Gender: an ill-spoken concept

Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

Brazil’s current administration has declared war on gender ideology with battlefronts ranging from elementary education to foreign policy, but the science view of the issue is profoundly different from the clashes exacerbated on social media

Sérgio Carrara
Isadora Lins França

In June, in a decision handed down by the Federal Supreme Court (STF), Brazil became the 43rd country to criminalize homophobia. In his vote, Minister Celso de Mello declared that the worldview that seeks to determine the social roles of men and women based on their biological differences is an “artificially constructed idea”. The immediate reaction of current president Jair Bolsonaro, who considers the decision a misjudgment and decries the absence of an evangelical justice on the Supreme Court, exposes the scale of the challenges we face in dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. Even Brazilian diplomats are officially instructed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reproduce the understanding of the current government, for whom gender is synonymous with biological sex: female or male – though science proves otherwise.

This scenario was set with Bolsonaro’s inaugural speech at the National Congress, when the president declared that his administration would unite the people, put family first, respect religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition and, to that end, oppose gender ideology. Not long after, Damares Alves, Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, appeared in a video declaring this a new era for Brazil in which boys wear blue and girls wear pink. When questioned, the minister explained to the press that it was a metaphor against “gender ideology.” There’s just one problem: in these terms, such an ideology never existed.

The idea of a gender ideology was developed within the Catholic Church in the 1990s in response to the concept of gender put forth at international women’s conferences. Since then, this notion has come to permeate our political context at different times, being particularly operative in the run-up to elections. During the 2018 presidential campaign, so-called gender ideology again took center stage in the debates, coupled with fake news reports that presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, during his time as mayor of São Paulo, had distributed a “gay kit,” including a phallic baby bottle, for children in public schools.

The existence of a certain type of doctrine was then alleged, the purpose of which was to guide children in relation to their sexuality and to teach them to not identify as girls or boys. Though false, this idea has wreaked havoc. Once fear set in, part of the population related the concept to an imposition that would pervert children. Such reactions – including from the president-elect himself and government officials – persist and have been received by the scientific community with perplexity and concern, especially since they are guiding public policy. According to the National Education Plan and many municipal and state plans, for example, gender is not to be addressed in the classroom or in teacher training.

To shield children from this supposed ideology, ordinary people and politicians have adopted speech that curbs discussions on sex and gender, complying with a normative perspective. According to this concept, gender is immutable: once a girl, always a girl; once a boy, always a boy. It also seeks to further entrench narrow social and cultural conventions regarding men and women – girls should wear pink, boys should wear blue. Similarly, this singular normative concept dictates that people only have romantic and sexual relationships with those of the opposite sex.

There is a key difference here. While enemies of so-called gender ideology focus on rigid definitions of gender and sexuality, the scientific perspective tends to broaden these boundaries, abandoning a prescriptive approach. In Anthropology, conceptual elaborations built on scientific knowledge, developed for over a century now in different social realities, have led to the conclusion that there are no essential, immutable and universally applicable attributes of sex, sexuality and gender.

The debate on gender and sexuality in the scientific community suggests that, rather than a mere physiological issue, the meanings of masculine and feminine conventions of sexuality are the result of complex historical, social and cultural processes. These processes result from the continuous articulations of norms, conventions and regulations, which vary from society to society. In other words, there have always been different ways of being a man and being a woman and different definitions of masculine and feminine around the world. The same applies to sexuality.

In 1935, American anthropologist Margaret Mead testified that women and men’s behavior varies according to the society in which they are inserted. Her study, conducted on the island of New Guinea, states that the men and women of the Arapesh people were more docile, while Mundugumor men and women were aggressive and, finally, among the Tchambuli people, women were more domineering and men more passive.

In Brazilian society, it was long believed that women were by nature less intelligent and rational than men and, therefore, should not vote. It was only in 1932 that, after intense feminist mobilization, women secured this right, albeit optional for those who did not have paid work. An equal value of votes, mandatory for both men and women, was only made official in the Electoral Code of 1965.

It was only in 1879 that Brazilian women obtained the right to attend institutions of higher education, and when they did, they were stigmatized. Evelina Bloem Souto, for example, the first woman to study Civil Engineering at the School of Engineering of São Carlos in 1957, was forced to wear men’s clothing and paint a beard and mustache on her face in order to attend a technical visit. In terms of clothing, it is worth noting that the social convention by which boys wear blue and girls wear pink first appeared in Europe and the United States in the 20th century as a marketing strategy. Advertisers and clothing stores had previously considered pink the ideal color for boys, because it was seen as stronger.

Exploring the diversity of behaviors and social values ​​related to masculinity and femininity, gender studies have contributed to the understanding of serious and complex social problems such as violence against women (sometimes referred to as gender violence), discrimination and violence against LGBT people, patterns of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual violence and inequalities between men and women in the labor market, among others.

In the field of ​​education, studies have recorded different expressions related to gender and sexuality in classrooms and the possibility that these expressions can take place without violence, so as not to undermine the ethical and legal boundaries that govern social life. This helps educators understand the importance of accommodating diversity in school settings as well as addressing challenges such as unplanned pregnancy and sexual violence against children and teenagers.

Gender studies have operated in a realm that prizes ​​an affirmation of diversity and fundamental rights, especially human dignity, citizenship and peace. Freedom of thought, teaching and research in this area are essential for researchers to continue to contribute to the country’s scientific and ethical development.

With a robust set of research data, gender studies have contributed to a systematic critique of certain conceptions, presumed certainties or beliefs that lack scientific verification. Ironically, discourses that assume private conceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman as universal and natural could, in turn, be referred to as “gender ideology,” in the sense that they stand for narrow-minded viewpoints framed as absolute, indisputable truths.


Sérgio Carrara is a social scientist with a PhD in Social Anthropology from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and full professor at the Institute of Social Medicine of Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). He is also vice-president of the Brazilian Anthropology Association (ABA), where he is a fellow on the Gender and Sexuality Committee, as well as the Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

Isadora Lins França is a historian with a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and full professor in the Anthropology Department at Unicamp. She is also a fellow in the Brazilian Anthropology Association’s (ABA) Gender and Sexuality Committee and the Pagu Gender Studies Center at Unicamp.


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