Conservative backlash threatens global gender justice efforts

U.N. expert Madrigal-Borloz warns that anti-trans narratives are being used to energize political bases and counter human rights protections

Victor Madrigal-Borloz

Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff PhotographerVictor Madrigal Borloz is the United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity and a senior visiting researcher at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program.

People who do not conform to gender norms are at an increased risk of persecution and violence due to a steep rise in exclusionary rhetoric, according to Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and a senior visiting researcher at the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program. This is due in part, he explained at a recent HLS event, to a growing conservative backlash against efforts to recognize gender and gender identity — especially the rights of transgender individuals — in various nations’ laws and policies.

Opposition to this recognition, he said, is often framed as a resistance to the imposition of a so-called “gender ideology,” a concept, which he said has long been used to create moral panic and suggest there is “a global conspiracy aimed at destroying the political and social order.”

Madrigal-Borloz has noted a “steep rise in ultraconservative political leaders and religious groups using their platforms to promote bigotry; dehumanize persons on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression; and foster stigma and intolerance among their constituencies.”

In particular, anti-trans narratives, he has found, now resonate with conservative platforms and are increasingly being used strategically to energize and galvanize political bases with successful results in national election campaigns around the world.

The boundaries between anti-gender and anti-trans narratives and practices are becoming increasingly blurred, according to Madrigal-Borloz. These narratives share common traits, including using vigorous social media messaging, which often gives the false sense of strength in numbers. They also have the ability to leverage support from followers based on campaigns that oppose progress in social rights.

“And it is one of the aspects that I think we will need to continue mapping, the extent to which there has been a politicization of the agenda of gender justice, to the effect where now around the world there are many countries where you can see it neatly aligned with political party platforms.” This gives the appearance, he said, “that gender justice is a political ideology, when in reality it’s the most human of human ideas.”

Madrigal-Borloz shared his views at a virtual event last month hosted by the HLS Human Rights Program that focused on his year-long investigation into incorporation of gender and gender identity into international human rights law.

He had presented his findings in two reports,  The Law of Inclusion and Practices of Exclusion, to the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly this year. They were drawn, he said, from a record number of responses, including numerous consultations, virtual events, and interactions with states, civil society organizations, academia, global and regional entities, and persons with lived experience. More than a dozen Harvard Law students have been engaged in Madrigal-Borloz’ work through the HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

[Related: An academic home for a global mandate]

Madrigal-Borloz was joined at the online event by a panel of human rights experts to discuss key aspects of his investigation and what can be done to counter exclusionary narratives and practices.

Panelist Julia Ehrt, the newly appointed executive director at ILGA World and former head of Transgender Europe, corroborated many of the trends Madrigal-Borloz described. She cited the Rainbow Europe Index, published by a branch of her organization for the past 13 years, which assesses the legal situation of LGBTI people in Europe. For the first 10 years, she said, the index showed the situation was quite bad in some countries, but there was considerable legal progress across the region.

“That has changed,” she said. According to the index, in recent years many countries have moved backwards, as existing laws and policies disappear. And there was almost no progress in the region on issues such as intersex and trans rights. “We indeed see a surge in anti-gender discourse and practices,” she said.

In addition, said Ehrt, “we see a concerted attack on gender equality, women, and SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] rights that weaponizes these issues.”

“The thought that LGBTI people are intrinsically immoral, sinful, and wrong, or at least suspicious, is a quite widespread belief. And it easily connects with conservative mainstream beliefs and values. And our traditional opponents, who have been there all the time, they’re using that to cultivate those narratives of exclusion,” she said. “They become a tool to attack progress made on gender equality and the fight against gender-based violence. And they seek to infringe as well on democratic rule and the rule of law. They constitute an effort to deflect attention away from social economic hardships and financial crisis in many societies.”

Madrigal-Borloz, she says, gives many examples of this “weaponizing” in his reports. She cited one example that looked at Colombia, where the gender-ideology narrative was a crucial part of the strategy used in the campaign against the agreement that ended the long-running conflict between the government and a revolutionary militia group called the FARC. “Now,” said Ehrt, “you’ll ask, what has the peace process in Colombia got to do with gender narratives? And that’s exactly the point.” She added that it’s not about gender narratives but about using those narratives to achieve another goal. Ehrt continued, “My point is that an answer to that backlash cannot only focus on pushback on their LGBTI agenda narrative. It needs a much broader response.”

In his reports and presentation, Madrigal-Borloz stressed that the exclusionary narratives and actions related to gender and gender identity are detrimental to all women and girls. Panelist Melissa Upreti, the chair of the U.N. Working Group on discrimination against women and girls spoke to that point. “Member states that frequently oppose the rights of LGBTQ+ plus people are usually the same ones that oppose the rights of women and girls to equality within the family and the enjoyment of the sexual reproductive rights, among others,” she said. “Different branches of the human rights movements must work together by finding common ground on key issues. They must work hand in hand and in coordination and not in opposition to each other.”

The virtual event was moderated by Alice Miller, who teaches on the faculties of law and public health at Yale University and is co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School. It included video clips from representatives of member states responding to the presentation of Madrigal-Borloz’s report Practices of Exclusion in late October, including from an Italian delegate, who committed to including LGBTI issues as part of their political agenda. (Watch responses below.) But Miller noted that just the next day, the Italian Parliament voted down a bill regarding homophobia and transphobia as hate crimes.

The detrimental vote, which the delegate could not have anticipated, was nevertheless, according to Madrigal-Borloz, an excellent example of “the enormous complexity of the dynamics in which this respect of rights, and the furtherance and backlash of rights, are actually inscribed.”


Watch the event


Watch clips of UN member state representatives’ responses to Madrigal Borloz’ October presentation of his Practices of Exclusion report