In France, political opposition to the inclusion of so-called ‘gender theory’ in school curricula reached a peak during the debate over gay marriage in 2012–2013, where many observers were surprised by the strength of the opposition to government reforms promoting gender equality. The Catholic church played a leading role in this ‘anti-gender’ protest movement, seeing an opportunity to integrate conservative sexual morality into the movement’s broader ideological framework. Here, I discuss this movement in order to draw out the shortcomings of the ‘classical’ movement-countermovement theoretical perspective, which often views conservative religious movements as monolithic actors, locked into a binary relationship with progressive forces. I argue however that the key outcomes of the ‘anti-gender’ movement are its effects not on its political opponents, but on the Catholic community itself. Indeed, the shaping of ‘gender’ as an imaginary enemy has powerful performative effects, including on the very group that invented it, including the reinforcement of Catholic identity ‘we feeling’ processes. Its effects include access to a wider audience, appealing to atheists in a global context of panic over the stability of sexual identities, and alliance with other religious groups, on the basis of shared moral values. Nevertheless, this strategy also has its drawbacks: it has revived old conflicts within the Church, and accelerated the internal division of the Catholic community.