A proposed landmark law in Spain permitting people 16 years and older the right to change their gender and their identity documents without undergoing hormone therapy has engulfed politics in the country, triggering aggressive pressure campaigns from CitizenGo, a pro-family and anti-LGBTQ group based in Madrid that has transformed right-wing populism in the past decade by forging an alliance with U.S., Canadian, and European ultra-conservative groups.
Spain’s parliament is expected to discuss amendments to the law in the upcoming weeks.
The legislation, which has sparked political controversy, echoes years of debate over transgender rights in Spain. “That transphobic orange bus, it was pretty horrible,” recalls Eric Dopazo, when in the winter of 2017 an “anti-transgender bus” took to the streets of Spain.
The bus first appeared in Madrid, decorated with a slogan claiming that the only gender is the one assigned at birth. “It’s biology. Boys are boys, girls are girls. You can’t change sex,” the bus announced. For Dopazo, a Youtuber from the northern Spanish region of Galicia who describes himself as a “Friendly Trans Man,” the bus was the most obnoxious stunt yet from conservative groups attempting to spread an anti-trans message.
The bus managed to travel unusually far for a heavy vehicle with wheels. It was brought to the front of the Washington Monument in Washingotn DC, and to the entrance of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan and the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village, designated the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement in the U.S. From there, the bright orange coach crossed borders again, reaching Latin America before returning to Europe. It also made an appearance in Kenya.
The vehicle offers a metaphor for how far-right campaigns revolving around gender and sexuality have evolved to ping-pong across continents. Grassroots efforts from people who hold conservative ideas to preserve traditional religious values had been largely limited to movements focused on the countries in which they were based, with little international coordination. But LGBTQ and transgender-rights legislation has activated a powerful transatlantic accord among a series of influential right-wing organziations.
The bright orange coach was a project of HazteOír, which nicknamed it the “Free Speech Bus.” Essentially an online petition website, HazteOír began as a platform recruiting hundreds of thousands of people to sign petitions and send emails in bulk to public figures in Spain.
For the past twenty years, HazteOír, shepherded by its founder and CEO Ignacio Arsuaga, has supported ultra-conservative views in Spain. Its website describes its initiatives as promoting “life, family and liberty.” That translates into opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and denialism of transgender identity and gender-based violence, among other positions.
In 2013, HazteOír began to expand its geographical scope. It changed its English-language name to CitizenGO and became active in other countries. It maintained its founding objective to fight against “gender ideology” — the belief, widespread among ultra-religious groups, that any critique of traditional concepts of femininity and masculinity is a form of ideological indoctrination from LGBTQ groups.
The adoption of the name CitizenGo heralded a profound shift in how right-wing tactics circulated between North America and Europe, leading to CitizenGO becoming a global force — claiming over 16 million active members. Today, its online platform is published in 12 languages. Far-right activists on both sides of the Atlantic have been able to adhere right-wing populist ideas onto local histories and concerns — a unified agenda shared from Toledo, Ohio to Toledo, Spain.
While the current Spanish government is a self-described progressive coalition between the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the far-left group Unidas Podemos, the third political force in the country is the powerful, ultra-conservative Vox, which is closely associated with CitizenGo.
“A party like Vox breaks in, challenges the boundaries between right and wrong, and generates this Trump-like, Bolsonaro-like discourse, but adapted to the peculiarities of Spain,” said Almudena Cabezas, a geopolitics professor who researches the far-right at Madrid Complutense University. In 2018, Vox’s leader flew to the White House to meet Steve Bannon.
While Vox gained political traction, CitizenGO worked behind the scenes. Its CEO, Ignacio Arsuaga, met with Vox leaders to discuss their agenda and touted the platform’s “indirect” support of the party by promoting campaigns that align with its ideology. Vox officials have compared CitizenGO to an American-style super-PAC and have re-purposed Trumpian slogans such as “Make Spain great again.”
Neil Datta, Secretary of the EFP, a network of members of Parliaments around Europe who work for the protection of sexual and reproductive rights, said that CitizenGO supporters are cheerleaders encouraging the implementation of far-right policies.
This is part of a strategy that Arsuaga has been developing for decades, establishing a consolidated network of international conservative figures, from the U.S. and elsewhere. “Arsuaga is like an octopus,” says Cabezas, the professor at Madrid Complutense University. “He has tentacles everywhere.”
Arsuaga’s resume states that he learned lobbying and mobilization tactics from the American political system, after he attended Fordham Law School in New York. In a 2003 interview, he described U.S. politics as a model. “We have a lot to learn from the United States. It is a young society, much more lively than the European one,” he said at the time. He described how he designed the CitizenGo website to reflect the work of American grassroots organizations.
Arsuaga is closely affiliated with the World Congress of Families, a U.S.-based conservative group with global connections. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes it as a “political power broker,” and designated it as a hate group for its openly anti-LGBTQ stances.
The president of the World Congress of Families, Brian Brown — who raised millions of dollars to oppose same-sex marriage in the US — serves on the board of directors of CitizenGO.
Leaders of CitizenGO and the World Congress of Families meet frequently to network and share insight on lobbying efforts and mobilization campaigns. Networking, says Raven Hodges, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a key feature of these groups. “Even when there’s no official affiliation, they’re rubbing shoulders with each other.”
Analysts say this constant networking is an essential ingredient feeding the political polarization that has become a shared hallmark of U.S. and European democracies.
Typical was a November 2021 panel Arsuaga was scheduled to lead on how to promote “life, family and freedom” in national parliaments at a summit for conservative leaders in Budapest. The conference would feature Brown, the World Congress of Families leader, as well as the founder of Vox, a staunchly conservative Hungarian government minister, Katalin Novak, the main supporter of a recent law to ban same-sex adoptions in Hungary, and other right-wing American leaders. The conference offered a lot of time for networking, according to the program published online.
CitizenGO launched two petitions calling on strong opposition to Spain’s proposed trans-rights law to “deal a blow to the project of social-communism where it hurts the most.” In six days, the petitions collected over 18,000 signatures — a large number in Spain. For every signature, a pre-written email is sent to members of the parliament.
The transatlantic alliance of far-right groups and their strikingly similar discourse on social media mean “these groups create media spaces where their discourse travels fast and generates a lot of action and hate,” said Almudena Cabezas, the geopolitics professor. They replicate campaigns, they replicate agendas, so that rights are no longer rights, they become opinions.”
LGBTQ groups are outgunned, said Saida García Casuso, vice president of a Spanish collective which supports transgender rights. “What we have is our imagination, and the ability to take to the streets, which we do constantly. This has been a long fight, and we’re not stopping now,” she said.