When a UK production company announced its sex education play, The Family Sex Show, was being cancelled, it cited “violent and illegal threats and abuse directed at the company and venues by a small group of people with extremist views.”
The play was featured in the national press, as was a petition, shared internationally as well as in the UK, that was signed by over 40,000 people. But while the petition website looked similar to groups like change.org or Avaaz, it was hosted by a controversial Spain-based advocacy group with links to the extreme Christian right in the US and Eastern Europe, whose intentions are to roll back legislation on abortion and LGBT rights.
CitizenGo was founded in 2013 by the same people behind HazTeOir, an advocacy group also headquartered in Madrid that garnered fame for its bus campaigning against transgender children.
A report in 2021 from the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a network of members of parliaments from across the continent, listed CitizenGo as one of the main religious extremist actors in anti-gender activism between 2009 and 2018 in Europe, having spent nearly $33 million on funding ranging from activities like sponsoring anti-gender network meetings to supporting likeminded groups.
It also found that CitizenGo had historically received funding from the now-sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Molofeev – described by the US as “Putin’s right arm for operations of political interference in Europe”. CitizenGo was additionally accused this year in a Mozilla Foundation report of paying people to manipulate Twitter trending topics around abortion in Kenya.
“We should absolutely be concerned about the infiltration of ultra-conservative networks into British politics,” analysts Kata Balint and Lukasz Janulewicz at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank fighting extremism, told VICE World News.
They were especially concerned about the material consequences for women and sexual minorities due to the organisation masking “their insidious policies with benign messaging around the ‘protection of the family’, and of ‘women’s and children’s rights’.”
CitizenGo’s recent campaign for theatres in the UK to scrap an upcoming production of The Family Sex Show claimed the show was like “taking [children] to a seedy peep show or strip club!” and was “a blatant and extremely concerning attempt to sexualise children prematurely.” The play was due to be performed in theatres in Bristol, Bath and Norfolk.
The hosting theatres have now cancelled all of the programmed shows apart from one which became invite-only. Bristol’s Tobacco Factory said the cancellation was “due to the unprecedented threats and abuse directed at our building and team.”
The play was produced with consultation from the School of Sexuality Education, a UK-based sexual health charity, and asked that under-16s be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Right wing activists targeting content involved in relationships and sex education programming for being inappropriate for children despite expert consultations appears to be becoming increasingly common in the UK. In the last week, there has been extensive coverage of 5,000 Welsh parents suing the government over a new curriculum from tabloid media and prominent right wing voices online, often misleadingly outlining it would “force children as young as three to learn about sex and gender identity.”
The Scottish Family Party has also been posting leaflets through doors ahead of council elections asking families “What are they teaching our children?” and criticising that secondary school curriculums inform young people about different kinds of sex. Many of these criticisms often deliberately ignore how different information is introduced to young people at different developmental stages in an age appropriate manner and supported by internationally approved guidance.
There was criticism that the The Family Sex Show was watchable for children aged 5+, that it would involve 5 minutes of nudity on stage, as well as encourage attendees to look at footage of animals masturbating and listen to songs with lyrics such as “I sometimes have a fiddle with my penis and my balls. Tou-u-u-u-ch it.” These elements of the show prompted widespread outrage from right-wing accounts on Twitter, many of which directed attention to the online petition on CitizenGo’s website.
In a statement responding to the criticism, the theatre company behind the show, ThisEgg, said: “These public performances would have offered safe and positive learning to children, young people and guardians about rights, bodies, sex and relationships, advised by educational specialists.
“Audiences were given information about the content before booking, so that they could make an informed decision to watch the show.
“It is regrettable that violent and illegal threats and abuse directed at the company and venues by a small group of people with extremist views has prevented families from opting to attend something that was transparent, consensual and legal.”
CitizenGo was contacted for comment but no response has been received at time of publication.
In The Stage, a trade newspaper about theatre, associate editor Lyn Gardner wrote that she had seen the show in an early development stage and thought it was “a thoughtful and inspiring piece of theatre designed to be shared by parents, carers and children together and which comes with accompanying workshops and discussions.”
Signatories of the CitizenGo petition do not need to include their postcode or address when they sign, meaning that anybody from around the world can add their name to their campaigns, despite their targets often being country-specific.
Some campaigns are introduced to the website by CitizenGo themselves; others have been started by single issue organisations, such as anti-abortion groups Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Right to Life, or bigger groups attempting to change legislation across Europe such as Poland’s Ordo Iuris, an ultra conservative think tank.
Other recent campaigns in the UK include “NO drag queens in Primary Schools” and “End ‘DIY’ abortion schemes that have seen abortion numbers soar and women put at risk”, the latter attempting to stop telemedicine abortion in England which the UK government has just made permanent.
Internationally it is running “Disney: Stop Promoting the LGBTQ Agenda” and “Stop the Vaccine Mandates.” It has previously run a petition to defund the World Health Organisation for spreading what it claims was “Communist China’s false Coronavirus propaganda”.
It has claimed victory in certain countries for their campaigns, including Burger King’s recent removal of advertisements in Spain which parodied the words of the Eucharist.
The experts at the ISD added: “The network includes a substantial number of overlapping groups whose members lobby on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) issues without making clear who they represent and what their goals are.”
The individuals listed amongst its board of trustees on its website include Luca Volontè, an Italian politician who was sentenced in 2021 to four months in prison because he had accepted bribes from Azerbaijani politician Elkhan Suleymanov.
It also includes Brian Brown, the president of the World Congress of Families that promotes Christian right ideology around the globe and Ignacio Arsuaga. Both men are directors of the Hungarian president-elect Katalin Novak’s Political Network for Values, a transatlantic group that advocates for “the protection of human life, marriage, family or religious freedom and conscience.”
At the end of 2021, Novak visited the UK to meet with a number of Britons to discuss family policy – including UK government minister Jacob Rees Mogg.