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The international far-right has a new target: Gender and identity

A Christian fundamentalist conference in Moldova highlights how the extreme right is moving against transgender rights.

The recent World Congress of Families conference in Moldova highlighted how gender and identity have become the next frontier in international anti-LGBTQ efforts. CREDIT: SEAN GALLUP / GETTY
The recent World Congress of Families conference in Moldova highlighted how gender and identity have become the next frontier in international anti-LGBTQ efforts. CREDIT: SEAN GALLUP / GETTY

For years, the World Congress of Families (WCF) focused its collective efforts on one policy area: blocking rights for same-sex couples, and preventing same-sex marriage in particular. Now, however, it seems WCF, a joint Russian-American project, may be shifting its sights and rallying far-right Christian conservatives to oppose trans rights with the same intensity.

In numerous countries, WCF representatives lobbied heavily against equal rights for same-sex couples, efforts that included backing Russia’s extreme “anti-propaganda law” targeting LGBTQ individuals in 2013. Its work in this space was so pronounced that WCF was soon regarded as one of the leading anti-LGBTQ organizations in the world.

The group “has been linked to the extreme and international anti-LGBT movements taking place in Russia and Uganda in recent years,” The Advocate wrote in 2015. US News & World Report likewise pointed to WCF’s influence when discussing restrictions on same-sex rights in Nigeria and Uganda — all of which helped the organization recruit notorious homophobe Brian Brown to lead recent conferences.

However, this year’s WCF conference in Moldova provided less fire-and-brimstone talk of anti-marriage equality policies; as one conference participant noted, the speeches during the conference’s second half “were all so boring.” There were even muted references to policy “failures” across the West. Three years after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage, conference attendees seemed resigned to the permanence of marriage equality. As WCF’s Nicole King said, it “often seems like there aren’t many [successes] these days” for anti-LGBTQ forces.

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In its stead, though, a new topic has emerged that threatens to revive collaboration between members of the trans-Atlantic international extreme right: trans rights and gender identity. Much as discussions in this space — from Texas’ so-called “bathroom bill” to broader conversations about public discrimination — have become key policy issues over the past year in the U.S., international audiences are likewise grappling with their own dialogues on transgender rights.

And while western anti-LGBTQ activists have resigned themselves to the fact that they lost the marriage equality fight, they see efforts to define terms and policies on gender and identity as a way to both regain momentum and fortify ties with far-right groups across Europe.

“Western countries have shown us how to fight gender ideology by legal means… Eastern countries, primarily Russia, have shown us how to fight gender ideology in the political arena.”

“Trans visibility has been increasing, and that’s because trans advocacy has been increasing, and trans people are coming out everywhere all over the world,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress. “Practically… it means that the people against us are going to come after us. I think there are a lot of far-right groups that have decided they can’t win the marriage equality thing anymore, at least for now, so they’re looking for something else to use to raise money and to keep their flock together. And trans people, they think, are an easy mark.”

World Congress of Bigots

This month’s WCF conference showcased how discussions on gender and identity have come to dominate international extreme right circles, arguably displacing marriage equality as the main social casus belli. While the theme of the gathering was “East and West coming around the beauty of the family,” the focus on gender, identity, and transgender rights was impossible to miss.

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One American participant, religious publisher James Kushiner, spent a portion of his lecture on “New Media” blaming social media for spreading the “new fad” of transgender individuals. According to Kushiner, “Facebook is making it worse.”

Another American, former Justice Department official Robert Siedlecki, claimed that the so-called “East” does not have “gender fluidity.” Other speakers, like Australian activist Lyle Shelton, even spent time at the conference sharing their anti-transgender thoughts on social media.

While gender rights were most often mentioned during discussions of broader topics — all under the guise of the so-called “natural family” — some of the panels at the WCF conference focused on transgender rights and policies specifically.

One, covered in depth by Right Wing Watch’s Peter Montgomery, featured the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg walking his audience through the “Five Myths of Gender Identity.” Unsurprisingly, the talk veered into the bizarre, including claims that far-right groups were actually the true “progressive” forces.

Sprigg’s final “myth” was that the transgender movement is a progressive movement — an odd topic to take on in a setting where “progressive” is a dirty word. Sprigg claimed that many self-identified gays and lesbians are “concerned about the T” because “masculine girls and feminine boys who at one time might have grown up to identify as lesbian women or as gay men are now being told that they are actually the opposite sex.” He also positioned himself, as others on the Right have done, in alliance with some feminists — so-called TERFs — who argue that trans activists are not trying to overcome gender stereotypes but instead are “trying to conform to rigid gender stereotypes of the opposite sex.”

Another lecture by Maria Stajic focused on policy successes in undercutting transgender rights. Focusing on Serbia as an example, Stajic — a representative from Serbia’s far-right Dveri party and member of “Orthodox Christian Parent” — took listeners through a playbook of how she and her anti-LGBTQ cohort had pushed back against efforts at expanding transgender rights. 

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Citing “specific lessons” about combating “gender ideology,” Stajic said, “western countries have shown us how to fight gender ideology by legal means… [and] Eastern countries, primarily Russia, have shown us how to fight gender ideology in the political arena. Various religious organizations have shown us yet more ways to oppose gender theory.”

Cycling behind Stajic were slides detailing efforts at “debunking gender theory with science.” Among the examples cited were an “Orthodox psychologist from Russia.”

Serbia's Maria Stajic takes listeners through some of the tools and tactics Serbian activists have used to push back against transgender rights. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
Serbia's Maria Stajic takes listeners through some of the tools and tactics Serbian activists have used to push back against transgender rights. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

Other speakers avoided specific policy proposals, instead exhorting the audience to know the supposed “truth” about gender and identity.

“The truth is the truth, right?” the National Organization for Marriage’s Diego von Stauffenberg asked a panel audience. “The truth has gravitational pull. But sometimes it’s very, very, very difficult to stand up and say what, in the case of maybe gender ideology, what any four-year-old knows to be true… We live in this crazy world where everything’s upside down, where people are telling us that there are no genders.”

Closing out his talk, von Stauffenberg said, “boys are boys and always will be, girls and girls and always will be.”

An audience at the World Congress of Families conference in Chisinau, Moldova, listens to anti-LGBT activist Diego von Stauffenberg call for an end to transgender rights. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
An audience at the World Congress of Families conference in Chisinau, Moldova, listens to anti-LGBT activist Diego von Stauffenberg call for an end to transgender rights. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

The next frontier

Stajic and a number of other speakers repeatedly invoked one specific phrase,  “gender ideology,” when discussing identity and trans rights.

While the phrase hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream, it seemed to be the go-to term for extreme right speakers calling for a rollback of supposedly “anti-family” policies. Rather than push specific policies, it seemed much of the conference was designed around spreading the phrase “gender ideology” to participants as much as possible.

To those at the WCF conference, describing the push for trans rights as an “ideology” makes it something that can be argued against. The phrase “kind of takes the LGBT rights thing and dehumanizes it, makes it seem kind of fashionable… like a lefty NPR, Ivory Tower kind of thing — as opposed to a human thing,” Andrew Park, director of international programs at UCLA’s Williams Institute, told ThinkProgress. “This is the same thing as the right-wing saying ‘death tax’ years ago. The phrase sticks.”

“This is the same thing as the right-wing saying ‘death tax’ years ago. The phrase sticks.”

The phrase doesn’t exist in a WCF-based vacuum either; Christian conservatives cited it repeatedly during this month’s Values Voter Summit, and there’s an entire section devoted to so-called “gender ideology” on the website for the Archdiocese of New York. Alongside “gender theory,” another popular phrase used during the WCF conference, “gender ideology” apparently posits that gender identity is something that can be constructed or chosen, rather than an immutable characteristic of a person.

“About four years ago, the global Catholic network started developing this tactic to deal with gender issues, to label all these issues as ‘gender ideology,'” Park said. “All of a sudden, it was everywhere.”

Park added that one of the reasons behind the growing international focus on rolling back trans rights and gender-based policies is not simply the result of a failure to slow the march of marriage equality; it’s also motivated by notable successes over the past few years in terms of gender recognition laws across the world, from South Asia to South America. (There were no South Asian representatives at this year’s WCF conference, and only a handful of Latin American representatives.)

As Keisling mentioned, that success has sparked a backlash among the extreme right, or at least among far-right groups in North America and Europe. It was clear WCF conference organizers hoped a focus on gender and identity could flame the far-right enthusiasm that had been dwindling after the spread of marriage equality. And it was equally clear they hoped highlighting a need to combat so-called “gender ideology” could strengthen the bonds between the American organizers, Western anti-LGBTQ activists, and sanctioned Russian officials who all trekked to Moldova.

However, experts say if there’s one quality that can slow the full, trans-Atlantic convergence of anti-trans activists, it’s arrogance. They point specifically to the assuredness among American activists who believe they are, simply by dint of being American, the most competent. (Think of it as a sort of “America First” policy, except for inhumane social policies.) It’s also an obstacle that may well prevent a full alliance of regressive forces aimed at rolling back transgender rights and targeting gender and identity as the next frontier for extreme right forces.

“The only good thing I can tell you about American arrogance is that we really don’t care about what anybody else thinks or does,” Keisling told ThinkProgress. “And generally that’s a very unfortunate thing — but in this case, it may not be.”