The ‘Rainbow Nation’ is not immune to anti-gender activism: Attacks on queer bodies and knowledge in South Africa

This Insight examines the rise of anti-gender activism in South Africa. While the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is widely praised for its Constitutional protections of LGBTIQ+ people, resistance against sexuality and gender diversity is being mobilised through strategic transnational ’pro-family’ partnerships and campaigns. The article examines some local ‘anti-gender’ campaigns and their connections to U.S. based organisations who are mobilising anti-gay, anti-trans, and anti-feminist political agendas in North America and beyond.

In countries around the world, campaigns against ‘gender’, ‘genderism’, and ‘gender ideology’ are becoming increasingly influential in politics and culture. Anti-gender activism is emerging globally as a radical right counter-movement against equal rights and recognition of LGBTIQ+ people. South Africa might seem to be an unlikely space where one would find these forms of radical right anti-gay and anti-feminist advocacy. As one of the first countries in the world to include legislation protecting LGBTIQ+ people from discrimination, and the only country in Africa and the fifth country globally to legalise same-sex marriage, one might anticipate that discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people would not have any political traction. To the contrary, there has been a slow, yet steady, emergence of radical right advocacy in South Africa against the expansion of LGBTIQ+ rights and visibility over the past decade and a half.

South African organisations and activists who call themselves ‘pro-family’ have been waging various campaigns against LGBTIQ+ inclusive legislation and policy. For instance, in 2019, the Cape Town based Family Policy Institute and Freedom of Religion South Africa opposed the creation of a single Marriage Act that will govern both same-sex and heterosexual marriages. These organisations have also been campaigning against a proposed amendment of the Civil Union act that prohibits marriage officers from refusing to marry same-sex couples. Opposing the inclusion of Comprehensive Sex Education programming in the national curriculum has also been on their agenda for the past two years. While these campaigns have appeared ‘grassroots’, claiming to represent concerned South Africans, their campaigns notably draw on anti-LGBTIQ+ and anti-feminist discourse and ideology that is being propagated globally by transnationally connected ‘pro-family’ advocacy groups.

While the movement refers to itself as ‘pro-family’, those who experience the exclusionary effects of this anti-gay and anti-feminist ideology have come to know it as ‘anti-gender’. Within anti-LGBTIQ+ and anti-feminist ‘anti-gender’ discourse, ‘gender’ works as a “symbolic glue” that holds together various fears and concerns about changing social norms, many of which are entangled with ethno-nationalist anxieties about declining fertility rates and changing demographics. While the social, geo-political, and economic contexts where anti-gender activism is emerging vary, anti-gender activism is consistent in its efforts to construct those advocating for equal rights for LGBTIQ+ people and women as neo-colonizers who are said to be destroying local values, traditions and ways of life through their “gender ideology”.

The political rhetoric and ideology of “family values” and the need to protect “traditional values” first emerged in the United States in the 1960s as a counter movement to the sexual revolution. It was not until the 1990s that American pro-life and anti-gay activists and organisations began to deploy their advocacy internationally, particularly at the 1994 and 1996 international United Nations conferences. Central to pro-family activism at the UN was the objective of countering “the epistemological turn within feminist and queer discourse and attempts among feminists to reconceptualize and operationalize gender into international policy”.[1]

In South Africa, despite formal constitutional protections for LGBTIQ+ identifying people, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny remain pervasive across the diverse racial and ethnic groups comprising the ‘Rainbow Nation’. Civil Society efforts to amend policy and school curriculum in ways that will deepen LGBTIQ+ inclusivity and rights are increasingly met with resistance from claims that “global abortion and sexual rights radicals” will indoctrinate young people and “change the sexual and gender norms of SA society”. Similar to anti-gender discourse in other contexts, South African pro-family activists argue that LGBTIQ+ and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) rights are expressions of cultural imperialism by the West. However, a historical analysis of the gender binary, heteronormativity and the notion of the nuclear family model reveal that these were never universal or ‘natural’ features of pre-colonial societies, but were entrenched by colonial ideology and law in the colonies and the metropole. Thus, the contemporary anti-gender movement can be seen as an effort to divorce the notions of the gender binary and hierarchy from their historical and geo-political histories so as to refashion them as weapons of power, dominance and oppression.[2]

Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) has become a target of anti-gender activism within local and international policy terrain. Arizona-based organisation Family Watch International has been leading campaigns about the alleged dangers of CSE across the U.S. and abroad. In Africa, the organisation has petitioned against CSE in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana. According to the campaign website, “Highly controversial CSE programs…indoctrinate youth to embrace radical sexual and gender ideologies, promote sexual rights and abortion, and encourage promiscuity, high-risk sexual behaviours, and sexual pleasure, even to the very youngest of children”. This campaign made its way to South Africa via the Cape Town based organisation Family Policy Institute that circulated and promoted a localised version of the petition letter. Whilst the petition letter was being circulated, a WhatsApp message was going viral that misrepresented a series of images from a well-known Danish children’s book called How a Baby is Made (1975). The message claimed that the images were from new lesson plans and had been “leaked” by someone from the Department of Basic Education. While this claim could be easily debunked by Google Image search, the message had the desired effect of sparking panic and outcry that the new sex education materials would be pornographic. Largely obscured from this controversy was that the campaign against CSE was being coordinated by an American organisation. Despite the presence of the Arizona-based Family Watch International logo on the Stop CSE petition website, the American leaders of the campaign remained an absent presence in the local controversy.

Anti-gender activists attempt to close down legislation and discourse that contributes towards the creation of a society without sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. In targeting school curricula, anti-gender activists also wage an epistemic assault on forms of knowledge that promote inclusivity of gender and sexuality diversity. In addition to the campaigning against Comprehensive Sex Education, anti-gender activists have also targeted Gender Studies scholars and programmes around the world in a further effort to discredit forms of research and education that acknowledge gender and sexuality diversity.

In 2017, internationally acclaimed Gender Studies scholar and philosopher Judith Butler was the subject of a protest against ‘gender ideology’ in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Protestors, who accused Butler of threatening “the natural order of gender, sexuality and the family”, burned an effigy in her image, while others carried Bibles and crosses, or placards of her face with drawn on red devil horns. In 2018, the Hungarian government effectively banned Gender Studies programmes by removing their accreditation and funding. When the decision was announced, a spokesman for the prime minister said, “The government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes”.

Anti-gender attacks on Gender Studies and CSE reflect the ways in which this form of radical right campaigning is increasingly targeting forms of knowledge that are LGBTIQ+ inclusive. The effort to destroy and erase knowledge that deconstructs and challenges the notion of the gender binary and hierarchy cannot be seen as separate from the growing numbers of hate crimes and murders committed against queer, transgender, and women’s bodies. Anti-gender activism against LGBTIQ+ rights and visibility is therefore not only being waged at the policy level, but at epistemic and existential levels in an effort to discredit, delegitimise and ultimately erase LGBTIQ+ existence in toto. Anti-gender discourse and ideology must therefore be taken seriously as a radical right movement that is propagating genocidal ideology, despite its efforts and strategies to appear benevolent.

This article is based on the report “Un/knowing and un/doing gender and sexuality diversity: The global anti-gender movement against SOGIE rights and academic freedom”, which was published by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance Fund (SAIH).

[1] Corredor, E. S. (2019). Unpacking “gender ideology” and the Global Right’s antigender countermovement”. Signs: Journal of Women In Culture And Society, 44 (3), 613-638

[2] McEwen, H. (2017). Nuclear power: The family in decolonial perspective and ‘pro-family’politics in Africa. Development Southern Africa, 34(6), 738-751.

Dr Haley McEwen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). See full profile here.

© Haley McEwen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).