The “rainbow plague”: gender conspiracies theories

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Conspiracy theories are alternative explanations for important events that center around secret plots by powerful and ill-intentioned groups. According to the psychologists Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M. Douglas, they are 1) consequential, which means they either promote or inhibit certain behaviors; 2) universal, because they have been present in every culture and historical period; 3) emotional, since they appeal to feelings rather than rational thoughts; 4) and social, meaning they refer to intergroup conflict.

When referring to conspiracies, the Vatican, traditionalists and right-wing politicians and voters, describe “gender” as an oversimplified concept stemming from feminist ideology and gender studies, which they deem threatening and dangerous. In their opinion, the goal of this movement – sometimes even identified as a “gender dictatorship” – is to subvert the natural order by relinquishing traditional gender roles, destroying the so-called traditional family, abandoning Catholic morals and values, and so on.

Campaigning against gender theory

In Italy, the right-wing conservative party Fratelli d’Italia has been promoting anti-gender rhetoric for years. Their leader, Giorgia Meloni, often shares through social media warnings against the dangers of gender theory: In May 2014, she wrote a Facebook post stating “I am against the gender ideology that is trying to impose on youngsters a misleading interpretation of their sexual identity”. In 2018, via Twitter, she demanded, “Let’s defend our children. No to gender ideology”, and warned on Facebook that “Gender ideology expects to drill even in the youngest children the idea that man and woman are outdated concepts, just like mom and dad. If this is progress, I am proud to be old-fashioned”. 

In December 2017, Meloni and her party launched the so-called #busdellalibertà (freedom bus) initiative, which consisted of them touring through fifteen Italian cities aboard an orange bus tagged with slogans like “boys are males and girls are females”, “you can’t choose nature” and “#stopgender”. The campaign was actually inspired by a similar initiative carried out in February of the same year by the Catholic association HazteOir (Make yourself heard) in Spain. Here, the tags on the bus were more explicit: “Boys have a penis. Girls have a vulva. Don’t fool yourself.” Both the campaigns were criticized by the local governments: in Madrid, the orange bus was ordered off the streets, and in Italy, several cities denied its entrance and passage.

Gender conspiracies worldwide

These statements and initiatives are a clear example of gender conspiracy beliefs, which are “convictions that gender studies and gender-equality activists represent an ideology secretly designed to harm traditional values and social arrangements”, as described by Marchlewska, Cichocka and colleagues. These authors carried out a study in which they found that these views about gender ideology function like conspiracy theories, and therefore coined the term “gender conspiracy beliefs”. They also demonstrated that religious collective narcissism – a defensive identification with one’s religious group – is a strong predictor of gender conspiracy beliefs among Polish people. 

The existence of anti-gender movements, though, is not restricted to Poland and Italy: marches against same-sex marriage and gender ideology were held in Mexico; Colombian religious groups protested against the “indoctrination of their children” through gender-related teachings in schools; and in France, similar protests and initiatives were carried out by the right-wing organization La Manif Pour Tous (“the strike for all”). 

Perhaps most importantly, Pope Francis spoke about “the mischief going on these days with the indoctrination of gender theory”, describing his conversation with a French priest whose son said that, as a grown-up, he wanted to be a girl. Both men blamed this on children’s school books, aimed to “change people’s way of thinking” in what the Pope called “ideological colonization”. In August 2019, Polish Catholic archbishop Jedraszewsk claimed the country was afflicted by a “rainbow plague”, stating: “Our land is no longer affected by the red plague [Communism], which does not mean that there is no new one that wants to control our souls, hearts, and minds. Not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit, neo-Marxist. Not red, but rainbow.”

Fortunately, anti-gender movements have also led to the creation of projects, associations, and resources aimed at debunking such harmful conspiracy theories. For example, the Italian LGBTQIA+ association ArciGay has launched a website called maqualegender (literally “which gender?!”) that collects anti-gender arguments and offers counter-arguments and explanations that are accessible to everyone. It also advocates for inclusive sex education in schools, hoping to give future generations the tools we lacked in order to build a more accepting society.

Recommended Readings: 

Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A., Łozowski, F., Górska, P., & Winiewski, M. (2019). In search of an imaginary enemy: Catholic collective narcissism and the endorsement of gender conspiracy beliefs. The Journal of social psychology, 159(6), 766-779.

Szabo, Hanna. Understanding Anti-Gender Movements. 

van Prooijen, J. W., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain. European journal of social psychology, 48(7), 897-908.

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