This article, by Heron Greenesmith and Professor Cora Fernandez-Anderson, was first published on November 24, 2019 by openDemocracy.
In the US, numerous ‘concerned parent’ and ‘mommy groups’ have taken stands against LGBTIQ justice, comprehensive sex education and ‘drag queen story hours’. But many of these groups are not as independent as they seem.
Far from what most people have in mind when they imagine grassroots groups, a closer look at the individuals and networks involved in these ‘parent associations’ reveals numerous ties to organised Christian right movements.
Beneath a thin veneer of independence, they are connected to and supported by strategic and well-resourced Evangelical and Catholic conservative campaigns that are promoting the myth of ‘gender ideology’ internationally.
The term ‘gender ideology’ was first introduced by the Vatican two decades ago, to oppose advances in sexual and reproductive rights and cast them as an ‘ideology’. Since then, it’s also become the target of supposedly parent-led campaigns against LGBTIQ-inclusive sex education from the US to Peru.
Take, for example, the Sex Ed Sit-Out campaign that encourages parents in the US, Canada and Australia to remove their children from school for a day in protest against classes that ‘sexualise’ children and expose them to ‘gender ideology’. Its resources include graphics with slogans like “My child my choice”.
This campaign is dressed up as one mother’s crusade to protect her kids. But its website also discloses a list of anti-LGBTIQ, Christian right partners including the Family Research Council, CitizenGO, The Institute for Faith & Family, The Ruth Institute and the Liberty Counsel. Its website was also designed by Red Font Marketing, which advertises previous work for anti-abortion activists.
Elizabeth Johnston, who blogs under the name ‘Activist Mommy’, reportedly started the Sit-Out in 2018. She doesn’t advertise her personal ties to US ultra-conservative movements, but they’re easy to find. Her husband founded the now-defunct Association of Pro-Life Physicians, has ties to violent anti-abortion groups and wrote a novel about a dystopian anti-abortion future.
‘Their Christian right links are hiding under a thin veneer of independence’
The Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County (CPEFC) is another example of a seemingly independent group supported by the Christian right. It formed in 2015 to combat proposed county legislation to protect students from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Its campaign against this proposal gained widespread right-wing media coverage and thrust it into the spotlight.
In 2017, CPEFC’s executive director and its ‘Natural Family Planning Coordinator’, Meg Kilgannon, spoke at the annual Value Voters Summit organised by the Christian right group Family Research Council. There, she outlined strategies to challenge school board policies that support transgender students. But her connections to ultra-conservative movements are deeper still.
That same year, Kilgannon (along with other anti-trans activists) founded the advocacy group Hands Across the Aisle. It describes itself as a coalition of “radical feminists, lesbians, Christians and conservatives” that oppose “gender identity legislation”. Shortly after its founding, members of the group were invited to speak at the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington DC.
Then, in December 2018, the Christian right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom filed an ultimately unsuccessful brief on its behalf at the Supreme Court, challenging a Pennsylvania school district non-discrimination policy.
Most recently, at this month’s 2019 Values Voter Summit, a panel on the ‘Darkening Landscape of American Education’ included Maria Keffler, a founder of a group called the Arlington Parents Coalition, which was set up to challenge proposed LGBTIQ non-discrimination policy in the Virginia county.
On the panel, she described how she and other parents drafted a form to request their children’s absence from gender, sexuality and sex education classes that they don’t agree with. This ‘universal opt-out letter’ can be downloaded from the group’s website but at the summit, Keffler passed around a version that was branded with the Family Research Council’s logo.
A global crusade
In Latin America, one of the first public uses of the term ‘gender ideology’ was in a 2013 speech by Rafael Correa, then president of Ecuador, who denounced the “dangerous gender ideology of fundamentalist feminists”.
It’s since been invoked in protests against comprehensive sex education, abortion, and same-sex marriage across the region.
At the forefront of the fight against sex education in Latin America has been the campaign ‘Con mis hijos no te metas’ (Don’t mess with my kids), which began in Peru in 2016 when a group of demonstrators dressed in pink and blue met outside the education ministry to reject ‘gender ideology’ in textbooks.
It also presents itself as a grassroots parents’ movement but is led by Christian Rosas, the son of a legislator and evangelical pastor. Investigative journalists have linked Rosas to the US ultra-conservative lobby group Moral Majority via Liberty University, where he was an international law student, and found that a group he ran received significant donations from US evangelical churches.
Last year, women took to the streets across Argentina to demand the debate of a bill to legalise abortion on request. That bill eventually failed to pass in the Senate, but the surrounding debate brought to the forefront issues that had been neglected for many years – including sex education.
Argentina passed a Comprehensive Sexual Education law in 2006, but it allowed schools to adapt curricula to fit their institutional missions. This has meant that schools can decide what their students learn, and those with conservative orientations have been able to omit certain subjects.
The 2018 abortion debate brought the law’s implementation into question, along with demands to ensure that children receive accurate information on a wide variety of issues related to their sexuality. Progressive legislators proposed reforms to include issues such as sex trafficking, violence against women, same-sex marriage and gender identity in these lessons without exceptions.
This proposal generated an immediate backlash, and protestors brought the Peruvian-born slogan ‘Don’t mess with my kids’ to the streets of Buenos Aires.
Dressed in the same pink and blue colours, they advanced identical arguments: the proposed reforms, they warned, would introduce ‘gender ideology’ in schools and ‘sexualise’ children from an early age. Amidst this opposition, the government decided to freeze the proposed reform.
This chilling case shows again how the fight against ‘gender ideology’ is a transnational crusade, with similar tactics being deployed across borders including strategic support for supposedly independent ‘parent groups.’
In turn, these ‘concerned parents’ groups are advancing the agendas of the same Christian right movements that are backing much of the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ advocacy and activism we’re seeing across the globe.