The leader of a right-wing organization, who made a name for herself by pushing abstinence-only based programs in Africa and has ties to the virulently antigay Ugandan pastor, Martin Ssempa, is stepping up efforts to promote homophobic messages among delegates at the United Nations.
The Arizona-based Family Watch International (FWI) hosted “26 UN delegates from 23 different countries” at a policy forum in January that provided “expert presentations” and policy briefings about “how to better protect and promote the family and family values at the UN,” according to an FWI newsletter written by the organization’s president, Sharon Slater.
“The list of governments represented read like a geography lesson, as diplomats from countries around the globe-including from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean Islands-met in Gilbert in January,” trumpeted an article that has since been removed from the website of the Arizona Beehive, a publication that serves Arizona’s Mormon population.
Slater’s newsletter characterizes the presentations at the meeting as providing information on “how the UN system is being manipulated by sexual rights activists to promote the sexual agenda” and adds that “the institution of the family is being undermined by these efforts.”
According to invitations distributed to attendees and obtained by Equality Matters the two-day session included briefings by lawyers on family policy issues dealt with by the UN’s Third Committee – the social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs committee – and those addressed by subsidiary bodies of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), including the Commissions on the Status of Women, Sustainable Development, and Population and Development.
“Delegates will be provided with current research, statistics, and resources on a number of sensitive family issues that will be negotiated at upcoming UN conferences in 2011,” says the invitation.
Presumably, “family issues” would include matters like the vote last November in which a bloc of 79 countries, led by the African Group in the UN General Assembly, removed “sexual orientation” from a UN resolution that condemned extrajudicial and arbitrary executions of certain vulnerable minorities. The U.S. Mission reintroduced the language and successfully restored “sexual orientation” to the resolution the following month.
As Slater told the Arizona Beehive, “Of grave concern to the UN delegates, were recent attempts by developed countries, with the United States taking the lead, to pressure developing countries to change their laws and policies to accept and promote a number of controversial sexual rights. The delegates said they urgently needed the scientific information we presented regarding sexual orientation and homosexuality, as these are emerging issues in UN policymaking.”
FWI’s forum answered that call by including a testimonial provided by “a patient” (as Slater puts it) who allegedly transformed her or his sexual orientation through reparative therapy – exactly the type of misinformation that is often touted by those who support criminalizing homosexuality in places like Africa and the Middle East.
“One of the most moving presentations,” Slater writes of the conference, “was the personal testimony of a patient who is successfully reorienting from homosexuality to heterosexuality. For many of these diplomats, this was their first exposure to the scientific and clinical evidence that proves homosexuality is not genetically determined and fixed like skin color or race and that in many cases, individuals who experience same-sex attraction can be helped by therapy.”
While the right-wing rhetoric is perhaps unsurprising, what’s most fascinating and unsettling about Slater is her access to international leaders who have key roles in African countries such as Uganda – relationships that were originally fueled by the American push to export religious zealotry as the HIV/AIDS epidemic spread across the continent.
Sharon Slater stands at the intersection between the war on gender equity and the effort to stymie LGBT rights – advancing her crusade against the international “assault” on the family. She is the quintessential portrait of a religious fundamentalist who got her start doing the abstinence-only work that thrived during the Bush years and has parlayed the international connections she made during that time into helping to spread her corrosive homophobic views abroad.
People like Slater, says Ugandan lesbian activist Val Kalende, are proffering the tools that are being wielded by African politicians and religious leaders to stigmatize and suppress a vulnerable minority.
“Conservative US evangelicals are fueling the homophobia in Uganda – they are actually providing the language that the antigay movement in Uganda is using,” says Kalende, who hails from Kampala but is currently attending Episcopal Divinity School in the United States. “This whole idea of the so-called change therapy – praying for people to heal them of their homosexuality – was a non-issue to most Ugandans, not until these three Americans came to Uganda and started talking about it.”
The three Americans Kalende references were anti-LGBT activists Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer, who visited Uganda to provide three days worth of information to audiences that included politicians, teachers, and police officers about how to turn gay people straight and how to counteract the LGBT movement’s goal “to defeat the marriage-based society.”
In this vein, the website for Slater’s group provides a treasure trove of classic fear mongering and junk science about the LGBT issues of which Kalende speaks. FWI’s “Family Policy Resource Center,” for instance, includes briefs that explain how “Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction Can be Successfully Treated” and how “so-called ‘homosexual rights’ are driving much of the current worldwide assault on marriage, the family and family related issues.”
Kalende says these concepts feed right into African notions of family and cultural fears that not reproducing will undermine the foundations of their society.
“It fits in with the African concept of what the family is supposed to be because in Africa, men and women are supposed to have children. And if you have any relationship that is non-reproductive, then it means there is something wrong,” she says. “So the issues of the family in the United States, especially those promoted by people like Sharon, fit in very well with the African view of what relationships are supposed to be and I think that’s what has given strength and growth to their movement.”
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