(I would like to thank Jeff Isaac and Roxana Marinescu for their suggestions.  All perspectives are mine.)

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States stated through a 6-3 majority decision that gender and sex are not the same thing. To discriminate against sex as the body parts one has is not the same as discriminating against a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. How did we get here? Did Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts wake up one day and decide that gender is a real thing and not some political subversive idea “proselytized” by feminists? No, it came about through a long process of challenging heteronormative binary gender roles that started hundreds of years ago. Seeing gender for what it is—biology, plus social norms, plus individual choices to self-represent, all intersectionally related to so many other cultural and social categories meaningful in our world—has come about through generations of unlearning and readjusting our knowledge making with all human beings counting.

Today, I woke up to learn that the Romanian Parliament has voted to pass a law, now awaiting the presidential approval of Klaus Iohannis, that makes it illegal to distinguish between gender and sex in higher education. It literally makes it illegal to question the difference between the two, giving a huge finger to the entire field of gender studies to date, as well as to all of those people who have been freed by the work of challenging gender stereotypes done through gender studies. Not that gender studies is a huge field with enormous epistemic or political authority that threatens patriarchal misogynist disciplines, universities, and publications. It is an emerging field, populated with people of different perspectives on gender and with different definitions of how gender and sex intersect.

President Iohannis has an opportunity to put an end to this discriminatory initiative and to veto the legislation. Why should Iohannis care about gender studies?  Because in Romania:

  • Judges believe that a girl of fourteen who is mentally disabled can give consent to sex and thus the men who gang raped her were just having some fun with a consenting partner and could not be sentenced for rape;
  • When a rape survivor is burned alive by her sexual predator released from prison early, many men and women consider her at fault (“she should not have opened her mouth”);
  • When a fifteen year old girl is raped and then chopped up by her predator, the Minister of Education, Ecaterina Andronescu (currently senator who pushed for the change in the law I describe above), blames the victim for getting in the car with the predator;
  • When a woman that was raped and is bleeding visibly runs to a police car asking for help, the two officers (one male, one female) sit in the car indifferently, and it takes a civilian passer-by to call an ambulance;
  • When an elected mayor of the ruling National Liberal party confesses he had raped minors, his party considers it sufficient to simply allow him to dissociate himself from that, and has nothing more to say about the incident or its own selection of such members.

I can go on with hundreds of such examples, unfortunately. Although Romania had to gender mainstream its public administration to become part of the EU, those changes have been on the surface, unaccompanied by a thorough re-examination of the broader problem of profound misogyny in most of humanistic and social science discourse, especially in the pre-university curriculum. Teachers are not trained to understand gender bias. They teach it with great self-assurance, unless they get educated on the side, and then they can suffer the ire of misogynist parents and administrators who might challenge their approach.

A National Council for Combating Discrimination has been in existence for over a decade. It has not changed the behavior of most people, because it can’t. It can only sanction the very few cases that come before it. What can change the game is gender education. But after a long battle over what gender education might mean, feminists who wanted to see a thoughtful, research based, gender pedagogy put into practice lost to their misogynist opponents. The big fear that resonated with the lawmakers was that gender education is in fact a form of turning minors into sexual “perverts” and “deviants.” We’ve seen this movie before. It was what prop. 8 in California a decade ago claimed. It was what Putin’s anti-LGBTQ legislation is based on.

The only way to eliminate the dangerously ignorant and bigoted perspective on gender evinced by the current bill in the Romanian Parliament is through education. Education for all. Education for the educators, for the religious authorities, for the elected officials, for children starting at the latest in 7th grade, for their parents. Education for judges, lawyers, and the police. Public education for a mature democratic society. But if knowledge makers are forbidden to question the epistemic foundations of how gender and sex as norms have been constructed and used for discriminatory purposes for hundreds of years, what hope do we have for improving our behavior into the future? 

The bill represents gender analysis that distinguishes gender from sex as a form of proselytizing. Its stated goal is to “forbid proselytizing in schools on the basis of sex and respectively gender criteria.” What does that mean? In the initial law, proselytizing refers to the following things:

  1. Activities that go against moral norms. [The moral norms are not defined, and no indication is given that moral norms are the product of cultural discourses and not some fixed thing.]
  2. Activities that endanger the safety or health (physical or mental) of minors and the personnel working in schools.
  3. Political proselytizing.
  4. Religious proselytizing.

To these types of interdictions, the bill adds proselytizing on the basis of “the theory or opinion that gender and sex are not always the same thing.” Insisting in naming this distinction as the very definition of proselytizing is nothing short of censorship and outward discrimination on the basis of both gender and sex.

Even sadder is the fact that there are thousands of people in Romania who are in fact excellent gender researchers. Some of them, like Mihaela Miroiu, created feminist theory programs two decades ago, and those programs have produced many talented researchers and policy makers, who have been advocating and doing their own work to educate others on matters of gender justice. The political class knows these people.  They choose, however, to ignore the experts and now are attempting to muzzle any further work in this direction.

If the elected officials of Romania care about education, they need to consult with the educators who have spent decades dealing with patriarchy and misogyny in their research in eliminating all the forms of gender discrimination present in the content, methodologies, theories, and pedagogy currently present in much of Romanian education. Those experts, with prominent peer reviewed publications, have been writing about this for more than a decade. But those voices are being discounted and explicitly criminalized moving into the future. Just because one Senator trained as a theologian (Cristian-Vasile Lungu, who initiate the amendment) is offended by gender studies, it doesn’t follow that his opinions are based on any kind of scientific evidence. In fact, his opinion flies in the face of scientific consensus in most societies that are not theocracies or autocracies and where gender studies has developed as a field. Ignorance and censorship has never produced progress. It won’t this time, either. But it will start a war in which the politicians who passed this law will have been the first to act as political proselytizers in the name of stopping proselytizing.

President Iohannis should go a lot further than refusing to sign this law. He needs to assemble a task force made of people who have the necessary experience for such a complex task, those with the training and commitment to this important goal for Romanian society into the future. There is a rich community of people who have dedicated their entire successful scholarly careers and/or professional lives to better understanding and especially improving gender relations in our society through education and policy making. And a serious, national discussion about this issue needs to follow, where experts on the matters at hand, and not dilletantes who have done little if any self-educating on the matter, sit at the head of the table. If Iohannis actually cares about all the people who live in Romania, and is truly serious about leading a Romania that is a mature democracy among other mature democracies, then now is the time for him to demonstrate it.

Maria Bucur is the John W. Hill Chair of European History, Indiana University, Bloomington.

One thought on “Gender as Proselytism

  1. A powerful and convincing argument linking gender studies to progress forward toward human rights in Romania.

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