By Thais Bessa
In early November 2017, feminist philosopher Judith Butler was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a conference she co-organised. Although the conference was not on gender, but on democracy, Butler’s presence sparked great controversy in the country.
An online petition demanding the conference to be cancelled gathered over 370,000 signatures and was heavily promoted on social media, especially by evangelical groups. The petition asked people to email conference organisers asking for its cancellation, including the following template message:
“Judith Butler is not welcome in Brazil! Our nation has refused gender ideology in the National Education Plan and in the Municipal Education Plans of almost all municipalities. We do not want an ideology that disguises a Marxist political project. Her books want us to believe that identity is variable and the result of culture. Science and, above all reality, show us the opposite. Her presence in our country at a communist symposium, paid for with the money of an international foundation, is not wanted by the overwhelming majority of the population. We care for our children and the future of our Brazil. #OutwithButler.” (my translation).
A group of some 70 people gathered in front of the conference venue to protest, chanting words like “family” and “tradition”. They had posters with pictures of Butler altered to look like a devil and sayings such as “in favour of marriage like God intended – 1 man and 1 woman”. Protesters also burned an effigy with Butler’s face shouting “burn the witch!” in what looked like a surreal medieval scene (which is sadly befitting, as Brazil, and other Latin American countries, seem to be indeed returning to the Middle Ages). A group of protesters even took to harass Butler at the airport shouting things like “go away, paedophile, child killer”. The video footage is cringeworthy and I felt ashamed of being Brazilian for a moment.
As remarked by Butler herself, the protesters seemed to have little familiarisation with her work. One example is the characterisation of Butler’s concept of “performativity”. According to those mobilizing the protests, “through performance, [Butler] proposes that people live every type of sexual experiences” (my translation). But the main object of antagonism for those opposed to her visit and ideas, was the “gender ideology”, which they claimed it was founded and promoted by Butler.
Narratives using the terminology “gender ideology” have been on the rise in Brazil and in other Latin American countries for a while. Produced and reproduced by far-right Christian groups (noting that Catholic and evangelical movements have immense power in the sub-continent), the term “gender ideology” is presented as the imposition of ideas and beliefs that seek to destroy institutions like family, marriage, and religious freedom. Presented as a threat to Christian moral values and tradition, this discourse has been particularly vocal in opposing policies or even debates on issues of gender identity, LGBTQ+ rights (especially marriage equality) and abortion.
Recent examples of how pervasive these discourses are, and their consequences, are abundant in Brazil. Due to pressure of those against “gender ideology”, issues of gender and sexuality were excluded from the latest National Education Plan. Art exhibitions that questioned religion and sexuality have been cancelled following pressure from conservative groups that deemed them to offend Christian values and the “traditional family”. A new legislation that completely criminalises abortion in the country has been pre-approved and will have its final vote by the Congress by the end of November. If this legislation is approved, abortion will be prohibited even for pregnancies resulting from rape, causing risk to the mother’s life and of anencephalic foetuses. One of the front-runners pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential elections is a religious nationalist who is openly anti-gay and misogynist and claims to be “Brazil’s Trump”.
As right-wing governments increasingly rise to power in Latin America and elsewhere, conservative movements feel legitimised and narratives like those creating the term “gender ideology” flourish, with serious consequences, especially for women and LGBTQ+ folks. As recently noted by the Open Society Foundations, although “gender ideology” is a fiction, the threat it poses is real.