You’d think, in the wake of the Orlando massacre, anti-gay gang violence in Russia, and the gruesome murder of (alleged) gays by ISIS, that having a UN “special rapporteur” investigate discrimination against LGBT people would be a pretty reasonable thing to do.
But last week’s contentious vote to create such a position, which narrowly passed the UN Human Rights Council, led to fierce opposition, explosive rhetoric, and plenty of opportunism.
One of the ultraconservative organizations trafficking in all three is known as C-FAM, the far-right-wing Center for Family & Human Rights—formerly known as the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute—which focuses on international anti-LGBT advocacy. In a fundraising pitch (natch) that went viral last week, C-FAM called the possibility of investigating discrimination a “major catastrophe” because “sexual revolutionaries are about to defeat the forces of truth and goodness.”
Defeat the forces of truth and goodness! Let me add that to my gay agenda.
But C-FAM isn’t (just) a joke. It is part of a list of international far-right religious organizations that are mostly unknown in the United States but active overseas, and especially at the United Nations. That group includes the World Congress of Families, the World Family Policy Council (funded by Brigham Young University), Family Watch International (headed by the ultraconservative Mormon Sharon Slater), Concerned Women for America (still crazy after all these years), the National Organization for Marriage (yes, they are still a thing), and now-discredited “ex-gay” organizations like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).
This consortium, in turn, works closely with antiabortion groups, including the Couple to Couple League, World Life League (to expand its reach), International Right to Life Federation, Campaign Life Coalition, and the World Movement of Mothers. Never heard of these groups? That’s part of the point; they’re interested in policy, not publicity.
At the UN, these groups have formed an unholy alliance with the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Pakistan, and several African nations to advance a radical “family” agenda that favors what they call the “natural family” and denies any recognition to everyone else: single-parent families, LGBT people, and, most of all, women. Last year, these 25 countries formed an umbrella, the Group of Friends of the Family (GoFF)
The ironies are rich. The same right-wing that ostensibly opposes the United Nations and long railed against Russia is now firmly embedded within both. Although allied with various anti-Muslim preachers in the United States, these groups are cozying up to Iran. And although preaching “religious liberty” in the U.S., they are allied with some of the world’s worst oppressors of Christians and other religious minorities at the UN.
China, too, has generally supported the GoFF agenda. That’s right, China—which has implemented the harshest, most draconian limitations on family freedom since Pharaoh threw Jewish babies into the Nile.
Finally, and complicating Pope Francis’s recent statements that the Catholic Church owes LGBT people an apology, groups like C-FAM also work together with the Holy See (which has statehood status at the UN) and the Archdiocese of New York.
C-FAM was founded in 1997 by Human Life International, which had been plagued by corruption scandals and ostracized by the UN, and which had come under fire for anti-Semitic statements made by its founder, Paul Marx. C-FAM appears to have been a kind of front for HLI. The minutes of C-FAM’s first meeting, obtained by the group Catholics for Choice, said “Not public knowledge that HLI is funding office. Use discretion. Initially state that we are supported by multitudes of individuals/organizations. Don’t hide the fact that HLI is funder—just don’t volunteer that fact to uncertain/non-friendly persons.”
Considering its reach at the UN, C-FAM is a small organization (budget only $1.2 million in 2012) and is essentially a platform for extremist Austin Ruse, a former journalist with a long history of inflammatory comments. He said that “hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities” should “all be taken out and shot.” He defended Russia’s vicious anti-gay laws that have led to a rash of violence. He has boasted of intimidating and disrupting UN meetings on the rights of women. And in contrast to Pope Francis, Ruse calls efforts to protect LGBTs from discrimination “devilish.”
Other than blowing hot air, what is this unlikely alliance of conservative Christians, far-right Muslims, and communists doing?
As we reported two years ago, a central focus of this consortium’s work is the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which has an important role in defining and tracking human-rights abuses, and determining the allocation of UN funds. Americans often downplay the importance of UN bodies like the UNHRC, but in fact they have enormous influence on the findings of fact that underlie any UN action, such as sanctions, how development assistance flows, and how policy is set.
To take but one example, C-FAM and its ilk succeeded last year in passing a UNHRC resolution that the “family” is “entitled to protection by society and the state.” That sounds anodyne enough. But if “family” means “married, heterosexual, procreating couple,” as the conservatives insist, then anything “anti-family” must be opposed by the UN. That includes LGBT equality, funding for reproductive health care, and initiatives to empower women.
The UNHRC also determines specific challenges to address: themes like violence against women, migrant rights, religious freedom… or, potentially, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Which brings us to last week’s debate over whether the UNHRC should appoint a “special rapporteur” to track human-rights violations against LGBTQ people.
A fundamental tenet of religious conservatives like C-FAM is that sexual orientation and gender identity do not, in fact, exist. I may be a man who has sex with men, but that’s just my choice—or, more commonly these days, my mental illness. Likewise, they say, I may be a man who likes to wear dresses and who thinks of himself as a woman, but that, too, is a form a mental illness.
In other words, the very categories of sexual orientation and gender identity (often abbreviated as SOGI in international contexts) are a threat to the way these people see the world. Never mind the science of gender or sexual orientation; this is dogma.
In a way, how could it be otherwise? If sexual orientation is real, if there really is such a thing as a lesbian, then it would be cruel to oppress her, restrict her rights, drive her to self-hatred and suicide, and deny her the opportunity to pursue a full, loving life.
Therefore, either religion must evolve or reality must be denied. Most religious people have, by now, accepted the former. But places like C-FAM prefer the latter.
Thus, the mere mention of the existence of sexual or gender diversity cuts against the dogma of conservative Christians like those running C-FAM. Remember, this isn’t some kind of international campaign against homophobia: This is about whether to investigate SOGI-based violence at all. But if SOGI-based violence exists, then SO and GI might be a thing—and that is the “catastrophe.”
C-FAM’s pitch letter went further, though, saying that “It has been the long-term project of the sexual revolutionaries to undermine the teachings of the church and to impose a new sexual orthodoxy on the whole world. The new sexual orthodoxy is nothing more than a new religion celebrating a new god, an angry god, a jealous god.”
Having followed the far-right for the better part of a decade, I have no idea what C-FAM is talking about here. The “new religion” line is familiar—but an angry, jealous god? Isn’t that what God himself says in Exodus 20:5 (“I am a jealous god”)? And besides, if gays really were going to set up a new religion, wouldn’t their god be one of love, lust, and pleasure—to say nothing of Dolly Parton?
It would be easy to laugh off such absurdities, except that, like the Brexit, Donald Trump, and the Front Nationale, they have serious real-world consequences. C-FAM and its ilk are speaking to a very real fear on the part of religious conservatives that the world around them is changing. But like today’s right-wing populists, they blame the changes on “outsiders” and turn fear into hatred. It’s no laughing matter for a Muslim beaten up on the streets of New York, or a gay man lynched by one of C-FAM’s coalition partners. On the contrary—it’s a crying shame.