Equality Matters

Right-Wing Group Fuels Homophobia At The UN

May 24, 2011 1:59 pm ET - by Kerry Eleveld

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.”

Taking Root

FWI’s website says Slater founded the group in 1999. In the first few years of the 21st century, however, Slater’s energies were invested as president of another conservative organization called United Families International (UFI) from 2001-2006, right around the time abstinence-only programs got a huge boost in both prestige and, in some cases, funding from President George W. Bush’s national faith-based initiative and international program PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). From 2003 to 2005, grants to faith-based organizations (FBOs) increased 21%, with $2.1 billion being distributed to FBOs in 2005 alone, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. And through PEPFAR, the U.S. government committed more than $30 billion to international HIV/AIDS relief between 2004 to 2010.

It is extremely difficult to track exactly how Slater’s organizations have derived their money over the years, but their international initiatives have clearly benefitted from the environment fostered by the Bush Administration, and United Families International garnered enough financial heft to become an international player. The organization’s 990 tax form shows a cash infusion of $1.6 million in “direct public support” in 2002, the same year the organization’s Statement of Program Service Accomplishments stated, “Began implementation of the ‘Stay Alive’ program (an AIDS prevention program) in Africa to educate the population in an effort to control the spread of AIDS.”

The Stay Alive program’s prevention efforts focused on teaching African youth ages 9-14 an abstinence-only and fidelity-in-marriage curriculum. It represents two-thirds of the ABC technique (Abstinence, Be faithful, and correct and consistent Condom use) that public health experts have found most effective in combating transmission of the virus.

The perfect case in point is Uganda, where Slater and her organizations focused a good portion of their efforts. Uganda was one of the African countries hit earliest by the AIDS epidemic and by the early 90s, the country’s HIV infection rate peaked at about 18% of the population. But by the first few years of the 21st century, infections had leveled off at around 5% and by 2009 they stood at about 6% of the population.

The reasons for Uganda’s success in lowering HIV prevalence are the subject of much debate, but the fact that condom use by single women aged 15–24 almost doubled between 1995 and 2000/2001, according to UNAIDS, is a behavioral indicator that many public health experts consider to be at least as important as the fact that more women in that age group delayed sexual intercourse or abstained entirely. And one study by researchers at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities found that increased condom use along with the premature death rates of those infected in the 90s had a greater impact on Uganda’s declining infection rate than either abstinence or fidelity.

But religious conservatives like Slater were sure to attribute the victory exclusively to Uganda’s abstinence-only initiatives.

“There is clear evidence that abstinence programs are successful,” Slater wrote in a 2008 newsletter for Family Watch International. “Uganda is the classic example.  It is the only African country that has significantly reduced its infection rate.  In 2002, I invited the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni, to give the keynote speech at a conference I chaired for UN delegates to discuss the reason for this success.  She made it clear that Uganda’s success was due to the promotion of abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage and NOT the use of condoms.”

At that 2002 conference in New York, Mrs. Museveni – infamous for her zealous promotion of abstinence-based programming in Uganda – “sharply criticized” the UN practice of distributing condoms, according to a Washington Times article published about the event.

"The young person who has trained to be disciplined will, in the final analysis, survive better than the one who has been instructed to wear a piece of rubber and continue with 'business as usual,'" Mrs. Museveni told the meeting sponsored by the ultra conservative World Congress of Families (WCF) – an international coalition of religious groups that purport to protect the “traditional family” against activists working to advance basic human rights.

Another of the WCF event speakers was Wade Horn, who served as President Bush's assistant secretary for the administration for children and families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services. ACF is the bureau that was primarily responsible for awarding billions of dollars in grants that went to faith-based organizations, much of which was directed at abstinence-only education programs.

Assistant Secretary Horn stayed on message too, telling attendees that they should reaffirm marriage and sexual fidelity because "government ought to make it clear that government is in the business of promoting healthy marriages because it is an effective strategy for improving the well-being of children."

Slater, who helped organize the event, reportedly “pleaded with UN diplomats from more than 50 countries ‘to ensure that religions are respected and protected in UN documents, insofar as they respect the family and the dignity of the human person.’”

In addition to rubbing elbows with Mrs. Museveni, Slater has ties to an equally as strident anti-condom activist in Uganda, Pastor Martin Ssempa, an Evangelical minister who is known for his exhibitionist condom burnings in the name of Christ as well as his fervent support for the Uganda bill that would impose harsher criminal penalties – including death in some cases – on Ugandans found to be gay and/or spreading HIV/AIDS (homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda). Ssempa has served as the Special Representative to the First Lady of Uganda's Task Force on AIDS.

And in the “Who We Are” section of FWI’s website, Ssempa is listed among seven other people who either work or volunteer for the organization:

Martin Ssempa, FWI African Coordinator (volunteer) – Internationally renowned family activist.  Helped Ugandan government develop its national policy on abstinence in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Has spoken extensively on the subjects of AIDS, marriage, pornography and drug addiction.  Testified before the U.S. Congress, explaining how the U.S. aid programs that rely on condom promotion and distribution have exacerbated the AIDS problem in Africa.  He is helping Family Watch coordinate pro-family efforts in Africa.” 

Ssempa gave his Congressional testimony in April of 2005 before the House Committee on Foreign Relations, which was conducting a 2-year review of the U.S. response to the global AIDS crisis.

Two years earlier, in a report on a 2004 appropriations bill, the House appropriations committee had affirmed the abstinence-only program, Stay Alive, that Slater’s organization originated.

“In Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, as part of a broad range of responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the Committee supports expansion of programs to promote sexual abstinence education programs in primary and secondary schools throughout the continent. Proposals by established programs such as Stay Alive and Silver Ring merit special consideration by the AIDS Coordinator,” the report stated.

Staging At The UN

Through her efforts in HIV/AIDS prevention, Slater took an active role at the UN that she has continued to leverage more recently. Last year, for instance, she worked with delegations from Iran, Syrian, Nigeria, Qatar and Saint Lucia to co-sponsor a meeting at one of the main convention halls on “Recognizing the Critical Role of Mothers in Society.”

The meeting, which sounds rather innocuous, commenced during a two-hour break in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) – the UN’s principal global policy-making body dedicated to promoting gender equality and the advancement of women. Slater used the opportunity to relay to CSW participants her view of how women’s rights have contributed to the disintegration of the family and indeed ravaged the foundations of society altogether.

She was introduced with distinction by the Syrian ambassador, who said Slater had been “very active in the deliberations of our meetings.”

Slater proceeded to spin her cautionary tale about female empowerment by harkening back to what most women’s rights activists view as the groundbreaking Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted 15 years earlier by the Fourth World Conference on Women.

“The women’s rights movement since Beijing has opened many important and much needed opportunities for women,” she said on March 8 of 2010, International Women’s Day. “But in women’s search for gender equality, in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far. When the quest for women’s rights begins to devalue the role of mothers and contributes to family breakdown, not only do men and children lose, but women and girls lose too.”

Slater then added information about how costly the push for women’s rights can be. Citing what she referred to simply as a “US study released in 2008” – which was actually a report authored by Benjamin Scafidi for the antigay think-tank The Institute for American Values – Slater said the “breakdown of the family” was costing American taxpayers “a staggering $112 billion every year.”

“Any deviation from the married mother-father family structure, the data shows, generally leads to such things as poverty, crime, violence, substance abuse and other problems that world governments must spend billions of dollars trying to repair,” she observed.

The event was notably sponsored by countries where women typically have few rights and limited control over their own destiny (these same countries also joined the UN bloc that voted later in 2010 to remove “sexual orientation” from the UN resolution condemning executions of vulnerable minorities). Slater later told a reporter for Inter Press Service News Agency that the Iranians and Syrians “thought it was time for the issue of motherhood to be put on the UN’s agenda.” Asked if she was troubled by partnering with the Iranian government on the meeting, Slater responded, “We’re a non-denominational, nonpolitical group. We’ll partner with anyone who believes in the value of family.”

Slater, who talked approximately 15 minutes and can be seen on video here, was joined on the panel by Dr. Alveda King, who is the niece of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and has referred to same-sex marriage as “genocide,” and Theresa Okafor, director of the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage (FACH) and CEO of the pro-life group Life League Nigeria (abortion is illegal in Nigeria.) FACH is an umbrella organization that includes a variety of right-wing organizations such as the Association of Concerned Mothers, Nigerian Association for Family Development, Doctors Health Initiative, Life League Nigeria, the Christian Association of Bishops Conference of Nigeria and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Nigeria.

Okafor’s group FACH co-sponsored Slater’s Gilbert, AZ, Global Family Policy Forum earlier this year. Among her achievements, Okafor counts keeping sex education out of Nigerian schools while eschewing the “conspiracy to strip Africa of its cherished values by international organizations like Planned Parenthood and the United Nations.”

Okafor also managed to convince the conservative World Congress of Families to hold its first “African conference” in Abuja, Nigeria in 2009, a gathering that this unambiguously homophobic article from a Nigerian outlet hailed as “aimed at giving the Nigerian perspective to a troubled world lurching from one moral crisis to another.” (Slater reportedly presented at the conference what a caption of her picture calls the “hidden agenda of international bodies.”)

Okafor also recently refuted the notion that LGBT people experience prejudice in Nigeria.

“I have heard accusations that they are being discriminated against,” Okafor said, “but this is completely false because if you think deeply about it, it is not the person that is being despised, it is the conduct.”

It’s a classic love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin argument put forth by religious conservatives, especially when they are vilifying homosexuals. Slater made a similar argument at a 2008 High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS at the UN.

According to LifeSiteNews, “Sharon Slater of Family Watch International met with anger and resistance when she drew a distinction between stigmatizing individuals with HIV, which she condemned, and stigmatizing high-risk behavior, such as intravenous drug use and homosexual activity, which significantly contributes to the spread of HIV.”

In her own newsletter for Family Watch International, Slater recalled the 2008 meeting as “the worst conference” she had ever seen for “openly promoting an anti-family agenda.” 

“We watched and listened as a parade of homosexuals, transsexuals, prostitutes, and drug users demanded in official speeches on the UN floor that their behavior be decriminalized and recognized as a human right,” she wrote.

Many questions still surround Slater and her organization. FWI is listed as a 501 (c)(3), but its 990 tax forms could not be located after multiple searches were conducted. FWI did not respond to inquiries about its tax status, funding, or a request for comment. But even with the 990, it would be impossible to trace who exactly is funding FWI because nonprofits are not required to list their donors.

But one thing is clear, Slater isn’t going to walk back her homophobic rhetoric or “family advocacy” just because countries like Uganda are considering imposing the death penalty on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women and men. Hyping the attitudes that lead to draconian policies and the brutal and deadly beating of fellow human beings like Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato isn’t her concern.

Even though Kalende believes the murder of her friend and colleague David Kato – who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home – helped unite the LGBT movement in Uganda, she also fears for her safety, even here in the United States.

“I began questioning, how safe am I, even here?” she says. “Every time I think about going home, I think about how safe I will be? And a lot of it is psychological – I keep thinking about the circumstances under which David was killed. I keep imagining that.”

But Kalende doesn’t know any other way to stem the rising tide of homophobia in her country than to keep speaking out about it and the way that American fundamentalists are stoking it.

“I can’t think of anything that is going to stop this fire that has been raised by the antigay movement here and in African, not just Uganda, but also other countries like Malawi – I can’t think of anything other than to keep talking about this and to keep exposing some of these people,” she says.

“I didn’t choose it,” she says of the activism. “It just followed me.”

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