Read my Lips
The World Congress of Families: Christian Extremism Decoded
The world’s largest extremist network uses touchy-feely language, but it’s all made up of code words.
The Christian Right speaks in code.
In response to a tidal wave of criticism, the World Congress of Families which has just wrapped up its ninth world conference in Salt Lake City, published a 28-page report (PDF) attempting to clear its name of the “barrage of negative and unwarranted attacks” it was receiving in the media.
But in the report, and in this week’s conference, which I attended undercover, you have to read between the lines. Here are four examples.
1. The Right to Privacy
In the July report, the WCF offered what might be considered a generous truce: “WCF recognizes the right to privacy for consenting adults in their relationships and practices.”
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, they didn’t stop there. WCF’s willingness to respect the rights of LGBTQ people is only extended, “…insofar as those practices do not threaten the welfare of life, children, and the natural family.”
This seems reasonable enough on the surface—essentially, Live and Let Live. Except for when the WCF explains what might “threaten” others: legal recognition of same-sex marriages, stories that tell the truth about healthy same-sex relationships, and access to family planning.
All those were staunchly opposed this week, in session after session.
Moreover, as I explained in the previous installment of my “queer spy” dispatches, WCF first started gaining substantial negative attention in the media in June 2013 for its role in the passage of Russia’s infamous “Anti-Propaganda Law,” which forbids anyone from saying anything positive about homosexuality.
The law—modeled after regional bans that equated same-sex relations with pedophilia—was framed as a form of “protection,” shielding the minds and bodies of Russia’s youth from those oh-so-scary “nontraditional sexual relations.”
The result was a surge in arrests of and violent attacks on LGBTQ people throughout the country—and an increasingly crowded closet.
That closet is potentially about to get even more crowded: an amendment to the Anti-Propaganda Law is currently being considered that would make it illegal for gays to “demonstrate their expressed sexual preferences in public places.”
As someone who has been “out” for many years, attempting to re-closet myself for the purposes of infiltrating WCF IX has me feeling especially attuned to the consequences of this sort of silencing. The massive blisters on my heels—the result of my attempt at wearing more “feminine” shoes—are one of the more tangible effects, but there’s also the insomnia, persistent headache, and a pervasive sense of sadness.
Throughout the course of this week, though, I get to carry with me the knowledge that it’s temporary. When all is said and done, I’ll fly back to the glitter-filled glory of Boston’s queer community, where I can freely flaunt all my “nontraditional” ways.
For many, though, the silence persists, and its toll is far more devastating than a pair of bloody socks. By “privacy,” the WCF means the privacy of the closet.
Time and time again this week, WCF speakers championed the “natural family.” Sounds great, right? Natural foods, natural family.
Except, as the term was coined by WCF founder Allan Carlson, the only “natural family” is a one-man-one-woman baby-making wedlock.
In case it isn’t clear, WCF’s “natural family” is hardly natural at all, given the wide range of human relationships (including the polygamous ones found in the Bible, of course). Rather, it is an elite, exclusive category. Rejected from its confines are families created by gay and lesbian couples, single parents, grandparents, extended families, and countless other formations. In its effort to save the world from chaos and suffering, WCF endeavors to write other natural families out of existence by denying them visibility, access to resources, and rights.
“Natural family” is a code-word, just like “family values” used to be, for anything other than a far-right Christian interpretation of morality.
3. The Enemy
The WCF has branded itself as an affirming, welcoming, happy sort of place.
And yet its speakers all warned of looming disaster: a future marked by “catastrophic population decline, economic contraction, and human tragedy” (all symptoms of the “evils” of feminism, socialism, and secularism).
Moreover, WCF warns, “The society that abandons the natural family as the norm is destined for chaos and suffering.”
Fortunately, the WCF is so obsessed with its mythical adversaries that it has no way to recognize its actual ones.
Diving into day three of the conference, for example, I’d been careful to pack plenty of snacks for myself (part of a haphazard approach at self-care and sustainability), which prompted some amused commentary from the security team’s bag-checkers who, when asked, explained they were searching for “glitter bombs” and “other things that might be used to attack speakers.” I feigned a look of appall and nervously laughed upon hearing this, certain that my cover had been blown. Had the Mormon mom combing through my stash of gluten-free granola bars, organic dark chocolate, and fresh fruit spotted a remnant of gayer days sparkling in my hair? (As if my dietary preferences weren’t clue enough!)
The reality, though, is that no matter how unavoidably queer I look, people see what they want to see. And besides that, freckles and dimples make for an excellent disguise in most any context.
So with a giant smile plastered across my face, I took a break from the plenary yesterday and made my rounds of the various organizational tables set up in the “Imperial Ballroom”—made available to sponsors for $3,000 a piece. I set about snatching up materials and asking questions, posing as a curious, naïve young person, earnestly committed to understanding the atrocities resulting from “radical feminism” and the “homosexual agenda.”
At the United Families International table I was greeted by two friendly women who were eager to explain their work at the UN. UFI, a longtime WCF member organization, uses its consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Counsel to “educate delegates from many countries on the issues affecting families.”
On its website, UFI provides “educational materials,” like its 35-page report on sexual orientation that claims differing sexual orientations are “developmental disorders” that can be “prevented or successfully treated.” The report provides a litany of damaging falsehoods about homosexuality, including such claims as “pedophilia is widespread among the homosexual community;” that gay people are a danger to children and should not be allowed to adopt; that gay people experience “high rates of promiscuity;” and that homosexuality is “destructive” to society.
If only they knew that the “enemy” was just me, tramping around in my preferred brand of “action sandals,” Chacos, which I rationalized could totally be read as “Christian missionary” footwear.
4. Empowering women
April, one of the Mormon moms volunteering at the UFI table, went into great detail about how they’ve “lost Africa” to “the other side” (though she assured me there are still plenty of “pro-family” delegates on the continent). She went on to tell me about how the other side (read: advocates of LGBTQ and reproductive justice) doesn’t like the word “family.” Instead, she explained, “When you see ‘women’s rights,’ that’s a huge buzzword word for abortion and, you know, lesbianism… ‘feminist’ is the same thing.”
When asked what sort of language UFI prefers, April replied, “We just talk about women being empowered… for women to be strong enough to stand up for their families, and to believe in marriage and family. And so we’re trying to say it’s not a weak feminine trait to believe in marriage and family. … A strong woman is someone who takes care of her children.”
However, should that woman happen to be in love with another woman, for UFI, WCF, and the vast majority of the 3,000+ participants gathered here at the Grand America Hotel, it’s abundantly clear that her “unnaturalness” deems her unfit to parent and disqualifies her from WCF’s golden standard of family—the one that’s going to save us all from “chaos and suffering.”
So, “women being empowered” is a code-word for “women staying at home and raising their families” as opposed to deciding what to do with their lives, their families, and their uteri.
I was tired by the end of four days of this kind of double-speak, and so I let my guard down at the end. I was inspired by the presence of the scrappy group Mormons Building Bridges, and their fearless efforts to present counter narratives here and push back on the dominant anti-LGBTQ messages. I connected with a bunch of them, and they inspired me to come out myself.
So I ended up coming out to a bunch of women involved with Big Ocean, a “maternal feminism” group here. They maintain an anti-LGBTQ ideology (they assured me that they loved me, despite my “choice” to be gay), but were sincerely open to engagement, dialogue, and (I think) change. We had a nice talk.
That there were people like this at the WCF conference is, to me, significant. Progressives have their own myths about religious conservatives: that they’re dumb, that they’re immovable, that they’re dying off. (In fact, there were about 500 young people in the WCF’s “Emerging Leaders” track, eager to find purpose and ready to be politicized.) It could just be the blisters talking, but at the end of a week of Christian conservatism, I still found some cause for hope.