“LGBT movement and gender constitute serious threats to our identity, to our nation and to the Polish state” announced Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party on April 2019. This was not the first time he expressed such views, nor is he the only right-wing populist leader condemning “gender” as a danger to family, community and nation. Similar claims have been made by key political figures on both sides of the Atlantic during the last few years. Contemporary populist leaders such as Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump are proud opponents of anti-discriminatory legislation, gender-sensitive education or transgender rights. And it is not just the leaders talking. Gender features prominently on the agenda of contemporary populist parties: in country after country newly elected representatives attempt to limit women’s reproductive rights, viciously attack sexual minorities and try to undermine the legitimacy of gender studies as a field of scientific inquiry.
These developments suggest there is a tight connection between right-wing populism and opposition to gender equality and sexual democracy. Just like there is a clear pattern of gendered nationalism, there appears to be also a trend towards gendered populism. As Ruth Wodak pointed out in her seminal book Politics of fear, right-wing populism is usually based on nativist, chauvinist and racialized concept of belonging, inherently anti-elitist and anti-expert, hostile to individualism and minority rights. In other words, it is not only a type of rhetoric but also has specific contents: patriarchal gender norms and ideologies are an integral part of the exclusionary, nationalistic worldview that such parties endorse, even though they may be manifested in various and disparage ways, depending on the context. However, existing research on populism and gender, suggests that there is no clear relationship between the two phenomena. Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser’s analysis of 4 different populist parties operating in Denmark, Netherlands, Bolivia and Ecuador(published in 2015), shows that the populist actors’ position towards gender and sexual equality is not a defining feature of populism, but rather depends on the local cultural and social context. Are scholars missing something or did the situation change since 2015? A closer look at the Polish case helps to understand this issue better: it shows that there is a growing ideological and organizational affinity between right-wing populists and ultraconservatives, and that the question of gender — including sexuality, reproduction and family — is of key importance for today’s political struggles.
While the leader of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party Jarosław Kaczyński is hardly a progressive, he is not the main proponent of ultraconservative agenda in the country. Rather, he eagerly adopts the anti-gender discourse whenever it appears to fit his immediate political goals, but swiftly withdraws his party’s support for specific issues, when the resistance is too strong.The 2016 proposal for total abortion ban was crafted and submitted to the parliament by ultraconservative organization OrdoIuris Institute, which has ties both to Roman Catholic Church and controversial fundamentalist Brazilian sect called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). Initially, both Kaczynski and the then Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, publicly endorsed the proposal. Kaczyński stated “In these matters, as a Catholic, I follow the teachings of the bishops.” However, after the mass protests of Polish women in October 2016, the ruling party backed back away from a blanket banon abortion, and buried this and subsequent proposals in parliamentary commissions.
The anti-LGBT campaign initiated in 2019 also seems to be a part of an ongoing electoral campaign aimed mainly at discrediting the oppositional party, Civic Platform, whose representative Rafał Trzaskowski, the major of Warsaw, recently signed a so-called LGBT+ declaration. The document included basic measures such as providing sexual and anti-discriminatory education based on World Health Organization guidelines in public schools, but Trzaskowski’s decision was met with immediate response. The Law and Justice representatives and Catholic clergy claimed that sex education would lead to “early sexualization” of youth, that it would curb parents’ rights to decide on the upbringing of their children, and would ultimately bring the destruction of the family as social institution. Again, the Law and Justice anti-LGBT campaign was not a new invention but rather a continuation of the “war against gender,” initiated by ultraconservative groups such as OrdoIuris and Catholic clergy around 2012. It proved effective, as it helped to focus public debate on the alleged outrages of LGBT community, rather than Kaczyński’s successes in dismantling liberal democracy.
The face of the supposed enemy changes. In 2015, it was the blurry image of “gender” and the face of a male Syrian refugee. Today, it is a face of a gay man, preferably wearing make-up as a clear sign of his gender transgression. But the logic of discriminatory narrative stays the same. The anti-gender discourse adopted by Kaczyński and other right-wing populist leaders is useful because it strengthens their key claim concerning the moral division between the colonized, marginalized people and corrupt, cunning elites. It helps to portray a broad and loosely defined group of liberals, feminists and “genderists” as Them: dangerous and influential, conspiring to sell the people to global (perhaps Jewish) powers, such as George Soros, a threat to the family and the nation.
As Wodak observed, populism is the politics of fear, so it requires a sense of urgency and an image of an immediate threat. The danger often takes the form of a shadow elite, which allegedly rules behind the scene, different from common people, not only in terms of class and lifestyles, but also values and beliefs. In contemporary Poland, as in many other countries, this shadow elite took the shape of sinister promoters of “gender ideology”: feminists, proponents of reproductive rights and LGBT people. “Gender,” including reproductive and LGBT rights, has become a flexible signifier for all that is wrong with contemporary world: changes in gender relations, low fertility rates, as well as social inequality and the arrogance of the elites, lending some ideological coherence to otherwise disparate right-wing groups and networks, and an affective force rooted in a sense of victimization and moral superiority.
Moreover, in the European context, especially countries such as Poland and Hungary, the new wave of populism often links gender conservatism with a critique of neoliberalism and globalization, with its leaders introducing pro-natalist policies focused on mothers and families with children. With the help of ultra-conservative groups, which seek to be recognized today as “defenders of family” and “family heroes”, populists such as Kaczyński and Orban position themselves as champions of social policies who support hard-working families with children – families that liberals never cared for. So far, such policies have not boosted fertility rates and, as Maria Bucur rightly observes, cash transfers of 500 PLN for each child can be interpreted as outsourcing “ childcare to mothers for salaries that represent a small fraction of a living wage.” Nevertheless, the combination of a wholesale critique of rampant individualism and cultural change merged with substantial social support has had a great mobilizing power, helping the right-wing populists to capture the imagination and hearts of large portions of local populations.
Moral panic around gender plays an important role in mobilizing the public in support of populist politicians, including groups previously not involved in politics, such as parents of young children who are encouraged to believe that the lack of sex education in schools will protect their children from sexual violence. Many liberals miss, the moral panic that flourishes in the absence of public debate. It spreads when there are no oppositional voices that could create a new context for discussing openly discriminatory and hateful claims.
In the case of reproductive rights, the proposed bill,,which included a total ban on abortion, backfired. It not only led to mass mobilization of Polish women, but also to significant changes in the public opinion regarding women’s right to terminate pregnancy. In 2016, only 37% of respondents were of the opinion that the current law should be liberalized. In 2018, 46% of respondents supported such a solution, and in March 2019 it was already 53%. Despite those spectacular changes in public opinion, the main oppositional party, Civic Platform, remains ambivalent on the issue and prefers to back away from the question of LGBT rights. Unable to challenge the moralizing discourse of corrupt liberal elites that aim to ideologically colonize the allegedly conservative people, the opposition leaves the initiative in the hands of right-wing populists and ultraconservative groups. As in many other countries, the strength of the populist parties stems mainly from the weaknesses of their opponents.
Clearly, the debates and controversies around gender are not something happening at the margin of real politics, but at the heart of it. In Poland, the campaign against gender preceded and accompanied the rise of right-wing populism, and the populist politicians continue to use elements of anti-gender discourse whenever it fits their political goals. However, as the case of the abortion ban proposal shows, they can be defeated, when ultraconservative proposals are met with mass resistance.
Recent developments concerning gender politics show that we face a new political configuration, involving close cooperation between right-wing populist political parties and ultraconservative groups opposing “gender.” I would argue that while the two are distinct phenomena and should not be conflated, there is an important ideological and organizational affinity between them, and the emergence of anti-gender campaigns in Europe around 2012 can be interpreted as an important stage in the consolidation of the new populist right. Following scholars such as MiekeVerloo, Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte, who emphasize the variety of oppositions to gender equality in contemporary world and call for disentangling the seemingly all-encompassing concepts such as “Global Right,” I think that we must pay attention to local conditions and specificities. At the same time, we need to consider that there is a transnational trend towards reviving ultraconservative ideologies, focusing on traditional family and natural gender hierarchy; there are new discourses linking opposition to neoliberal individualism with resistance to gender equality and human rights being spread across many countries; and finally, there are well-funded groups that operate on a transnational scale (also in EU and UN institutions), weaving connections between nationally embedded groups and parties, and spreading the language of divisions and hate. OrdoIuris Institute has not only links to a Brazilian sect, it also cooperates with influential transnational organizations such the European Centre for Law and Justice specializing in lobbying at the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, Spanish-based CitizenGo platform boasting to have over 10.000.000 active supporters all over Europe and a clandestine transnational network of socially conservative groups called Agenda Europe.
The affinity between right-wing populists and anti-gender actors plays out on two distinct levels: ideological/discursive and strategic/organizational. Since populism is a thin ideology, it often feeds on other ideological orientations. In Poland, employing socially conservative language to scapegoat specific groups and to reverse the victim-perpetrator relation, attracts certain parts of the population, especially those who feel left behind. At the same time, the actors behind anti-gender campaigns use the organizational resources that right-wing political parties offer and try to infiltrate state apparatus, e.g. the former leader of OrdoIuris has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Both milieus cooperate seeking political influence on the transnational level, e.g. in European Union’s or United Nations’ institutions. A more detailed knowledge of the nature of this cooperation, potential conflicts and ideological differences are needed if progressive political forces are to win the struggle over the shape of contemporary democracies. Who will define the terms and the language of public debate over crucial social issues, such as family, reproduction and sexuality is of key importance.
Elżbieta Korolczuk, PhD is a sociologist, working at Södertörn University in Stockholm and at the American Studies Center, Warsaw University. Her research interests include social movements, civil society and gender. She currently studies civil society elites in Europe in a project sponsored by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Her most recent publications include two edited volumes: Civil Society Revisited: Lessons from Poland co-edited with Kerstin Jacobsson (Berghahn Books, 2017) and Rebellious Parents: Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russiaco-edited with Katalin Fábián (Indiana University Press, 2017).