Sexuality Policy Watch

Sexual Politics in Times of Pandemic: May and June 2020

The global scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed since April, but the crisis is still far from over. Only eight countries are listed as having beaten the virus: Iceland, Jordan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Uruguay, and Vietnam. Transmission curves appear to be decreasing in the more drastically affected countries of Europe. Meanwhile, the main epicenter of the crisis has moved to the Americas where many of the 20 most-affected countries are located. The United States and Brazil are the worst-case scenarios, but as of July 10th, 2020, rates continue to rise in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Infection rates were also increasing in India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, as well as in South Africa.

Furthermore, the differential vulnerability of persons and groups to COVID-19 exposure and lethality has become increasingly apparent, as illustrated by the higher number of infected people amongst black Latin and black people in the Americas, or people living in slum areas in other regions. COVID-19 contagion among indigenous populations in the Americas, particularly in the Amazonian region and on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest United States, is another sobering pattern that became increasingly clear. This situation harkens back to the repeated exposure of the autochthonous peoples of the Americas to lethal diseases throughout the continent’s colonial and post-colonial histories.

Significantly, infection rates have seen a resurgence in the United States, Iran, Australia, the U.K., and other specific locations in Europe. This indicates that, in the absence of a vaccine, the disease will continue to periodically erupt. Although the scale and pace of COVID-19 vaccine research are unprecedented (see here and here), the WHO made it clear that a finalized vaccine will not be available for 12 to 18 months. Even this time frame is considered too optimistic by a group of experts convened by The New York Times to discuss the matter.

This means that the state of abnormality created by COVID-19 will not easily fade away and that the impact of the new virus will continue to intersect with gender and sexuality policy and politics. As was the case with SPW’s first special edition on Sexual Politics in Times of Pandemic, these intersections will be explored in the next few pages through the lenses of economics, politics, and biopolitics. We will treat these not as encapsulated domains but as an integrated analytical prism that may help us better see the intertwined meanings and effects of the pandemic. This issue of our journal also looks at how anti-abortion and anti-gender forces are behaving during the pandemic, offering information on positive developments concerning sexuality and abortion rights that, rather surprisingly, have also taken place despite the shadow cast by COVID-19.

#Guest authors –  Before moving forward, we want to call our readers’ attention to the articles written by Debjyoti Gosh, Lorena Moraes, Jacob Breslow, Bárbara Sepúlveda, and Lieta Vivaldi Macho,  which analyze emblematic episodes set in the COVID-19 pandemic landscape, as well as the reflections of  David Paternotte on the limits of the “backlash” framework in critically examining anti-gender politics. We would like to thank all of these authors for their generous contributions.

COVID-19 and economics: few patches of light and many shadows

The OCDE forecast for the 47 largest world economies predicts that in most of them, GDP losses will be more than eight percent in 2020. On the bright side, however, emergency cash transfers were quite unexpectedly adopted by many countries, both North and South of the Equator, even against the open resistance of citizens or policymakers. More positively still, debates on universal basic income were reignited at both national and international levels and may develop in productive directions in the future. Debates on the urgent need to ensure universal access to health care have also gained leverage.

In May, the European Commission proposed a 2 trillion euro post-recovery package prioritizing re-distribution and the green economy and, in early July, 80 of the world’s richest people made a public declaration calling for high taxes on big fortunes. In what concerns biomedical responses to the crisis, Costa Rica proposed within the scope of the World Health Organization a Patent Pool initiative called “C-Pat” to coordinate research findings into creating a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Similar measures have also been proposed in the European Parliament.  These trends seem to confirm the predictions of a few optimistic observers on the potentially positive effects of the COVID crisis on economic and social policy debates.

However, before these transformative propositions were translated into realities, the distortions and voracity of late capitalism kept their usual pace. In various contexts, the coronavirus crisis is serving as a smoke curtain to conceal ordinary patterns of exploitation and environmental destruction. In Ecuador, for example, a major oil spill — which coincided with the geometrical increase of Guayaquil’s pandemic death toll — did not get the media attention it may have otherwise gotten, including with regards to how it created additional barriers for preventing and treating COVID-affected indigenous populations.

Repugnant cases of overpricing and corruption were also reported regarding the sale and purchase of COVID-19 medical equipment, and news has also come forward about how corporations are viewing the crisis merely as an opportunity to sell products and buy cheap assets (check our compilation). No less shockingly, the desperate race for a vaccine — motivated by profit-seekers and the obsession with re-opening national economies — is unfolding in highly problematic ways. One of these has been the Moderna case, the U.S.-based company that colossally increased its stock value after it reported unverified positive developments of its potential product. A few weeks later, the Indian Council of Medical Research reduced bioethical protocols for human clinical trials to minimal standards to fast-track testing of a nationally produced vaccine. Although this decision provoked immediate criticism by investigators, the same minimalist model may be adopted by other COVID-19 vaccine development programs, potentially exposing thousands of research subjects (whose vulnerability is potentialized by social, caste, race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual markers) to risk and coercion.

Meanwhile, media reports and academic analyses have been pouring in concerning the economic effects of the new coronavirus in terms of increased inequalities and decreased livelihoods in vulnerable regions, poorer countries, and among social groups living in a state of high precarity. The situation of migrants (and, in particular, undocumented migrant workers) is quite dramatic in terms of economic survival, exposure to the virus, and lack of access to health services. Also, while entire sections of the economy did not survive lockdowns and quarantines, the vast realm of call centers and digital platform warehouse and delivery services have remained in full steam or even expanded during the crisis. In this sector,  jobs were not lost but unprotected labor – of which women make a large percentage — is overworked, hyper-exploited,  and more exposed than other groups to the risks of COVID-19 transmission (see a compilation). In Bot Populi, the Indian digital politics journal, Argentinean feminist researcher, Flora Partenio, examines the Latin American scenario and reports on how digital platform workers are politically mobilizing despite huge constraints.

Finally, the economic effects of the pandemic on the lives of sex workers have not let up. Since April,  new articles have been published on the economic hardship experienced by persons working in the commercial sex industry in Brazil, Puerto Rico, Thailand,  and the U.S. In assessing this dire scenario, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking Women (GAATW), made a compelling call to mainstream anti-trafficking institutions and activists to take a step back, abandon the mantra of trafficking as “modern slavery”, and join the growing worldwide demand for systemic change. The Global Network of Sex Workers Projects (NSWP) and UNAIDS called upon governments to ensure sex workers’ access to national social protection schemes and to prevent their exclusion from emergency social protection measures being put in place for other workers, particularly in those countries where sex work is criminalized. Nevertheless, a collection of media reports shows that enormous barriers deriving from moral stigmatization and unjustified bureaucratic requirements have impeded sex workers from accessing COVID-19 emergency cash transfers in Canada, France, Thailand, and Japan. By contrast, The Guardian reported in late April that in New Zealand, one of the few countries that have beaten COVID — and where sex work is fully decriminalized– sex workers could easily access emergency social protection funds.

COVID-19: de-democratization and contestation  

In SPW’s March-April Special Edition, our section on COVID-19 Politics briefly retraced how the pandemic has spread a semantic of “war”, providing states with justifications for old and new forms of surveillance and political violence. Since then, as shown in a new collection of compiled articles, this problem has persisted or, indeed, expanded.

To begin with China (where infection rates appear to be now under control) feminist researchers Cai Yiping and Ai Yu have insightfully analyzed how COVID-19 caused the installment of new and very sophisticated modes of state digital surveillance that, in their view, amplified pre-existing patterns of coercion and repression. This domestic environment is not unconnected with China’s regional and global geopolitics. Meanwhile, a large number of critics, including Aruna Roy, denounced that in India the pandemic has contributed to the continued shrinking of democratic spaces. Authoritarian features of COVID responses are also palpable in other Asian countries, especially Myanmar and the Philippines, but also in Vietnam, where state censorship has bluntly tainted the positive public health outcomes of the country’s pandemic policies.

Similar patterns of coercion and arbitrariness have also become more flagrant in Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, as COVID-19 has spread across Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa — the most hard-hit country in the region –  democratic conditions have been preserved and non-coercive public health policy has been adopted. However, regrettable episodes of evictions and extreme police violence against workers and migrants have also skyrocketed. In North Africa and across the MENA region, intensification of State coercion and political control has also continued. In Algeria, for example, COVID-19-related state control paralyzed the insurgence that has been underway since early 2019.

In Latin America, de-democratizing trends propelled by national state COVID-19 responses have persisted across Central America (except in Costa Rica), but also in Bolivia and Venezuela. They can also be tracked in less visible measures adopted by local authorities in many other countries. The same patterns are not substantially different from Eastern Europe – Hungary and Poland especially – and Russia and Turkey. In these regions, authoritarian populist leaders or other state actors are, in many cases, using the pandemic to tighten their grip on society or merely as an excuse to exercise violence. However, an insightful commentary on how the Bosnian state reacted to COVID-19 suggests that there are also circumstances in which States are responding to the pandemic with policing to show that they are doing something, simply because “they lack the ability to care for their citizens”. 

COVID-19 State responses contested  

While arbitrariness and tighter State control have persisted or expanded since April, protests against COVID-19  policies have also gained increased visibility, particularly after materializing in the U.S. An incomplete list compiled by Wikipedia shows that, since the early days of the pandemic, insurgencies have been mushrooming across all continents. In several countries, beginning with China, researchers and health professionals have raised their voices to contest State censorship of COVID data and/or to demand protection equipment and better working conditions, as illustrated by the strikes of female health workers in India. In the Global South, these mobilizations have principally involved workers, migrants, and poor people protesting against the economic and spatial effects of lockdowns and, in some cases, against stark State coercion and police violence.

By contrast, in Europe and the Americas, what erupted later was entirely different: an outcry against masks, quarantine, lockdowns, and “closed economies”. In Berlin, on May 16th, extreme-right and radical left actors jointly protested against the lack of freedom and the “state of exception”. That same day in Spain, the extreme right party VOX took to the streets, using similar language to protest against the COVID-19 policies implemented by the socialist administration. Around the same time, anti-lockdown groups made their voices heard in the UK.

In the United States and Brazil, the streets were taken over by those who support Trump and Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 denialism, these presidents’ social Darwinist approach to the pandemic, and their obsession with quickly “opening the economy”. Similar mobilizations occurred with less impact in Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. The Brazilian scenario has turned out to be both ugly and risky. Bolsonaro egged on the demonstrations, which were dangerously intertwined with attacks against Congress and the Supreme Court and open calls for a military take-over. The Brazilian president has even attended a few of these events.

These waves of protests in the name of freedom and against “State coercion and repression” are quite relevant from a gender and sexuality politics perspective. In almost all cases, anti-abortion and anti-gender forces were part of the protests, if not their main leaders. Furthermore, the declared motivations of these mobilizations overlap in complex and paradoxical ways with our critical views regarding the potential authoritarianism that is always concealed under the architecture of liberal democracy. Lastly, as has also happened with the anti-gender campaigns of the last decade, the modes of assembly and semantics of these demonstrations overtly mimic and turn upside down our repertoires of protests, as illustrated by the slogan “my body, my rules” used by female protesters in the United States.  SPW collaborator Alrik Schubotz commented on the cacophony seen in Berlin. He cited an article published in Die Zeit magazine that underlines how the paradoxes and complications of the pandemic landscape challenge both liberals and the left to more courageously and precisely clarify their epistemological and ethical parameters concerning the meanings and effects of COVID-19, as well as to politics more generally.

COVID-19 encounters Black Lives Matter

In June, however, another wave of protests swept over the global political landscape, also targetting State repression but carrying an entirely distinctive meaning. We are talking here, of course, about the Black Lives Matter uprising against racist police violence in the United States,  which must be squarely situated in the wider maze of the pandemic’s undercurrents. The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked the rebellion, is deeply intertwined with the economic distress he was experiencing because of the COVID-19 crisis. The uprising overlapped and superseded the anti-lockdown protests and inspired mobilizations in other countries, despite the pandemic’s constraints. More fundamentally, racialized police violence — which is now once again the target of U.S. black movements —  is an always visible manifestation of the State brutality perpetrated by liberal democratic regimes. This is the same violence that, elsewhere, has been activated or facilitated by the pandemic. Lastly, and perhaps more critically, the combined effects of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprising have transformed the country’s political scenario, creating conditions for Trump to be defeated in the 2020 presidential elections. The meanings and impacts of such a defeat would not be confined within the American boundaries.

Nevertheless, shadows still hover on the horizon. Suffice to remind that at the height of the protests, Trump and a Republican senator openly called for the Armed Forces to repress the masses in the streets, sparking critiques from many quarters, including the military. A recent article in The Nation examined these events, retracing other critical moments of US contemporary politics such as 9/11 and the 1971 rebellions against the Vietnam War when similar calls were made. He also reminds that Trump’s desire to make use of the American presidency emergency power has not exactly waned:

America could be facing a perfect storm at least as dangerous as 9/11: an uncontrollable pandemic, a reservoir of untapped presidential power, a feckless Congress and supine courts. The only remaining check on Trump’s presidency would be the people—either in the polling booth or the streets.

A complex equation, therefore, challenges Black Lives Matter and other progressive forces in American society, which may also apply to other contexts: how to balance the political urgency to be in the streets with the pandemic-driven imperative for mutual protection in a context in which COVID-19 infections rates keep rising?

COVID–19 as biopolitics: configurations and effects

As outlined by the first SPW Special Issue, COVID-19 is a biopolitical crisis that simultaneously reactivates and amplifies the logic of governmentality and scientific techniques for large-scale population management and for disciplining and surveillance of social and individual bodies (as theorized by Foucault in the 1970s). To illustrate what this means, in the collection of material we have compiled for this issue, an article published in Global Voices examines how today’s Zanzibar arbitrary State response to the pandemic can be traced back to racialized colonial structures and modalities of surveillance and control of plagues, criminality, and political dissent.

As soon as the scale of the pandemic was recognized and containment policies were adopted,  countless thought-provoking critical reflections on the biopolitics of the coronavirus began circulating. Within these early reflections, a short paper by Giorgio Agamben interpreting the pandemic as an invention to justify the “exceptionality of State measures” sparked a string of critiques and responses. These did not exhaust the political-philosophical debates regarding the topic but definitely contributed to illuminating the ways COVID-19 has manifested as biopolitics.

Amongst these rich and instigating reflections, it is worth highlighting the exercise developed by Philippe Sarasin recapturing and differentiating the two Foucauldian modalities of governing social bodies to contain diseases and “make live and let die”.  As Sarasin recalls, the first Foucauldian elaboration was the “leper”  model of strict confinement, isolation, surveillance, and punishment.  The second was the “smallpox model”, which relied on statistical observation, measurements of the incidence of illness, and inoculation. This included surveillance but also implied and required the adherence of both individuals and societies. In other words, a mode of governing plagues more in line with the liberal logic of State regulation.

Sarasin’s frame is analytically productive because it allows for more nuanced cartographies of the biopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employing it, we can see how, in a large number of cases, COVID-19 has indeed meant the adoption of top-down strict containment measures, which almost immediately result in exceptional powers and, eventually, State violence. In other contexts, however, the responses have been followed by an ideal type established by smallpox responses: aggregate epidemiological measurement, modulation, and “consensual” confinement and social isolation. Or to say it differently, a sanitary state of emergence may or not automatically derive into a “state of exception”.

Then, inspired by the reflections of Roberto Sposito and Judith Butler, Sonia Corrêa suggested (in the #DawnTalks: Feminist Perspectives on COVID) that another configuration must be added to this cartography, to better grasp what is happening in Brazil, the U.S., Sweden, and Nicaragua (amongst other few countries)  where what prevails is the promotion of herd immunity, mostly through deliberate neglect. These speech acts and practices revive neo-Darwinist conceptions of the survival of the fittest akin to capitalist competition and the dispensability of working and “unproductive bodies”. The eugenic imprints of this mode of responding to the pandemic are also glaring, as compellingly denounced by the Brazilian medical doctor Arnaldo Litchenstein in his sharp critique of Bolsonaro’s conduct in face of COVID-19.

Gender and sexuality: implications and effects 

Ideally, to thoroughly charter what COVID-19 as biopolitics implies for gender and sexuality, the various modes of how the pandemic is governed that were previously outlined should be systematically scanned through these lenses. Unfortunately, this is a much more complex exercise than what we can perform here. What follows below is a bird’s eye view of what appears now to be the most glaring aspects of the pandemic in terms of spatialization and stigmatization/targeting of “others” as vectors.

Spatialization: Violence and Loneliness

Two months ago, we focused on the adoption of gender segregation rules to contain coronavirus contagion. In this issue, our focus is on confinement and boundaries.

Before examining how this is specifically playing out in the domains of gender and sexuality, we want to remind readers that, since April, one of the most potentially tragic impacts of COVID-19 concerns what is happening in prisons, particularly in those countries that are champions of incarceration. This potential carnage is a stark example of necropolitics and, as is well known, the vulnerability of inmates to the virus is intersected with markers of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. No global figures on infection and mortality rates among incarcerated persons are available, but the data on specific countries is very troubling. On May 16th, UN agencies called for both public health and de-incarceration measures to be urgently adopted. As shown by Wikipedia, several countries have formally released prisoners, but a recent Human Rights Watch statement informs us that policy and Court decisions in that regard face many obstacles and that the percentage of released inmates has been very low (5 percent).

Moving to gender and sexuality impacts of quarantine and social isolation in the last two months, evidence of appalling rates of gender-based violence due to domestic confinement has accumulated and the problem is now portrayed as a hidden pandemic. This disturbing reality was not created by COVID-19 biopolitics but rather illuminated by the effects of strict spatialization and forced or voluntary home confinement. COVID-19 home seclusion made once again clear that gender power relations remain extremely unequal, sharply revealing that family life and domesticity are not the realm of love and care projected by conservative secular and religious ideologies.

Quarantine and social isolation are also propelling violence and other deleterious effects on persons whose gender and sexuality do not conform with the dominant hetero-cis normality (see a compilation). These risks and abuses were addressed as early as April by the UN Officer of the Commissioner for Human Rights. The alert was replicated by LGBTQI organizations and the specialized media, but the problem did not achieve as much visibility as violence against women, even when there are strong indications that it is as dire and deadly, as suggested by signs that the number of suicides has recently increased amongst young queer people.

In the above-mentioned #DawnTalk Webinar, Mexican lesbian feminist Gloria Careaga, an SPW Steering Committee member, noted that in addition to home-based discrimination violence, and abuse that queer persons may be submitted to, they are also very dependent on social support networks and, therefore, may have very negative experiences with social isolation. A Korean case may well illustrate this. In May, a new outbreak of COVID-19 erupted in a Seoul bar area, sparking social panic against the LGBT community. A gay man who had been identified as one of the virus transmitters was interviewed by the press. He publicly regretted having broken social isolation rules, but in doing so, explained that he had unduly left home because of his deep loneliness, and a bar was the only place where he could find company.

“Others as vectors”

Our March-April Special Issue also offered a sketch of how COVID-19 was creating stigma and fueling accusations against the imagined human vectors of the virus. This trail began with “the Chinese” to later shift to the elderly, people with chronic diseases (including people living with HIV/AIDS), health professionals, migrants, immigrants, and refugees,  as well as those living in urban areas where physical isolation is difficult or impossible.

Since then, these categories have continued to float about the biopolitical atmosphere of the pandemic and different “others who should be blamed” entered upon the scene. In the U.S., a high-level official in the Trump Administration stated that higher COVID-19 mortality rates amongst back people could be explained by “race”. Then, when the higher rate of infections amongst indigenous people gained public visibility in Brazil, a city in the state of Tocantins blocked the entry of neighboring Native Brazilians. And, as mentioned above, an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Seoul gay bar area has sparked a wave of open homophobia.

In this charged landscape, the accusation made by Hindu nationalists that Muslims were the main vectors of COVID-19 in India, is eventually the most troubling undercurrent to have gained greater global visibility over the last two months. This biopolitical attack added a new layer of brutality to the continuing and vicious xenophobia and violence perpetrated by the Modi regime (and Hindu nationalism, more broadly speaking) against the Indian Muslim community. As it is well known, since December the community has been bravely fighting for full citizenship rights as so well illustrated by the brave resistance organized by Muslim women in Delhi between January and March 2020.

As shown by an IDS briefing, even though India is the most extreme example, it is not the only place where minority religious communities are now targeted as “vectors” of SARS-CoV-2. Similar trends have been identified in Pakistan, Iraq, and Uganda. These perverse dynamics can be read through the lens of freedom of religion or, inversely, religious intolerance, and discrimination. But it is worth remembering, in this context, that race and religion were (and are) constantly superimposed in biopolitical taxonomic categories of segregation and hierarchization, as was the case with Moors and particularly Jews in early European Modernity. Given the involvement of religions with gender and sexuality politics, it is important not to lose sight of these undercurrents.  

COVID-19: anti-gender and anti-abortion politics

The March-April Special Issue quoted openDemocracy journalist Clare Prevost’s analysis that the state of abnormality triggered by the pandemic creates favorable conditions for conservative forces to reinforce traditional gender roles, sexual dimorphism, as well as attacks on feminism, abortion, and sexual diversity. What has happened since has seemed to confirm her predictions. In this section, we look at these undercurrents, analyzing how religious actors and institutions are behaving in relation to the pandemic and what have been the actions taken by State and secular actors (even today is not so easy to make these distinctions).

How conservative Christian actors are behaving

As in the March-April period, conservative religious voices (simultaneously engaged in anti-gender and anti-abortion campaigns) continued contesting scientific views and data regarding COVID-19, propagating views that portray it as a conspiracy or punishment by god (check here). Regarding the effects of these narratives, an article from The Guardian troublingly shows that the majority of religious Americans believe that the pandemic is indeed a message from god. Furthermore, in the U.S. and Brazil, disputes have persisted regarding the closure of churches, leading to the flexibilization of social isolation rules, as in the case of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in California.

While the episodes above mentioned refer to Evangelical voices and plaintiffs, Catholics have not been silent either. In Spain, a bishop declared that since the COVID-19 vaccine will use fetal genetic material, it should be abominated. In the UK, another Catholic prelate attacked the policy enabling women to employ medical abortion techniques in their homes. And, in Kenya, the Catholic bishops renewed their attacks against comprehensive sexuality education. Then, the Virgin flew over COVID-19-affected countries. In late March, the Italian Air Force flew the statue of the Virgin Mary over the country. A bit later, Costa Rica’s patron virgin, La Negrita, did a fly-by of that country. In May, El Salvador and Colombia saw airborne visits by the Virgin of Fatima (check at the end of the compilation).

In Latin America, these flights by the Virgins starkly evoked the Marianist tradition that sustains old Catholic assumptions about women as devoted and obedient spouses and mothers. The fact that it was a Portuguese Virgin that flew over Colombia and El Salvador also deserves to be commented upon. These events may be explained by the presence in these countries of fierce anti-abortion and anti-gender ultra-Catholic groups such as the Heralds of the Gospel or another ramification from the now-extinct Brazilian ultra-Catholic organization Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). In line with the Portuguese Fascist tradition, the TFP hagiography portrays the Virgin of Fatima as a “shield against Communism”. Since 2018, as the political right swept across the region, these ultra-Catholic strands gained much political power and visibility. As analyzed by the EPF report Modern-Day Crusaders in Europe, European TFP branches have been also extremely active in recent years, particularly in Poland and other Eastern European countries.

Last but not least, at the end of June, the Vatican released its new Directory of Catechesis, which includes a few mentions regarding gender and gender identity. One of these, while couched in a softer language than that which has been used in earlier documents, reiterates the long-standing Catholic Church view that:  “According to such a position, gender identity would no longer be an original given that the person must accept and fill with meaning, but rather a social construction that is decided autonomously, completely unrelated to biological sex. Man denies his nature and decides to create it for himself. However, according to the biblical account of creation, the human being has been created by God as male and female”.

States policies and secular actors 

As predicted by Prevost, the pandemic is not preventing governments or other State actors known for anti-gender ideology from promoting new laws or enacting policies to abolish “gender”. Rather, it has given them new opportunities to further wage these wars.

In Poland, as the country headed towards presidential elections, official discourses against what the ruling PiS government and their allies name “LGBT ideology” have escalated even further. As shown in a map that is widely circulating on the web, one-third of the Polish territory is now considered to be an “LGBT-free zone”. In the University of Silesia, a fierce conflict erupted between students and an aggressive anti-gender lecturer. As this Special Issue was being finalized, the PiS won the elections by a very narrow margin of votes.

Then, in neighboring Hungary, in early May, the Parliament (following the path blazed by Bulgaria in 2019) voted against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. A bit later, it approved a law defining gender as based on chromosomes and suspending existing rights to social identity. This was followed by the approval of similar legislation by the Romanian Senate that, however, is still pending a presidential sanction in order to be enacted.

While Eastern Europe remains a hotspot of the gender battles, a regional campaign against the Istanbul Convention is also taking form and may potentially affect other European countries. Even now in the UK where attacks on gender were relatively absent — as analyzed by Jacob Breslow and the statement issued by the LSE Gender Department — the policy debate on gender identity rights is taking a very problematic direction. A fierce debate is also underway in Spain, which shows how positions on gender and gender identity are troublingly blurring the boundaries between right and left as well as between feminist and ultra-conservative religious views.

Moving to the Americas, right before the U.S. Supreme Court emitted a groundbreaking decision on gender identity and labor discrimination, the Trump administration issued an executive ordinance erasing gender identity from the list of unjustified grounds of discrimination in health care. In Brazil, in May, when the Supreme Court judged a municipal anti-gender educational law unconstitutional (see below), in reaction, President Bolsonaro took a photo with a priest and school children and declared that an anti-gender law would be quickly approved. Not long after that, a provision has been tabled in the Brazilian House whose content is not so different from the above-mentioned Hungarian and Romanian legislation.

The global landscape is also quite dire when it comes to abortion. Ojo Público (in Spanish) analyzes how, in Mexico, as COVID-19 infection rates increased because no consistent national response has been adopted, abortion rights have become the main target of conservative and secular-religious forces. As widely reported by the press, the US administration has made further attacks on the WHO and the UN itself. USAID Director sent a letter to the Secretary-General calling for the recommendation to sustain reproductive rights services during the pandemic to be deleted from UN agencies’ protocols. Along the same lines, in obeying a Bolsonaro order given on Twitter, the general who is the interim minister of health in Brazil, fired the coordinators of the National Women’s Health Program because they signed a technical protocol recommending that sexual and reproductive services should be preserved in the national policy response to COVID-19.

Brazil is also, quite regrettably, a privileged site to examine how anti-gender and anti-abortion forces are irresponsibly sidelining the COVID-19 crisis and openly drifting toward political extremism. In late April, a pro-Bolsonaro group calling itself the 300 of Brazil pitched an open camp along the Ministries Promenade in Brasilia. One of its declared leaders was Sara Winter, the ex-Femen reborn ultra-Catholic activist who, since 2014, has been a major voice in Brazil’s anti-abortion and anti-gender movements (also achieving a certain degree of international notoriety). In an interview with BBC, Winter claimed that her group was armed and a photograph of her packing two pistols illustrated the story. In late May, the 300 of Brazil attacked the Brazilian Supreme Court with fireworks rockets. Right after, Sara publicly defied the judge who was in charge of an investigation into Bolsonaro supporters’ anti-democratic conduct. Then, in June, she was arrested and is currently under electronically surveilled home imprisonment. Her trajectory is a compelling tale of how anti-abortion and anti-gender ideology can easily metamorphize into neo-Fascism. 

COVID-19, gender, and sexuality: good news at last!

Despite the shadows currently playing over the world due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also good news to report in a few domains, most of them the result of the Supreme Court’s decisions in various countries.

In Africa, on June 27th, when its Parliament voted to de-criminalize homosexuality, Gabon became the seventh country to strike down laws punishing same-sex relations in Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, the others are South Africa, Cape Vert, Saint Tome and Principe, Mozambique, Angola, and Botswana.

A month earlier, on May 26th, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to approve same-sex marriage. The issue was central to the 2018 presidential race, a milestone in the country’s anti-gender campaigns when Evangelical pastor candidate Fabricio Alvarado turned his attacks against the Consultative Opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the matter, which has been specifically requested by the country.  Subsequently, Costa Rica’s Court issued another decision on conscientious objection (in Spanish) that may create obstacles to the full implementation of marriage equality, however. The results of the decision must, therefore, be closely monitored.

Then, on June, 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court also delivered a historical decision in favor of nondiscrimination in employment, based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Two weeks later,  on June 29th, it also declared unconstitutional Louisiana’s law preventing abortion clinics from operating, except in very restricted conditions. While these decisions are to be celebrated, several analysts note that the decisive votes came from the Court’s conservative judges, who only formalistically positioned themselves in favor of LGBT rights and abortion.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the School Without Party movement – which is also anti-gender —  suffered several setbacks as the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of including gender in education and voted unanimously against the municipal laws of Novo Gama, Ipatinga, and Cascavel. These decisions also establish that addressing gender and sexuality in public education is the duty of the State.

In Europe, the German legislature approved a ban on advertising and the practice of sexual conversion therapies for minors on May 8th. Germany joins Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, and Taiwan in the list of countries that have banned this so-called therapeutic practice. And, on July 10th, Instagram and Facebook also adhered to a global policy of censoring content related to sexual conversion.  In this particular domain, another landmark to be highlighted was the launching of the Report on Practices of So-Called “Conversion Therapy” prepared by the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.


COVID-19 is, most principally, a time of loss and mourning. We, therefore, deeply regret the more than 500 thousand lives lost since January, 72 thousand of them in Brazil, the country where we live. But we would also want to pay a special tribute to our Colombian partner, Katherine Cuellar Bravo, a young feminist researcher who left us in May.

Sexuality & Art

SPW features the work of Brazilian artist Ventura Profana (or Profane Fortune) on race, religion, sexuality, and gender.

We Recommend

Looking beyond the Pandemic

David Harvey: We Need a Collective Response to the Collective Dilemma of Coronavirus – Jacobin

If the neoliberal order is over, what comes next? – Red Flag

Out of the Belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the humanization of globalization – openDemocracy

Normality: coronavirus and state transformation – Global Affairs

Prisoners of State – Critical Legal Thinking

Lasting effects of covid-19 on States and societies – Global Affairs

The pandemic’s geopolitical aftershocks are coming – The Atlantic

Has the coronavirus crisis killed neoliberalism? Don’t bet on it – The Guardian

Cash, Kisses and Karaoke: Why the War on Covid must not become a War on Cash – openDemocracy

Histories of Pandemics

From the plague to MERS: A brief history of pandemics – Al Jazeera

COVID-19 and the classics

How Albert Camus’s The Plague became the defining book of the coronavirus crisis – New Statesman

What Machiavelli knew about pandemics – New Statesman

COVID-19 and Capitalism

Six ways capitalism spreads the crisis – Corporate Watch

Covid-19: How India can ensure that women in the informal sector get the protection they deserve – Scroll In

Fighting COVID-19 requires working-class power – Lessons from the Indian State of Kerala – Truth Out 

COVID-19 and Biopolitics

Geographers, sociologists, philosophers etc. on covid-19

Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis – The Nation

Biopolitics and coronavirus: compilation – SPW

Biopolitics & the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Feminist Perspective, by Sonia Corrêa – DAWN

Science, political crisis and the lives of people, by Lorena Moraes – SPW

The Non-Essential Transphobia of Pandemic Disaster Politics, by Jacob Breslow – SPW

To drink or not to drink – that is not the question: Alcohol consumption in India and South Africa in the time of COVID 19, by Debjyoti Ghosh – SPW

Anti-gender politics

The front line of the new gender wars, by Mark Gevisser – Financial Times

Trump’s use of religion follows playbook of authoritarian leaning leaders the world over – The Conversation

Don’t Leave the W.H.O. Strengthen it. – New York Times

Academic ‘solidarity’ needed to save gender studies from populism – Times Higher Education

Anti-gender activist Sara Winter arrested – SPW


#NoTenemosMinistra: The crisis in Chile’s Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, by Bárbara Sepúlveda Hales & Lieta Vivaldi Macho – SPW

A Chinese feminist’s reflections on the pandemic, by Cai Yipying – DAWN 

A feminist future of work in the post-pandemic moment, by Anita Gurumurthy – DAWN 

The Disruption of Women’s Rights in the face of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Uganda – African Women in Law

COVID-19, reproductive rights, abortion and more

Early estimates of the indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal and child mortality in low-income and middle-income countries: a modelling study – The Lancet

Efforts to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality Complicated by COVID-19 – CHCF

Maternal health and COVID-19: The race to avert a long-term crisis – Devex

The Sexual Health Supply Chain is Broken – The Atlantic

The Right’s Desperate Attempts to Hijack ‘My Body, My Choice’ – Rewire

The Disruption of Women’s Rights in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda – African Women in Law

Revisiting Restrictions of Rights After COVID-19 – Health and Human Rights Journal

Bioethics and Reproduction with Insights from Uruguay, by Lilian Abracinskas & Santiago Puyol – Global Public Health

COVID-19, HIV/AIDS and more

Information Note on HIV and COVID-19 – WHO

In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis – The New York Times

10 Lessons from HIV for the COVID-19 Response – Open Society Foundations

Lessons from HIV/AIDS for the fight against COVID-19 in Indonesia – The Conversation

Coronavirus: impact on people living with HIV – Institute of Tropical Medicine

What people living with HIV need to know about HIV and COVID-19 – UNAIDS

COVID-19 : HIV Prevention, Treatment, Care and Support for People who Use Drugs and People in Prisons – UNODC

Egypt: Covid-19 Threatens Treatment for HIV Patients – HRW

Brazil and the AIDS Crisis, by Richard Parker – Oxford Research Encyclopedia


Practices of so-called “conversion therapy” – UN’s Independent Expert on SOGI

Organizing in the time of Covid-19: Eco-feminist perspectives – Daraja Press 

Issue Brief COVID-19 & LGBTQ older people – HR Campaign Foundation

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights during the COVID-19 pandemic – EPF & IPPF E

A Guide for Europe: Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls in Times of COVID-19 Pandemic and its Aftermath – Amnesty International, IPPF, Women’s Link Worldwide

Vulnerability Amplified: The Impact of The COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ People – OutRight International

Connecting the dots: Trump Administration efforts to create a license to discriminate across the country – ACLU, MAP & CAP

Gender and COVID-19: Advocacy Brief – WHO


COVID Talks ‘A Pandemic of Power and Exclusion’ – CREA

Webinar: African Feminist and Anti-Capitalist Responses to COVID-19 (African Eco-Feminist Collective)  

‘I’m against all forms of oppression’: Simone de Beauvoir, in her own words from 1959 – Aeon Magazine

Check it out!

Virtual Pan African Pride from August 14-16th on YouTube

Call for Papers – Special Issue: Feminist Perspectives on the Learning, Media and Technology Journal. Abstract submission until July 22nd.

Call for Papers – ‘Queer Feminist Approaches to Social Reproduction in the Environmental Crisis’ on 23 October 2020, at Newnham College, Cambridge. Submissions until August 1st.

SPW’s Editorial coordinator: Sonia Corrêa

SPW’s staff: Rajnia de Vito and Fábio Grotz

Translation: Thaddeus Blanchette

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