SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The registration table at the World Congress of Families conference looks like a church lady convention.
Greeting newcomers and carefully distributing name badges and swag is a small army of smiling middle-aged women, all decked out in matching orange polo shirts and varying degrees of frazzled enthusiasm. Their hairstyles and footwear scream “sensible,” and I get the impression that if given enough time, any one of them would eagerly regale me with stories of their kids/grandkids, offer a remedy for stubborn stains, and jot down their favorite casserole recipe.
I’m no stranger to conferences, so the feeling of a synthetic lanyard around my neck is a familiar one (though they generally aren’t branded by venture capital funds). But I’m here as a queer spy, deep in the belly of the international religious right, to document what they’re doing and talking about.
Hosted at the opulent Grand America Hotel (the sort of place with cloth towels in the bathrooms and live music in the lobby), WCF IX has attracted over 3,000 “pro-family” advocates from around the world. The speaker list features hard-right notables from every field, from academics to activists, theologians to attorneys, doctors to musicians. Sprinkled throughout are lots of Mormon moms.
Yet despite the smiling church ladies, the World Congress of Families is, in fact, a dangerous player in the global anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice movement. It is a powerful networking entity that weaves together a web of right-wing leaders representing religious, scientific, academic, political, and civil society. And it has successfully disseminated a U.S.-born culture war that’s wreaking havoc on women and queer folks all around the world.
WCF first started gaining substantial attention in the media in June 2013, after Russia passed its infamous “Anti-Propaganda Law,” which forbids anyone from saying anything positive about homosexuality. The law prompted a surge in arrests of and violent attacks on LGBTQ people throughout the country, and the international LGBTQ community was quick to respond. Within weeks, gay bars across the U.S. had cleared their shelves of Russian vodka, and one of the largest gay-rights groups—the Human Rights Campaign—was mass-producing T-shirts proclaiming “Love Conquers Hate” in Russian.
However, the hasty targeting of Russian products and villains (The Advocate named Putin its 2014 Person of the Year and described him as “the single greatest threat to LGBTs in the world”) obscured the role of U.S. groups. In fact, rather than being the brainchild of a few homophobic Kremlin insiders, Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law had emerged from a years-long, carefully crafted campaign to influence governments to adopt a Christian-Right legal framework. And at the center of it all was a whole slate of WCF-ers, including Alexei Komov and Yelena Mizulina on the Russian side, Allan Carlson and Larry Jacobs on the American side.
In other words, the nice people I’m meeting here are the people who conceived and passed some of the most notorious anti-LGBTQ legislation in the world.
Then there are the Mormons.
This week’s conference is the first WCF “congress” to be held in the United States, and it’s largely due to official and unofficial LDS Church support. Notwithstanding some Mormon leaders’ recent attempts at moderation (Elder Dallin Oaks’s criticism of Kim Davis, for example), LDS influence is evident throughout the conference. One of the organization’s primary funders is the GFC—yes, that’s God, Family, and Country—Foundation, run by Stan Swim, who sits on the WCF Board of Directors and signed the deal to host WCF IX. Key sponsors include the Utah-based Sutherland Institute, and the LDS Church itself.
And then there’s the most powerful Mormon mom of all, Sharon Slater.
Slater is the founder of Family Watch International (FWI), an aggressive anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice organization that claims to have members and supporters in over 170 countries. It was after attending WCF II in Geneva in 1999 that Slater was inspired to launch her career in Christian Right global meddling, and FWI is one of WCF’s nearly 50 dues-paying member organizations (alongside some of the U.S. Right’s heaviest hitters, including Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, and Americans United for Life).
Though FWI maintains a low domestic profile (much like WCF), it is heavily engaged with international policy-making, especially at the UN. Taking advantage of her unassuming “Arizona Mother of the Year” image, Slater has played a pivotal role in coordinating a conservative voting bloc at the UN, made up largely of Russia, African nations, and the Organization of Islamic Coordination (OIC).
On Monday, during a closed-door pre-convening, Slater’s FWI team hosted a Leadership Summit for approximately 130 people, including women from Morocco, India, Nigeria, Australia, and Mexico. Topics included “Fighting Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” “Addressing Sexual Orientation” (featuring prominent ex-gay “reparative therapists”), “Defunding Planned Parenthood,” and “Pushing Back Against the Transgender Movement.” The content, not surprisingly, included a flood of homophobic, transphobic, and anti-choice rhetoric, accompanied by strategic and tactical lessons in how to resist the “gay agenda” and “radical feminists.”
And yet, over and over again, WCF representatives have asserted (PDF) that they’re a harmless group of “natural family” advocates—just some neighborly champions of values and procreation that “would never advocate violence or hatred toward any group of people.” Can’t you tell from the looks of the innocent, cherub-faced choirs of children that perform for them wherever they go?