SALT LAKE CITY — When the father of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said Wednesday that the “next thing [LGBT activists] are going to push [is] to try to legalize pedophiles,” the idea wasn’t new to the organization that was hosting him.
Rafael Cruz, an evangelical pastor, made the remark following a panel at a conference that drew more than 3,000 people from around the world to Salt Lake City called the World Congress of Families. Since the event first grew out of a wonky conversation between American and Russian academics in 1995, it has grown into an event bringing together social conservative activists from every continent and a top target of groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Many associated with the organization have raised the specter of pedophilia as part of making the case against greater social and legal acceptance for homosexuality over its 20-year history. That same morning, for example, WCF gave an award to Andrea Minichiello Williams of the British group Christian Concern, who said in a 2013 speech to Jamaican activists fighting repeal of the country’s sodomy law that LGBT advocates “hate the line of homosexuality being linked to pedophilia. They try to cut that off, so you can’t speak about it. So I say to you in Jamaica: Speak about it.”
So even some of the WCF’s participants were surprised when the conference’s lead organizer, Janice Shaw Crouse, issued a statement saying that Cruz’s views “are not those of the World Congress of Families,” which “advocates for life and the natural family in a civil, constructive and transparent way.”
The episode is a sign of growing pains for an organization that still partly sees itself as a rag-tag academic conference at a time when major geopolitical disputes are being fought over LGBT rights. It invited deeper scrutiny from its fiercest critics by bringing the event to the United States, where the media and political context has changed so fast that arguments against homosexuality that were once largely uncontroversial among its participants now threaten the “civil, constructive” image its organizers have tried to project. Navigating this terrain is even more complicated because so many of its participants work in countries that have grown more hostile to LGBT rights at the same time so much of the Americas and Europe have embraced marriage equality.
This has some of the group’s key players wondering if the new reality demands a new approach.
“We’re no longer under the radar — we’re actually smack dab in the middle of a whole bunch of radars,” said the organization’s co-founder and long-time director Allan Carlson, who recently retired. “At some point when you’re being watched closely you have to reign it in.”
The World Congress of Families “emerged on a frigid night in early 1995 in a modest apartment in Moscow,” according to Carlson, a walrusy academic with a bushy mustache and whose speaking style brings to mind a professor whose lectures college students sleep through.
When he teamed up with a handful of Russian sociologists to plan the first World Congress of Families, held in Prague in 1997, it wasn’t conceived of as a permanent organization. And in reality, it still isn’t much of one today. It maintains only a handful of part-time staff in between its biannual conferences. They’re operate under the auspices of something called the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois, which primarily publishes papers to promote “the natural family.”
But it casts a big shadow because its conferences, have become an important vector for connecting social conservatives from every continent who work on issues ranging from banning abortion to combatting sex-trafficking to morality education for children.
Smaller progressive groups like People for the American Way, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Political Research Associates have been trying to publicize the anti-LGBT work of WCF affiliates for several years, but it’s only in the past two years that it’s become a major target of the U.S. LGBT movement. That’s thanks in part to a change in the landscape on the left: In 2013, the Human Rights Campaign began turning its formidable media and fundraising machine to international work for the first time. Many of the WFC’s American partner organizations were long-time opponents of HRC at home, making it an ideal early target as the group figured out what its international operation would actually do.
This was made easier by the fact that a WCF conference was planned to be held in 2014 inside the Kremlin in Moscow and its organizers repeatedly defended the country’s “homosexual propaganda ban” in events promoting the conference in the U.S. This was around the time of the Sochi Olympics and the showdown over the Russian law thrust questions about LGBT rights into the heart of geopolitics. (After an American WCF sponsor withdrew from the event after Russia invaded Ukraine WCF reluctantly removed its official imprimatur from the event, which was still held in September under a different name.)
WCF is perhaps kind of global brand more than an organization, an entity that allows a wide variety of activists to fly under its flag but has nothing approaching a clear governing body. It partners with some of the world’s most established social conservative organizations — like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage — and confers honors on activists in places with less mature “pro-family” movements in order to raise their stature at home and abroad. This also gives the World Congress of Families the appearance of direct influence on conservative victories abroad — like passage of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” ban in 2012 or the 2014 anti-LGBT law in Nigeria — where foreigners have played only a peripheral role.
“This is a loose confederation … but the WCF never endorses all the views of any particular individual or organization,” said the group’s interim director E. Douglas Clark in an interview with BuzzFeed News. He said Cruz’s remarks linking homosexuality and pedophilia “offends my sensibilities.” As a whole, he said, the group isn’t “anti” anybody; it is “pro”: “We are for the family as the natural fundamental unit of society.”
And there were several harsh comments made about transgender people, frequently at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner, whose name brought boos from the audience.
Sex reassignment is a "mass delusion that is destructive and dangerous," said Miriam Grossman, whose website bills her as “100 percent MD, 0 percent PC. “We are fighting a war. Hard science is a weapon of mass destruction. Let's use it."
A sign of the pressure the group feels it is under is that the “Questions and Answers” section of the conference’s website is actually a lengthy rebuttal to an HRC document that calls the WCF “one of the most influential American organizations involved in the export of hate.” WCF’s response states that “these activist organizations are taking statements out of context and extrapolating conclusions, as well as attempting to hold WCF accountable for pronouncements made by individuals who have no official relationship with the organization.”
Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the sponsors of this year’s event, said it was unfair for LGBT groups to demand that groups like his repudiate positions of its international allies. These questions will continue to confront NOM, which on Monday held the latest in a series of meetings over the past three years to explore the creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to multiple people invited to attend.
Though Brown and other organizers of the conference say they oppose laws that criminalize homosexuality, the WCF named as 2015’s “Woman of the Year,” Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian activist who supported a 2014 “Anti-Same Sex Marriage Law” that went far beyond defining marriage as a man as a woman. With sentences up to 14 years, it also criminalizes promoting LGBT rights or even public displays of affection.
When asked whether that was a conflict for NOM, Brown said, “I don’t understand why there’s any problem … One can oppose [extended prison sentences for homosexual acts] and still work with folks around the world who agree on the issue of marriage.”
But to the WCF’s critics, this posture simply allows the group to distance itself when some of their affiliates’ work or comments play badly in U.S. or European media.
“That’s the issue with the World Congress: They will never take responsibility for the havoc and damage their participants do all over the world,” said Troy Williams of the LGBT rights group Equality Utah, an organizer of events that countered the WCF program in Salt Lake City. “You can’t invite a rabid homophobe like Rafael Cruz to the stage and claim that you’re not responsible for the things that they’ve said.”
The case of Andrea Minichiello Williams — the WCF awardee who urged Jamaicans to “speak about” a link between homosexuality and pedophilia in 2013 — does give the appearance that the group sanctions saying different things to different audiences. When asked for comment for this story, Williams said in a phone call that BuzzFeed News had misquoted and distorted her remarks in Jamaica when it first reported them.
After BuzzFeed News provided her with a recording of her comments, she sent a comment by email, “I am at the World Congress of Families to push back against the elitist sexual agenda and celebrate the beauty and hope that is found in the natural family as defined in the bible and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have heard repeated, undeniable evidence of how children do best when raised by their mother and father.”
“It comes as no surprise that the veneer broke and the true anti-LGBT animus that's lurking right below the surface was exposed for all to see,” said Kerry Brody of the Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday afternoon. “The World Congress of Families has tried very hard this week to hide its and its affiliates' positions, actions, and advocacy behind a wall of sunshine-and-rainbows sounding rhetoric … These aren’t examples of one of two people going ‘off message.’ They're saying what they think is true, and are spewing vitriol and venom to a cheering crowd who likely agrees with them.”
At the same time WCF has been hammered by groups like the Human Rights Campaign in the months surrounding the event, it also is getting criticized on the right by activists who claim that it is “sacrificing principle” in its efforts to be seen as “pro-natural family” rather than anti-LGBT.
This charge was laid bare in an 11-hour conference held in Salt Lake City just before WCF kicked off, titled, “Understanding Homosexuality – The Politically Incorrect Truth,” organized by the anti-LGBT group MassResistance. Its organizers billed it as “possibly the most powerful conference to date dealing with the radical LGBT agenda,” and included Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, the lawyer for the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Kim Davis.
“I think there is a place for being insulting and degrading, and I think I can back that up by scripture,” said MassResistance’s director, Brian Camenker, in a video posted online by People for the American Way. “I think we have to look at this as a war, not as, you know, a church service.”
Camenker, who is Jewish, said later in the program that scripture lays out a separate set of rules for people “who want to tear down the moral structure of society,” asserting that “God says those people who want to do that must be destroyed.” (Camenker declined a BuzzFeed News request for an interview.)
It appeared what Camenker’s group described as “shameful cowardice” had invaded even his own conference — he made his remarks after other speakers, including some activists who were also appearing at the WCF, had argued that their work against homosexuality was motivated by love rather than hate. (This includes Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, author of a 2010 pamphlet that asserts gay men are disproportionately likely to be child molesters. He also declined an interview request.)
This tension is a sign of a real strategic disagreement among advocates who oppose LGBT rights about how to continue their work in an era where comments that can be construed as homophobic provoke a media storm, said Austin Ruse of C-Fam, also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights, who was on the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City conference.
“One of the leitmotifs in the planning for this [was] not wanting to be overt” about criticizing homosexuality per se, said Ruse, who sent an email about the conference to his group's supporters on Thursday in which he said, “One of the more monstrous lies of our time is that same-sex desire is normal and natural.”
This is an especially delicate question given that the conference is being held in Salt Lake City, the seat of the Mormon Church, which worked with LGBT activists to get a bill — known as the “Utah Compromise” and aimed at barring discrimination in housing and employment — through Utah’s Republican legislature. The bill had substantial exceptions that Mormon leaders said were necessary to protect religious liberty, and it was criticized by both religious conservatives and LGBT activists. But the détente between LGBT activists and Mormon leaders was still remarkable, especially since so much ill will had formed among LGBT people for the church because of its support in 2008 for California’s Proposition 8, which blocked same-sex marriage there until courts struck it down.
One of the most controversial speeches inside the conference was arguably its opening keynote, delivered by Mormon Elder M. Russell Ballard, who used his remarks to highlight the Utah compromise.
“We can love one another without compromising personal divine ideas,” he said. “We can speak about those ideals without marginalizing others.”
Ballard concluded his remarks by calling “upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote these measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society,” and he got enthusiastic applause, but the principle of the Utah compromise was rejected out of hand by many of the WCF’s key players.
C-Fam’s Ruse voiced the sentiments of many in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
“The Mormons think that they can sign a treaty of nonaggression with the LGBTs, and I just think it’s lunacy,” Ruse said.
This conference is more careful than most previous years’ events have been, Ruse said, because the context has shifted so much.
“Ten years ago people could say, ‘The homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t,” Ruse said. Some in the movement now count it as “a great victory” when “one of our opponents don’t see us as evil,” paraphrasing comments by an anti-same-sex marriage activist.
But, Ruse said, “A lot of us think that’s not a victory at all.”
Austin Ruse works for C-Fam, which is also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights. A previous version of this story misstated the organization's name.