Meet John Stemberger, Florida's Leading Anti-LGBT Activist
August 26, 2014 12:08 pm ET by Luke Brinker & Coleman Lowndes
The fight against LGBT equality in Florida is being spearheaded by John Stemberger, a man who claims homosexuality is a "pathology" and believes marriage equality will indoctrinate "schoolchildren into a gay lifestyle."
Stemberger, who is president of the Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC), made national headlines this month after he asserted that "inner city" residents "have almost a barbarian society" due to the decline of marriage. During a July 30 interview on 100.7 WFLA, Stemberger suggested that allowing gay people to marry would ultimately destroy the institution of marriage, saying:
STEMBERGER: Marriage is a unique institution that does many, many things that are productive, so you want to encourage marriage. In the inner city right now we see what happens when marriage is gone. You have almost a barbarian society. It's a very simple society. When marriage is gone, bad things happen in society.
His remarks were condemned as racist, but they're just the latest in a long line of inflammatory comments from Stemberger. Through his work at the FFPC, frequent media appearances, and his founding of an anti-gay alternative to the Boy Scouts, Stemberger has emerged as one of the most virulently anti-gay social conservatives in the country.
The Florida Family Policy Council
Established in 2004, the FFPC is a state chapter of Focus on the Family, with a self-proclaimed mission "to strengthen Florida's families through public policy education, issue research, and grassroots advocacy." While not formally affiliated with the organization, the FFPC is also closely tied to the Family Research Council (FRC), which has been branded an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
As one of the best-funded social conservative organizations in the state - the FFPC was among the anti-gay groups to receive funding from Chick-fil-A's charitable division - the FFPC boasts ties to prominent Florida conservatives, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who keynoted the group's Policy Awards Dinner in 2013. The FFPC focuses its efforts on advocating the teaching of creationism in public schools, abstinence-only sex education, and school vouchers, in addition to its crusades against reproductive rights, stem cell research, and LGBT equality.
The group is also a vehicle for a distinctly theocratic brand of conservatism. Stemberger has said that "no religion can save [America] except for Christians" and declared that public policy should be guided by "scripture."
Most recently, the FFPC featured prominently in the debate over Florida's anti-gay marriage amendment, which a federal judge struck down on August 21. Despite having slammedRepublican state attorney general Pam Bondi in 2010 for being childless and "liv[ing] with her 60-year-old doctor boyfriend," the FFPC lauded her defense of the state's marriage equality ban in court, hailing Bondi as "an example of courage and responsible stewardship of her authority as the highest law enforcement officer in the state."
The FFPC's anti-gay agenda extends far beyond opposing marriage equality. The organization opposes gay
adoption, calling same-sex parents "objectively inferior" to married heterosexual parents, despite study after study demonstrating that children of same-sex parents fare as well or better than those raised by opposite-sex parents. Moreover, the FFPC supports discredited "ex-gay" therapy programs, with a page on its website listing resources for "leaving [the] gay lifestyle."
Meanwhile, the FFPC's "gay rights" page provides links to rabidly anti-gay commentary, featuring articles like "What Homosexuals Want" (courtesy of the anti-LGBT hate group the American Family Association) and "The Gay Agenda and Manipulation." The page also links to an FRC pamphlet which asserts that homosexuality is linked to higher rates of pedophilia - a claim with no empirical basis.
Stemberger's Anti-Gay Bigotry
Among Stemberger's most persistent fixations is how gay men express their sexuality. He finds "in-your-face" gay men particularly irksome. Denouncing "the social construct called 'gay,'" Stemberger once defined that "construct" as "in your face, it's shoving down your throat, and it's intimidation." During the run-up to the Boy Scouts' 2013 vote on allowing openly gay members, Stemberger, in a Washington Times column, deemed those "who have same-sex attractions" acceptable members of the Scouts, but only if they were "discreet" and not "loud and proud."
That fear of proud gay men may stem from Stemberger's fondness for the anti-gay trope that gay men want to "recruit" young boys - an assertion he made during a July 2013 interview with hate group leader Peter LaBarbera:
Similarly, as Florida prepared to vote on its anti-gay marriage amendment in 2008, Stemberger justified the ban by stating that allowing gay marriages in the state "could result in the indoctrination of schoolchildren into a gay lifestyle." Stemberger also sees a plot against young innocents in Walt Disney World's Gay Days, which he has assailed as an opportunity for gay men to "flaunt" themselves in front of children while they enjoy "unbridled debauchery."
Trail Life USA
Perhaps the seminal moment in Stemberger's career of anti-gay extremism came during the debate over the Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) policy banning gay scouts. Stemberger became one of the most prominent supporters of the BSA's gay ban, appearing on CNN and Fox News to defend the policy.
Stemberger's argued that accepting gay scouts would sexualize the organization and cause churches to pull their support for the organization. Speaking to CNN's Don Lemon, he predicted that allowing for gay scouts would "literally destroy the program."
Speaking with LaBarbera, Stemberger also predicted that allowing openly gay Scouts would "increase sexual abuse" between boys:
When the BSA decided to end its ban on gay scouts, Stemberger lamented that it had been "one of the sadest [sic] days of my life":
Stemberger responded to the vote by founding Trail Life USA, an anti-gay alternative to the BSA. In a September 2013 interview with right-wing radio host Janet Mefferd, Stemberger said that Trail life would not "tolerate activists. We're not going to tolerate somebody who's, you know, here and queer, loud and proud, all of that nonsense":
Trail Life launched to much fanfare, with Fox News host Mike Huckabee delivering the keynote address at the group's inaugural convention. The group's membership policy appears to bar not only gay participants, but also gay rights supporters, stating that "[w]e grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind." Although chapters had been established in 40 states by March, an assessment by the Associated Press deemed Trail Life a "tiny movement" overall.
Local media has rightly lambasted Stemberger for his "barbarian" comment, but his record of extreme and offensive rhetoric is far more extensive than is being reported. As the legal battle over Florida's marriage ban intensifies, outlets are likely to continue turning to Stemberger for a "conservative" voice on LGBT issues. If and when they do, they should be prepared to shine a light on the animus and extremism that motivate his work.