Gender and Authoritarianism: from Policing Bodies to a Police State

Opinion by Spyra Papoulias.

Two people walking down a road in a protest; one wears a trans flag on their back.

The growing awareness of gender identity and gender expression has brought about a less rigid gender culture around the world. However, the respect for gender fluidity is not universal. This article will argue that the state and broader societal attempts to police an individual’s gender expression and identity are inextricably tied to authoritarianism and reflect the state of a country’s democracy and pluralism (respect for diversity). This article will look at attempts to police gender in Western countries and how they mimic the rhetoric and policy of authoritarian countries. Harry Styles was the first man to grace the cover of Vogue alone, sporting a dress. This led to outcry from conservative media figures like Candace Owens, who notoriously coined the phrase “Bring Back Manly Men” in response to Styles’ embrace of a less rigid conception of masculinity [1]. This rhetoric is common in some conservative circles. The label of “gender ideology” is assigned to any movement away from a model of gender that prescribes a binary of masculine men assigned male at birth and feminine women assigned female at birth [2]. Of course, the pejorative phrase “gender ideology” ignores the fact that assigning a gender based on the sex assigned at birth and forcing individuals to adhere to the norms associated with said sex assigned at birth, is an ideology. Rigid gender identities are not intrinsically human. There are countless historical examples of transgender and gender non-conforming identities in various cultures throughout the world including Mahu people in Hawaii [3], the Waria of Indonesia [4], and Hijra people in South Asia [5]. The backlash to transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in the United States has been swift. Anti-transgender measures in American states nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, from 79 to 147, despite transgender people being a mere 1% of the American population [6]. Anti-transgender legislation is a good barometer of the state of freedoms in the United States [7]. For example, book bans in schools are occurring throughout the United States. Most of these books deal with women’s rights, gender identity and sexual orientation [8]. In Oklahoma, there was a bill introduced to remove books dealing with sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity from school libraries [9]. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a young adult memoir, has been banned from schools in 14 states because of its themes of consent, gender identity, marginalization, and masculinity [10]. This policy trend shows evidence of a broader clamping down on the freedom of expressions of teachers and librarians by limiting what they can expose students to, outside of the cisheteronormative norms that pervade the United States. Other legislation perpetuates a culture of denying the autonomy of a minority group. Texas policy language equating children transitioning with “child abuse” contrary to the advice of experts [11]. It is culture of weakened pluralism, a rejection of diverse identities. The United States is not the only country where anti-LGBT legislation and policy proposals are center stage. Poland’s Law and Justice, the far-right party which has been in power since 2015, has used homophobia and transphobia to mobilize support by pitting LGBT+ individuals against Poland’s national mythology [12]. This is evidenced by self-proclaimed “LGBT-free zones” where openly queer and transgender individuals face violence and discrimination [13]. It is a case where right-wing populism takes advantage of intolerance by positioning majorities against marginalized people such as refugees and queer and transgender people [14]. In Hungary, a ban on portraying LGBT+ identities to anyone under the age of 18 was implemented last year [15]. The Venice Commission, a body which the Council of Europe uses for advice pertaining to constitutional law, has said that this restriction creates a dangerous environment for LGBT+ children, and more broadly, a culture of stigmatization and discrimination [16]. Fidesz, Hungary’s far-right party has been in power since 2010 and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán proclaimed that Hungary is a “illiberal democracy” [17]. Orbán regularly appeals to exclusionary nationalism, vilifying Jewish people and immigrants [18]. In the same year that Candace Owens’ went on a tirade about Harry Styles, China banned “effeminate” men from appearing on television because of a “masculinity crisis.” China has clamped down even further by banning celebrity pages online of “sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics” [19]. China claimed that femininity in men was corrupting the young, arguing that young men should embody “toughness and strength,” and any deviation from that is a threat to the state [20]. It is blatantly clear that conservatives in the West, are using the same arguments as the Communist Party of China [21]. Clamping down on the freedom of expression and autonomy of gender identity and expression, is a direct import of authoritarian ideas and rhetoric. Poland, the United States, and Hungary are all considered “flawed democracies” according to the 2021 Democracy Index [22]. The most democratic countries, according to the index are Norway, New Zealand, and Finland [23]. Last year, New Zealand strengthened their support of transgender and gender nonconforming communities by allowing individuals to change their birth certificates based on self-identification, including non-binary and culturally relevant options for Māori LGBT+ individuals [24]. New Zealand, Norway, and Finland all prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression [25][26][27]. The most democratic countries in the world have strong protections for gender identity and expression. The state and broader cultural attempts to police an individual’s gender expression and identity are inextricably tied to authoritarian ideas and reflect the state of a country’s democracy and pluralism. To protect the vitality of democracy and liberal ideals it is essential to pay attention to the toleration and culture around gender expression and identity.



[1] Marcie Bianco, “Candace Owens, Harry Styles' Vogue Cover and the Tyranny of the Gender Binary,” (NBC Universal News Group, November 17, 2020),

[2] Sonia Corrêa, “Gender Ideology: Tracking Its Origins and Meanings in Current Gender Politics,” London School of Economics Blogs, December 12, 2017,

[3] Emmanuel Stip, “Les Raerae Et Mahu: Troisième Sexe Polynésien,” Santé Mentale Au Québec 40, no. 3 (2016): pp. 193-208,

[4] Benjamin Hegarty, “Governing Nonconformity: Gender Presentation, Public Space, and the City in New Order Indonesia,” The Journal of Asian Studies 80, no. 4 (2021): pp. 955-974,

[5] Hinchy, Jessica, “Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: the Hijra, c.1850-1900,” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[6] Aryn Fields, “Human Rights Campaign Foundation Releases State Equality Index after Most Anti-Transgender State Legislative Season in History,” Human Rights Campaign, accessed March 2, 2022,

[7] US Census Bureau, “Measuring Household Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic,”, February 9, 2022,

[8] Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter, “Book Ban Efforts Spread across the U.S.,” The New York Times (The New York Times, January 30, 2022),

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Jo Yurcaba, “Texas Governor Calls on Citizens to Report Parents of Transgender Kids For Abuse,” (NBCUniversal News Group, February 23, 2022),

[12] Olena Yermakova, “PIS vs LGBT: The ‘Othering’ of the LGBT Movement as an Element of Populist Radical Right Party Discourse in Poland,” Sprawy Narodowościowe, no. 53 (2021),

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lili Bayer, “Hungary's Anti-LGBTQ+ Law Breaches Human Rights Standards, Say Experts,” POLITICO (POLITICO, December 13, 2021),

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michael Toomey, “History, Nationalism and Democracy: Myth and Narrative in Viktor Orbán's ‘Illiberal Hungary,’” New Perspectives 26, no. 1 (2018): pp. 87-108,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Helen Gao, “China's Ban on 'Sissy Men' Is Bound to Backfire,” The New York Times (The New York Times, December 31, 2021),

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Economist Intelligence Unit (London, 2022).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Eva Corlett, “New Zealand Passes Law Making It Easier to Change Sex on Birth Certificates,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, December 9, 2021),

[25] Community Law, “Discrimination Based on Sex, Gender or Sexual Orientation,” Community Law, 2022,

[26] Ministry of Culture and Equality, “Act Relating to Equality and a Prohibition against Discrimination (Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act),” Government of Norway, June 6, 2017,

[27] Seta, “The Human Rights of LGBTI People in Finland ,” United Nations Human Rights Council , 2019,