, it’s close to populism,” Robcis said. “It’s a strategy of presenting ‘the people’ as a unified and coherent whole invaded by these foreigners — immigrants, Jews, all of these kinds of traditional scapegoats of populism. And then, similarly, gender is presented as a kind of infectious disease coming from the U.N. or the E.U., or in the United States, liberal elites of the coasts.”

The term “gender ideology,” University of Chicago law professor Mary Anne Case told the American Independent Foundation, was rarely used in the United States in the 1990s, the 2000s and the early 2010s, even as it grew in popularity abroad. In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that guaranteed marriage equality, the right began to focus on transgender rights, according to Case. “The issue that the sexually conservative culture warrior right, in the United States, turn to having lost on same-sex marriage, was trans issues,” she said.

In the United States, opposition to so-called gender ideology has mostly taken the form of opposition to the ability of minors to access gender-affirming care, a set of treatments — including psychological therapy that affirms rather than questions children’s gender identity, puberty blockers, hormones, and, in very rare cases, surgery — that have been overwhelmingly endorsed by major American medical organizations. Opponents of gender-affirming care also tend to favor barring trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, trans people from accessing bathrooms that correspond with their identity, and the public performance of drag in areas where children may be present.

Bethany Moreton, a history professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the conservative movement, told the American Independent Foundation that the anti-trans bills being passed across the country are fueled by a moral panic similar to those that arose in reaction to political movements fighting for women’s rights and gay rights. Rallying the conservative base against insidious “gender ideology,” she argues, is more palatable in the 21st century than directly opposing trans rights.

“I think trans rights is where this kind of spin the bottle is landing right now. … These people who identify as trans are rendered particularly socially, economically vulnerable,” Moreton said. “You can find many of these things that are being said about trans people, go back 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, that are being said about homosexuals. Go back before that, they’re being said about women who want to vote.”

Chris Rufo, the activist who weaponized the term “critical race theory,” a legal framework developed to interrogate the causes of racial discrimination and attack teachings or training about systemic racism and white privilege, is a key conservative voice promoting the panic over “gender ideology.”

Rufo has publicly declared his intention to reuse his strategy around race for debates around gender and sexuality, writing on Twitter in August, “I’m hoping conservatives can unite behind the phrase ‘radical gender theory’ as the catch-all for queer theory, trans ideology, neo-pronouns, and gender identity activism that has captured America’s public institutions.”

Since then, he has turned the techniques he used to elevate “critical race theory,” which included aggressively promoting his views on Twitter to his half-million subscribers, publishing investigative reporting that purports to “out” woke institutions with leaked insider documents and footage, and promoting his views in conservative media, to promoting the notion of “gender ideology.”

Rufo says he believes that his new campaign against gender-affirming care and LGBTQ representation in schools is potentially more potent than his previous efforts. Earlier this year, he told the New York Times, “The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues.”

It appears that Rufo has been learning from the experiences of illiberal and religious conservatives in other countries.

On Twitter, where he has a habit of outlining his agenda publicly, Rufo showed familiarity with how anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist movements abroad have used the term historically and linked it to his earlier activism, writing: “‘Gender ideology’ is good, but works better in European and Latin American contexts. ‘Queer Theory’ is the academic term, but normie parents will be hesitant to use the word. ‘Radical gender theory’ is accurate, flexible, and builds on the connotation of ‘critical race theory.’”

Earlier this year, Rufo, who did not return multiple requests for comment, traveled to Hungary and spent April as a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute, a right-wing think tank aligned with Orban’s government.

The prime minister’s political director, Balázs Orban — they are not related — wrote on Twitter, “Pleasure to meet @realchrisrufo today, who will be spending a month in as a visiting fellow of @InstituteDanube.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Only people in my network can comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: