What Is “Gender Ideology”?

And why are so many anti-LGBTQ activists obsessed with it?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attend a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House on Tuesday in Washington. Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to share liberties and respect to traditional and family lifestyles, respect to God, our creator, against the gender ideology of the politically correct attitudes, and fake news,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday in a Rose Garden press conference with American President Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro’s reference to “gender ideology” may seem insignificant.
But his use of the phrase at the White House embodied a consequential development in global politics. American conservative leaders are increasingly incorporating the rhetoric and tactics of the international far right into their discourse and doctrine. This cross-border pollination, epitomized by the term gender ideology, is reshaping conservative political dialogue in America and overseas.

Originating in the 1990s, “gender ideology” is a theory that depicts efforts to expand rights for women and LGBTQ people as radical, dangerous impositions designed to eliminate all sex differences. This malleable framework reduces LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, inclusive sexual education, pronoun use, and other cultural issues to a single phrase. It serves as a similar consolidating role to the “family values” frame of past culture battles.

Over the past two decades, this pliant umbrella term has served as a rallying cry for social conservatives in Europe and Latin America. Conservative activists have weaponized “gender ideology” to mobilize against abortion liberalization in Spain, criticize same-sex marriage in France, stymie an anti-bullying initiative in Australia, and even muster opposition to a proposed peace deal in Colombia between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Now this transnational frame is becoming a cri de coeur among American conservatives.

Consider Lila Rose, one of America’s most prominent pro-life activists, who was described as “the face of the anti-abortion movement” by the Washington Post. Rose founded Live Action, a pro-life organization notable for its undercover videos that target abortion providers. She has repeatedly met with Trump administration officials at the White House to advocate for abortion restrictions. Rose recently condemned gender ideology as “a new push to confuse and control our children” and claimed Twitter blocked a user for “criticizing gender ideology.”

Or take Robert George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a doyen of the Christian right. George, dubbed by the New York Times as America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker,” has embraced this transnational frame, arguing that “in elite sectors of the culture sexual liberation and gender ideology trump everything” and alleging that “the plutocracy” has sought “to impose the dogmas of gender ideology and sexual leftism” on ordinary people.

George’s focus on “elite sectors” is not coincidental. Internationally, right-wing populists have exploited this frame to integrate social conservatism into the heart of insurgent attacks on the establishment. “Gender ideology” provides a conceptual framework to express hostility to the constitutional rights of women and LGBTQ people favored by “elites.”

Trump, who fashions himself as a champion of ordinary people against “power-hungry globalists,” has elevated key proponents of the “gender ideology” theory. In March 2017, he appointed Roger Severino as director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. Before his appointment, Severino had leveraged “gender ideology” as a cudgel against transgender rights. For example, he claimed a lawsuit against North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom law was motivated by “radical new gender ideology” and asserted that the Obama administration’s repeal of the transgender ban in military service was “based on a radical new gender ideology.”

Other conservatives in Trump’s orbit have deployed “gender ideology” to attack LGBTQ and women’s rights. Consider Hans von Spakovsky, a conservative lawyer whom President Trump appointed to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in 2017. In 2015, von Spakovsky denounced the FEC for hosting a forum that focused on the underrepresentation of women in politics, positing that the FEC had “no business going far outside its assigned duties to bring the goofy gender ideology” into “the administration of federal campaign-finance rules.”

Or take Tony Suarez. Suarez served as a member of candidate Trump’s evangelical advisory board during the 2016 election and serves today as a member of the president’s evangelical council, where he has influenced policy in the White House. In 2017, Suarez signed a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops letter that argued, “Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt.”

The conservative legal and media apparatus that bolsters Trump’s presidency, from the Heritage Foundation to Breitbart News, routinely recounts the dangers of “gender ideology.” Alliance Defending Freedom, a Trump-linked Christian legal behemoth that routinely litigates before the Supreme Court, has also condemned “gender ideology,” as ADF promotes the principle that sex is “binary and biologically determined.” In the past two years, the organization has filed high-profile lawsuits in defense of businesses that discriminate against LGBTQ people.

What renders “gender ideology” so potent? By simplifying myriad issues into one frame and integrating it into a larger crusade against elites, “gender ideology” offers an accessible means of expression for people who feel alienated by the pace of Western cultural change and current economic conditions. It serves an important role in conservative coalition building; as scholars have noted, “gender ideology” functions as “symbolic glue” to the right, unifying factions around a cohesive framework. While primarily embraced by Catholics and evangelicals, this frame is premised on no particular religious commitment, which fosters secular support.

This far-right transnational dialogue travels in two ways. As Masha Gessen has reported, American anti-LGBTQ activists often consult with their international counterparts to exchange ideas and tips on combating LGBTQ-friendly laws. American conservatives have integrated the international far right’s lexicon into their arsenal, and a constellation of reactionary groups—from the National Organization for Marriage to the World Congress of Families—disseminate ideas about protecting the “traditional family” to multinational audiences.

Borders can be walled off. Ideas and intellectual movements cannot be. Socially conservative Trump supporters may believe in “America First.” But in practice, they are looking abroad. As “gender ideology” assimilates into American political discourse, progressives need to situate the fight for equality in this larger global discourse and learn from the work of international activists who have long challenged this toxic propaganda.