THE DARK SIDE OF MONKEY
With the rise of campaigns against equality, Beatrice Fanucci takes a look at where funding for far-right groups comes from.
On June 24, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling that conferred the constitutional right to abortion in the country. A month and a half later, at least 10 states in the US have implemented bans on abortion and many others are expected to enact similar legislation soon. But the effect of the overturn of Roe v Wade is not restricted to the US borders; activists from all over the world fear that the decision will have a ripple effect on the right to abortion even outside “the land of the free” (never has a nickname appeared more ironic). Merely a week had passed from the ruling before an anti-choice rally took place on the streets of Dublin. Called a ‘Rally for Life’, the march had been organised by anti-abortion groups before the end of Roe v Wade, but the overturn took a central place in the rally, with participants attempting to use the momentum to re-open a debate on abortion laws in Ireland.
Demonstrations like this can be grouped together in what has come to be known as the ‘anti-gender campaigns’ which have appeared in different areas of Europe over the past few decades. Such mobilisations share strategies, narratives and actions with the purpose of opposing the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, sexual and reproductive health rights and comprehensive sexuality education. These anti-feminist and anti-equality campaigns are organised by a multitude of different yet interrelated actors, including anti-abortion, religious, nationalist or far-right groups. In fact, interlinkages have been found between anti-gender ideologies and politically extreme positions; while anti-feminism and the rejection of “gender ideology” are not considered extreme positions, they are used as a means to make other exclusionary stances seem more socially acceptable.
The most crucial element to consider when speaking of the anti-gender campaigns is funding. Overall, they are much better funded than organisations and groups that advocate for human rights and equality. According to a report published by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, it has been estimated that between 2009 and 2018, European anti-gender actors received at least $707.2 million to fund their anti-equality initiatives. But where does their funding come from?
To answer this question is no easy task, especially because the available data to identify the sources of the money represent only the tip of the iceberg: a much more significant part of the funding remains hidden and impossible to trace. The data that we do have, however, shows that funding comes to Europe from three main geographic areas, namely the United States, the Russian Federation and Europe itself.
In 2020, openDemocracy revealed that the US Christian Right, famous for its ties to extremist and fascist groups in the US and to the Trump administration, spent at least $280 million in ‘dark money’ to fund campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people across five continents. A substantial part of this funding, namely $81.3 million, went to Europe and was spent to interfere with legislation both at the EU level and in several member states and to influence public opinion to stir a backlash against equality. The groups from which the money came were registered as tax-exempt non-profits and were, in theory, barred from participating in partisan political activity; however many of them vocally supported the Trump administration and his nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. What is more is that because many of these groups are registered as church organisations and therefore do not have to disclose information, the full extent of funding from the US Christian Right remains hidden.
Over the last few decades, Russia has worked to position itself as a champion of Christian values, including teachings on reproduction and sexuality, and as an alternative to ‘the West’, which has supposedly turned its back on its Christian heritage. Anti-gender funding accounts for $188.2 million, coming from three sources:
• entities associated with two Russian oligarchs; Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev;
• dark-money laundromats, namely financial vehicles that help people launder money, embezzle and evade taxes;
• and state-funded agencies set up to “promote Russian values”.
A consistent part of this funding has been directed to influencing elections in Western Europe by using anti-gender narratives to polarise electorates in favour of far-right political parties, as it happened with national elections in France and Italy, and to further Russia’s geopolitical interest in Europe.
The majority of funding for European anti-gender mobilisations comes from within the European Union itself, with a total of $473.7 million between 2009 and 2018. In the EU, anti-gender actors organise transnationally to access funding using five main models: anti-abortion activism; anti-LGBTQ+ campaigning; Christian political networking; ultra-conservative social media mobilisation; and pseudo-Catholic far-right franchising. The largest donors are Catholic foundations from France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland.
It is important to note that data for the activities of European anti-gender funders are the most inconsistent, so the figure we have for the amount of money coming from within the EU borders is likely an underestimation.
All this funding represents only a part of what anti-gender actors receive to fuel their mobilisations against equality, as researchers found further channels. One such channel is fundraising through grassroots initiatives, which is particularly effective in motivating people to donate when narratives of ‘saving the natural family’ and ‘protecting the children’ are employed. Individual donations of small sums of money constitute only a portion of the income, but many of these organisations attribute all of their funding to such initiatives, in an attempt to legitimise their cause by emphasising supposed popular support.
Moreover, European anti-gender actors seem to have access to individual billionaires and millionaires willing to donate large sums of money. Among these benefactors are apologists of Spanish Francoism and Germany’s Third Reich, the current claimants to the defunct thrones of Austria, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain and individuals who advocate for a new Tsarist order in Russia.
Anti-gender groups have also managed to tap into state funding. This means that religious extremists use taxpayers’ money for various initiatives, including misleading pregnant women about their legal options through crisis pregnancy centres and indoctrinating children through biased education that deprives them of vital health information. In recent years, this funding mechanism has been strengthened by the growing number of right-wing politicians elected to office.
Moreover, in many countries the State provides financial support to Church authorities, an example of this being the mechanism of state subsidy of the Catholic Church enshrined in concordats, namely the treaties that the Vatican signed with different nation States. There are more than 200 concordats in place in most European countries. Religious networks also manage to direct money towards anti-gender campaigns by mobilising private donations and contributions.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, many anti-gender funders have also been found to engage in ethically and at times legally dubious activities, ranging from financial irregularities to contacts with violent extremists, all the while invoking Christian beliefs to justify their agenda.
The main problem here is that, in comparison, feminist and LGBTQ+ organisations are much less capable of mobilising large sums of money or ensuring financial stability. A study published by ILGA-Europe in 2018 found that, among the 287 LGBTQ+ groups they surveyed, a third did not have access to any external funding. The situation was even worse for those that specialise in subsections of LGBTQ+ rights, like the rights of Transgender, intersex or non-binary people. In addition, even though large companies or celebrities often endorse feminism and LGBTQ+ rights, the actual financial support they give to advocacy organisations is not even comparable to what anti-gender groups receive from wealthy beneficiaries.
If it wasn’t so concerning, this disparity in access to funding would be almost ironic, given that so often in their narratives anti-gender actors use a supposedly powerful “gay lobby” as the primary enemy against which their initiatives are focused.
The reports discussed above do not detail funding directed to or coming from Ireland. However, there have been some instances in which we have seen how certain groups are clearly well-funded. An example that came to public attention not so long ago was during the campaign that led to the Repeal the 8th referendum. It was reported that anti-repeal groups such as Family & Life and Pro Life Campaign managed to have great financial health, with funding for the former amounting to €1 million per year from 2012 to 2016 and for the latter reaching almost €900,000 between 2014 and 2015.
In 2016, another anti-choice group called The Life Institute was funded by a long-term, interest-free loan of €231,000 from an “unnamed donor”. Weeks before the official campaign formally began, anti-choice groups were able to launch national billboard campaigns and are believed to have invested heavily in social media.
During the same campaign, concerns were also raised about foreign influence on the vote when it emerged that overseas anti-choice activists were using Facebook campaign pages to target Irish voters. Such foreign influence strongly encouraged voters not to overturn the near-total ban on abortion that used to be in place in Ireland before the 8th Amendment was repealed.
These are but a few examples of how well funded anti-equality groups can be. Understanding how they access funding and how much money they have at their disposal is of utmost importance if we wish to put a stop to their efforts to roll back human rights in the whole of Europe and to impose their outdated worldview that has no place in the world anymore.
The rights of women and LGBTQ+ people have always been contested, but with the resources that anti-feminist and anti-gender actors have at their disposal, we run the risk of reverting the progress that we have already made.