The War on “Gender Ideology”
After four years of negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Popular Army (FARC-EP), an end to Colombia’s long internal conflict seemed near. But in October 2016, with only 37 percent of the almost 35 millioneligible voters showing up to the polls, the peace agreement was rejected by a margin of just 50.21 percent.
A few days after the failed referendum, Juan Carlos Vélez, manager of the campaign opposing the peace agreement, was interviewed by La República, a well known newspaper in Colombia. According to Vélez, the success of his campaign was due to two factors: 1) the importance of digital social networks over other media sources, and 2) a differential approach to messaging that targeted different class audiences.
The anti-peace right targeted high- and middle-income Colombians by telling them that they would be responsible for the economic burden of the agreement — “the cost of peace.” Meanwhile, among low-income voters, the Right stirred fears about possible reductions to social welfare as the national budget changed to prioritize the reintegration of ex-combatants. But inflecting everything was an angry hysteria about sexual diversity — a specter of creeping cultural deviance which the Colombian right successfully associated with the proposed peace agreement.
In Vélez’s words, “We were looking for people to go out to vote while pissed off.” In this, Vélez and his collaborators were clearly successful. But to understand why this tactic was so effective, it’s necessary to go back months before the referendum.
In August 2016, the streets of large cities like Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, and Medellin were filled with thousands of people dressed in white shirts waving Colombian flags. They carried banners and chanted “the only guideline the kids need is the bible.” These mobilizations were convened through social media and endorsed by both Protestant and Catholic leaders. The marchers criticized the government’s intention to open up a discussion about sexual diversity in public schools and railed against the institutionalization of what they referred to as “gender ideology.”
Oswaldo Ortiz, a Youtube personality and so-called “digital pastor,” exemplifies how conservative groups successfully used social media to link this fear about sexual diversity to opposition to the peace agreement. Ortiz is a thirty-something lawyer and a self-proclaimed “heterosexual activist” in a crusade against what he calls the “gay lobby.” In his Youtube videos, Ortiz mixes a conservative religious agenda with an easy-going, modern attitude. His videos show him jogging, often using hashtags such as #runningwithjesus.
Like conspiracy-minded commentators in the United States and elsewhere, Ortiz is obsessed with revealing the pernicious influence of “gender ideology” in Colombian society at large.
In one video, Ortiz presents footage of Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator during the peace process. The clip shows de la Calle at a press conference, repeating, “You are not born a man, you become a man. You are not born a woman, you become a woman.”
In another video, Ortiz features the Argentine reactionary Augustin Laje, whose latest book (The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion) argues that sexual diversity, feminism, and environmentalism replaced proletarianism in leftist politics after the fall of the Soviet Union. The book’s cover features an image of Che Guevara wearing striking red lipstick, superimposed over a rainbow flag.
In the interview, Laje defines gender as the cultural aspect of human sexuality. It becomes an ideology, he says, when the cultural aspect displaces the “natural” determinations.
In a similar vein, popular evangelical pastor Alejandro Ortiz recently wrote — in an article addressed to “atheists, gays, lesbians, extreme environmentalists, feminists, and evolutionists” — “the day will come when God will put the saved on his right hand, and on the left — yes, on the left – the accursed. The evangelical right has arrived to Colombia, and arrived to stay”.
While it’s true that the Colombian congress began implementing a nearly identical peace agreement just a month after the defeated referendum, the Colombian population remains politically polarized, which poses significant challenges for any future reconciliation.