Is It Possible To Reason With Anti-Genderists?

This article considers the possibilities and limitations of meaningful engagement with radical right anti-gender actors amid increasing polarization around sexual and reproductive rights.
Catholic anti-gay protestors during the Equality March in Rzeszów – June 30, 2018. (Silar, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Catholic anti-gay protestors during the Equality March in Rzeszów – June 30, 2018. (Silar, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Haley McEwen is Senior Researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Haley is a nationally rated researcher in South Africa, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. She is also Associate Editor of the International Journal of Critical Diversity Studies.

Political cleavages between those who oppose and those who support sexual and reproductive rights have widened across the globe in recent decades as matters of gender, sexuality, and family become increasingly politicized. This is an observation made by many across global norths and souths, as anti-gender, or ‘pro-family’ groups become increasingly vocal and influential in their opposition to sexual and reproductive rights. Within the widening faultlines between those for, and against, LGBTIQ+ rights and reproductive justice, opportunities for engagement across these differences seem to be non-existent, and in many cases, undesirable or impossible given the extent of our polarization.

For those advocating for LGBTIQ+ and reproductive rights, one factor that has made meaningful engagement with ‘the opposition’ seem futile is the consistent rejection of empirical evidence that shows, for example, that the gender binary is a social construction, not a biological reality. Those at the helm of radical right organizations and causes have little interest in meaningful engagement, as they are committed to deeper political agendas that anchor and motivate their prejudice and bigotry.

These anti-intellectual and anti-science sentiments have accompanied the rise of conservative populism since the mid-2000s. Attacks on science as promoting political ideologies have closed down possibilities for having an impact in meaningfully engaging with those with differing, and opposing, viewpoints. Despite this shrinking space for direct and meaningful political engagement, those on ‘both sides’ of arguments about sexual and reproductive rights are confronted with the question of how, if at all, to engage the ‘other’.

Although I have witnessed attempts by queer and feminist activists to directly engage anti-gender actors in my research, I have not observed any occasions in which anti-genderists have attempted to directly engage with or respond to their critics. Thus, when I read a newsletter from Family Policy Institute that responded to my article that appeared in openDemocracy earlier this year, I felt it was a rare opportunity for engagement.

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In the opening lines of newsletter instalment titled, “We’re Coming For Your Kids!”, Family Policy Institute (FPI) founder Errol Naidoo refers to my article, South African radical-Right groups are mobilizing against anti-LGBTIQ+ campaigns, fingering it as an “attack” on faith-based organizations in the country. Naidoo points to openDemocracy, which published the article, and the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, where I hold a senior fellowship, as two “leftist” organizations that are waging an assault on religious freedom.

According to Naidoo, my article “condemns FPI for defending faith, the natural family and religious freedoms. It also warns about our work with international allies like “Family Watch International” to expose and combat the dangers of “Comprehensive Sexuality Education” (CSE) in public schools and the global sexual rights agenda advanced through United Nations (UN) agencies”.

What is perhaps the most striking feature of this newsletter is that at no point does Naidoo attempt to deny that Family Policy Institute and others are attempting to deepen the already open wounds of injustice experienced by the LGBTIQ+ community. At no turn does he reject the argument that FPI promotes “ethno-nationalist, white supremacist, religious fundamentalist and neoliberal interests”. In general, he seems more interested in appealing for donations and punting headlines produced by U.S. Christian Right news outlets about Planned Parenthood, comprehensive sexuality education, and LGBTIQ+ representation in media.

Further, Naidoo avoids commenting the article’s analysis of the support that organizations like FPI receive from U.S. based organizations. Unsurprisingly, he neglects to comment on the irony of his own portrayal of local LGBTIQ+ activism as being globally engineered and funded, given his active promotion of U.S. Christian Right agendas in South Africa. While he tells that the article ‘warns’ about FPI’s work with Family Watch International, he does not attempt to explain or justify this alliance.

Naidoo’s pleas of powerlessness and lack of financial support demonstrate further tactics used by radical right organizations to claim victimhood status for themselves, and how they erase the actual victims of systemic and social forms of oppression and discrimination. In doing so, these actors attempt to position the historically and systemically oppressed as ‘new oppressors’.

As Naidoo writes in his newsletter, “Millions of dollars are pumped into anti-faith and anti-family schemes in South Africa. FPI works to expose and combat these agendas – but minus the million dollar budgets”. This portrayal is not only inaccurate on account of its characterization of sexual and reproductive rights advocacy, but grossly exaggerates the funding available for LGBTIQ+ activism in the country.

Rather than providing empirical evidence, Naidoo points to the United Nations and George Soros, which have both become targets within anti-gender and other radical right activism. Claiming that ‘global sexual rights’ activists and organizations are well funded, Naidoo proceeds to make no less than three requests for financial donations to support their efforts to “combat the radical sexual rights agenda in South Africa”.

Most significantly, Naidoo claims that sexual and reproductive rights are attacks on the family and faith. This false dichotomy, creating the impression that LGBTIQ+ people, and faith and family, are mutually exclusive and can only be at odds with one another. Our increasing polarization only works to the advantage of anti-gender actors like Naidoo, who depend on sensationalist portrayals of the ‘other’ in order to gain influence and support. Finding areas of resonance amidst otherwise cacophonous and divisive anti-gender propaganda may be our best chance at hearing one another, and ourselves, differently.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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