Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected Brazilian president, is now well known, both nationally and internationally, for his misogynistic and homophobic declarations. During a parliamentary debate in 2014, Bolsonaro told one of the few women members of Parliament, Deputy Maria do Rosário, that he would not rape her because she was too ugly and did not deserve it. In a recent speech, after mentioning his four sons, Bolsonaro said having a daughter, his fifth child, was a “weakness”. And in a televised debate not long ago, Bolsonaro suggested that spanking a son who showed signs of being gay was the best way for parents to change his behavior and assure he would grow up as a proper man.
These are only a few of the many outrageous assertions made by Jair Bolsonaro not only during his presidential campaign, but throughout his twenty-seven year political career as a federal deputy. While these phrases have been picked up by many to highlight the extremely violent political platform Bolsonaro has unleashed against women and LGBTQI communities in Brazil, we want to go further and underscore the connections between them and another widespread political movement that has gained support and grown throughout the globe in the last few decades: the cultural-religious war on so-called “gender ideology.”
Studies looking into the origins of the term “gender ideology” show that it did not emerge from civil society, but from the Vatican as early as the 1990s. As efforts to make gender equality a central focus of UN documents and policies progressed, a strategy that came to be known as gender mainstreaming, so did the attacks articulated by the Vatican — during the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, and the Preparatory and Committee Meetings for the IV World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995). These confrontations gained a wider audience through publications by Catholic conservative groups based in the United States, such as “The Gender Agenda” by female Catholic pro-life journalist Dale O’Leary, and other Vatican documents that included references by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his papacy. For the Vatican, the term gender would serve to deconstruct sex differences and lead to the dismantling of traditional family values, fostering “a war between the sexes, the devaluation of motherhood, the promotion of contraception and abortion, the acceptance of homosexual partnerships and parentage, and the decline of marriage,” as Professor of Law Mary Anne Case has shown in her study of the Vatican and gender.
Anti-gender campaigns have found fertile ground in Latin America in the past five years as the pink tide of female presidencies in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina showed signs of weakening, along with the rise of Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal groups. The voices of opposition, represented by both religious forces and political elites, have used moments of reforms or heated national debates to present “gender ideology” as a common enemy. One important aspect of the anti-gender campaign’s dissemination is how the term gender itself is continuously resignified and easily adapted to support the sensationalist arguments of the moment. Anti-gender crusaders gain momentum as they install moral panics, while creating different enemies that fit their mold and the immediate context — feminists, gays, artists, academics, trans bodies.
In Brazil, the legal recognition of same-sex couples’ unions by the Supreme Court, in 2011, is the turning point in which hysteria about “gender ideology” gained public force and visibility. The evangelical parliamentary bloc, a key force behind Bolsonaro’s successful candidacy, has also been one of the central actors waging this religious-cultural war for a few years now. These representatives have acted in an organized fashion to undermine the expansion of sexual rights, including same sex marriage and reproductive rights, particularly the right to abortion. Such attacks come in the form of legislative propositions that recognize the unborn as a full subject of rights, defines the family as a unit formed by a man, a woman and their children, criminalizes abortion even in case of rape and constitutionalizes the beginning of life at conception, to mention but a few. While none of these proposals has gone far enough in the legislative process to be voted into law or constitutional amendment, they have indeed worked as a platform for the evangelical bloc to market itself as the defender of the traditional family and Christian values. In other words, they have been anointed the crusaders against “gender ideology.”
Jair Bolsonaro’s own engagement in the war against “gender ideology” can also be traced back to 2011, when nearly a week after Brazil’s Supreme Court recognized same-sex couples’ union, he led a movement against educational materials that had been developed by the Ministry of Education, then under the direction of his presidential opponent in the October 2018 election, Fernando Haddad. The materials were to be distributed in the school system as a pedagogical tool to challenge discrimination and violence against the LGBTQI community. Brazil has been dealing with alarming rates of violent death related to homophobia. In 2017, reports registered at least 445 LGBTQI deaths, which represents a 30% increase from 2016. However, the materials, dubbed “gay kit” by Bolsonaro, were considered a direct menace to the “natural” sexual binary, to children and to the Brazilian family. The repercussion of Bolsonaro’s and the evangelical bloc’s negative campaign in public opinion was such that President Dilma Rousseff decided to veto the distribution, and all the material was discarded.
If the crusade against “gender ideology” became a visible political force in 2011, it certainly had one of its high points during what has been seen as a parliamentary coup orchestrated against the Worker’s Party in 2016. While many other factors and interests were at play in the impeachment procedure against President Dilma Rousseff, reactionary discourses on gender and sexuality played an important role in galvanizing popular support. Such discourse catalyzed a hatred against Dilma Rousseff that paved the way for the return to the center stage of a long-known type of politician: male, white, sexist and authoritarian, one that appeals to stereotypical masculine politics. Jair Bolsonaro, again, received notoriety during the process when he dedicated his vote for Dilma’s impeachment to Colonel Brilhante Ustra, head of the feared Doi-Codi torture unit during the military dictatorship, where Dilma had been tortured. The context of misogyny, ridicule, and moralist appeals to traditional heteronormative family values and femininity that marked the impeachment procedure, in legislative arenas and the media, represented the comeback of strong political and patriarchal elite forces that had been until then overshadowed. The message from these forces was clear: women and LGBTQI people were and are not welcome in politics, and more powerfully: gender and sexual justice ideals and agendas are even less so.
Jair Bolsonaro not only embodies and praises a hegemonic form of masculinity that has been widely criticized — such as his trademark gun figure salute — but also actively projects himself as a crusader against “gender ideology.” The “gay kit” was the centerpiece of a series of fake news disseminated by his supporters largely through WhatsApp during the presidential campaign. Other fake news included claiming that the Worker’s Party candidate Fernando Haddad distributed penis-shaped baby bottles in public child care centers and was a friend of a transvestite who once defecated on religious symbols. Haddad’s vice presidential candidate Manuela D’Avila was also the victim of numerous orchestrated fake news campaigns. Emblematic cases involved the distortion of her image and speeches to claim she is an atheist who has offended religious symbols.
By strategically exploiting issues connected to “gender ideology,” Bolsonaro’s campaign reinforced a hegemonic, masculine and violent form of not only “doing politics” but even inhabiting the world. The darker side of this strategy is that it has unleashed the most brutal face of the “gender ideology” crusade, whereby a confrontational style of doing politics is pushed to the point where vitriolic discourse regarding the “enemies” entails their physical annihilation from the public sphere. More than 50 incidents of politically motivated gender and racial violence were reported during the campaign, with numbers still rising. Many of these incidents are directed against bodies that have always been historic targets of violence in Brazil — women, blacks, and the LGBTQI community. Some of these cases resulted in death, such as the murder of capoeira master Romualdo Rosário da Costa in Salvador, Bahia and of a young black activist, Charlione Lessa Albuquerqua, in a peaceful pro-Haddad rally in Pacajus, Ceará. A female student in Fortaleza was raped the week leading to the election; she had alerted authorities in early October that she had been intimidated by racial slurs while walking on campus at night, when men approached her claiming that Bolsonaro’s election would help them sweep blacks like her from universities. When we thought that Marielle Franco’s death represented the darkest portrayal of brutality in Brazil’s recent political history, candidates from Bolsonaro’s party (PSL) tore apart a street sign hung up in her honor in a political rally in Rio de Janeiro. As if the act itself were not enough, the candidates were quick to publish a threatening message on Facebook stating that this was just the beginning of their attack on leftist activists.
Shockingly, outrage for such violence did little to damage these candidacies. In fact, one of these men was the most highly voted candidate elected to Rio de Janeiro’s Legislative Assembly. In other words, gender-based and racialized political violence did not only increase, but were also normalized during the campaign — with justifications that Bolsonaro could not be expected to control his electorate.
A major part of Bolsonaro’s electorate associate him with a strong and necessary answer to behavioral and cultural changes connected with the recent growth of feminist and LGBTQI movements, gender issues, and new family formations. For them, Bolsonaro will crush “gender ideology” and lead Brazilian society back to an orderly fashion on sexual matters. The speech Bolsonaro made the evening after winning the election fed into this popular imaginary: he started by saying his campaign had resorted to the Bible, the toolbox to fix men and women. And while at points Bolsonaro stressed out the right to freedom, a prayer led by Magno Malta, elected Senator and tipped to be the next Minister of Social Development, opened the official speech clearly stating this is a majoritarian Christian country. The backlash we are witnessing has shown potential not only to cut back on rights but also to silence historically marginalized voices in the most extreme manner, even through lethal means. Either we confront these different forms of gender-based and racialized violence through a concerted alliance of democratic forces or we will succumb to a deeper dehumanizing narrative, further entrenching the enmity logic that designates which bodies are entitled to live.
Mariana Prandini Assis is a Human Rights Lawyer in Brazil and a Ph.D candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research.
Ana Carolina Ogando holds a Ph.D in Political Science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. She is an independent researcher/consultant based in Brazil.
A version of this article was published in Al Jazeera on October 31, 2018.