Written by Lara Brett
This policy paper will outline some of the main anti-gender movements and actors operating in Europe today, along with their impact on national gender policy.
What does ‘anti-gender’ mean?
The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy views ‘gender ideology’to be a notion that challenges the traditional nuclear family construct and ‘promotes’ homosexuality, which fundamentally undermines social structures (Denkovski, Bernarding, Lunz, 2021a, pp.9-10).
Consequently, anti-gender movements are those that are opposed to this notion. They are often associated with “racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia, ethnicnationalist ideas as well as hostility towards elites” (Wittenius, 2022).
The transnational anti-gender movement can be divided into three sets of actors: “old actors,” like “the Catholic Church and right-wing think tanks and institutions”, whose influence may be felt globally, “new actors” whose specific aim is to oppose ‘gender ideology’, and “allies, which includes academics, politicians, co-operations, and journalists/ media outlets” (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.10). It is important to emphasise here that not all anti-gender actors share the same views, but are united in their opposition to what they perceive to be feminist and pro-homosexuality propaganda (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021b; Paternotte & Kuhar, 2016, p.7).
Examples of these “new actors” include Les Manifs Pour Tous and CitizenGO. The former is an umbrella organisation which, in 2012, with over 120,000 participants, protested against same-sex marriage in France and ‘gender ideology’. This sparked parallel movements throughout Europe (Wittenius, 2022).
After being founded in 2013 by the Catholic and conservative HatzeOir organisation, CitizenGo has produced anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ adverts. The group tried to influence the 2019 European elections and worked with Spain’s far-right Vox party (Ramsay, Provost, 2019). On the whole, “new actors” portray themselves as “concerned citizens” mobilising for the public good. Their younger and more modern demographic enables them to appeal to new audiences, compared to the more established Catholic Church (Wittenius, 2022).
Anti-gender actors propagate such messaging through an array of strategies.
Under the guise of safeguarding ‘traditional family values’, the anti-gender movement opposes LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and sex education in schools (Wittenius, 2022). It argues that such issues hypersexualise children and undermine the nuclear family structure, threatening society as we know it. A common argument is that the political elites have introduced ‘gender ideology’ against the wishes of the people (Wittenius, 2022). Such ideology may be seen as stemming from communism, or be perceived as a form of neo-colonial control from the European Union by people in Eastern Europe, or by those in the Global South as a form of neo-colonialism (Wittenius, 2022; Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.39).
Right-wing populist movements in Eastern Europe falsely portray civil society as “a Western implant”, undermining the credibility of feminist counter-movements. This contributes to the broader questioning of the European Union’s legitimacy, with anti-gender actors contesting the universality of women’s rights “on the grounds of national sovereignty and cultural difference” (Schmid, 2021).
Hence, these actors are allegedly defending the autonomy and democracy of their own countries against foreign influence (Wittenius, 2022). They may also mimic language used by human rights defenders to ironically argue against gender equality (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, pp.10-11).
Such “norm spoiling” may manifest as the introduction of ‘pro-family’ language in international treaties, to make them more ambiguous and harder to uphold (Sanders, 2018). They may also claim that gender equality has already been achieved, meaning that “further research and action will be detrimental” (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, pp.38-39).
This links into the notion of competing rights, as anti-gender actors may argue that pro-gender movements put men’s rights and social status “under threat,” or that pro-women’s and LGBTQ rights are a form of “political correctness”. Such actors may also argue in favour of
“hierarchies of rights” that prioritise the nuclear family over women and other marginalised groups (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.11, p.39). This polarisation enables anti-gender movements to maintain the hegemony of “the White Heterosexual Cis-Male from the Global North” (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.11).
It also limits the impact of “pro-gender actors”, with the pandemic reducing their scope for action, whilst simultaneously allowing their opponents to impose restrictions on civil society movements under the guise of protecting public health (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021b; Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.11).
From a political perspective, the complete abolition of gender equality policies is rare. Changes tend to be “more subtle”, such as “reframing” laws or neglecting to enforce them (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, pp.13-15). This threatens the rule of law, demonstrating how anti-gender movements not only threaten the rights of women and people of marginalised genders, but also undermine society’s democratic fabric as a whole.
Anti-gender actors do not necessarily have to be in government to influence the state. Access to state actors, through petitions or formal meetings, may give them an opportunity to influence government policy (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021b; Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.46). If they lack such access, they may launch constitutional challenges, or intimidate civil society activists (ibid., p.41).
On the whole, anti-gender movements mainly consist of coalitions of anti-gender religious conservative and right-wing actors. Members may belong to multiple national and transnational movements, creating a complex web of European and global actors whose overall aim is to undermine gender equality and democracy. This is facilitated by Europe’s “short geographic distances” and “deepened multi-level governance structures, both through the Council of Europe and the European Union” (Paternotte & Kuhar, 2016, p.3).
Where the money comes from
Anti-gender actors operating in Europe received 707.2 million US dollars from 2009-2018. The money primarily originated from the US, Russia, and Europe itself (Datta, 2021, p.3). Datta (2021) believes that 81.3 million US dollars came from just 10 US-based organisations, which receive funding from actors with ties to the far-right and to the Republican Party. Research from OpenDemocracy reveals that such organisations may have spent up to 90 million US dollars. For example, money that came from the American Center for Law and Justice led by Donald Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, was spent on the organisation’s European branch, the ECLJ, which defended Poland’s restrictive abortion laws in the European Court of Human Rights (Provost, Archer, 2020).
188.2 million dollars may have come from Russian oligarchs, with notable actors being Vladimir Yakunin and Konstatin Malofeev (Datta, 2021, p.7). Such funding has gone to CitizenGo, whose board member Brian Brown is the President of international anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conference the World Congress of Families (WCF). Malofeev and Yakunin organised the WCF’s event in Russia in 2014, which ran under a different name after it was prohibited. Hence, Russian funding for European anti-gender movements undermines European democracy by facilitating meetings between anti-democratic actors, which ultimately supports “Russian geopolitical interests and objectives” (Denkovski, Kreitlow, 2021, p.4).
Finally, Datta’s research suggests that “funding from Europe constitutes the largest share of anti-gender funding in Europe, standing at USD 437.7 million” (Datta, 2021, p.7). Funds may come from religious extremists and European aristocrats (ibid.). The former may raise funds through pre-established networks and petitions or through attracting the attention of the public via social media (ibid.). “High net-worth individuals from the private sector” also contribute financially to anti-gender movements, which can help new political parties to take centre-stage. Anti-gender actors may also accumulate funds through commandeering state resources, such as “by setting up pseudo crisis pregnancy counselling centres or indoctrinating youth through school curricula” (ibid., p.5). This enables them to use state funding and, in the event of their colleagues getting elected, grants them access to such funding through legal channels. Hence, they operate within the boundaries of the law whilst utilising state mechanisms to erode democratic norms. Again, Datta stresses the heterogeneity of the anti-gender landscape in this respect (ibid., p.7). He further notes that anti-gender actors in Europe “mirror” civil society tactics to give their movements the guise of legitimacy, which demonstrates the “professionalisation” of the movement and “structural problems” within “feminist civil society” (ibid., p.4).
Impact on women’s rights at the national level
There is limited research on how the anti-gender movement impacts policy (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021a, p.8), but the existing literature indicates that governments in Europe have already implemented various measures that restrict the rights of women and marginalised genders “either by designing and bolstering counter movements or by providing them with a strong institutional power base” (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.25).
Governments may also choose to cut financial support to services, close ministries dedicated to women’s rights or simply remain silent on issues surrounding gender equality altogether (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, pp.29, 35). Moreover, the use of referenda as a “pseudo-democratic” tool can undermine constitutions, and, by extension, citizens’ democratic rights, which facilitates the state capture by anti-gender actors (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.35).
In other words, anti-gender movements are inherently anti-democratic, limiting the room for manoeuvre for civil society (Denkovski, Bernarding, & Lunz, 2021b). They are usually better funded than human rights organisations and their ability to influence government actors and divert funds from gender equality initiatives means that their opponents have fewer opportunities “to conduct research […] and provide essential services to politically marginalised populations” (Denkovski & Kreitlow, 2021, p.2).
Within the European context, Roggeband and Krizsán note that “Backsliding in gender policy along these two dimensions, on the one hand, highlights the vulnerability and weakness of gender-equality policy achievements in countries of the CEE region. On the other hand, it reminds us that these were already problematised aspects of gender policy in the region before backsliding started” (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.15).
They believe that democracy within the CEE region was fundamentally “fragile” to begin with. Such fragility is facilitated by “populist governments with hostile views on gender equality” entering into office over the last decade, which has led to states reforming or abolishing their gender policies (ibid., pp. 2-3). This undermines the “relatively steady progress in gender equality policies” that had been made since 1989 (ibid., p.2).
In conclusion, the anti-gender movement is “not centralised,” but is a “well-funded, transnational movement” with the power to influence gender equality around the globe (Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, 2022). As well as having a concrete impact on policies, anti-gender movements also serve a symbolic purpose. Grzebalska et al. believe that gender is a “symbolic glue”, a rallying point for a variety of actors that enables them to propagate conservative and extremist views of the role of women and marginalised genders in society (Grzebalska, Kováts, & Pető, 2017).
According to CFFP, the premise of the anti-gender movement may not necessarily be about gender but “about power” and upholding “social and political hierarchies in the face of their (perceived) decline” (Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, 2022). Hence, it is vital that governments and the public support civil society organisations that aim to uphold the rights of women and marginalised genders.