Understanding Anti-gender Movements

Understanding Anti Gender Movements

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

On April 3, 2022, the Hungarian general election takes place, and alongside the election, there is a national referendum on LGBTQ+ in education. The referendum asks citizens four questions, about “teaching of sexual orientation”, “promotion of sex reassignment”, “exposure to sexually explicit media content”, and “showing of sex-change media content” to minors. The wording of the questions, and the accompanying campaign (with the slogan “Protect our children!”, Source), clearly inform citizens what the appropriate answers in the referendum supposedly are. By holding the referendum the same day as the general election, the government also highlights how crucial this topic is for Hungary’s future.  

The question of gender and sexuality has been gradually but persistently at the core of the Hungarian government’s policy efforts in the previous years. In the Fall of 2020, a new amendment to the Constitution was passed that defines family as “based on marriage and the parent-child relation. The mother is a woman, the father a man.” Furthermore, the amendment consolidates Christian values by stating that “Hungary defends the right of children to identify with their birth gender and ensures their upbringing based on our nation’s constitutional identity and values based on our Christian culture”.

By positioning sexuality and gender-related questions as unethical, unnatural, and as Western lobbying, the Hungarian government embraces the anti-gender movement. But what are these movements and how have they emerged and become so significant in Europe?

Anti-gender movements can be described as a rise of conservative and, in part, fundamentalist social movements against the perceived threat of the ‘gender ideology’. At the sentiment’s core is the strong opposition to LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, especially targeted against certain administrative policy instruments, such as public financing and support for gender studies, gender mainstreaming, or women’s and LGBTQ+ rights activism. Those who work in these areas and associate themselves with such issues are seen as a single homogeneous group and organised lobby. Anti-genderism across Europe is also notably tied together through the strong sentiment of protecting traditional gender roles and the normative family model. In campaigns against, for example, marriage equality or sex education, we can see that voices against these struggles demand the protection of children and families. 

Although anti-gender campaigns have only become widely visible in the last decade, we can date the movement back to the mid-2000s. In Europe, Spain seems to be the earliest case, when in 2004 the Catholic Church, conservative groups, and political parties mobilised against the government and the same-sex marriage law. Campaigns against sex education, same-sex civil partnership, and marriage equality have also been identified in Hungary, Croatia, Italy, and Slovenia in the following years.

However, 2012 seems to be the tipping point, when the previously more extreme movement has reached the masses in France, in a rally against same-sex marriage (“La manif pour tous”). Not only has this movement successfully brought thousands of protestors to the streets of Paris for two years, but it has also significantly influenced policy-making on gender and sexuality in the country. Following these events, mobilisations spread across the continent. Notably, specific local policy debates triggered all these mobilizations, but in some countries, the apprehension of possible future policies was the catalyst.

In Croatia and Slovakia, for example, the movements began as fear of the “western liberal LGBTQ+ lobby”, and in both countries, a referendum was proposed to change the constitution to prepare against any attempted LGBTQ+ lobby in advance. In Germany and Austria, debates on gender mainstreaming policies were the catalyst for the movement.

Transnational anti-gender campaigns have also been embedded in local and national contexts in most of Latin America since 2016. Mobilisation and public campaigns by religious and secular organizations that opposed comprehensive sexuality education in schools emerged, defending the traditional heterosexual family.

While these campaigns are mostly associated with far-right political parties, this is not exclusively the case. Research on 20,000 Italian Facebook posts about “gender ideology” shows that religious groups are also highly associated with the movement, and the spike in Facebook conversations about the topic is associated with offline events and broadcast media news items. Anti-gender and misogynistic social media content may emerge in political or religious groups first, but highly spreadable content, such as memes, is rapidly taken out of its original context and reaches people outside of these ideological circles. Therefore, when anti-gender sentiments are translated into online popular culture items, it can easily reach online communities that are otherwise not associated with these groups but are receptive to such ideas. The increase of such online and broadcast media content could lead to wider support for anti-gender campaigns, which means women’s and LGBTQ+ rights initiatives may receive more pushback, as we are currently witnessing it in Hungary. 

These examples highlight how anti-gender and anti-feminist sentiments are on the rise across regions. When doing gender diversity research, it is not only crucial to understand the national and international climate around gender and sexuality, but also how prominent anti-gender movements are, and how these all together shape organisations’ and individuals’ views on the topic. With the increasing visibility of messages mobilising against gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, it is important to be aware of specific contextual differences, so we can design and execute appropriate interventions to achieve gender equality.

Suggested readings:

Darakchi, S. (2019). The Western Feminists Want to Make Us Gay”: Nationalism, Heteronormativity, and Violence Against Women in Bulgaria in Times of “Anti-gender Campaigns. Sexuality & Culture, 23(4), 1208-1229.

Kováts, E. (2018). Questioning consensuses: Right-wing populism, anti-populism, and the threat of ‘gender ideology’. Sociological Research Online, 23(2), 528-538.

Paternotte, D., & Kuhar, R. (2018). Disentangling and locating the “global right”: Anti-gender campaigns in Europe. Politics and Governance, 6(3), 6-19.

Righetti, N. (2021). The Anti-Gender Debate on Social Media. A Computational Communication Science Analysis of Networks, Activism, and Misinformation. Comunicazione politica, 23(2), 223-250.

Suggested video: 

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. (2019). Attack on Democracy: Anti-Gender-Movements in Europe. YouTube. YouTube. Retrieved March 16, 2022.

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