Sexuality Policy Watch

Sexual Politics in Times of Pandemic: July to December 2020

Editors’ Note

We apologize to our readers and partners for the delay in making our last Special Issue on Sexual Politics in the Pandemic available. This delay was due to the unexpected compression of time that we have been experiencing in 2020, but also to cases of  COVID-19 within the ABIA/SPW team as well as among relatives and co-workers. While the structure of this Special Issue is similar to previous editions,  a new topic has been added, in which recent Vatican politics in relation to sexual matters and beyond are examined.  Depending on how the vaccination and the pandemic patterns evolve in 2021, this may be our last Special Issue on gender and sexual politics during the COVID-19. We expect this to be so.

The State of the Pandemic

One year after the first infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been identified in Wuhan, over 74 million cases and 1.6 million deaths have been registered worldwide. In the last edition of Sexual Politics in Times of Pandemic”, published in July, Europe was experiencing a decline in cases and started relaxing social distancing measures, but now the whole region faces a second bout, that has also hit the USA, Asia, and Latin America. Africa is the only continent where COVID-19 impacts have remained low, except in South Africa, a pattern that is now the object of investigation (see map). COVID-19 is repeating the consecutive waves experienced in past epidemics and it is also overlapping with other illnesses, especially neglected diseases. This trend requires new ways of defining pandemic. One possibility, some epidemiologists suggest, is to re-capture the concept of “syndemic” crafted in the 1990s to describe how the HIV/AIDS epidemic interacted with and reinforced pre-existing epidemiological, social, and political conditions.

The Geo-Economics of the Vaccine

Since July, the race for vaccines and disputes between manufacturers has intensified. When this Special Issue was being finalized, in mid-December, the very first persons were vaccinated in the UK,  and it was expected that in January mass vaccination would start in other European countries and in the U.S. In Latin America, several countries were rapidly advancing towards the approval of tested products, and the World Health Organization (WHO) had authorized four different vaccines developed in Cuba to begin phase three of tests. The Brazilian situation, on the other hand, remained deplorable, as just on December 16, a national plan was presented. The previous day, Bolsonaro declared that he would not be vaccinated and, during the same event, the Minister of Health, General Pazuello, said he did not understand why people were “so anxious about a vaccine” (see a compilation). As vaccines become a reality, the question of access becomes critical and takes on complex contours,  because of the challenges in the scale production and the logistics of vaccination, but also due to unjust global disparities in the purchasing capacity of vaccines and obstacles deriving from intellectual property rules (patents).

In September, WHO established the COVAX Facility (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility) bringing together states and companies to ensure the distribution of two billion vaccines to countries in the global south. However, in December, news began to circulate that the platform would not be able to meet its goal because the vaccines are being purchased by rich countries. Then, in October, India and South Africa made a demand for a waiver of patents and other rights on vaccines and treatment drugs from COVID-19 at the World Trade Organization (WTO). On December 10, the proposal, already supported by 100 countries, was discussed at the WTO TRIPS Council.

In both arenas, however, once again the classic fracture between Southern countries, which defend non-proprietary logic, and global Northern countries is at work. As noted by the authors of Intellectual Property Monopolies Block Access to Vaccines, while the rich and powerful will have access, in poor countries only one in ten persons will be vaccinated in 2021. Australia, the US, European Union, Norway, Japan, Switzerland, and, unfortunately, Brazil are against the waiver.

COVID-19 and economics

In March-April, optimistic projections were made that the pandemic had opened an opportunity to seriously address poverty and global inequality.  Subsequently, emergency economic relief packages were not only crucial to avoid an even greater human tragedy but have also sparked national and global debates on universal basic income programs. The IMF itself, the ultimate promoter of fiscal austerity, now recommends the permanence of the packages in 2021 to sustain growth.  Furthermore,  other hegemonic institutions are now prioritizing the reduction of inequality in their discourses. The Davos Economic Forum went as far as to articulate severe criticism of neoliberalism.

Indeed, measures to reduce inequality are more urgent today than in early 2020. Few studies have shown that during the pandemic billionaires became richer and many large corporations significantly increased their profits. Paradoxically, this re-concentration of wealth can in part be attributed to emergency packages that also included incentives to financial markets. Not without reason, therefore, the pandemic is also opening the space for the resumption of debates on the taxation of large fortunes. In Argentina, for example, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill to this effect in early December that has yet to be sanctioned by the Senate.

But, while these good intentions and propositions are not transported from discourse to realities, the economic crisis continues its devastating track. In the US, its costs are estimated at $16 trillion, 90 percent of the country’s GDP. According to the UN Food Programme, the livelihood and food security of 265 million people living in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East are seriously threatened. In an article published in March, 2020, in The Jacobin, David Harvey offers substantial insights on the structural factors explaining the depth and scale of this crisis, which are worth re-visiting.

As noted by Harvey and also analyzed in our previous editions, women’s employment and income have been brutally affected by the post-COVID recession. The new crisis, fortuitously named “shecession” could bring 453 million people back into poverty by 2030, of which 279 million are women, according to the UN (see a compilation). As known, women working in the informal sector, especially domestic work and sex work, are most dramatically affected. This impact contrasts with the recognition of the centrality of the care economy, predominantly managed by women, which had great visibility at the beginning of the epidemic.

Another aspect to be revisited from our previous editions is how, and quite unfortunately, the submerged and illegal economy has taken advantage of the crisis conditions caused by the pandemic. This can be illustrated by the deleterious effects of the ban on alcohol and tobacco in South Africa and a vast list of episodes of corruption in the buying and selling of inputs for COVID-19 that is not restricted to countries in the global south (see a compilation).

Politics in the Pandemic Landscape

Arbitrariness, coercion, repression 

Since July, political arbitrariness and “states of emergency” justified by COVID-19 have not exactly waned. Coercive state interventions, restrictions on the press, and freedom of expression and association, and democratic erosions are reported almost everywhere. In 80 countries, where 51% of the world’s population lives, the lowest rate of freedom of expression in 20 years has been registered. In this group, Russia, India, and the Middle East stand out. In Russia, political censorship is affecting even health professionals who manifest themselves in relation to the problems in the response to COVID-19. In India, the antiterrorism law is now used to justify repression against groups and leaders who continue to protest the new citizenship law and, above all, in Assam and Kashmir, where police have violently repressed a procession for COVID-19 victims. Amnesty International suspended its activities in the country after having its bank account frozen in September. Also in Iran, the repression against protest which started last year has persisted. And, in Egypt, the first widespread protest since 2013, when General Sissi came to power, was violently repressed.

But also in Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, authoritarianism persists, in the last two cases with particularly deleterious effects on gender and sexuality policies. In Zimbabwe, police repression has increased against protests demanding better economic conditions and access to health services that had been happening since the beginning of the epidemic. And, it is worth revisiting China, the original epicenter of COVID-19, since a recent ProPublica report disclosed how the internal control systems established in 2014 were used to censor early information about the gravity of the disease. This merely confirms the power of the Chinese governance apparatus (in which the state and the party overlap) whose capacity of coercive management of social life in an emergency situation is not found anywhere else in the world. It is not therefore surprising that, in late 2020, pressures on Hong Kong’s political autonomy would increase. In November, China suspended the mandates of four pro-democracy congressmen, leading the rest of that bloc to resign.

Last but not least, as sharply noted by Masha Geschen in two articles published in New Yorker in July, the U.S. must also be included in this list. Firstly, as she writes, because the Trump administration’s mismanagement of information on COVID-19 was very similar to how the 1980s Soviet leaders behaved in relation to the Chernobyl disaster. Yet, more compellingly, as she argues in the second article because in reaction to the protests in Portland (Oregon), the Department of Homeland Security started to openly act as a political police.

Protests that persist

As significant as coercion and repression that continued, rebellions and protests, not only in the above-mentioned countries, have also kept their pace. Between May and July, protests have been quite paradoxical. There were many demonstrations against COVID-19’s state and individual containment measures, especially in the US, Europe, and Latin America, Brazil, in particular, which have endures in some countries, such as Germany and even re-intensified with new lockdown measures (see a compilation). On the other hand, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have taken over the COVID-19 scene in the U.S., later unfolding into the electoral process,  but also transforming racialized police violence into a transnational agenda (read here).

Since July, protests against police brutality have multiplied worldwide. In Colombia, in September, the killing of a taxi driver by police force sparked large demonstrations against state repression, but also measures economic austerity and to repudiate the murders of indigenous and rural leaders. In Nigeria, in October there were also protests against police repression that quickly became a broader movement of indignation against the government. In mid-November, in Brazil, the brutal murder of a black man by security guards at the Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre triggered a massive digital mobilization as well as protests and occupations. Then, in France, from the end of November onward, a major uprising erupted against the new public security law passed by the Macron government.

In addition, a year after the 2019 popular storm that swept through Chile, 30 thousand protesters returned to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. But there were also violent acts, such as the burning of churches, later attributed to police infiltration. Once again, the protests were vigorously repressed. In Ecuador, a new wave of popular indignation against budget cuts and the way the government has responded to the pandemic has mounted up, which was also subjected to strong. Finally, in India, a massive mobilization of agricultural producers of the Northern part of the country is underway against the reform of the agricultural financing policy proposed by the Modi government, which is seen by some observers as a potential turning point of current Indian politics.


In addition to protests, very significant elections have also occurred since July. In Belarus, dictator Lukashenko was re-elected despite extensive mobilizations and solid charges of fraud. This resulted in brutal repression against the regime’s opponents: some 20 thousand arrests and at least 500 documented cases of torture.

Moving to Latin America,  in Chile, the Congress approved the constitutional reform proposal that will leave behind the norms inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship, parity, and gender and the participation of independent constituents has also been ensured. And, the Bolivian elections of October elected Luis Arce of MAS, the party of Evo Morales, in a blatant defeat of right-wing forces and religious neoconservatism that came to power as a result of the 2019 electoral and institutional crisis, named by many as a coup. In Brazil, in turn, state and municipal elections had paradoxical results. Bolsonaro did not elect his candidates, but the parties of the former amorphous and evangelical right were the great victors. And while the election had important results in terms of race, gender, and gender identity, it also elected the largest number of military or police candidates in the country’s history.

However, the most significant election of 2020 was the one defeating  Donald Trump in the U.S. An election that only ended on December 14 when, after legal battles, threats, and protests, the Electoral College votes finally gave Joe Biden the victory. There is certainly much more to report about this groundbreaking political event that, among others, disclosed, as never before, the limits and frailties of American democracy. But, in this issue, what we offer is minimal: a re-visiting of materials published on the 2016 election when Trump was elected and a very brief selection of analyses of the national and global implications of the 2020 elections.

COVID-19 and Biopolitics

The intellectual production on COVID-19 and biopolitics has not been so voluminous between July and December 2020 as it has been in the previous six months (check our compilation). It is not excessive, however, to say that this particular mode of interpreting the pandemic has taken a quite remarkable turn: biopolitics has been mainstreamed. This is sharply illustrated, for example, by The New York Times article Meet the Philosopher who is Trying to Explain the Pandemic, written by Christopher Caldwell who, with great caution, translates for U.S. ordinary audiences Agamben’s controversial positions on the Italian state response to the pandemic, concluding that:

Today, however, with the Italian crisis receding, and with a measure of calm restored to the public discussion, we can see his book for what it is: not a work of scientific crankery or crackpot policymaking but an on-the-spot study of the link between power and knowledge.

One may say that this is not exactly so surprising given the long-standing and wide acknowledgment of Foucault in the U.S. academia and his frequent presence in literary supplements. However, this does not exactly apply to India, where an op-ed article on biopolitics, provocatively titled Power and Perversity, was published by The Telegraph. The author, Shaoni Shabnan, ends his elaboration with a series of poignant questions:

… if the State fails to provide adequate healthcare facilities for the ailing body, does it have an unconditional claim over the body of the dead? Is there, then, any space left to delimit the boundaries of State intervention vis-à-vis personal choices and decisions? When a democracy exercises the politics of biopower in its most insidious form during a crisis, how do citizens question the government and its policies?

Yet, more strikingly, on October 31st, Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, published an editorial commentary titled,  COVID -19 – A Crisis of Power that offers a concise, but a very precise reading of Foucault’s frame. The text starts by stating how central the body is in the pandemic. It is not trivial that the main global vehicle representing and expressing the views and tenets of biomedical science has also entered the conversation on biopolitics and the pandemic to offer the Foucauldian frame as potentially required lenses to read the effects of and responses to the multiple COVID-19 crises:

Why is Foucault important for understanding COVID-19? The reasons lie in the sinister way in which approaches to this syndemic are evolving. It is seen as acceptable to argue that older citizens at risk of COVID-19 are somehow less valuable to society than younger people. It is suggested that young people should be allowed to risk their health in order to protect economies. And governments have enacted extraordinary measures to control and constrain the behaviors of their populations. COVID-19 has evolved to become a debate about the distribution of power in society—central government versus local government, young versus old, rich versus poor, white versus black, health versus the economy.

Among other repercussions, this mainstream turn may, eventually, positively lead towards greater clarity in the biomedical science field, in media vehicles, but also in the perception of the general public, the biopolitical significance, and implications of gender and sexuality matters and of sexual politics itself, be it related or not to the pandemic.

Sexual Politics in the Pandemic Landscape

Sexually loaded conspiracies

As noted in our previous COVID-19 Special Issues, anti-gender and anti-abortion forces, and the political regimes with which they are associated,  have not exactly relented their actions during the pandemic. Particularly in the Americas and Europe, they have used the crisis as an opportunity to attack gender legislation and to create additional barriers to abortion rights and services.  In addition, as already noted, in a number of countries these same forces were engaged in denialist protests against lockdowns, social distance, and the use of masks and vaccines, a trend that became especially vicious in the U.S. and Brazil.

In the  US,  as these protests gained mussels, a new formation, known as QAnon became visible and propelled conspiracy rhetoric linking the pandemic, global and U.S. elites, vaccines, and pedophilia. Resorting to the specters of feminist and sexual conspiracy is a marked trace of anti-abortion and anti-gender narratives. The QAnon frame that bundles various of them together gradually shifted from the pandemic to the  2020 U.S. elections, when a substantive number of Trump supporters adhered to its morbid phantasms. Though originally North-American, as it always happens with digital politics phenomena, QAnon narratives have spread much beyond the U.S. borders (see a compilation).

Then,  as the development of vaccines began to show positive results, related sexually loaded conspiracy narratives skyrocketed. In the QAnon frame, COVID-19 immunization is portrayed as an instrument of a powerful pedophile network aiming to control world politics. But anti-vaxxers religious strands argue that aborted fetal tissue is used by some of the products being developed (mostly Catholic) or else that the vaccines carry the HIV virus (mostly Evangelical). Rumors are also spread about the vaccines’ lack of safety, side effects, and unscrupulous scientific manipulation. This propagation reactivates previously existing layers of anti-vaccine views and sentiments. The U.S. and Brazil are once again the places where these attacks have been quite intense and appear to have indeed affected the perception of people about the COVID-19 vaccine.

In Brazil, between August and December, the percentage of people refusing to be vaccinated has increased from 9 to 22 percent. This rise can be attributed to a whole plethora of COVID-19 denialist and panicking views circulating in society,  but most principally to Bolsonaro’s and his followers’, as since May they have spread suspicions on the  Chinese vaccine (CoronaVac) being tested in the country (portrayed as a Communist threat). Then, when the national vaccination plan was finally announced, Bolsonaro declared that he would not get vaccinated and that his government is not responsible for any potential side effects. He said: “… if you turn into a chimp… or a crocodile, it is your problem… or else [consider that] a man’s voice may become like a women’s voice”. This grotesque boutade merely confirms SPW’s analysis in June 2019 arguing that Bolsonaro can easily turn any policy matter into a macho man sexual tirade.

In the U.S., as verified by the Pew Institute, acceptance of the vaccine has also decreased from 72 to 51 percent between May and September to raise again to 60 percent in late November. Both conspiracy theories and official denialism also explain these figures. However, it is to be noted that vaccine refusal remains very high amongst Afro-Americans (58 percent). Jelani Cobb, in his weekly New Yorker comment, examines how this refusal cannot be solely explained by COVID-19 political denialism but rather must be linked to acknowledged racist biomedical experiments of the past: the syphilis Tuskegee experiment and the unauthorized use of cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lack. Cobb’s analysis is a cautious reminder that, even if in current world political conditions, it is necessary to advocate for the integrity of scientific reasoning, racially, gendered and sexually biased instrumental use of human beings by biomedicine cannot be erased.

Anti-Gender Politics

Against the background of the pandemic anti-gender, politics continued its pace, sometimes connected with the COVID-19 crisis and conditions, sometimes not.

United States

It is productive to begin with the U.S., whereas elections approached, the Trump administration became hyper-active in domains that are critical for global sexual politics. On July 16th,  the State Department launched the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR), a new body created in 2019. Amongst others, the document proposes a return to North American founding principles of natural law and natural rights, repudiating what it names as an “unjustified proliferation of rights”.

The report was received with wide and sharp critiques by US-based civil society organizations, academics and faith-based entities and individuals. As noted by Kurt Mills in Open Democracy, the Commission’s work can potentially undermine gender-related rights including women’s, LGBT, and abortion rights, as well as any claims to economic, social, and cultural rights. But, regardless of these critiques, in September, the report was formally launched at the UN in New York and Geneva.

In between these two points, and quite regrettably, Judge Ruth Bader Ginzburg passed away and the Trump administration sped up the nomination and confirmation of a new judge. Amy Barrett, an ultra-Catholic, was confirmed on October 22nd shifting the balance of the Supreme Court and immediately putting at risk Roe V. Wade.  Concurrently, the U.S. in close alliance with Brazil, Poland, and Uganda mobilized other 26 countries to sign a global document titled the Geneva Consensus Declaration advocating for traditional family values and the protection of the “right to life since conception” (see a compilation).

Eastern Europe

In Poland, the attacks on LGBTTI rights, portrayed by conservative authorities as “LGBT ideology”, have kept their vicious pace. In early August, Margot, a gender-fluid activist was arrested and, in response, a statement signed by gender and sexuality scholars, including Judith Butler and Paul Preciado calling for her immediate release was published in French.  Concurrently, the “LGBT Free Zones”, which began proliferating in 2019, gained wider international press visibility. Another letter, mobilized by Polish academics and activists, and signed by artists from various countries, was sent to the head of the European Commission calling for the end of repression and aggression. In later September, the Belgium government mobilized a letter from 50 ambassadors repudiating these violations that were directly sent to Polish authorities.

Despite these pressures and a massive wave of protests propelled by feminist demonstrations against the Supreme Court decision that further restricts abortion rights (see below), in late November the Polish Government hosted the Third Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief online. This is a global initiative launched by the Trump administration in 2018 in partnership with other conservative states, such as Brazil, Hungary, and Poland itself that resulted in the International Freedom of Religion Alliance. The 2020 Warsaw meeting was attended by a much wider number of countries as well as civil society participants. The initiative seems solid enough now to survive Trump’s electoral defeat.

Then, in neighboring Hungary, in December a law has been approved that prohibits adoption by same-sex couples.

Sexuality education assaulted 

In Portugal, a country known for the flexibility of contemporary Catholicism, a new curriculum on gender and sexuality was contested by more than a hundred public names who also claimed for the conscientious objection of the teacher (check here in Portuguese).  This initiative cannot be detached from the growing support for the recently created right-wing party Chega! (Enough in English) whose representative in the National Assembly has also attacked abortion rights.

Then, in Zambia, the national comprehensive sexual education program was attacked by the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) with support from the main opposition party. A legal crusade against the “ideology of gender fluidity” being thought to children is also underway in South Wales, Australia, where a bill prohibiting this “ideology” has been tabled at the state level assembly. And, in Chile, on October 16th, a provision aimed at creating a national comprehensive sexual education was toppled by Congress (read in Spanish).

Anti-gender politics at work elsewhere

At odds with a remarkable new resolution on race and gender in sports adopted by the Human Rights Council, in July (see below), the sports domain continues to be a gender battleground. In Brazil, a São Paulo state-level legal provision tabled in 2019 that aims at prohibiting trans women participation in all sports has reached, in July, the stage of final plenary voting (which has not yet occurred).  Then, in October, the World Rugby governing body has barred trans women from competing. Also in Brazil and not unrelated, an ultra-Catholic MP tabled in December at the House of Representatives a law provision decreeing that gender must be always understood as biological sex.

But,  in the realm of the gender wars, one very significant development of the last few months has been the visibility and legitimacy achieved by trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) in their plights against trans rights.  As reported in SPW’s first COVID-19 Special, these views are jeopardizing U.K.’s gender identity policy guidelines. Similar frays are also underway in Spain, with fracturing effects on both the left and feminisms (check a compilation). However, this feminist anti-gender and anti-trans rights agenda gained a new scale after J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, made, in June,  transphobic declarations. With no ambition to exhaust the motivations and implications of this heated and expanding contention, we recommend Laurie Penny’s essay that retraces the long trajectory of TERFs politics in the UK and Judith Butler’s interview for New Statesman.

In the charged atmosphere concerning gender identity rights in some European countries, the nomination of Petra de Sutter as the new vice prime minister of Belgium was a wave of fresh air. Petra is a trans woman, professor of gynecology at the University of Ghent, a Green Party Member of Belgium’s Parliament who was also elected for the European Parliament in 2019.

Also in Europe, over 60 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) made a call for a European-wide ban on so-called “homosexual conversion therapy” that remains in use in at least 69 countries worldwide, including in EU member states. “Conversion therapies” have also gained traction in India after a young bisexual woman committed suicide in Kerala. LGBTTI activists filed a petition to the state High Court, calling for a ban on such practices.

Lastly, a number of positive debates on gender, sexuality and abortion-related rights at the UN are also to be briefly mentioned. As reported by the Sexual Rights Initiative, during the 44th Session proceedings of the Human Rights Council (June-July), in discussing resolution A/HRC/44/L.21, on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women and Girls, conservative states tried, without success, to erase language on sexual education, bodily autonomy, and sexual and reproductive health services. On the other hand, A/HRC/44/L.20, on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation was adopted by consensus (even when Brazil created some initial obstacles).  The 45th Session debates were less contentious and have seen the approval of an important resolution on eliminating gender and race discrimination in sports and the presentation of statements on abortion rights, to mark the 28th of September, which was signed by more than 300 CSOs from around the world. Lastly, at the General Assembly in New York, a Special Session was devoted to marking the 25 years of the IV World Conference on Women in Beijing and a declaration signed by 82 states was issued that reaffirms the 1995 commitments.

Last but not least, in  Asia, Bhutan’s parliament approved by a large majority (63 votes of 69) a bill that amends the Penal Code to erase language that criminalizes homosexuality on December 10. The law was forwarded to Bhutan’s king to be sanctioned.

Abortion Rights

A lot has happened on the abortion rights front in the last six months, including in relation to the effects of COVID-19. For those who want to have more substantial information on trends at play in this realm, we recommend that you check the website of International Campaign for Women’s Rights to Safe Abortion. But we would also like to highlight four main events in this particular front line of sexual politics.

The first was the case of the Brazilian 11 years old girl who got pregnant after having been sexually abused by a family member and the indecent obstacles created by anti-abortion forces, especially the  Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights to block her access to legal abortion. Here you can read Sonia Corrêa’s report on the case and a compilation of news in English.

The second was the nomination of Amy Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court and how this will potentially affect the future of abortion rights, even when the recently elected Biden administration is politically committed to the defense of Roe v. Wade (see a compilation).

The third is the robust response of Polish feminists to the Supreme Court decision that abolished abortion in the case of profound fetal abnormality, which that not just forced the government to retreat but most principally propelled a much wider range of protests against the right-wing PiS government. This is probably the first time in history in which a fierce feminist defense of abortion rights ignited a wider political upheaval (compilation).

Lastly, in early December, in Argentina, the Fernández administration fulfilled its electoral promise and tabled a new abortion reform provision. The proposal that aims to legalize abortion on demand until the 14th week of pregnancy was accompanied by another provision aimed at ensuring quality health care and social support to pregnant women. On December 10th the abortion law provision was approved by the Chamber of Deputies by 131 votes against 117 and sent to Senate. On December 17,  when this report was being finalized,  the Senate Special Commissions that examined the provision had already given its clearance, and the plenary vote is expected to take place before December 30th.  Considering the conditions of sexual and abortion politics at the end of 2020, if the law is passed, this will be a remarkable victory of feminist tenacity in the defense of abortion rights (see a compilation).

Vatican Politics: Dispersed Events in the Same Plot

A new encyclical signed by pope Francis I was published in early October. Entitled Fratelli Tutti, the new papal exhortation was widely acclaimed by voices located in the most diverse points of the political spectrum, as well as by the mainstream press. Two months later, in early December, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican was created, a platform gathering a significant and quite plural group of corporations and some philanthropic institutions, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. These two facts, which certainly deserve much a deeper analysis, are mentioned here to illustrate the hyperactivity of the Vatican in recent months at a very unique time. For example, an analysis of the newspaper El País, published at the end of November, reports that Francis, after creating 73 new cardinals posts, finally has control of the cardinal school that will elect his successor. Both the encyclical and the new Council for Inclusive Capitalism must also be situated in relation to the U.S. presidential election outcomes that gave victory to the first Catholic president since John Kennedy.

But that is not all. Between these two eventful facts, on October 21, news broke that the Pope had made a declaration in favor of same-sex civil unions in the documentary Francesco, by Russian director Evgeny Afineevsky, shown at the Rome Film Festival. The news, as would be predictable, was widely and effusively received in the media and in the LGBTTI and feminist activism camps.  Thirteen days later, however, the Vatican threw a bucket of cold water on this enthusiasm. It officially informed that the statement, recorded in the documentary, had been cited “out of context” and should not be read as a doctrinal inflection.

By then, several media outlets had already revealed that the excerpt from the film, in which the Pope refers to civil union between same-sex persons, had edited responses to questions asked of the Pontiff at different times. More especially, these reports mentioned that following Francisco’s comment that “we need to create a law of civil union” there was another phrase — “talking about same-sex marriage is something incongruous” — that was suppressed from the final edition. The Vatican’s corrective explanation suggests that the director extrapolated the parameters established for the documentary by the Holy See’s Communications Office. But by that time, both the publicity for the documentary and another wave of the Pope’s popularity had been assured. In fact, ecclesial authorities would begin to reproduce the contested papal discourse, as was the case of Cardinal Carlos Aguiar, archbishop of Mexico City.

Commenting on this episode, political scientist Massimo Prearo published a note on Facebook that was later transformed into an article for SPW. Prearo examines the papal speech in light of Italian sexual politics, recalling that this is not the first time that papal interviews have both surprised and produced unusual effects. According to him, what we saw in October was just another chapter of a breathless race to situate the church in an increasingly secularized world. Above all, Prearo stresses, Francis’ smiles for journalists and activists must always be situated in the broader political context in which the neo-Catholic movement – widely engaged in crusades of opposition to abortion rights and gender – is at work without major constraints in varied institutional policy arenas.

Another event that took place a few days after the now dubious opinion became viral, can perhaps illustrate what Prearo means. On October 24, the Permanent Mission of the Holy See as a Permanent Observer at the UN  – in partnership with the Lumens Christi Institute, the Jesuit magazine America Media and the Kellog Institute for Studies in International Relations – held a public webinar to debate Catholic perspectives on the 75 years of the UN System.

The event was attended by the head of the Vatican Mission at the UN, Archbishop and Ambassador Gabrielle Caccia, but also by Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon was the Vatican’s representative at the World Conference of Women (Beijing, 1995) and later the ambassador of George Bush’s administration to the Holy See. On the occasion of the webinar, she coordinated the Commission on Inalienable Rights established by the Trump government at the State Department. According to Kurt Mills, in an article published on openDemocracy, the Commission report launched in July:

…provides an historical (or perhaps an ahistorical) and theoretical justification for focusing on a reduced set of rights which are compatible with a conservative religious and economic agenda. While many of the so-called “new rights” which are part of that agenda – including LGBT rights – are not explicitly targeted for downgrading to non-unalienable status (and given the prominence of the LGBT rights agenda, it is rather curious that this was not mentioned even once), the message is clear: there are a few core “unalienable” rights which are central to the American ideal – religious liberty, property rights, and rights related to democratic participation.

In the dialogue, Glendon did not speak about this ambitious project of the religious and secular North American right that aims at re-configuring human rights as we know them. But she underlined that, since the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration in 1948, the Church has appreciated but also expressed many reservations about the role and agenda of the United Nations. As an example, she cited pope John Paul II’s observation in 1989 that the Declaration lacks the anthropological and moral foundations necessary to sustain the human rights of its title. Then, Archbishop Caccia, at one point in the debate, declared that one of his expectations is that the “United Nations can become increasingly Catholic”. Following this rather provocative statement, he paused, smiled, and added: “that is, truly universal“.

When situated in relation to this conversation, the new papal speech act on same-sex unions can be read like a colorful bait to attract the attention of the great public and the activism world, while the Vatican was intensively moving in high-level institutional policy spheres. Among them, one in which the fate of the UN and human rights was discussed with one of the most prominent leaders of what Prearo calls the neo-Catholic movement. This suggests that while 2021 foreshadows the equation, even if partial, of the pandemic and related crises, it also signals unforeseeable developments or displacements of the Vatican’s sexual geopolitics. Time will tell.

Faced with this uncertain horizon, we consider it productive to revisit, albeit briefly, the many ambiguous, if not decidedly enigmatic, gestures and speeches of Francis alluding to homosexuality, LGBTTI rights, same-sex marriage, and related themes, archived in our library.

Sexuality & Art

For this Sex & Art issue, SPW features Argentinean artist Léon Ferrari and his art that promotes an implacable contestation of religion.

We Recommend

Papers and articles

Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism

Wendy Brown: Explaining Our Morbid Political Symptoms – Jacobin Magazine

Paul B. Preciado: The Hot War – e-flux

The Resentment That Never Sleeps – NY Times

What Liberalism Gets Right — And Wrong – Jacobin

Anti-Gender Politics

Revealed: $280m ‘dark money’ spent by US Christian right groups globally – openDemocracy

Undercover with the US conservatives who trained Mike Pence – openDemocracy

Straddling the line between gender and sex: How racism, misogyny, and transphobia intertwine to define notions of womanhood in the world of elite sports – Engenderings

Policing the borders of sex/gender in Kuwait: on transmisogyny and state-mediated violence – Engenderings

How American religious conservatives fought LGBT rights in Ukraine – Belling Cat

The body as mediator – Aeon


Persecuted and marginalized: Black LGBTQ immigrants face unique challenges – ABA Journal

Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey – Jadaliyya

Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought – Jadaliyya

Reactions to the Detrimental Effects of COVID-19 on LGBT People – Il Grande Colibri

‘Queer Japan’ documentary introduces Japan’s vibrant, multifaceted LGTBQ+ community – Global Voices


The Ghost of Margareth Sanger – NY Times

Terfism is White Distraction: On BLM, Decolonising the Curriculum, Anti-Gender Attacks and Feminist Transphobia – Engenderings

A Year of Radical Political Imagination – NY Times

South Asia: Justice, Services Can Curb Sexual Violence – HRW



My Body, My Voice – Marie Stopes International

Evidence summary on safe self-management of medical abortion – Marie Stopes International


A national study on the physical and mental health of intersex adults in the U.S. – Plos One

COVID-19 A report on the situation of intersex people in Europe and Central Asia – OII Europe

Combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Council of Europe Member States – Council of Europe

Every Day I Live in Fear’: Violence and Discrimination against LGBT People in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Obstacles to Asylum in the United States – HRW


Interactive platform on Saoirse’s abortion story – Abortion Support Network

Female Gaze – British Journal of Photography

Arrested Movement Series Addresses Male Body Positivity One Nude at a Time – Out

Gender, Protest, and the Politics of Film: A Discussion with Julia Bacha on “Naila and the Uprising” – Jadaliyya

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