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The Backlash Against Gender Studies

Gender studies
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In the year that marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the most influential book in the history of Gender Studies, the backlash against the ideas that the discipline has advanced is stronger than ever. It turns out, however, that this backlash is based on a (willful?) misconstruction of its arguments.

In the year that marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Gender Trouble, the most influential book in the history of Gender Studies, the backlash against the ideas and fights that the discipline has advanced is stronger than ever. It is clear, and it has been for years, that reactionary political groups, conservative religious factions and – most vehemently – the Catholic Church are mounting an offensive against what they see as a destabilizing ideology, with the potential to make the social structures they uphold less relevant and binding.

Despite not being new by any measure, this opposition has been consolidating and organizing throughout the past two decades, and now boasts several adherents in position of power. Virtually no geographical region is exempt. The backlash is strong in Latin America, with Brazilian President Bolsonaro vowing in his 2019 inaugural address to fight “gender ideology”. North America is at the same time the academic center of the Gender Studies discipline and the site where the most heated opposition to it is being displayed, with Evangelicals and Catholics joining forces to condemn it. European countries have been a hotbed for gender skepticism in the 2010s. Most recently, political action has been taken in Hungary, where the government has not only defunded Gender Studies but also sought to legislate trans people out of existence, Poland, where a third of the country was declared “LGBT-free zone”, and Italy, where conservative groups and MPs have assembled and voiced their opposition to legislation aiming to counter homophobia, transphobia and ableism. But what is it really that is being contested?

Gender Studies is a broadly interdisciplinary research field born in the 1980s whose object of inquiry is gender and its intersection with society, sexuality, power and a whole host of related structures. To understand the subject, it is essential to grasp the sex-gender distinction. By sex, we mean our anatomical and biological understanding of a person’s reproductive organs. Gender, on the other hand, is the socially constructed set of characteristics that a person identifies with, possibly but not necessarily in relation to their sex. Those features include identity, social roles and ways of inhabiting and exhibiting gendered bodies. When we say that an individual is a man, a woman or non-binary, we are referring to the individual’s gender. Confusion often arises because of the imprecision with which these terms are used. For instance, when the phrase “gender-reveal party” is used, the term “gender” is improperly deployed, since what is being announced in a gender-reveal party is merely the baby’s assigned sex, most definitely not their gender, which they will come to figure out and live with throughout their life. Many people understand the three separate concepts of sex, gender and desire to be one and the same. By that logic, an individual of female sex must identify as a woman and be attracted to men. Symmetrically, an individual of male sex must identify as a man and be attracted to women. Research in Gender Studies asserts that such ways of thinking are heteronormative and should be rejected. Heteronormativity is the notion that being attracted to the opposite gender and identifying with the sex one was assigned at birth by medical authorities are the only correct ways of living one’s affectivity, sexuality and gendered life. Notably, heteronormativity is a strong force in society undermining the LGBTQ+ community’s claims to equal rights and fight against discrimination.

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The academic enterprise of Gender Studies has, since its very beginning, been tightly intertwined with feminism, Feminist Theory and Women’s Studies. Many influential texts in Gender Studies designate Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as a reference point for the development of the discipline. In the two-volume book, the French philosopher argues that “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”. This sentence is taken to signify that one’s womanhood is not a fixed, pre-existing reality, but rather a process that is shaped and influenced by norms, contingent regulatory ideals as well as other internal and external factors. One of the many analyses that were sparked by the reading of Beauvoir’s acclaimed text is contained in a milestone of the Gender Studies literature, namely Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), by UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, now widely regarded as an academic superstar.

In Gender Trouble, reaching its 30th anniversary this year, Butler departs from the seemingly uncontroversial assumption that feminist politics should be founded on the subject of “the woman”. The category of womanhood or what constitutes an acceptable female identity, she argues, is in itself a product of oppressive and patriarchal structures and traditions that prevent any struggle for affirmation from being effective. For feminism to be effective, then, it is necessary that the category of “woman” be opened to question, redefinition and reappropriation. The author then presents her theory of gender performativity. In Butler’s conceptualization, gender is not something we are, but rather something we do, a kind of performance we are trained to enact from birth to fit into predefined boxes imposed by society and discourse. In the author’s eloquent phrasing: “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance”. However, only the appeal of substance is present in gender. A way to see the author’s point is to consider drag: the performance of femininity by men through the use of makeup and female clothing, popularized in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag defies the traditional epistemology of gender, insomuch as we are unable to discern the sex of the performer when they are presenting as the opposite gender. From this, we gather that gender is, in large part, merely a group of signifiers used to attach a label to people.

This and many other theories and philosophies developed by academics working in Gender Studies have ruffled the Vatican’s feathers from very early on. The Catholic Church, an institution with a history of opposing women’s fight for equal standing, has firmly rejected even the possibility to consider a sex-gender distinction, most prominently through the words of Pope Benedict XVI. A 2004 letter by the Pontifical Council on the Family to the Bishops of the Church alleged that “gender” would undermine the stability of the family in society and foster conflict between the sexes. In 2013, Pope Francis went even further by comparing gender theory to nuclear arms, and in 2016 he described gender theory as a denial of the “difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman”, stating that the field “envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family”.

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Another side of the backlash, often related to the religious one, is largely discussed in the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing Against Equality, edited by Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte, and it consists of nationalist and right-wing movements. The protests that those movements have organized across Europe share a specific mode of action: firstly, they use the phrases “gender theory” or “gender ideology” to refer not to the Gender Studies literature – which is generally inaccessible to them – but to claims of gender equality, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and anti-discrimination regulation in general; secondly, they frame their discourse in the rhetoric of freedom of speech and often religion, arguing that undermining the legitimacy of women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s struggle for equal treatment is within their rights.

This gives us enough context to draw two important conclusions. The first is that a large chunk of the backlash against gender research is based on a (willful?) misconstruction of its arguments. No respectable gender theorist “envisages a society without sexual differences”. If anything, Gender Studies is all about cultivating an accepting and inclusive space where gender diversity is welcomed and not a basis for discrimination. What is more, a frequent misconception concerning the social constructionist argument is that it affirms that, since gender is socially constructed, it must not be real. Nothing could be farther from a correct interpretation. To see this, consider money: money is a social construct, but that does not make it less real. Anybody taking an introductory class in macroeconomics learns that the value of fiat currency resides in our collective accepting it as a means for payment. The same applies to gender: it works as a category because we allow it to do so. Secondly, the Pope’s words and the demonstrations of conservative political groups betray an anxiety that Gender Studies have the potential to shake the foundation of the established social order.

The issue with the backlash against gender is that people’s lives are at stake. Few verses from a poem by femme author Alok Vaid Menon go a long way to depict the violence that trans bodies are continuously and excruciatingly subjected to:

today a man on the street pointed to me and said / “what the hell is that!?” / i wanted to turn around, / tell him that i got this dress on sale / and i got this body for free / but you have been making me pay for both / ever since.

Trans and gender non-conforming bodies are constantly policed and politicized, when not attacked and murdered. That is tragic but surely not news to anybody. Why, then, are members of anti-gender movements, who often identify themselves as Christians, willing to vehemently oppose a discourse that empowers and lifts the downtrodden? Whose status and influence are so strongly dependent on constructs such as gender norms and the so-called traditional family that they would need to mount such gargantuan scaremongering campaigns to fend off the claims for equality and safety?

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The only clear conclusion is that those individuals have a lot to lose. Being almost entirely white, straight and cisgender, those opposing gender diversity and affirmation have always occupied positions of power and privilege in society and have thus far managed to impose and uphold structures of oppression and discrimination to hold on to their status. But the marginalized have now become stronger than ever, in part thanks to the research of an academic field that advocated the deconstruction of dogmatic norms and the exploration of new and more authentic modes of living one’s identity.

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