World Congress of Families
The World Congress of Families, which is a project of the former Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (now the International Organization for the Family), serves as an umbrella for a massive network of interconnected organizations, all pushing for restrictions to LGBT rights under the guise of the defense of the “natural family” — defined as heterosexual married couples with their biological children.
The World Congress of Families (WCF) was formed in 1997 in a meeting in Russia between American academic and Reagan appointee to the National Commission on Children, Allan Carlson, and the Russian intellectuals Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov.
Though its origins are in the American Christian Right, the WCF has built a web of influence in different countries, providing a point of networking for global anti-LGBT forces and working as a political power broker as an anti-LGBT group in its own right. Its legacy includes the mainstreaming of the so-called “natural family” doctrine, one that has been used to curtail LGBT and reproductive rights across the world.
In its own words
“Where are the researchers studying the possibility that the gay lifestyle itself is destructive?”
—Brian Brown, President of the International Organization for the Family, tweet dated February 2, 2018
“There is no comparison between [same-sex marriage] and natural marriage. Most homosexual liaisons are of short duration. Even those that are called ‘committed relationships’ are rarely monogamous.”
—Don Feder, WCF director of international coalitions and coordinator of regional events, Barbwire.com, July 22, 2017
“Governments and transnational entities should cease all propaganda in favor of ‘gender theory’ and ‘sexual orientation,’ which have no basis in biological reality.”
—WCF Tbilisi Declaration, 2016
“Tell the LGBT tolerance tyrants, this lavender mafia, these homofascists, these rainbow radicals, that they are not welcome to promote their anti-religious and anti-civilizational propaganda in your nations.”
—Fr. Josiah Trenholm speaking at the World Congress of Families gathering in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 2016
"I think that when people realize that these activists are trying to impose on their children an awareness of unnatural behavior that does lead to the whole AIDS problem, people are going to get very angry. If you teach kids in a barrio that these [homosexual] acts, that they feel good, we're going to have people dying of AIDS like flies.... What they call 'gay marriage' is a piece of paper that says we get to have a nice ceremony, we each get to have a nice bunch of flowers, and we get to have these partnership benefits — that's not going to stop them from being promiscuous."
—Christine Vollmer, recipient of the 2014 WCF lifetime achievement award and WCF Ambassador, quoted in Buzzfeed, May 2014
“And the homosexual propaganda — the law in the Russian Duma it passed on first reading, it would ban propaganda to minors, preventing them [LGBT people] from corrupting children. What a great idea and the rest of Europe is going the other way, legalizing LGBT propaganda.”
—Larry Jacobs, WCF managing director, speaking to End Times radio host Rick Wiles about Russia’s passage of anti-LGBT laws, June 2013
“We cannot imagine a worse form of cultural imperialism than Washington trying to force approval of the ‘gay’ agenda on societies with traditional values.”
—WCF “Letter by Pro-Family Leaders Worldwide Protesting Participation of the U.S. Embassy in Prague ‘Gay Pride’ Parade,” 2012
“[E]ncouraging the gay 'life-style,' under the guise of promoting tolerance, has become the norm in most Western nations - supported by the United Nations and European Union. This often takes the form of public-school indoctrination that seeks to foster acceptance of homosexual relations as normal and healthy - frequently describing them in graphic detail."
—Larry Jacobs commending Lithuanian parliament for considering legislation to ban “homosexual propaganda,” WCF press release, December 18, 2008
“The complementary natures of men and women, both physically and psychologically, are evident throughout the course of human history and in every society. Deviations from natural sexual behavior cannot truly satisfy the human spirit.”
—WCF founder Allan Carlson and former WCF executive vice president Paul Mero, The Natural Family: A Manifesto, 2007
WCF is a project of the Rockford, Illinois-based International Organization for the Family (formerly the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society). The group functions predominantly as an international organizer of fellow Christian Right individuals and organizations that now holds annual conferences in cities around the world and smaller satellite conferences annually.
Through its ideology of the so-called “natural family,” WCF promotes a strict view of family, one based exclusively on the marriage of one heterosexual man to one heterosexual woman and their biological children, to the exclusion of many different types of families. Closely tied to this ideology is an adherence to strict binary gender roles, in which men serve as the heads of households and women as their helpmates and the bearer of children. Only this type of family, they contend, can quell the “demographic winter,” the idea that European populations, especially, are in decline because of homosexuality, abortion, feminism, women in the workplace, and a variety of other things that deviate from the “natural family.”
The WCF works in a variety of arenas, including the United Nations (it holds consultative status with the Economic and Social Counsel there (ECOSOC)), and with local groups and governments around the world to develop policies and push rhetoric in line with the “natural family,” which serve to further marginalize LGBT people and further limit women’s access to reproductive health care like birth control.
At WCF’s annual gatherings (most recently in conservative Eastern European countries), speakers have touted claims about the dangers of homosexuality and pushed pseudoscience about that and reproductive health.
The birth of the WCF
The intellectual birth of the WCF can be traced back to former history professor Allan Carlson, who is the former Howard Center president, a historian and also a former Reagan administration official. Carlson was a professor of history at conservative Christian Hillsdale College, whose curriculum is based on teaching Western heritage as a product of Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian traditions.
Allan Carlson’s theorizing about how the sexual and feminist liberation had brought on demographic decline caught the attention of two Russian sociologists from Russia’s Moscow State University, Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov. Both were concerned about Russia’s population decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Antonov, in particular, had been responsible for the development of a ministry for the family during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The two invited Carlson to Moscow in 1995. Their initial meeting, during which the idea of an international network fighting against demographic winter was hatched, was held at a Russian Orthodox mystic’s apartment, as Mother Jones reported.
Key to their mission was reversing the civilizational trends responsible for the demographic decline. Its causes were seen as the collapse of the family, which, as Medkov declared in the Demographic Winter documentary shot at the 2007 WCF Congress, was to be blamed on divorce, working women (feminism), prosperity, homosexuality, the sexual revolution, and incorrect assumptions about population growth: “If trends continue as they are, families will cease to exist and so will children.”
While population decline in post-Soviet Russia was real, the narrative around it was clothed in insular notions of who truly was Russian. As Political Research Associates (PRA) notes, population decline was intertwined with notions of Russia as Christian, and fears as Russia’s Muslim population increased in parallel to Russia’s declining population. The idea that European populations are not being “replaced” by “European” babies, and that immigrants are replacing Christian white Europeans was inherent to the concept of the “demographic winter.”
Allan Carlson created the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society with guidance from the late John Howard, who had been president of Rockford College and founder of the conservative Rockford College Institute (which later became independent and dropped “College” from its name), a think tank associated with paleoconservatism that Howard started in 1976 out of concern about the social movements of the 1960s and what he thought was the damage done to American social institutions by the upheaval of that era.
Carlson had been with the Institute since 1981, working as Howard’s assistant and then the organization’s executive vice president. In 1986, he headed up the Institute’s Center on the Family in America and in 1988 he was named to the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Children.
Many of Howard’s ideas bled over into the Howard Center, including a monthly monograph series that started as Persuasion at Work at the Institute and was later rebranded in 1987 as The Family in America (which ended up at the Howard Center). Howard also conceived of and hosted a European Congress in 1982 titled “For Your Freedom, and Ours,” held in Frankfurt Germany. WCF would later hold biannual and then annual international gatherings similar to the 1982 European Congress that Howard convened.
The Institute also ran the John Randolph Club, which started as a forum for debate between Libertarians and conservatives and seemed to morph over the years to focus more on race and attracted panelists for its debates such as white nationalists Peter Brimelow and Sam Francis.
The RI’s publication, Chronicles, formerly edited by neo-Confederate Thomas Fleming (a founder of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South), helped shape the paleoconservative revival of the early 1990s that in turn helped drive Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996. Chronicles “became a voice for white Americans facing an uncertain future,” according to a 2000 article in FrontPage. The influence of Chronicles waned by the late 1990s, and Fleming started attacking “white identity politics.” Subscriptions dropped by thousands amidst criticism of Fleming.
In 1997, Howard left the Institute to help Carlson launch the Howard Center, which became the parent organization for the World Congress of Families. The first World Congress of Families was held in Prague in March 1997.
The Center cleaved more closely to the idea of the “natural family,” stating on its website in 1999 that, “we hope you find us a useful resource in your study of the natural family, the benefits of a religious-based family culture, and a variety of influences wittingly and unwittingly working against the natural family.”
The website went on to say that the Center “defends the natural family as the source of social order and the guarantor of liberty.” The Center also “affirms those cultural and economic patterns which sustain healthy home life while exposing contemporary threats to family integrity.”
Within its promulgation of the idea of the “natural family,” the 1999 website supported religious belief as a “necessary foundation for family life” and pushed the idea of the “complementary differences between men and women, the vital responsibilities and authority of the father, and the dignity of the mother as the irreplaceable nurturer of the young.”
Large families were considered “signs of social well being that “provides a natural balance to individualism and a foundation for ordered liberty” while calling for defense of these types of families “against hostile ideologies and state actions that would undermine marriage and family autonomy.”
The natural family
This tension about how nativist their civilizational narrative should be is at the heart of the WCF, which was formed to be a global and interfaith organization, despite being based on a Christian and American/Russian narrative of national decline. According to the 2003 study of the Christian Right in international politics, Globalizing Family Values by Doris Buss and Didi Hermann, the WCF constituted “the first sustained attempt by the [Christian Right at the United Nations] to construct a permanent, global, interfaith institution.”
Because of its opposition to the United Nations’ perceived liberal values, the Howard Center aimed to influence it and thus began working more in international arenas, both through WCF and with the United Nations as a fulcrum for some of its work. To that end, the Howard Center obtained ECOSOC consultative status at the United Nations in 2003, with many other partner organizations, allies and some states also pushing forth its anti-LGBT and anti-reproductive rights values internationally.
The World Congress of Families claims worldliness from its international conferences and interfaith component (it is open to the main monotheistic religions). As the authors of Globalizing Family Values note, in the first few meetings, some rifts emerged between attendees who believed in a more expanded notion of the family or who saw how the family could be a problematic institution, and the uncritically pro-nuclear family attendees, mostly Americans. The “natural family” – one man married to one woman and their biological children – later emerged as the WCF’s unifying doctrine, with anti-LGBT sentiment eventually gaining a bigger place in WCF congresses to help paper over cultural differences.
Paul Mero, the first executive vice president of the Howard Center, recalls in The Family in America, that it was Carlson who was “able to steer the group in support of this key point of pro-family doctrine,” which he developed in May 1998 at a WCF gathering in Rome. Defining the “natural family” as the fundamental unit of society was, Mero writes, “the key to the WCF movement — without it the movement would easily collapse from religious disagreement.”
The “natural family” has since become shorthand for the American Christian Right’s global political program, one opposed to marriage equality and to reproductive rights, which still embraced free-market liberalism, believed in small government and in the family as the basic economic unit of society.
Retrograde in its outlook, the doctrine of WCF’s natural family embraces a world of villages and towns where the heterosexual family reigns supreme. By promoting one definition of the family, it simultaneously seeks to deny rights to other types of families, including LGBT people, single and divorced parents, and parents raising children of other family members.
With its promotion of an imagined tradition, the doctrine of the natural family also sought to manipulate anxieties about white European decline. In their 2007 The Natural Family: A Manifesto, Mero and Carlson expand on the natural family’s lofty goals, writing: “we seek to liberate the whole world — including dying Europa — for light and life, for children.”
Immigration, often perceived as the solution to aging countries, is seen as an inadequate solution to the demographic winter. But though proponents of demographic winter theories regularly use graphs and statistics, the anxiety underlying the idea of global demographic decline — or population stabilization — has been shown to be simply misguided.
Political Research Associates notes that “a main objective of the WCF’s demographic scare tactics is to convert nationalism into natalism, and thereby mobilize a larger anti-abortion, “natural family” base.” By adapting its tactics to local sensitivities, such as the nativist anxieties of the conservative base of more immigrant-driven countries like Russia and United States, the WCF ties its political vision together. In African countries it visits, the WCF instead conceals its agenda behind anti-colonial rhetoric, blaming reproductive rights efforts on Western colonialists they accuse of trying to curb the number of African babies.
The legacy of the WCF’s “natural family” doctrine in countless countries has been legislation or cultural rhetoric aimed at the political and social marginalization of LGBT people, and the erosion of women’s reproductive rights through its strict adherence to heterosexual unions and binary gender roles, in which men operate as the head of the family and women as his helpmate and bearer of children.
To further the idea of heterosexual marriage as a bulwark of society, WCF takes anti-LGBT positions. It has called gay rights “pseudo rights” which “do not advance human freedom and dignity but debase them,” a statement made in a letter coordinated by the WCF and signed by 120 religious leaders from 11 countries to contest the participation of the US embassy to the Prague Gay Pride in August 2012. Meanwhile, it seeks actual human rights for the heterosexual family as a unit.
The first WCF conference, held in 1997 in Prague, attracted over 700 people, much to the organizers’ surprise. It condemned “homosexual unions” and anti-marriage policies, producing a declaration (each WCF conference produces a new declaration) blaming “extra-marital relationships, adultery and divorce [which] proliferate leading to widespread abortion, illegitimacy and single-parent children” for the decline of the family.
Twenty years later, the anti-LGBT sentiment at the heart of the fundamentally exclusionary natural family doctrine is more vibrant than ever. Carlson may have stepped down as president of WCF and IOF in 2016, but longtime anti-LGBT activist Brian Brown was elected as president of WCF and a few months later took the reins of IOF. He continues pushing its ideas internationally.
Junk science, conspiracy theories, and hateful rhetoric
A cornerstone of the natural family doctrine rests on anti-LGBT and anti-reproductive rights junk science, which originates in the United States and which WCF helps spread overseas. The widely debunked anti-LGBT academic Mark Regnerus, for example, has addressed speakersWCF congresses. According to a Right Wing Watch investigation, Regnerus’ highly flawed 2011 study attempting to prove children raised by LGBT parents were worse off than children raised by heterosexual parents influenced the authors of Russia’s June 2013 anti-“gay propaganda” law, which banned “propaganda” of “non-traditional” sexual relations.
Regnerus was also cited extensively in a proposed Russian law that sought to strip LGBTQ people of their parental rights (the legislation classified homosexuality in the same category as drug abuse and child abuse as offenses meriting the loss of custody). According to PRA, Brian Brown — the current head of the IOF and at the time solely the head of the National Organization for Marriage, a WCF partner—was “one of the responsible parties” for bringing Regnerus’ research to Russia.
As for the academic W. Bradford Wilcox, who helped conceive of Regnerus’ widely discredited study, in addition to speaking at WCF events, he was listed as a board member of the Howard Center’s journal, The Family in America from 2009 to the end of 2017. In a violation of academic integrity, on top of arranging for the study’s funding and getting paid for it, Wilcox also peer-reviewed it, according to PRA.
The WCF also involves itself in junk science related to reproductive health issues. It organized a Moscow Demographic Summit in 2011 talking about the harms of abortions on women’s health, which it later credited with a slew of restrictions to reproductive rights in Russia — though the idea that abortion has a significant health hazard for women has been largely debunked.
Similarly, anti-abortion advocate Angela Lanfranchi who links abortion and breast cancer despite medical studies to the contrary spoke at the WCF congress in Melbourne in 2014. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has released a fact sheet demonstrating that there is no correlation between the two.
Meanwhile, WCF staff members have a track record of indulging in anti-LGBT and racist strategies and rhetoric. Brian Brown, who has in the past attempted to draw links between marriage equality and the normalization of pedophilia, had co-sponsored a “free speech bus” which traveled across America to address “the dangers posed by the promotion of ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.’”
Larry Jacobs, the Managing Director of the WCF, has portrayed LGBT unions as unhealthy and abnormal. He condemned the practice of “encouraging the gay 'life-style,' under the guise of promoting tolerance,” which, he claimed, “has become the norm in most Western nations - supported by the United Nations and European Union.” Jacobs said that this “encouragement” takes the form of public school indoctrination, which seeks to foster acceptance of homosexual relations as normal and healthy.
The IOF’s Director of International Coalitions and Coordinator of Regional Events, Don Feder, is particularly prone to anti-LGBT and racist controversy. A former writer at the Boston Herald, Feder bills himself now as a “political/communications consultant.”
He sits on the national board of advisors of the anti-immigrant hate group FAIR and wrote at least one article for the white nationalist site VDARE. He was denounced for his “blatant racism” by the League of United Latin American Citizens after penning an article in The Boston Herald against Puerto Rican statehood riddled with anti-Hispanic sentiment. Labeling Puerto Rico a Caribbean dogpatch, Feder claimed Americans had “the right not to be saddled with an impoverished, crime-ridden island of non-English speakers as our 51st state.”
He has also called for “Islam control” and decried the idea that Harriet Tubman should be put on the $20 dollar bill, declaring, “American history was made by white males, who were overwhelmingly Christian.” He has justified his work cracking down on LGBT rights by comparing “same-sex attraction” to “blood relatives who’ve violated the injunctions of Leviticus, men who wanted harems, adults with an unhealthy attraction to children, fetishists, sadomasochists and Michael Jackson” — as something that does “great damage to the social fabric” and requires “taming”
Speakers at the World Congress of Families have also included influential anti-LGBT activists from around the world, including attendees who have advocated for the criminalization of homosexuality, such as Roman Giertych, the chairman of the far-right nationalist party, the League of Polish Families (LPR) and former Polish minister of education and deputy prime minister, who introduced draft legislation to ban abortion, prevent LGBT people from holding teaching positions and to fine or imprison teachers promoting “deviant ideas.” He opened the 2007 WCF gathering in Warsaw.
Every WCF conference consistently comes accompanied by the spreading of wild anti-LGBT myths and conspiracy theories. Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, who consistently links homosexuality and pedophilia, was invited to chair a panel at the WCF VI conference in Madrid in 2012.
At the 2016 WCF X in Tbilisi, Georgia, Christine De Marcellus de Vollmer, a member of the Pontifical council for the family and the president of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, described “gender ideology” as a “diabolical creation of Marxist philosophy” which is also “pursuing world government.”
American orthodox priest Fr. Josiah Trenham called the movement for LGBT rights “an explosion of vulgarity and perversion unheard of in the history of the West that makes the barbarian invasions of the 5th to the 9th centuries popularly known as the Dark Ages look timid.” Levan Vasadze, the director of that year’s WCF, asked then-President Obama to apologize for “promoting homosexuality,” calling to “stop this culture war on the world.” Despite this history of anti-LGBT rhetoric and politics, that same year, former President George W. Bush sent a letter to the summit commending its efforts to “make the world better.”
In 2017, the WCF conference held in Budapest, Hungary temporarily listed Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration, as one of its guest speakers — Carson’s name was eventually removed. Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry was also listed as a speaker, but Fortenberry claims he did not attend.
Brian Brown, IOF director, who has no problem supporting authoritarian leaders like Putin, has also repeatedly praised Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán, calling him “one of the top pro-family leaders in the world” even as he ignores Orbán’s dismantling of democratic institutions and rights.
The Orbán government has engaged in propaganda, including letters sent to every household accusing Hungarian-born progressive billionaire George Soros of wanting to resettle millions of Muslim in Hungary. Orbán has also implemented a crackdown on dissenting voices, including foreign-funded NGOs, which are to be labeled as “foreign agents,” similar to what Putin did in Russia in 2012, and passed a law in 2017 threatening to shutter Budapest’s Central European University, which Soros also funds.
Under Orbán, Hungary has seen an erosion of an independent judiciary, a packing of the courts with political loyalists, a purge of the civil service and chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that favor the governing coalition and intimidation of news organizations, that are subject to fines if their content is deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel, according to Politico. And when laws that criminalized homelessness, curtailed political advertising, shut down the possibility for same-sex marriage and restricted judicial review were found unconstitutional, Orbán used his parliamentary supermajority to add the measures to the new constitution.
Russian journalist Masha Gessen attended the 2017 WCF gathering in Budapest and spoke with Brian Brown. She asked him if they could negotiate, would it be possible for her family and his to live in peace in the same society? Brown initially said he didn’t know, and then, “no.”
WCF also exhorts supporters to sign petitions to engage one state or another to follow policies: past demands have included getting 110 “pro-family leaders” from 23 countries to sign a petition to support Romania’s “pending move to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman” in 2008; getting 170 such leaders from 21 countries to oppose a new Kenyan constitution that legalized abortion, with signatories including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former house majority leader Tom DeLay in 2010; in 2012, the WCF wrote a letter to decry the participation of the U.S. ambassador in the Latvian Gay Pride.
But this advocacy effort is slim compared to the concrete legislative advice offered by some WCF forums, as well as its more subtle ideological influence on discourse and laws worldwide. The WCF has been organizing parliamentary forums to help various parliamentary members pass what they describe as pro-family legislation throughout the world.
In 2007, in Poland, for instance, the WCF IV organized a European Parliamentary Forum in the Polish Senate, put on by members of the European Parliament who had previously organized a seminar on the future of families in Europe at the European Parliament itself.
At the planned WCF forum in Moscow in 2014 — which was allegedly canceled due to U.S. sanctions against Russia but proceeded anyway under a different banner — the parliamentarian who introduced Russia’s spate of anti-LGBT and anti-abortion laws, Elena Mizulina, put on a parliamentary forum for attendees, in the very building of the Russian Duma (Russia’s lowest house of parliament).
Larry Jacobs, Don Feder and Brian Brown (who was just with NOM at the time) were in attendance at that gathering, which resulted in a resolution that called for various legislative initiatives, including “the adoption of legislative bans on all types of propaganda concerning homosexual relationships in the environment of children and juveniles” and to support scientific research to study the “negative social and psychological effects of raising children in same-gender couples.”
The influence of the WCF on foreign legislation may be most apparent in Russia, with which the WCF has an uncommonly close relationship. The country passed a law effectively banning so-called “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relations (i.e. LGBT) passed by Russia in 2013, which has been credited for a rise in anti-LGBT violence and hate crimes in the country.
WCF leaders expressed support for Russia’s laws. The organization signed a letter praising the ban, and the managing director of the WCF, Larry Jacobs, has supported the fact that the law would prevent gay people from “corrupting children.” However, WCF representatives have claimed that they only retroactively supported the law, rather than actively helped pass it, and that “when Russia passed a law to prevent homosexual propaganda and exploitation of children, the WCF positively acknowledged the initiative, though no member of the WCF has an “association” with Vladimir Putin.”
According to Mother Jones, however, the managing director of the WCF, Larry Jacobs, met the head of the Russian State Duma on family policy, Elena Mizulina, who has introduced the two 2013 anti-LGBT laws, one banning adoption by LGBT parents and the other outlawing “gay propaganda,” at least three times in 2014.
When asked by Mother Jones if the WCF had a role in the rise of anti-LGBT laws in Russia, with 13 new anti-LGBT laws passed since Jacobs has first traveled there, Jacobs answered; “Yes, I think that’s accurate.” Praising the Russian anti-propaganda ban as a “great idea,” Jacobs went on: “Russia is actually doing something that used to be pretty common in the West, which is trying to protect children from harmful materials.”
Brian Brown also spoke with Mizulina’s committee to discuss legislation considering banning adoption by LGBT couples, in his capacity as president of NOM, before he was president of WCF/IOF. He was accompanied by Fabrice Sorlin, WCF representative in France. Sorlin was the former head of the far-right French nationalist militia group, Dies Irae.
Anatoly Antonov, the WCF co-founder who also sits on the board of the IOF’s journal The Natural Family told Mother Jones that some anti-LGBT legislation could be attributed to WCF, “Putin is repeating our words,” he boasted, adding that,
“Unlike other European countries, we refused to ratify proposals supporting adoption of children by gays. The World Congress was happy that Putin stood up against the European governments. It’s our influence on Putin and his administration.”
WCF also helped found FamilyPolicy.ru in 2012, the organization presided over by longtime Russian anti-LGBT and anti-choice activist Alexey Komov, “to build [a] highly efficient network of pan-Russian grassroots socially conservative activists, that would be able to consistently exert real influence on the family policy in Russia, at the U.N. and internationally.”
Its ambassador to European institutions, Pavel Parfentiev, took credit for Russia’s ban on adoptions by LGBT parents, declaring: “As far as I know, I was one of the first people that publicly spoke about the necessity of such a move…Of course, I would support this move because, in fact, I was one of its initiators.”
WCF’s role in Russia, since its original implementation, reportedly accelerated around 2010. According to Larry Jacobs, the “Fr Maxim Obukhov (the father of the Russian pro-life movement) first suggested a Moscow Congress at WCF IV in Warsaw, in 2007.” Obukhov then suggested the appointment of Alexey Komov in 2010 as the representative of the WCF in Russia and in the CIS. Komov would organize two demographic forums held in Russia: the Moscow Demographic forum in Russian State Social University credited for abortion restrictions in 2011 and another in Ulyanovsk in 2012.
With Komov’s involvement, the WCF started to occupy a particular role in contemporary geopolitics, as well as in Russia’s international strategy, one that blurs the line now between the WCF’s ideological role in pushing for the natural family across the world, and in advocating for Russia’s wider geopolitical interests in Europe.
As historian of Russia Christopher Stroop wrote for PRA, the importance of the moral and Christian role that Russia should offer to counter the decadent west has been a future of post-Soviet social conservatism and has “always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world.” The WCF turned out to be key in helping Russia spread its narrative as the safe-keeper of Christian values.
Beyond its European influence, the WCF has also been gaining a more regular presence in African countries and holds regional conferences every year in African cities. Malawi served as the site for one such conference in November 2017. Much like the natural family rhetoric has been appropriating Russia’s traditionalist, Christian and white definition of Russian-ness, the World Congress of Families in its regional African efforts has started to appropriate anti-colonial rhetoric.
It thus posits its opposition to LGBT rights to be an opposition to the imperialist export of pro-LGBT values from the West, especially Obama’s United States — an ironic fact given that this very anti-LGBT agenda is being promoted by American Christian Evangelical groups.
The Christian Right and African allies claim that human rights activists are engaging in neo-colonialism and attempting to destroy Africa by imposing what they claim are Western gender ideas and policies on the country, a myth that fuels suspicion regarding Western powers and motives.
Theresa Okafor, the African regional director of WCF has also claimed that reproductive rights are part of “the sinister agenda to downsize and control Africa,” while calling LGBT rights in Africa “another ploy to depopulate Africa.” In addition, Okafor has supported anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria that criminalize gay sex and ban group meetings of LGBT people. She has also suggested that Boko Haram might be conspiring with gay rights advocates to target Christians. As part of her work with the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage, Okafor has succeeded in keeping sex education out of Nigerian schools.
Okafor has acknowledged WCF’s role in empowering anti-LGBT movements in African countries. As she declared in an interview with Political Research Associates in October 2015, it was the World Congress of Families meeting in Nigeria in 2009 that helped pave the way for Nigeria’s anti-LGBT and anti-abortion laws in 2012, including a bill that criminalizes same-sex marriage. Thanks to them, she said, “we were able to spring into action and get our government to be more discerning and to act in favor of protection for marriage and family.”
Other WCF allies have echoed this supposed anti-colonial rhetoric. Ann Kioko, a founder of African Organization for the Family (a WCF partner), has helped organize WCF regional conferences in Africa. She has called homosexuality “a learned behavior” imported from the West.
Shaping political discourse
WCF’s emphasis on the “natural family” and “demographic winter” has played into nationalist sentiment — especially in Europe — and it has been especially influential due to the roster of influencers that WCF is able to attract, which includes ministers and presidents, some of whom regularly open its conferences. (Members of the WCF also occasionally travel and meet with civil society leaders in their own capacity.)
This ideological influence (or at the very least, convergence of ideas) was apparent in 2007 when the former Polish president Lech Kaczynski highlighted, in his opening of the WCF forum in Warsaw, that if the homosexual "approach to sexual life were to be promoted on a grand scale, the human race would disappear." Some of Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric similarly echoes that of the WCF: Putin declared in a 2014 address, “Europeans are dying out ... and gay marriages don’t produce children.”
Viktor Orban, the far-right prime minister of Hungary, opened the eleventh WCF forum by decrying the fact that “Europe was under siege” from hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, and then tied it to demographic winter, saying that “Europe, our common homeland, is losing out in the population competition between great civilizations.” He went on to lament that fewer marriages were producing fewer children and the population is aging and therefore declining. Rather than relying on immigration, Orban said, “we must solve our demographic problems by relying on our own resources and mobilizing our own reserves” and, he continued, “by renewing ourselves spiritually.”
WCF enables politicians to connect the dots between narratives of demographic and civilizational decline, creating a more palatable narrative for anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant policies and views, one that is particularly popular in Eastern Europe’s far-right climate.
WCF and its allies are shifting a human rights narrative to the right, and getting their exclusionary definition of the family and tradition approved and recognized in country after country, which further marginalizes LGBT people, reduces access to reproductive healthcare, and stigmatizes those who do not conform to their definitions of what a family is. With allies from Australia to Brazil, and from the European Parliament to the Russian Kremlin, the World Congress of Families has created an influential network that seeks to marginalize LGBT people and severely curtail access to reproductive healthcare.
Increasingly, the language of the natural family is becoming adopted, whether at the United Nations, which passed a resolution proposed by Russia for “a better understanding of traditional values of humankind,” or in the European Union, or countries around the world.
Given the enthusiasm for its “demographic winter” and “natural family” ideas in Eastern Europe, WCF currently appears to be focusing major organizing efforts there. It held its 2016 gathering in Tbilisi, Georgia, and its 2017 gathering in Budapest, Hungary. It will meet in Chisinau, Moldova, in 2018 and, according to the news site Balkan Insight, Moldovan media reported that Moldovan president Igor Dodon met with Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev in Athens, Greece, in August 2017 and asked him to finance the event.
Balkan Insight notes that the main sponsors of WCF are Malofeyev and Vladimir Yakunin, both conservative oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin who finance Russia-friendly and Christian Orthodox initiatives in former Soviet countries and in the West.