The Right’s “Gender Ideology” Menace Rolls to Africa

CitizenGO Africa recently announced that Nairobi, Kenya would be the first city on the continent to host the so-called #FreeSpeechBus. The bus, infamous for its explicitly anti-transgender messages, will likely roll through Nairobi in conjunction with the World Congress of Families’ regional gathering scheduled to take place on May 15, 2018.

CitizenGO was launched in 2013 as the online petition platform of HazteOir, a right-wing organization based in Madrid, Spain with Catholic roots. The initiative claims to have almost 9 million members, and works to advance an anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion agenda in Europe, the U.S., and increasingly throughout the Global South. In addition to CitizenGO-initiated petitions, a wide range of right-wing organizations use the platform to promote their own causes, including the World Congress of Families and Americans United for Life.

Since its founding in 2013, CitizenGO has gained its greatest notoriety for its anti-trans “Free Speech Bus,” which toured the U.S. in 2017 emblazoned with the slogan “It’s Biology: Boys are boys … and always will be. Girls are girls … and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.” The American version of the bus was preceded by a similarly styled bus in Madrid, which carried the message, “Boys have penises, girls have vaginas. Don’t let them fool you. If you’re born a man, you’re a man. If you’re a woman, you will continue to be so.” The bus has also made appearances in France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia.

 

CitizenGO Africa recently announced on Facebook that Nairobi, Kenya would be the first city on the continent to host the so-called #FreeSpeechBus.

Though it’s often portrayed as an isolated element of the Christian Right’s standard fare anti-LGBTQ agenda, the #FreeSpeechBus is actually part of a much larger, multi-faceted movement against what the Right has dubbed “gender ideology.” As Gillian Kane recently outlined in The Public Eye, “gender ideology is a right-wing invention that intentionally misrepresents feminist, queer, and gender theory in order to justify discrimination against women and LGBTQ people.” The term was fabricated by the Vatican in the mid-1990s in an effort to paint gender as a newly invented concept that is dangerous and destabilizing to children, families, and society at large, as well as antithetical to science and reason.

 

In February 2018, HazteOir and CitizenGO hosted the first International Conference on Gender, Sex and Education, featuring a slate of anti-LGBTQ “experts,” including several representatives from American right-wing groups. Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family argued that “gender theory” is a lie and the idea of a gender spectrum is false. Rubén Navarro, head of the Geneva office of Alliance Defending Freedom, warned of the encroachment of “gender ideology” into international laws and policies. Miriam Ben-Shalom, an American anti-trans lesbian activist linked transgender activists to pedophilia. Ultimately, the event aimed to advance the idea that “gender ideology” is a conspiracy — the latest plot designed by radical homosexual activists to destroy families, contradict biology, erase Biblical gender roles, and persecute Christians.

The irony is that both sides argue that gender is a socially constructed concept. For progressive feminists, LGBTQ activists, and gender theorists, constructs of gender that strictly prescribe roles for men and women are perceived to have been wrongly imposed on individuals who may possess myriad identities and expressions of gender, apart from one’s sex or sexual characteristics. Sources of these impositions include various patriarchal institutions that are understood to have disrupted naturally occurring gender variance and equanimity through systems of violence and domination.

For the Right, “gender theory” is perceived as a contemporary concept aimed at erasing unique and definitive feminine and masculine characteristics that are exclusively tied to one’s biological sex (and limited to male and female). This framework fails to take into account the existence of intersex people, and denies the gender variance that is most often observed in transgender and genderqueer people, but also manifests in a multitude of diverse expressions of gender among cisgender people as well. Ignoring all this, the Right suggests that the acknowledgement of these realities is an LGBTQ conspiracy designed to destroy families and sexualize children. They call it “gender ideology,” and they’re effectively using it to instigate a sort of moral panic that ultimately distracts societies from real structural issues, such as poverty, disease, government corruption, and growing inequalities.

The effectiveness of this strategy was especially evident in voters’ surprising rejection of Colombia’s landmark peace agreement in 2016. On October 2, 2016, Colombians were summoned to vote in a referendum aimed at terminating the long-standing conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The war had spanned more than 50 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 220,000 Colombians and displacing nearly seven million people. But despite strong public support for peace, 50.2 percent voted to oppose the referendum.

Anthropologist Winifred Tate reported that those who opposed the peace agreement circulated pamphlets declaring, “Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology.” Many credit the success of the “no” campaign with their effective mobilization of homophobia and fear of expanded LGBTQ rights by linking their cause to a national debate over new, more progressive gender and sexuality education materials for high schools produced by Colombia’s Ministry of Education.

To the Right, the “gender ideology” menace is rapidly expanding its reach globally, and the CitizenGO bus has become something of a big orange mascot for the movement. But it doesn’t roll without resistance.

In Madrid, a judge banned the bus from traveling through the city on the grounds that it was discriminatory and could provoke hate crimes. In the U.S., counter protestors greeted the bus’s arrival on every stop of its attempted tour. In Bogota, the LGBTQ activists splashed multicolored paint on the vehicle.

Kanyali Mwikya, a program advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, responded to the news of the pending visit of the bus to Nairobi, warning CitizenGO, “Human rights defenders shall not sit quietly as you bring this hate speech bus to Nairobi. Like in every part of the world where this bus of hate has visited, get ready for counter action against you [sic] campaign of disinformation and evil!”

Whether the bus is ultimately stymied or not, though, the Right’s anti-“gender ideology” strategy is already taking hold and will likely continue to develop as one of the key sources of right-wing resistance to gender, sexual, and reproductive rights globally.

Profile on the Right: CitizenGO

CitizenGO describes itself as a “community of active citizens who work together, using online petitions and action alerts as a resource, to defend and promote life, family, and liberty.” The right-wing Christian organization, which claims to have almost 9 million members, operates primarily through an online petition platform to push an anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion agenda. Though the organization recently made headlines in the United States for its transphobic “Free Speech Bus” and the protests that met it on its tour of American cities, CitizenGO has a variety of longstanding ties to right-wing organizations and right-wing efforts around the globe.

CitizenGO is headquartered in Madrid, Spain, sharing an address, a founder (Ignacio Arsuaga), and a number of board members with the right-wing Spanish organization Hazte Oir (“Make Yourself Heard”), which Arsuaga founded in 2001. Hazte Oir lists itself as a member of CitizenGO, and its website links to CitizenGO petitions.

CitizenGO is not shy about its positions on a variety of key right-wing issues, characterizing trans and gender non-conforming identities as “the wrong-headed notion that sex is fluid and a matter of choice,” and declares, “Marriage, properly understood, is the union of one man and one woman, in a lifetime relationship which is open to the natural procreation of and raising of children.”

The CitizenGO petition platform was launched in 2013, but perhaps its most notable physical manifestation is the anti-trans, so-called “Free Speech Bus,” which toured the U.S. in 2017 emblazoned with the slogan “Boys are boys … and always will be. Girls are girls … and always will be.” The bus was met with protests led by queer and trans rights activist groups in cities such as Boston, Cambridge, New York, New Haven, and Philadelphia.

A similar bus, with Hazte Oir’s name on it, was banned by a judge in Madrid earlier that year on the grounds that its presence could prompt hate crimes in the capital city.

CitizenGO claims to be funded by “small online donations”  but a leak of internal documents in May of 2017 suggested that in 2012, its affiliate Hazte Oir received €2,050 from a multinational technology company. The leakers also suggested that Hazte Oir has connections to the ultra-right Mexican Catholic group El Yunque.

A connection to El Yunque would certainly not be the only link CitizenGo and its affiliates have to the international Religious Right. CitizenGO and Hazte Oir have many longstanding connections to anti-choice and “pro-family” right-wing Christian organizations, primarily through their board members. Continuing the right-wing Catholic connection, board members Alejandro Bermudez and John-Henry Westen both run conservative Catholic news sites; Westen has been vocal in his criticism of the Pope’s stances on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Board member Alexey Komov is the “Regional Representative for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States” for the World Congress of Families, a U.S.-based Religious Right anti-choice and anti-queer organization. Komov and CitizenGO board member Brian Brown are also part of a widespread network of American and Russian individuals and Evangelical organizations committed to spreading anti-abortion and anti-LGBT sentiment and policy abroad.

Brown is the president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an anti-LGBT organization that was particularly active during the Prop 8 campaign in California in 2008.

WCF also awarded CitizenGO board member Luca Volonte a “Familia et Veritas” award in 2015. In 2014 Volonte was the chair of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a Christian anti-choice think tank based in Italy, when it hosted Steve Bannon for a speech in the Vatican, and in April of 2017, the former Italian lawmaker was accused of a money laundering scheme that fed large sums of money from a lawmaker in Azerbaijan to a number of right-wing groups, money which was allegedly paid to him in exchange for his support for a variety of Azerbaijan’s political positions.

The international reach of these connections is also on display in the numerous petitions on CitizenGO’s website. There are petitions hoping to target government officials in Malta, British Columbia, New Zealand, Ireland, Malaysia, and the U.K., to name just a few. Organizations and individuals are able to create petitions on the CitizenGO platform; while most of the petitions are authored by CitizenGO, other right-wing organizations whose petitions CitizenGO promotes include African Organization for Families, Right to Life, and Movieguide.

Despite vocal resistance to CitizenGO in Spain and the U.S., the “Free Speech Bus” has been seen in cities all over the world. In July 2017, it was making the rounds in Chile, in September 2017 it was in Germany, in October 2017 it was in France, and a bus has been seen in Italy as recently as February 2018. They also had a small “Free Speech” airplane circling the Spanish Mediterranean in August 2017.

In April 2018, CitizenGO Africa announced that Nairobi, Kenya would be the first city on the continent to host the so-called #FreeSpeechBus.

Updated 5/4/18.