“Gender ideology” and censorship in Brazil

By  |  9 / January / 2018

On Sept. 10, Brazilian right-wing organizations successfully censored an art exhibition called “Queermuseu – Cartografias da Diferença na Arte Brasileira” (Queer Museum – Cartographies of the Difference in Brazilian Art) at Santander Bank’s cultural centre in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The groups charged the exhibition with “promoting blasphemy, paedophilia and bestiality”.

Later that week, on September 13, evangelical fundamentalist pastor and federal deputy, Marco Feliciano, visited and publically criticized an exhibition in Brasilia named Não Matarás (Thou shalt not kill) of works critical of the Brazilian military dictatorship. Feliciano told the press that the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition resembled those of the censored Queermuseu. The next day, in the city of Campo Grande, MPs from the Legislative Assembly of Mato Grosso do Sul state went to the Precinct for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (Depca) and denounced another exhibition called Cadafalso (Scaffold) for “encouraging paedophilia”.

These three art shows weren’t the only ones targeted. Other art exhibitions and also theatre performances were censored or threatened over the following weeks. Different groups, mostly supported by evangelical fundamentalist organisations, claimed credit for the censorship movement. Among them one in particular stood out, the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL – Free Brazil Movement).

The MBL is a pro-market liberal/libertarian pressure group formed in 2014. The group spearheaded the process that led to the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff, the legitimacy of which continues to be debated in political and legal circles. Since then the MBL has assumed a role in Brazilian politics similar to the alt-right movement in the United States.

Many wonder why a group claiming to be libertarian is organizing campaigns to censor art. The group has allied itself with religious fundamentalist groups and individuals, such as former porn star Alexandre Frota. Frota and the MBL are leading a pseudo-moralistic crusade against what they call “gender ideology”, and against what they perceive as the imposition of a leftist agenda in society.

The accusation, directly aimed at rolling back feminist and women’s rights gains and mobilizing misogynistic sectors of society, promotes a clumsy moralism based on the “defence of the family”, and opposition to so-called “gender ideology”. In practice, the groups hide a well-organized political agenda to influence power.

What is Gender Ideology?

The right in Brazil and elsewhere uses the phrase “gender ideology” to distort feminist demands. A brunt for their criticisms is a California academic by the name of Judith Butler accused by many fringe right-wing groups around the world of being the creator of “gender ideology”. They describe this as “an evil that the left tries to impose not only on society, but also on science” and “a cancer for children” that comes together with “Marxist indoctrination” in schools. The MBL and other far-right organizations espouse  that gender ideology promotes homosexuality, creates confusion in children in relation to their gender while promoting “transgenderism”, and boosts a brand of female supremacy that would destroy family structures.

The right staged a demonstratration recently in front of the venue where Butler was scheduled to give a speech with cries of “burn the witch” in which they actually burned a doll with the face of the famous feminist philosopher. Later Butler and her spouse, Wendy Brown, were assaulted at the airport while leaving the city.

The term “gender ideology”, according to Butler, was created by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. In 1997, the term began to be used in Catholic writings and has been used consistently since then. It arrived in Brazil through the writings of Argentinean Jorge Scala in 2010, where he affirms that “gender ideology” poses a threat because it any natural differences between the sexes and encourages no restrictions on sexuality, affirmations that Butler denies ever having made.

Butler’s theory of “gender performativity”– the basis for the scare against so-called gender ideology– seeks to understand gender formation and reinforce the idea that the expression of gender is a fundamental right. It is not an ideology aimed at destroying “the family”, nor does it posit that one can simply “change” at will and influence children to do the same.

Helena Vieira, a Brazilian trans feminist activist and researcher, wrote for [SSEX BBOX]’s website:

“The idea of communist indoctrination does not frighten the simplest and the uninformed as much as the idea that their children will be exposed to all kinds of sexual perversion, gender confusion and will no longer know what they are going to be. People care about their children and so they accept these arguments. Gender ideology is an idea with absolutely no scientific basis (in any science), born within the Catholic Church and it has become very popular, becoming a veritable instrument of cultural and political warfare.”

Vieira adds that discourse over gender ideology “unites ignorance, moral panic, verisimilitude, and functions as an absolutely powerful weapon, which–20 years after its first appearance in a Church document–is already in the parliaments of every city and state, small or large in more than 50 countries.” on behalf of the defense of children and the family.

In October, Paraguay banned “gender ideology materials” in schools. In Poland, there are a number of initiatives to oppose gender ideology and women’s rights, and in Brazil many cities have already passed laws banning gender ideology in schools in line with the Escola Sem Partido (School Without Party) movement, which says it seeks to combat left-wing and Marxist indoctrination in schools and has the support of the MBL and a number of other far-right groups.

“Gender ideology” is the new Red Scare of the 21st century, a virulent form of gender McCarthyism – and a smokescreen to promote intolerance and intimidate opponents. in Brazil, groups such as the MBL use it to distract from the setbacks of the conservative government of Michel Temer, former vice-president under Dilma Rousseff. Amid the corruption scandals that shake his government and even him individually and deeply unpopular reforms that have dragged popularity down to an abysmal 2%, Temer supporters are looking for someone else to blame.

The Extreme-Right

Far-right and evangelical fundamentalist groups have always been part of the Brazilian political arena, but in general they remained on the margins of the political debate and were treated more as a footnote to more powerful forces. But today evangelicals of different denominations make up more than 20% of the Brazilian population, compared to just over 9% two decades ago, and the growth of conservative evangelical churches has spurred the rise of conservative candidates. Radical right-wing discourse has begun to occupy more space in the public debate.

The moralist crusade of the MBL to promote intolerance and intimidate opponents, according to professor and researcher Pablo Ortellado, has strengthened the presidential candidacy of the rightwing Jair Bolsonaro–a federal deputy and former army captain known for his heated defence of the Brazilian military dictatorship and opposition to human rights and LGBT rights in particular.

Bolsonaro was recently convicted and ordered to pay a fine for offending the LGBT community (in 2011, he said on a television show that he had never thought of his children being gay because he had given them “a good education”) and for threatening federal deputy Maria do Rosário when he said in front of the cameras that he would not rape her because she was “very ugly”.

Frota, a minor celebrity known for his participation in reality shows and for his prolific porn career, has also risen as an active voice in the Brazilian conservative camp. Singer Caetano Veloso recently sued Frota after the latter publically accused Veloso of pedophilia for his relationship with Paula Lavigne, his former wife, when Veloso was 40 years old and she was 13. Frota and the MBL were ordered by a judge to delete comments and restrain from further accusations.

Frota also used social media to try to have Butler’s scheduled lecture at Sesc Pompeia, in São Paulo, canceled. This time MBL preferred to stay out of it.

For some time, Frota and the MBL have been in a clash for what seems to be the control of the Brazilian extreme right, and the quarrel has escalated since Frota claimed ownership of the name “Movimento Brasil Livre” and its logo and denounced the rival group to the prosecutor’s office in Brasilia in October for crimes of money laundering, gang formation, criminal association, foreign exchange evasion and theft.

The MBL, among others, has been seeking to attract a more far-right constituency by mobilizing and connecting a vast range of conservatives, defenders of militarism, anti-human rights individuals and groups opposing LGBT and women’s rights, but also liberals that, according to journalist Denis Burgierman, think “it is important that they exist, to keep the left down”. The growing visibility of minorities such as LGBTs and the active defense of rights on the part of feminist and black collectives over the years alienated part of the more radical right and those close to religious fundamentalists. This sentiment was captured and manipulated by MBL and other groups that saw an opportunity to grow, similar to what the alt-right did in the United States – and with the financial support and ideological influence of conservative think tanks and organizations from the United States, like Atlas Network.

Social advancement in minority rights, even though much of it remains largely in symbology rather than effective longterm actions, has awoken and even strengthened radical right-wing groups. Many of these have had their voice amplified by more widely accepted movements within the political mainstream, such as the MBL , which seeks to be a centre of the right and to form political cadres to influence even more directly in power.

At the same time, recent research shows that Brazilian society is generally more progressive than such virulent mobilizations would suggest. A survey released by the Ideia Big Data institute showed that Brazilians support government efforts to guarantee equality of opportunity and protection for the poorest, and to support affirmative policies and the defense of LGBT rights. A majority of the Brazilin population agrees that human rights must apply to all.

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