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How the Christian Right used the ‘culture war’ to cancel a UK theatre show

Anti-abortion CitizenGo won backing from so-called ‘gender critical’ activists to shut down the ‘Family Sex Show’

Isabel Marler
8 June 2022, 4.25pm

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‘The Family Sex Show’, a UK touring theatre production aimed at bringing sex education to “family audiences”, was recently cancelled, before it could even make its debut, after more than 40,000 people signed a petition against the production. 

Media coverage suggested a battle between “woke” theatre producers and parents with safeguarding concerns. However, scratch the surface and there is another story altogether: the story of a vast web of fundamentalist and ultra-conservative actors, working together to undermine rights globally.

Take the organisation behind the petition. CitizenGo is an ultra-conservative Christian group, based in Spain, that campaigns globally against LGBTIQ and reproductive rights, and sex education. It has also sponsored the World Congress of Families summit, which brings together an international who’s-who of ultra-conservative leaders to strategise against abortion, LGBTIQ rights and migration.

openDemocracy has revealed its connection to Spanish far-right party Vox, and how HazteOir (CitizenGo’s parent organisation) fought Google to suppress information about its links to El Yunque, a controversial Catholic secret society. 

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CitizenGo’s controversial tactics have repeatedly got the group into trouble. In 2019, HazteOir’s non-profit status was revoked in Spain after it was ruled that its actions could be considered “attacks against certain people, groups and entities”. An investigation was launched after a CitizenGo petition led to the cyber-harassment of a Kenyan diplomat at the UN. Earlier this year, the group came under fire after a Mozilla Foundation report suggested it may have paid Kenyan influencers to spread online misinformation against reproductive rights bills. 

So how did this overseas fringe religious group stop a cultural production in the UK before it started? 

As Brits, we often like to think of Bible-toting extremists as a US problem. But we have our own home-grown ‘culture wars’ – an entire ecosystem providing fertile ground for the Christian Right to become more mainstream.

Mobilisation of ‘gender critical’ activists

Much of the online outrage against ‘The Family Sex Show’ came from the so-called ‘gender critical’ movement  – that is, anti-trans activists who frame trans rights as a threat to the rights of of cis women. ‘Gender critical’ (and anti-pornography) social media accounts were front and centre in online discussions of the show, largely parroting the same talking points as the Christian Right about “grooming children” and “paedophilia”.

Concerns were raised on Mumsnet. The Mallard, a conservative magazine that has lamented the rise of “anti-white hatred”, included an opinion piece describing the proposed production as “truly horrifying”. Then the CitizenGo petition was launched. At the same time, prominent ‘gender critical’ figures wrote blogs on the issue.

This confluence of religious, far-right and trans-exclusionary actors is no coincidence. Consider, for example, Caroline Farrow, CitizenGo’s UK and Ireland campaigns director. Farrow voices opposition to equal marriage and abortion, as you would expect. However, she is also squarely embedded in the ‘gender critical’ landscape, amplifying the views of anti-trans figures from both Right and Left political backgrounds.

One can only speculate about CitizenGo’s decision-making, but appointing someone like Farrow – with a foot in both the ultra-conservative Catholic and the ‘gender critical’ worlds – seems like a shrewd move for their UK work. 

This confluence of religious, far-right and trans-exclusionary actors is no coincidence 

Extremists strategically choose hot-button topics where they can draw on a heady mix of misinformation and moral panic narratives. In the UK, trans rights are that issue. A toxic, anti-trans climate has metastasised here in recent years, fired up by flashpoints like the Gender Recognition Act consultations.

A growing body of work documents alignment and collusion between the Christian Right and ‘gender critical’ movements. A 2020 article in Radix Journal (a far-right publication founded by US white supremacist Richard Spencer) even lays out a strategy for fascists to absorb anti-trans feminists. The author suggests that awakening to so-called “race realism” – in other words, the belief that there is a biological basis to white supremacy – would be a “natural next step” from their belief in an immutable biological binary of the sexes.

Gaining legitimacy

This ‘wedge issue’ approach means the Christian Right can rely on an already active base to gain legitimacy in public debate. Importantly, it can do so without foregrounding its wider fundamentalist agenda, which would turn off most people (and if there’s any angle about “protecting children”, as in ‘The Family Sex Show’ controversy, all the better). From there, it can widen its targets to the next issue, whether that’s abortion, contraception, equal marriage or gender-based violence.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. CitizenGo has campaigned against gender-based violence protections, and also claimed credit for raids on reproductive health clinics in Malawi, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania. HazteOir helped bring a lawsuit against the Spanish government for classifying abortion provision as essential during the coronavirus pandemic. One of their Christian Right allies in North America, Alliance Defending Freedom, was active in pushing for the overturn of Roe v Wade

If we allow groups like CitizenGo to gain legitimacy here, today it may be a theatre show, but tomorrow it could be a lot more.

There is good news, though. While these reactionary voices may be loud and coordinated, their numbers remain relatively small. Trans-led groups and inclusive feminists are working together, across borders, to resist the rollback of our rights. We are monitoring the problem, and we have the solutions

The answer is clear: we cannot divide our rights into silos. The only effective response is solidarity with all groups under attack from anti-rights actors – whether those actors are anti-abortion zealots, white supremacists or trans-exclusionary feminists. Put simply: if you care about threats to human rights, then you must care about trans rights.

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