Busting the ghost of gender theory in Italian schools

There is a ghost haunting schools up and down Italy. It’s called ‘gender theory’ and it is spooking efforts to promote non-discrimination and respect for diversity among the country’s youth.

Like many, I also have my reservations about prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Good School reform, but I do think provisions set out in article 16 for promoting “sexual equality and the prevention of gender-based violence and all forms of discrimination” among pupils and students are laudable. Or rather, I believe such provisions are the prerequisite for building a fair and tolerant society and as such I would be concerned if they didn’t exist.

Many people don’t see it that way, however. Conservative Catholic groups, right-wing politicians and organisations defending the ‘traditional’ family have mounted an alarmist – and alarming – ideological campaign against the measures, warning parents of the dangers of a purported ‘theory’ that isn’t even mentioned in the law and which academics say doesn’t exist.

The problem is with the ‘gender’ word. Reactionaries are worried that the use of this term typically referring to cultural and social rather than biological differences between the sexes will pave the way for schools to teach pupils that there are no differences and that each one of us is free to determine who and what we want to be irrespective of how we were born.

Obviously this is far from the truth. However, in the absence of dispassionate debate around the issue and a clear sense of how the new provisions will be applied (it is still early days) even the most open-minded and reasonable parents are concerned.

The irony is that not many seem to know how and why the ghost of gender theory appeared in the first place, or realise that it has little to do with the provisions set out in the Good School reform.

The term ‘gender theory’ came to the fore in France in 2012 during debate over a bill legalising same-sex marriage and adoption there. It became the battle cry of the leading opponent to these provisions, the association La Manif pour tous, and subsequently found its way into the lexicon of the sister organisation La Manif pour tous Italia, founded in 2013 in opposition to a bill before the Italian parliament criminalising homophobia and transphobia.

Debate on this bill extending existing anti-discrimination legislation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people coincided with discussion of another separate but related initiative involving adoption by parliament of a new strategic action plan against sexual and gender-based violence.

This law, approved definitively in October 2013, has its roots in the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) of 2011, which was ratified unanimously by both houses of parliament earlier in the year with huge public support.

It also forms the basis for the provisions set out in the Good School law.

Indeed, article 16 of Renzi’s reform makes explicit reference to an article in the 2013 strategic action plan providing for “adequate training of school staff in favour of relationship and against gender discrimination and violence” and “awareness-raising, information and training of students in order to prevent violence against women and gender discrimination, also through an adequate approach to the theme in text books”.

These provisions fuelled the campaign of the ‘gender theory’ scaremongers and fear gradually began to grip the institutions: in April 2014 education undersecretary Gabriele Toccafondi blocked a programme for schools “based on sexual orientation and gender identity” run by the national office against racial discrimination (UNAR) under the auspices of the education ministry, prompting the authoritative Società Italiana delle Storiche (Italian Society of Women Historians), many of whose members have long been active in the field of gender studies, to intervene.

In a letter to education minister Stefania Giannini the academics highlighted the “partiality” and “erroneousness” of the debate so far. The category ‘gender’, they said, introduces “less a theory than a conceptual tool for considering and analysing the historical social realities concerning the relationship between the sexes in all their complexity and articulation”, showing that “there has not been and is not just one way of being men and women, but a multiplicity of identities and experiences that have varied over time and space”.

However this did little to assuage fears, which on the contrary continued to grow as the Good School bill – presented in March 2015 – made its way through parliament. In July 2015 the newly elected mayor of Venice Luigi Brugnaro ordered the withdrawal of books exploring diversity issues from the city’s nurseries; and in late October the Liguria regional council went so far as to vote to explicitly ban ‘gender theory’ from being taught in the region’s schools.

Giannini intervened formally in July and then again at the start of the new school year in September with a circular aiming to lay the discussion to rest once and for all.

In it she insisted that the provisions contained in the law did not intend to “promote thoughts or actions inspired by ideologies of any kind”, but rather to transmit “knowledge and awareness of the constitutionally guaranteed rights and responsibilities of the individual”. She also reaffirmed that the contents of specific teaching programmes must in any event be set out in the academic plan that every school is required to draw up and present to parents for approval, meaning that families will be informed and have a measure of control.

Exactly how the provisions of article 16 will be applied remain to be seen, and it is reasonable to assume that the ‘message’ that reaches pupils and students will depend to a great extent on the sensibilities and preparation of the individual teacher or school.

However, in a modern, secular and open society if measures originally aimed at creating equality and respect for women are also extended to LGBT people, surely that has to be a good thing.