The American anti-LGBT movement goes to Italy

Powerful U.S.-based anti-LGBT hate groups, including the World Congress of Families (WCF), are working alongside global online petition platform CitizenGO to train, meet with and support three influential anti-LGBT groups in Italy, a Hatewatch investigation reveals.

Those three groups — Generazione Famiglia, Comitato Difendiamo I Nostri Figli and ProVita — now constitute the backbone of public activism against LGBT and reproductive rights in Italy. The result has been a surge of legislation and lobbying endangering LGBT and reproductive rights in the country.

Recently, U.S.-based hate groups' work in the country over the past five years culminated with the announcement that the WCF is holding its 13th annual conference, titled “The Wind of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement,” in Verona in March 2019.

Brian Brown, the WCF’s leader and a CitizenGO board member, is one of the most influential American anti-LGBT activists in the world. Known for opposing marriage equality in his home state of California, Brown has influenced legislation preventing adoption by foreign same-sex couples in Russia and has ties to numerous anti-LGBT authoritarian-leaning leaders in Europe, most notably Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The WCF’s presence in Italy is yet another example of Brown and the WCF cozying up to hard-right governments in an effort to support legislation and campaigns restricting LGBT and reproductive rights across the continent.

When the far-right Lega, a longtime WCF ally, surged to power in Italy in March, concrete policies reflecting American Christian Right priorities and junk science started being passed in the country. A new investigation by Hatewatch explores the deep ties between U.S.-based anti-LGBT groups and the anti-LGBT movement in Italy that made this moment possible.

WCF and CitizenGO help local anti-LGBT groups in Italy

Much of the American anti-LGBT activity in Italy moves through CitizenGO, a petition platform for the global Christian right that includes several influential WCF staffers on its board. The organization stepped up its efforts to bring American anti-LGBT leaders to Italy this summer.

In July, CitizenGO organized a four-day workshop to train Italian anti-LGBT activists on the anti-LGBT Christian Right program. According to the Eventbrite description, the event focused on the “natural family, life and liberty,” in particular “gender ideology, attacks against marriage and the family, the persecution of Christians in the East and the violation of freedom of opinion in the West.”

Representatives from the most influential anti-LGBT groups in the U.S. flew in to train Italians. Travis Weber, vice president for policy of the powerhouse American anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council, attended. Four members who spoke at the training had affiliations with Agenda Europe, a secretive coalition of Americans and Europeans, including Brown, who work together to overturn LGBT and reproductive rights in Europe.

The Leadership Institute, an American organization that provides political training for young people (including some white nationalists), facilitated most of the training as part of its increasing effort to influence anti-LGBT and anti-reproductive rights activists in Europe. After the training, one local anti-LGBT leader, Filippo Savarese, tweeted out his thanks to the Leadership Institute’s director of International Training, Ron Nehring, writing: “Thanks again @RonNehring! Great leaders come from great masters.”

The Change.org of socially conservative and anti-LGBT causes, CitizenGO, shares many influential staffers with the WCF. A member of the WCF’s board of trustees, Spanish anti-LGBT activist Ignacio Arsuaga, launched CitizenGO in 2013. The WCF’s Brown sits on CitizenGO’s board — and was on WCF’s planning committee when CitizenGo was founded — as does the WCF Russian representative Alexey Komov and Italian WCF board of trustee member Luca Volontè.

More than an online platform, it has gained notoriety for its anti-trans orange bus, which toured several countries. “Boys are boys … and always will be. Girls are girls … and always will be. You can’t change sex,” read a similar American bus, which began a tour of the United States in March 2017. The platform claimed it had nine million members in 2017.

Though headquartered in Spain, CitizenGO launched a local branch in Italy in 2013 to bolster local anti-LGBT campaigns through its close collaboration with the anti-LGBT Italian activist group Generazione Famiglia.

Generazione Famiglia, launched the same year as CitizenGO with a demonstration in Rome advising protesters to wear gags to echo its sentiment that Christians were being silenced.

In September 2017, CitizenGO Italy and Generazione Famiglia partnered to bring the anti-trans bus tour to Italy, alongside a campaign and gala to oppose “the violence of gender in schools.” The campaign is based on a conspiracy theory around “gender ideology,” which comes from the anti-LGBT Christian Right and claims that the idea that one’s gender can differ from one’s sex is an invention spread by a powerful LGBT lobby to challenge the heterosexual family and confuse children. As Gillian Kane, senior policy adviser for the pro-choice non-profit Ipas, explains, “The concept of gender ideology is a right-wing invention … concocted by the Vatican in the mid-1990s.”

CitizenGO and Generazione Famiglia built on the theory. On top of the anti-trans bus, they reported projects they deemed to spread “gender ideology” to the minister of education. In March 2017, the president of Generazione Famiglia, Jacopo Coghe, and the head of CitizenGO, Ignacio Arsuaga, spoke at the European parliament on how “‘sexual indoctrination laws’ force the introduction of ‘gender ideology,’” which allows “the presence of LGBTI groups in the classrooms.” Generazione Famiglia also invited discredited anti-LGBT American junk scientist Mark Regnerus, whose attempts to show LGBT parenting led to increased mental illness in children have been debunked, to the country for an event in June 2016.

CitizenGO and Generazione Famiglia would eventually come to share staffers. Generazione Famiglia’s spokesman, Filippo Savarese, became CitizenGO Italy’s campaign director and its president, Jacopo Coghe, became CitizenGO’s legal representative in January 2017. Both attended the CitizenGO training in July 2018.

Through events like the July training, WCF and CitizenGO help anti-LGBT groups in Italy shape public activism against marriage equality in the country. Their local allies notably organized two of the biggest anti-LGBT rallies in the past decade in Italy, both called “the Family Day.”

Several anti-LGBT leaders formed a new committee, the Comitato Difendiamo I Nostri Figli (“Committee to defend our children,” CDNF) to organize the rallies, including future CitizenGO employees Filippo Savarese and Jacopo Coghe. The latter registered the group’s website. Anti-LGBT Americans wouldn’t be far behind, and Regnerus sent a letter to Generazione Famiglia from Texas reasserting his junk theories on LGBT parenting and expressing support of the “Family Day.”

Over two days of rallies in both 2015 and 2016, the “Family Day” gathered tens of thousands to protest a bill legalizing civil unions for LGBT couples. Though the bill eventually passed by a large margin, it terms were watered down due to virulent opposition.

CDNF had other ties to CitizenGO, WCF, and the anti-LGBT hate group and legal powerhouse, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Gianfranco Amato, another founder of the CDNF, claims he is an allied attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on his website. The term designates an attorney doing pro bono work on behalf of ADF and trained by the organization, but who does not work on its staff. The ADF is a Christian right powerhouse in the U.S. dedicated to the rollback of LGBT and reproductive rights through legal action and lobbying, and does the same overseas through its international arm, ADF International. Amato is a board member of WCF trustee Luca Volontè’s Novae Terra foundation.

Also involved in the rallies and with CDNF was Toni Brandi, the head of the Italian anti-abortion group ProVita, a longtime WCF partner organization who attends and sponsors WCF conferences. It also regularly collaborated on campaigns with Generazione Famiglia, notably lobbying prosecutors to cancel the official registration of children attributed to same-sex couples.

Anti-LGBT groups have ties to far-right political parties in Italy as well. ProVita bills itself as an anti-abortion organization, but it is remarkably intertwined with the Italian neo-fascist party Forza Nuova, with whom it shares a mailing address. One ProVita staffer who spoke at the 2018 WCF conference, Alessandro Fiore, is the son of Forza Nuova leader and self-declared fascist Roberto Fiore.

The WCF has ties to the father, too: in an email , Roberto Fiore was called “our pro-Russian Italian friend” by WCF Russian representative Alexey Komov. Fiore asked Komov to send a lawyer to visit jailed Greek neo-Nazis leaders from Golden Dawn.

WCF also partners with top politicians in Italy

The WCF has long nurtured close relationships to far-right parties in Europe. These connections give them access to various countries’ parliaments, and an ability to influence legislation.

In Italy, the WCF has a particularly strategic relationship with the far-right, virulently anti-immigrant and often anti-LGBT party Lega. This alliance proved opportune in March when Lega surged to power in the Italian elections after garnering a fifth of the vote. After a lengthy process, Lega’s head Matteo Salvini, who considers himself a defender of the family, became Italy’s co-deputy prime minister and minister of the interior. Both in 2017 and 2018, Salvini sent a message for Brown to read aloud to WCF participants, praising them for their efforts in support of the “natural family.” Salvini invited the WCF to hold its annual conference in Verona in March 2019. Soon Salvini appointed Generazione Famiglia and CitizenGO allies to power, potentially giving WCF a reach inside Italian institutions.

Far-right Catholic Lorenzo Fontana from Verona was appointed to the new government as minister of the family and disability in June 2018. While a member of the European Parliament, the stridently anti-LGBT Fontana spoke alongside CitizenGO’s Arsuaga and Generazione Famiglia’s Coghe decrying “gender ideology.” Fontana regularly meets with Generazione Famiglia and ProVita, whose Festival for Life he previously attended.

Meanwhile, seasoned anti-LGBT activist attorney Simone Pillon was elected to Italy’s Senate. He was involved in planning the Family Day as a member of the CDNF and also spoke at the CitizenGO training in July 2018. In September, Pillon co-created a parliamentary intergroup dedicated to “life, family and freedom” to facilitate socially conservative legislation, after introducing widely decried measures that would make it harder for women to divorce. LGBT rights organizations condemned the new parliamentary intergroup, which may spawn future anti-LGBT measures.

What WCF wants to achieve in Verona

The WCF conference in Verona comes at a time when Italy is already in the process of rolling back LGBT and reproductive rights — a moment that WCF is both partly responsible for and hoping to exploit. The two chairmen chosen for WCF Verona were the organizers of Family Day in 2015­–2016: Jacopo Coghe from Generazione Famiglia and Toni Brandi from ProVita. WCF also announced that Massimo Gandolfini, the spokesman for Family Day and CDNF, would be a speaker at the gathering.

Since the announcement in October, Brown has been hard at work in Italy. In a meeting last month to plan WCF Verona, Brown met with the country’s prominent trio of anti-LGBT politicians: deputy prime minister Salvini, minister of the family Lorenzo Fontana and senator Simone Pillon, alongside the two chairmen and Gandolfini.

Regressive legislation tends to follow where the WCF treads. The group spreads its concept of the “natural family:” a heterosexual married couple with biological children. It encompasses a strategic political program opposed to reproductive rights, LGBT rights, divorce, gender studies and even immigration. The WCF has taken its narrative to many far-right countries where it has allies in power, most recently by holding their yearly congresses in Georgia (2016), Hungary (2017) and Moldova (2018).

In 2013 Brian Brown, then a WCF ally, testified in favor of a ban on adoption by foreign same-sex couples at the lower house of the Russian Parliament (the Duma). A law to ban adoption of Russian children by foreign same-sex couples was co-authored by Elena Mizulina, the WCF ally who invited Brown to the Duma, and was passed shortly after.

The WCF also organizes closed-door meetings between politicians and activists. In 2017 the WCF facilitated a Global Forum for Political Leaders in Budapest at the Hungarian Parliament on the heels of its public congress. Italian anti-abortion group ProVita posted a grainy photo of the event showing a slide by the parent organization of the WCF (the International Organization for the Family), reading: “Progressive Agenda ACTIVISM & Liberal OVERREACH against the Family Are on the Rise all over the world.” The forum would help further their agenda. A year after Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán addressed the WCF, his party introduced legislation banning gender studies.

The list of Verona speakers shows the WCF will continue its political networking. Speakers include Salvini, Fontana, and Gandolfini, as well as Moldova’s anti-LGBT leader Igor Dodon, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy and other rightwing Italian, Hungarian, Polish and Ugandan politicians.

In Verona, soon after the WCF’s October announcement about the upcoming conference, regressive measures started rolling in. For the anniversary of the country’s legalization of abortion, Verona councilman Alberto Zelger of Lega introduced a municipal measure that defines Verona as a pro-life city, ensuring that public funds go to local Christian anti-abortion groups.

On Oct. 3, 2018, Brian Brown visited the city and met Zelger. The following day, the pro-life measure was approved by the city council under the indignant eye of female activists wearing the red robes and white hats from the dystopian misogynistic world of The Handmaid’s Tale. Later, thousands of pro-choice citizens protested the measure in the city’s streets.

Zelger’s preexisting ties to the WCF include his appearance on an October 2016 panel with the WCF’s Alexey Komov and ProVita’s head Toni Brandi during an event discussing “the family under attack,” organized by Lega’s regional youth group. Since Zelger, other anti-abortion measures have cropped up in different Italian cities, facilitated by another “Family Day” in November, this time not a rally but a meeting of anti-LGBT activists and politicians opposed to surrogacy, adoption by LGBT parents, drugs, “gender education” in schools and abortion.

The Verona WCF conference promises to further embolden the flood of campaigns and measures opposed to LGBT and reproductive rights in Italy supported by a wealth of initiatives involving WCF allies.

The WCF’s local allies have since resculpted the Italian political landscape, drawing protesters supporting women’s and LGBT rights to the streets in revolt. But lack of popularity does not deter them. As Elena Mizulina, the far-right Russian WCF ally, declared to this year’s WCF attendees in Moldova: “We are the Congress that the world is afraid of, but we are a stronghold.”

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