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Intense Anti Gender Debate in Italy

It is still not clear who will form new government in Italy after the election where the populist parties won. Gender researcher Michela Villani is afraid that "the crusade against gender research" will gain new power.

– I do not think anything good could come out of this, says Michela Villani about the election, where both the populist five-star movement and the right-wing party Lega have proclaimed themselves as victors.

The election was held in early March and the Five Star movement became the biggest party. Lega, who leads the mid-right coalition, on the other hand, received the most votes together with the alliance parties; Silvio Berlusconis Forza Italia and right wing Fratelli d’Italia (Italy’s Brothers).

Michela Villani describes the Five Star movement as unpredictable critics of the establishment. They position themselves outside the right-left scale and it is difficult to say what policy they will bring if they end up in office. The parties in the mid-right coalition are more predictable, but it does not make them a better option, she thinks.

– Their policies are xenophobic and homophobic.

Extensive anti gender debate

The fact that populism is on the rise in Italy is no news. Nevertheless, the election results was surprising, and several voices now warn that the human rights of LGBTQ people and other minority groups are threatened.

Michela Villani fears that the already bad conditions for the country’s gender researchers will be even worse. Like in many other European countries, a lively “anti-gender” debate is going on in Italy, and the theories of gender research are denigrated. The debate is analyzed in the book La crociata anti-genere (The Crusade Against Gender) by the researchers Sara Garbagnoli and Massimo Prearo. They describe how right-wing populists and leaders in the Catholic Church have undermined gender research by describing the field as ideological and elitist.

The consequence is that the gender research results don’t reach out. When the debate is about who is for or against gender research, the research never becomes more than an issue of debate.

– Gender research is being presented, like the LGBTQ-movement and parts of the feminist movement, as a threat to the heterosexual nuclear family and against “common people, says Michela Villani.

Particularly questions relating to gender pedagogy and sexual education in school has brought strong emotions, she says.

– Some politicians are saying that gender researchers want children to learn how to masturbate at school. They also mock transgender rights and try to scare parents by saying that the school will teach their children that they can choose whether they want to be women or men.

Difficult to get research funding

Making a career as a gender researcher in Italy is almost impossible, according to Michela Villani.

– Many go abroad to work, as did I, she says.

It is now several years since she moved from Italy, first to France and then to Switzerland, where she is now working at the University of Friborg. Her research is primarily about gender and sexuality issues related to migration. It is particularly difficult for researchers who are profiling in queer studies to get research funding and a position in the academy in Italy, she believes.

– It is seen as an unscientific or unworthy research area. It is ok to study sexuality from a historical perspective, such as homosexuality in ancient Greece, but research on contemporary views on sexuality is not seen as science but as politics, she says.

In recent years, however, there has been some queer research from progressive universities in, for example, Bolonga, Verona and Milan.

– But it was late, far after other countries, says Michela Villani.

No openness for new thinking within the academy

The debate that denigrate gender research leads to worse conditions for Italy’s gender researcher, but the establishment of the research field is also hampered by the academic structure itself, says Michela Villani.

– It’s hard to develop a new field, because the academy praises an old way of thinking. A structural change is needed, for as it is now there is no openness for new thinking, she says.

What consequences the populists victory in the election may have for gender research remains to be seen, but Michela Villani fears that the mocking criticisms of the research field will grow, with new vigorous debates in which gender research is described as militant and unscientific.

– The consequence is that the gender research results don’t reach out. When the debate is about who is for or against gender research, the research never becomes more than an issue of debate, she says.

Text by Charlie Olofsson