The difference between sex and gender is commonly accepted in academia (e.g. Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2003; Sunderland, 2004); the first refers to the biological sex of the person and the second indicates, broadly speaking, the construction of the individual “self” reflecting cultural and social gender types.
However, Italians seem to have a different idea of how to understand gender, as the invention of a so-called “gender theory” shows.
I felt myself a bit confused when some months ago I ran into some pictures of a Family Day parade, when people gathered to demonstrate against homosexual marriages and the so-called “gender theory” (in Rome, on 20th of June 2015). What caught my eye were the placards carried by the participants and showing slogans like “Gender is the devil’s excrement” and “Stop gender in schools”.
After looking at the pictures and reading about the parade, I asked myself what meaning the participants of the Family Day had given to the word “gender”, since they considered it such a social danger.
I thought that the fear of those demonstrators could only be justified by a huge discrepancy between how it is thought of and “used” in academia and an actual perception of the public. I thus started wondering where all this fear had originated from and I realised how the word “gender” had actually been deliberately manipulated and misinterpreted in order to serve an ideological crusade.
Therefore I started reading articles in order to understand the debate taking place in my country around the meaning of “gender”. My confusion began to grow when I found out that in the previous months some worried parents, supported by right-wing political leaders and catholic associations, had been demonstrating against the introduction of the so-called “gender theory” in Italian schools. Mothers and fathers had been using all kinds of channels - petitions, Whatsapp messages, Facebook groups - to warn other parents against this “extremely dangerous theory”, as described by the protesters. According to the “alarming theory”, as, once again, claimed by these people, teachers in kindergartens and primary schools would have been forced to teach children about masturbation and penetration, and to explain them how to change their own sex or to choose to “become homosexual”.
But how did this start? It started with the development of school projects aimed at promoting gender equality, preventing any kind of discrimination and overcoming gender stereotypes by means of games and readings. One of the children’s books that was introduced was Piccolo Uovo (Little Egg) by Francesca Pardi, the story of a little egg that comes across different family models, including a pair of gay penguins and single parent hippo. Some politicians and religious leaders expressed their outrage at it and put forward the idea of an alleged “gender ideology” that was threatening children's education.
Of one the lowest points of this debate was reached last June, when the newly elected mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, banned 50 children's books from the shelves of Venice schools – among which Pardi's Piccolo Uovo - claiming that they were promoting the aforementioned alleged “gender theory”.
Another event that inflamed the debate was the approval of the school reform known as Buona scuola (literally “Good School”) by the Italian Parliament last July. The paragraph 16 of the reform bill states that schools should promote principles of “equality between the sexes, prevention of gender violence and all forms of discrimination”. It is worth highlighting that in this reform bill the term “gender” is mentioned only in association with violence, and not referring to social and cultural aspects of being women and men, opposed to biological differences between the two, defined as sex.
No doubt it is a paradox that a bill which promotes a more equal society and is against violence and discrimination has been considered threatening for children's education and has provoked protests all around Italy. This paradox, I believe, resulted from the manipulation of the meaning of the word “gender” and the invention of a “gender theory” as an ideology that – among other things - would deny the existence of male and female sexes.
In the Italian society, where only a very small number of people are familiar with gender studies and great confusion reigns over the subject, it has been very simple for politicians and religious leaders to spread a message based on the manipulation and misuse of the word “gender” across the population.
One of the few voices who is fighting the misinformation around the word “gender” is the philosopher and writer Michela Marzano. In her book Papà, Mamma e Gender (literally “Dad, Mum and Gender”), published in October 2015, she unmasks stereotypes, prejudices and fears that have contributed to the birth and diffusion of the “gender theory”. Marzano fostered the debate around the above-mentioned theory and her ideas were either highly praised or strongly criticized.
It is worth mentioning that in November 2015 the mayor of Padua did not allow Marzano to present her book in the town hall of Padua because the book supported the alleged “gender theory”.
The invention of a “gender theory” in Italy and the resulting social consequences have once again reminded me of how important it is to let our voices be heard in order to spread awareness of the importance of gender studies as something that contributes to make our society more equal and respectful, in other words, a better place for us all, children, women and men.
I would like to thank Federica Formato and Giulia Sirugo who read and reviewed the first draft of this post.