On November 19, 2022, a 22-year-old gunman entered Club Q, a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub, killing 5 people and wounding 17 before clubgoers bravely subdued him. The gunman is the grandson of Randy Voepel, a California lawmaker who openly supported the January 6, 2021 attempted insurrection at the US Capitol. The Club Q attack took place the day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international day to memorialize those who have died as a result of transphobia. Colorado Springs is also the headquarters of Focus on the Family, the powerful American right-wing group engaged in decades of anti-abortion, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-gender advocacy. Is all of this a coincidence? It isn’t.
2022 has seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills filed in state legislatures across the US: 238 so far. They include “Don’t Say Gay” measures that would ban discussion and books on LGBTQ topics in schools. Some of these measures would allow anyone to invoke a religious belief to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. Almost half of these measures specifically target trans youth: to prevent them from playing sports, using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity and receiving gender-affirming healthcare. These measures are increasingly successful: in six US states, a “Don’t Say Gay” bill is now law, while gender-affirming healthcare for minors is now banned in Florida, Arkansas and Alabama. In at least 17 US states, these measures are paired with legislative bans on teaching critical race theory in schools, which the Brookings Institution describes as bans on “discussion and training that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as discussions about conscious and unconscious [racial] bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression.” It is worth noting that almost all of these CRT bills extend beyond race and racism to also ban and restrict classroom discussions about gender and sexism. Never miss an opportunity!
All of this has been cloaked in claims that these bills protect families and children, even though there is no evidence that respecting the human rights of LGBTQ people (and/or of women and girls) harms anyone. Even mainstream commentators are being swept up in this onslaught of fear and contempt. For example, I was disappointed to read a recent front-page New York Times article on gender-affirming healthcare for teenagers that raised questions about the impact of puberty blockers on bone density. The article did not delve into the limited and inconclusive evidence currently available, and instead relied on a few individual cases of alleged harm, even though none of these young people had an initial bone scan before treatment with blockers. The net effect of the article was to discredit the lived experiences of trans youth and their families who were helped by puberty blockers, and to suggest that specialist doctors in Europe and the US are somehow pushing inappropriate care on young patients. Meanwhile, pediatricians, hospitals and other medical groups in the US face increasing right-wing violence for providing gender-affirming care to teenage patients, making research about this care very difficult.
Where is all this fear and hatred coming from? Over the last decade, far-right US strategists, activists and lawmakers have been engaged in a deliberate and intensifying campaign against “gender ideology.” This includes attacks on LGBTQ people, feminists, abortion rights, gender equality, sexuality education and related topics, all tied together by the threat they apparently pose to patriarchal control of society and—specifically in the US—to white patriarchy.
These influencers and lawmakers speak aggressively of the “child sex rings” and “groomers” that are supposedly running rampant in LGBTQ and progressive circles. Remember the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory? That was only the beginning. Republican senators reached grotesque levels as they aggressively questioned Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings about her alleged soft sentencing of sex offenders.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the US, has documented a marked increase in violent rhetoric by right-wing influencers directed at LGBTQ people over the last two years, with a recent focus on anything remotely associated with trans issues. This is just one example of what gun-toting Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert regularly puts out:
Boebert is actively competing to be the most popular of these anti-LGBTQ figures:
Another online influencer, the mysterious, US-based but Russian-sounding Chaya Raichik, has campaigned for gay teachers to be fired, attacked LGBTQ people and their allies as “mentally ill,” and pushed the bizarre (and of course, utterly false) rumor that schools have installed litter boxes in bathrooms for children who identify as cats. Her Twitter following has skyrocketed (currently 1.5 million) since her account, Libs of TikTok, was launched in 2021. Raichik responded to the mass shooting at Club Q with this outrageous but fully in-character tweet attacking a Colorado drag club:
Given the absurd availability of guns in the US, the danger caused by these online attacks is real and growing. Deadly violence against LGBTQ people and organizations cannot be described as a by-product of this discourse; it has to be recognized as the objective. Abortion clinic staff know the outcome of violent rhetoric all too well: since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, 42 clinic bombings and numerous clinic arsons have taken place. As a result, 11 people (including 4 doctors and 2 clinic staff) have been murdered, and 26 more have survived murder attempts.
The aim of all this vitriol is, of course, to generate fear, anger, votes and donations—and therefore political power—for right-wing leaders who are now exclusively associated with the Republican Party in the US. These are the same leaders and political operatives who, for decades, successfully used attacks against abortion to mobilize their base, and made opposition to abortion the litmus test for Supreme Court appointments by Republican Presidents. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, I expect that the US right-wing will double down on attacking LGBTQ people to reenergize their supporters. The beast has to be fed, the rage stoked.
This dangerous political movement is unfortunately not a US-only phenomenon.
Just last month, two men were killed outside an LGBTQ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia, by an armed teenage boy. The killer’s father is, lo and behold, a far-right Slovakian politician known for his homophobic, transphobic and antisemitic rhetoric. In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are particular hotbeds of homophobic, anti-abortion, anti-gender groups. My interview with Wanda Nowicka, a member of parliament in Poland, in the FMUS August 2022 Newsletter, made clear how the current right-wing government of Poland has weaponized this kind of hateful discourse to mobilize its voters. When remote Polish villages suddenly declare themselves “LGBTQ-free zones,” larger forces are obviously at play.
In Latin America, the anti-gender movement has also spread across the region over the last decade, spurred by well-funded Catholic and evangelical Christian organizations, some of whom are closely connected to the US far right. A recent report issued by Brazil-based Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), documents the activities of these far-right movements from 2019 to 2022 in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay, and at the Organization of American States (OAS), the intergovernmental forum for all 35 countries of the Americas. The results are fascinating and deeply troubling.
Researchers based in each country saw a notable increase in anti-gender discourse and activity over the last few years, even as the COVID pandemic devastated the economies of Latin America and increased social inequalities in a region that is already the most unequal in the world. Under the guise of fighting “gender ideology,” right-wing groups and political actors attacked the very existence of trans persons, sought to curtail access to abortion rights, and denounced sexuality education in schools. The themes and arguments are similar across countries of the region, and echo those deployed in the US (and in Europe and Canada), suggesting organizational and financial ties that cross borders. Fortunately, anti-gender forces met with strong opposition from feminist, LGBTQ, student and other progressive groups in some countries of the region, such as Argentina and Chile, limiting their ability to make gains.
One of the most telling observations of the report is the way anti-COVID and anti-gender forces became one and the same in the region. Rather than slowing down the anti-gender movement, the COVID pandemic provided it with an opportunity to increase the base of support for anti-gender activity across Latin America, as it did elsewhere. Anti-quarantine, anti-vaccine, anti-mask campaigns drew in people with conspiracy theories about Microsoft’s Bill Gates embedding microchips in COVID vaccines, 5G towers causing the disease, Chinese vaccines being a vector for communist infiltration or COVID vaccines causing infertility. Once inside this right-wing online ecosystem, people were exposed to other conspiracies about “gender ideology” and to anti-abortion rhetoric. If it all sounds too familiar to US-based readers, it’s because it is! The authors of the SPW report note: “Globally, this [anti-vaccine, anti-mask] movement is part of an extreme right-wing current, and many of its members actively adhere to ideas put forward by neo-Nazi, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist and religious fundamentalist groups.” In the US, Chaya Raichik did in fact begin her social media ascension as a COVID denialist before moving on to anti-trans hatred.
Brazil is a prime example of what happens when the federal government itself is the engine behind anti-gender and anti-vaccine policy. Reading the excellent SPW case study on Brazil by Sonia Corrêa, I found the parallels with the US so numerous that it’s almost as if it all came from one single playbook: President Jair Bolsonaro casting himself as a strongman president à la Trump, Bolsonaro coopting an existing center-right political party (the Social Liberal Party) and taking it far right (before leaving it and destroying it—is this an omen?), Bolsonaro engaging in COVID conspiracies and denialism, Bolsonaro inciting insurrection (he tried but failed to generate his own January 6th moment on September 7, 2021), the ubiquitous and corrupt Bolsonaro sons, and of course, the non-stop obsession with gender.
In his inauguration speech in January 2019, Bolsonaro had specifically announced that he would fight “gender ideology.” He appointed a panoply of staunch evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics to key ministries: Damares Alves, a Baptist pastor, became the minister of the newly created Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights (MMFDH); Angela Gandra, an ultra-Catholic lawyer, was named National Secretary of the Family; Ernesto Araújo, a well-known far-right figure, became Minister of Foreign Affairs; ultraconservative philosopher Ricardo Velez was appointed Minister of Education. Raphael Câmara, known for his racist and anti-feminist views, was appointed as National Secretary of Basic Assistance in the Ministry of Health, while Eduardo Pazuello, who opposes reproductive healthcare, became Minister of Health. And to top it off, Steve Bannon, Trump’s twice-convicted campaign adviser, became an adviser to the sons of Bolsonaro, while the US-based, far-right Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) began holding events in Brazil with other far-right leaders from the region:
Anti-gender action followed quickly: Alves declared in her inauguration speech that boys “should wear the color blue and girls wear pink,” while Araújo described reproductive rights as “a cake that hides a blade: a decoy to smuggle in the crime of abortion.” The MMFDH made the “protection of the family” and sexual abstinence until marriage their priority, and encouraged the denunciation of public school teachers who speak about gender and sexuality in their classrooms. Police were even sent to schools to investigate a number of teachers. Meanwhile, at least 15 (clearly unconstitutional) bills to ban “gender” and “ideology” in education were tabled in the federal Congress and in state legislatures. Some of these bills sought to criminalize sex education by describing it as the “promotion of pornography.”
Government pressure to curtail the already very limited access to abortion services increased as the COVID pandemic hit Brazil, with a fortunately unsuccessful attempt to ban telemedicine abortions and unfortunately successful measures to allow police presence in abortion facilities. In August 2020, Damara Alves herself tried to prevent a pregnant 11-year-old girl from obtaining the abortion she was legally entitled to as a victim of rape. The girl had to travel to a different Brazilian state to obtain her abortion. So much for protecting children!
Dozens of anti-abortion bills are currently pending before Brazil’s Congress to enshrine the “right to life beginning at conception,” the “right to citizenship of the unborn child” and to increase penalties for illegal abortion. Other bills would impose criminal penalties on those who provide children and adolescents with gender-affirming healthcare (variously described in the bills as “gender ideological activism that propagates terrorism” or as “child abuse”). Although Bolsonaro lost the October 2022 elections, the newly elected Congress remains under the control of right-wing religious politicians, so these bills could very well pass.
At the international level, Brazil joined the notorious Geneva Consensus Declaration, a Trump Administration concoction that denounced abortion in the name of protecting the family, and that 35 other conservative governments have signed onto since 2019. (President Biden has withdrawn the US’s signature.) Bolsonaro’s Brazil also repeatedly abstained from resolutions on sexual and reproductive rights at the UN, a posture completely at odds with its traditional positions in international diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the Bolsonaro government became the prime proponent of letting the pandemic run its course, using blatant eugenistic rhetoric to justify its inaction. Research by the Faculty of Public Health of the University of São Paulo found the government “deliberately fostered the spread of the virus by betting on herd immunity, disseminating false information about the ‘natural defense’ of the Brazilian people, trivializing deaths by COVID-19, and attacking governors and mayors who adopted protective measures as well as the press outlets that defended public health” [my emphasis]. The Final Report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the government’s appalling COVID response (COVID-CPI) described the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples in Brazil as a crime against humanity. Overall, this policy of denial and misinformation is estimated to have caused a staggering 430,000 additional COVID deaths in Brazil (out of a total of nearly 700,000).
President Bolsonaro was defeated by former president and left-wing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on October 30, 2022—a repudiation of the chaos, cruelty and callousness that Bolsonaro represented, and a hard-fought triumph for progressive forces, especially Black and Indigenous people. Lula’s campaign featured many moments of pure joy as the electorate glimpsed the alternative to the previous four years:
But significant parts of Bolsonaro’s legacy will be harder to roll back: anti-gender policy is firmly embedded in the state and legislative apparatus of Brazil. The rights of youth, women, Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ people will require targeted, immediate and sustained efforts against the politics of hatred and fear.
As in the US, the alternative is too frightening and too dangerous to countenance. The aforementioned Colorado Congresswoman Boebert was narrowly re-elected this month in the US midterm elections, as have other equally terrifying far-right figures.
The hatred will continue to be stoked, so we have to face it head on. That President Biden has finally, belatedly said the word “abortion” is a relief, but we cannot be squeamish and vacillating. We cannot accommodate anti-trans measures, or make allowances for intimidation of our LGBTQ teachers. Anti-gender mobilization is central to the anti-democratic agenda. It is not a sideshow. It is the beast we must vanquish.
If you want to fight book bans in US schools, support the National Coalition Against Censorship, which works in partnership with teachers and school librarians across the country. And a shout out to teachers and librarians, who are some of the most badass people I’ve met when it comes to kids’ right to read and to be loved as they are!
In gender-affirming solidarity,