American Anti-Gay Campaign in Africa Opposes “Fictitious Sexual Rights”

Sharon Slater, American anti-gay activist and president of Family Watch International, recently encouraged delegates attending a law conference in Lagos, Nigeria to resist the United Nations’ calls to decriminalize homosexuality. Keynoting the Nigerian Bar Association Conference, Slater told delegates that they would lose their religious and parental rights if they supported “fictitious sexual rights.” One such “fictitious right” is the right to engage in same-sex sexual relationships without going to jail.

According to an email from the organization, Slater’s efforts are already getting results. A week after Slater’s speech, husband Greg Slater, FWI’s legal adviser, told supporters in an email:

As the most populous and one of the wealthiest African counties, Nigeria can serve as a strong role model for other governments in the region to follow on how to hold on to their family values despite intense international pressure. In fact, several days after the conference, the head of the Anglican Church called upon the Nigerian government to withdraw from the United Nations because of its push to further the cause of homosexuality.

In Nigeria, homosexual behavior is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In the Islamic North, where Sharia law is enforced, gays can be sentenced to death by stoning.

According to Family Watch International, Nigeria is a role model.

“Aggravated Homosexuality”

A nonprofit organization, Arizona-based FWI is affiliated with the World Congress of Families, an Illinois think tank which conducts international conferences to promote their vision for “the natural family”—“the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage.”

Most of the conferences are outside the United States and have focused on developing nations where their conservative message resonates well. Like FWI, the World Congress of Families opposes decriminalization of homosexuality. For instance, WCF opposed the 2009 UN resolution calling for decriminalization of homosexuality and downplayed the harshness of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill in a 2009 newsletter. For FWI and WCF, supporting the natural family means resisting the right of GLBT people to live without threat of jail for private conduct.

FWI once considered Uganda’s notorious anti-gay pastor, Martin Ssempa, a volunteer coordinator for Africa. However, according to its website, FWI broke with Ssempa about the same time Ssempa’s support for Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality bill became public. Although Ssempa’s name is still listed as a volunteer, there is a new description accompanying it:

Martin Ssempa, FWI African Coordinator (volunteer)—Martin Ssempa was associated with Family Watch International because of his extensive work with youth promoting abstinence-based HIV education in Uganda. This association ended when Family Watch became aware of Mr. Ssempa’a support of the proposed law in Uganda calling for the execution of homosexuals who engaged in “aggravated homosexuality” (defined as homosexual sex between an adult and a minor or when a person infected with HIV knowingly has sex with another person putting them at risk for contracting HIV).

Slater: “It’s Complicated”

Since FWI now opposes the Ugandan bill, but at the same time opposes United Nations pressure on African nations to decriminalize homosexuality, I asked Slater what legal penalties she favors in those nations. She told me in an interview that the issue is “complicated” and that her organization supports the right of African nations to maintain their “religious and cultural values.” However, she says she doesn’t believe in violence toward gays. In the speech to the Nigeria audience, Slater said:

Now I want to be clear that Family Watch does not condone violence against homosexuals and transgenders, but based on the debate around this resolution, it was obvious that all UN Member States were aware that this study will be used, not just to prevent violence against homosexuals and transgenders but to advance sexual rights and harass nations that do not accept and protect these lifestyles.

Slater told me the same thing, saying “We do not support any laws that promote violence against homosexuals.” She added that her organization presents research showing that gays can change orientation. Such research is relevant to her stance because, “laws that promote violence would discourage therapy for people with unwanted same-sex attraction.”

I asked Mrs. Slater if she considers a 14-year jail sentence a form of violence. She said that her organization has no position on that question saying, “FWI does not dictate to nations what specific laws people should enact or protect regarding homosexual sex or whether they should fine or jail individuals.”

Since Slater said that FWI supports the right of nations to make laws in keeping with their religious and cultural values, I asked if FWI supports the right of Islamic nations to criminalize religious observance other than Islam. On this point, Slater made a distinction between religion and sexuality. “It may seem contradictory but it’s not.” To support this position, Slater quoted from the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 29 (2):

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Slater explained that sexuality is referenced under the topic of “morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society.” She said that nations have the right to regulate sexuality for those purposes.

Slater’s concern about decriminalizing homosexuality relates to her perception of the inevitable outcomes of that legal change. She told me that her organization opposed the repeal of sodomy laws in the United States, “not because we want them [homosexuals] in jail, but because the repeal of these laws creates a climate where other special rights are demanded.” She pointed to protections in housing, jobs, and marriage as problematic outcomes.

“While the laws [criminalizing homosexuality] are in place, it may seem like a restriction in personal liberty,” she said, but added that “society has not been able to resolve that conflict.”

Fighting Wars in Africa that have Already Been Lost in the U.S.

Despite what Slater calls a “conflict” and its lack of resolution, FWI is aggressively resisting United Nations and United States policy regarding homosexuality. In January, FWI hosted 26 UN staffers from 23 different countries for a two-day conference on how to resist UN initiatives on sexuality. The conference was co-hosted with the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage, a group that is linked with the WCF. The only supporter listed on FACH’s website is Don Feder, the communications director for the World Congress.

According to FWI’s February newsletter, the January conference immersed UN delegates in U.S. right wing culture war talking points about homosexuality.

One of the most moving presentations 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. This knowledge alone will pay huge dividends as UN delegates confront the anti-family, homosexual activists who are in the forefront of the international “sexual rights” campaign that is one of the biggest threats to the institution of the family worldwide. (emphasis FWI’s)

Although the “dividends” anticipated by FWI are expected to be “huge,” the investment to get them is a secret. Slater declined to disclose the specific topics discussed, the identities of the speakers or the attendees of the conference. She said her board decided not to discuss the content since prior disclosures had been misrepresented.

Consistent with her stated opposition to violent laws governing homosexuality, Slater told me via email that the information about ex-gays presented at the UN conference was designed to “generate compassion” in the delegates toward gays. However, in the newsletter, the information sounded more like ammunition—the knowledge will certainly be used to repel “anti-family, homosexual activists” who are waging a campaign that is “one of the biggest threats to the institution of the family worldwide.”

Although FWI has a variety of resources on its website which promote ex-gay therapy, many of them supplied by the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Slater said none of these resources were used in this conference. However, the ex-gay message was presented as somehow relevant to the kinds of laws nations enact regarding private consensual behavior.

Iran: Another Role Model For FWI?

With the linking of Western-style ex-gay therapy with government policy toward gays, it appears that the delegates are being armed with information to offset calls to decriminalize homosexuality. Various proponents of stricter laws in African nations have sounded the same themes. For instance, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill author, David Bahati, says homosexuality is learned and can be unlearned. In Ghana, clerics have been warring against the view that homosexuality is a human right armed with information casting homosexuality as a moral weakness without biological components. Recently, the Presbyterian Church in Ghana has announced plans to set up prayer and exorcism counseling centers for gays around Ghana.

Given the application of U.S. ex-gay rhetoric to questions of criminalization in Africa, it appears that FWI and their ally the WCF are fighting ideological battles in Africa and at the UN that they have lost in the United States. As Slater noted, she opposed the repeal of sodomy laws over a decade ago and now these organizations are opposing UN efforts to encourage repeal of such laws around the world.

Despite recoiling from obvious violence of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality bill, FWI continues to carry the banner for African and Arab nations that cause GLBT people to live in fear—and sometimes in jail. Opposing the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexual behavior in the U.S. is a far different matter than opposing such repeal in Nigeria or Ghana. Despite Slater saying the matter was “complicated,” the activities of FWI reveal a very uncomplicated, black-and-white strategy: laws opposing homosexuality in any form should be retained, while those which might provide basic freedoms to gays are opposed as bad for everybody else. The only caveat is that they prefer that gays not be beaten or killed.

Slater’s good vs. evil calculation leads to some unexpected alignments. For instance, in March 2010, FWI partnered with UN delegations from Iran, Syria, Nigeria, Qatar, and Saint Lucia to sponsor an alternative meeting on motherhood during a UN Commission on the Status of Women conference. Questioned about why FWI would partner with Iran during a conference on women’s rights, Slater said, “Iran is one of the strongest nations in standing up for family values at the UN in harmony with Article16 of the UDHR which says the family is the fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection from society and state. “Iran’s record on human rights toward gays and women is among the worst in the world and is the only nation to allow execution of children. However, because Iran resists UN initiatives on human rights for gays and women, FWI views the nation as a champion of family values.

Supporting Families and Personal Freedom at the Same Time

Going forward, it might be difficult for FWI and related groups to sustain this strategy. Triggered by the introduction of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, opposition to criminalization among conservative elements of the religious right in the US has emerged. The most visible religious conservative figure to oppose criminalization is Rick Warren, pastor of California’s Saddleback Church. In December, 2009, after several weeks of weighing a response, Warren spoke forcefully against the Uganda bill and criminalization of homosexuality. Andrew Marin, an evangelical who specializes in building bridges to the GLBT community, told me in 2010 that laws criminalizing homosexuality in Africa will increasingly divide American social conservatives. Marin told me, “You can’t say you believe in freedom and mutual respect for gays here in the U.S. but then support laws which put them in prison around the world.”

I think Marin is right. Surely it is possible to support families and stand for personal freedom of conscience at the same time. Social conservatives who generally support “pro-family” causes should take pause to consider what being pro-family means in a country like Uganda or Nigeria, where the conservative position is to detain gays on suspicion of homosexual behavior and then threaten them with jail or stoning.

Surely, these are not family values.