Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 31, 2015, at 9:26 a.m. ET
SEOUL — Jonah Lee, a round-faced 63-year-old with a swoop of graying hair, once spent his days running gay bars and drag clubs in Korea and Japan in the '70s and '80s. His flagship, Hot Love, was a hit in both Seoul and Tokyo.
Today, Lee is known for something else entirely. He claims, through a ministry he started in the Korean capital in 1994, to have counseled more than 1,200 people seeking to “escape homosexuality.”
Lee’s story — from gay entertainment pioneer to the leading spokesperson for Korea’s ex-gay movement — was made possible by the trajectory of many of South Korea’s Christian churches, which have grown exponentially since Lee first became a Christian almost 40 years ago. For most of that time, homosexuality was basically a non-issue even in the most conservative of these churches, and Lee said no one raised concern about his business for 11 years after he started attending South Korea’s largest megachurch; he even started going to theology classes while dressed in women’s clothing, according to a former teacher.
Today, many of Korea’s most important Christian leaders have come to preach homosexuality as an existential threat. These churches believe their movement is doing more than just saving people from sin; they believe they are saving the nation itself. Lee’s path to ex-gay leader is a story in miniature of how homosexuality rapidly went from an almost invisible issue in South Korea to one that is now bringing tens of thousands of shouting protesters to the streets.
On June 28, Lee took to the stage at a rally organized by the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee, an umbrella group that brought together five major Christian organizations to protest an LGBT march through the center of Seoul. He was on the same program as Pastor Lee Young-hoon, president of the Christian Council of Korea and head of the 800,000-member Yoido Full Gospel Church, where Jonah Lee first became a Christian.
“The church has to serve the nation faithfully in delivering the message of salvation to the homosexuals!” Lee told the crowd. Almost all of the several thousand people in attendance wore visors printed with the motto “Oppose homosexual provocation.”
Back when Lee first converted from Buddhism to Christianity — in 1978 — this event would have been as unthinkable as his participation in it. While Christian leaders who spoke to BuzzFeed News maintain Korean churches have always subscribed to a doctrine opposed to homosexuality, barely anyone ever preached against it because there were virtually no out people in Korea, let alone an organized movement.
In an interview in the small office building that houses his church at the edge of Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood, Lee said he became a Christian because he believed he was responsible for the suicide of his mother, a devout Buddhist, and needed a way to find forgiveness.
In the late ‘70s, Lee told his mother he could not marry because he was attracted to men. She told him she had been able to conceive him only after 100 days of beseeching Buddha for a son, and she now believed that his homosexuality was the price for having her prayers answered. His mother believed she could free him from his homosexuality by cleansing herself of her sins, and the only way to do that was for her to kill herself.
“My mom thought the reason why I’m gay was due to her sins. She thought it was her responsibility to resolve this problem — she wrote a will and committed suicide,” Lee said.
Lee still carried tremendous guilt for her suicide, but he didn’t run from his homosexuality. “I was heartbroken after my mother’s death,” Lee said. “But that didn’t change things. I was still gay.”
Soon after her death, he opened his first gay bar, called Hot Love, which Lee claims was the first in the Itaewon neighborhood that today has a thriving gay strip. He would perform drag there, too, taking the name Lee Ae Ma Ma, which translates to Lee Loves Mama.
Lester Feder for BuzzFeed News
Jonah Lee (center) at the event announcing the creation of the "International Association of Ex-Homosexuality" and the second "Ex-homosexuality Human Rights Youth Forum."But he was lonely and miserable. So when an old drinking buddy returned from a stint living in Japan and told him she had become a Christian and Jesus had told her to bring him to Christ, he erupted in tears.
“I started having this feeling that I wanted to repent for my sins and I wanted God to forgive me,” Lee said. “I wronged my mother and I wanted her to forgive me, but since she had passed away, I had no one to ask forgiveness from…. I repented, converted from Buddhism to Christianity, and I truly felt I was forgiven.”
Accepting Jesus didn’t mean turning away from homosexuality. He began attending Yoido Full Gospel Church even as his business took off, and he continued to run gay bars and drag clubs.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual,” Lee said. “I didn’t think it was a problem at the time — no one had mentioned to me that it was a sin.”
Lee was one of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to Yoido, one of the country’s most popular and influential churches. Yoido was just one of many Protestant churches that were growing exponentially as South Korea’s economy took off in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, fueled in large part by a “prosperity gospel” that preached faith would be rewarded by wealth.
Yoido was started by Pastor Cho Yonggi, a Buddhist convert, in the 1950s, when less than 3% of Koreans were Protestant. Though Korean diplomats first brought Christianity to the peninsula in the late 1700s, it really took off after the Korean War and the South’s turn toward the United States as its most important ally and economic partner.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual.”
American churches and Christian relief groups took a special interest in South Korea in part because Christianity had been especially well-established in the North before the communist regime. Korean Christians had been important leaders against Japanese rule in the first part of the 20th century, and its associated with nationalism grew stronger over South Korea’s 60-year conflict with the North. As of 2010, almost 25% of South Korea was Protestant and another 7.5% was Catholic.
When Lee met with Pastor Cho to ask about the nighttime panic attacks he had been having and whether they might be a sign that God wanted him to become a pastor, Lee said Pastor Cho raised no concern about his sexuality.
“You’ve been selected by God,” Lee said Cho told him during an encounter in Tokyo, where Lee had fled in 1988, when Lee said police shut down gay bars in Itaewon in response to the spread of AIDS. “I think he was aware that people are born gay.”
Cho, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. He stepped down as leader of Yoido in 2008 and was convicted in 2014 of embezzling millions from the church and of tax evasion.
The kind of culture wars then charging up U.S. evangelicals had yet to arrive in the region when Lee devoted himself to studying full-time at a Yoido-backed Bible school in Tokyo. He lived off the $3,000 a month he earned from renting out the Tokyo outpost of Hot Love and would regularly come to class dressed as a woman, according to his most important mentor, Pastor Koichi Hirano.
“I was shocked to find out he was a man,” said Hirano, who is the pastor of the Horizon Chapel in Tokyo. Hirano said that Lee had “very fair, beautiful skin for a man of his age”; though Lee was almost 40, Hirano said, he “looked like a 25-year-old woman.”
Then, 11 years into Lee’s life as a Christian, something changed.
Hirano was the first to tell Lee that he could not be gay and become a pastor. And he went one step further: He told him he wasn’t born gay and that Bible study could cure him.
“If you were indeed born gay then something is wrong with God — God created a male and a female, and he said that homosexuality is a sin,” Lee recalls Hirano telling him. “There must be something wrong with God if he says being gay is OK.”
Lee, eager to fulfill his calling to become a pastor, asked Hirano how he could stop being gay. Lee remembers Hirano pointed to him to Corinthians 6:11, promising he could be “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” if he devoted himself to scripture.
Hirano had lived in the United States for 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, where he had heard many stories of “ex-gays.”
Though Hirano had been ordained at Duke University’s liberal Methodist seminary, his preaching was heavily influenced by the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, a megachurch that was the seat of one of the largest revivals of the 1970s. He had been posted to a church in nearby Huntington Beach after finishing seminary in 1975, and he witnessed Calvary’s legendary Pastor Church Smith bring thousands of hippies and others on the cultural margins to the church. There, Hirano had seen alcoholics and drug addicts saved by faith — and, he said, he knew “a lot of gay people [who] recovered at Calvary Chapel.”
For two years, Lee studied with Hirano and “refrained from leading a gay lifestyle,” but then had sex with an ex-boyfriend despite his resolve. He went to tell Hirano he was abandoning his studies, but while listening to Hirano finish teaching a story about Jesus exorcising a man of demons, he felt a blow to the head and it seemed as though his soul had left his body, as if chasing a tornado. He started to cry and sweat as if something were escaping through his pores.
When it was over, Lee said, he “felt a change … like cool water running through my stomach.” Though he'd had sex with a man just a few days before, he said, “I started feeling that a woman is beautiful and males are just males.”
Through Hirano, Lee said he developed a relationship with Calvary Chapel and received his certificate of ordination from its Santa Barbara branch when he visited California in 1995. Ricky Ryan, then-pastor of the Santa Barbary Calvary Chapel, declined through an employee of his current church to respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for confirmation.
At first Lee hid his gay past, and his churches struggled. By 2007, when South Korea was producing more missionaries than any country in the world other than the U.S., Lee was thinking of joining their ranks by evangelizing China.
But before he could leave, LGBT rights burst into the national debate for the first time. South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly, took up a human rights bill that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation along with several other controversial categories, including “ideology,” “military status,” and “family type.” The fight that ultimately sunk the bill finally gave Lee his niche.
Lee became one of a handful of activists who thought the major churches and religious organizations weren’t doing enough to defeat the bill. This was the first attempt to import LGBT rights laws primarily crafted in Europe and the Americas to Korea under the banner of human rights, a concept that was particularly sensitive in the country because its most popular politician, Ban Ki-moon, had just become secretary general of the United Nations.
Like anti-LGBT activists where such laws had passed, they warned this would lead to censorship of churches that preached against homosexuality. And, even though a homegrown LGBT movement had been hosting small pride marches since 1999, many viewed homosexuality as something that would never have become an issue if not for foreign influence.
Lee founded his own organization, called the Holy Life Center, to “treat homosexuals.” The group also organizes events to promote “ex-gay rights,” which Lee appears to primarily mean the right to continue to practice his brand of therapy at a time when many European and American jurisdictions are moving to prohibit it. Lee said that as word got around about his past, the groups mobilizing against the bill recruited him as a spokesperson. Ultimately, the sexual orientation language was stripped from the bill and the whole proposal was shelved.
Lee’s fame began to spread beyond his small ministry. “I heard that there was a gay pastor in Korea that was treated, and we invited him to hear his story at one of our church meetings,” said Lee Yong-hee, leader of a group called the Esther Prayer Movement. The group was originally created to “make the nation pure” in the hopes of reunification with North Korea, but it has become one of the most visible of the small Christian groups of Korea’s growing anti-LGBT movement over the past few years.
Jonah Lee eventually split with the Esther Prayer Movement and groups like it, because, he said, “they were portraying gay people as bad people” while he views “gay people as someone who needs to be saved, not as my enemy.” For the past two years, Lee's Holy Life Center has put on a series of seminars about helping people “escape homosexuality” that coincided with this year’s Korean Queer Cultural Festival. The festival, which has been organizing pride marches and other events since 1999, became the focus of the churches’ newfound fear of LGBT rights in 2015, when they organized their Anti-LGBT Response Committee in a failed attempt to get city leaders to shut down the march and LGBT rally in front of city hall.
Demonstration against the Seoul pride march in June.This year, Holy Life also organized an event at the National Assembly announcing the formation of a new international ex-gay organization to replace Exodus International, which collapsed in 2013. Lee also maintains a website where he fields questions from people seeking to be cured from homosexuality.
“Will you, Pastor Jonah, help me save myself from homosexuality? I cannot trust God. I believe that without believing in the miracles of the Lord, I cannot overcome homosexuality like this,” one young woman wrote to him. He replied, “The reason that you cannot overcome homosexuality is because you are choosing to waste your life as a homosexual being, even if you will burn with an eternal judgement…. The Biblical command is for you to come forth with a heart for repentance, and also a clear mind wishing to change completely. You must fight for your faith and have a determination of patience.”
Until this year, Lee, the Esther Prayer Movement, and a few other small organizations were the only ones consistently mobilizing against LGBT rights, though their reach was amplified by more established religious leaders who were influential in both of South Korea’s major parties and helped kill a few attempts to revive the nondiscrimination language first defeated eight years ago.
That changed this year when the Christian Council of Korea, which claims to represent 60,000 churches with 12 million members, helped organize the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee. The committee appeared to want to capitalize on the small success of a small band of protesters in 2014, who managed to delay a pride march through Seoul by lying down in the street.
"If values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart."
This year, Yoido’s top pastor and other high-profile religious leaders waged a months-long battle to get city officials to deny permission to hold the parade altogether — and nearly succeeded. The march went ahead only after a court ordered it be allowed to proceed. The Anti-LGBT Committee focused its energy on getting thousands of protesters on the streets in an unsuccessful bid to drown it out.
Yoon Deuk Nam, the general secretary of the Christian Council, told BuzzFeed News that as the pride marches began attracting crowds of more than 20,000 in the heart of the city, homosexuality had become a threat to South Korea. A special fear is that the military — the only South Korean institution that explicitly criminalizes sodomy — would be weakened if homosexuality were allowed to become accepted. The country is still technically at war with North Korea, and all South Korean men are required to serve two years in uniform.
“Of course these so-called values [of LGBT rights] will undermine our national strength,” Yoon said. “We have to send all able-bodied men to the military when they reach a certain age…. and if values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart.”
Lee’s mission is critical to the churches’ efforts to defend South Korea, said Park Young-ryul, former general secretary of the Christian Council of Korea, speaking at an event Lee organized at the National Assembly in June.
“Many politicians and activists said that homosexuality is something you are born into, they must be recognized.… but Jonah was our only hope, our only alternative that proved this wrong — he showed us that homosexuality is something that can be escaped,” Lee said. “This person’s precious ministry is a milestone to the Korean history and society.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on April 11, 2015, at 12:42 p.m. ET
BRASILIA — A group of hard-faced young men marched military style through a cheering crowd, giving straight-armed salutes. “Thank the Lord, we are here today ready for battle, and determined to serve you — We are Gladiators of the Altar,” they declared, in a video that went viral in February.
The video wasn’t a clip from an army training exercise or propaganda for some sort of militia. According to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which posted the video, the Gladiators of the Altar program essentially amounts to a Bible study class for at-risk young men. The video, posted in February by a Universal Church in the northern coastal city of Fortaleza, got around one million views in the 24 hours before the church took it offline, following widespread uproar.
The video caught fire in part because it embodied the ideological battle now playing out in Brazil’s capital. Backed by the country’s rapidly growing evangelical population, a large number of religious conservatives won election in October as part of a broad conservative coalition that now controls Congress. They have taken office bent on reversing recent gains for LGBT rights, including a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. Progressives have struggled to draw public attention to the implications of the vote, in part because even President Dilma Rousseff — who supports LGBT rights — courted evangelical support for her reelection.
“The photo is shocking,” wrote Brazil’s only out gay member of Congress and best-known progressive standard bearer, Jean Wyllys, in a long comment on an Instagram post of the Gladiators. The threat of “religious fundamentalism” has gone ignored as Brazil’s major parties have scrambled for the votes of conservative evangelicals who now make up more than 20% of the population, he wrote. This “Christian fundamentalism” is every bit as dangerous as “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Middle East, and now threatens “individual liberty, sexual diversity, and secular culture” in Brazil, he said.
“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake,” he asked.
The Gladiators’ militaristic march became such a lightening rod partly because the Universal Church already casts a large shadow over Brazilian politics. Founded 37 years ago and headquartered in São Paulo, it is one of South America’s fastest growing denominations and now claims well over 8 million adherents in Brazil and millions more in countries including Argentina, Angola, and the United States. Its founder and patriarch, Edir Macedo, subscribes to a kind of “prosperity theology” that suggests the faithful are rewarded with wealth and encourages believers to give large gifts to the church. He has amassed a personal fortune estimated to be more than $1 billion while head of this growing religious empire. Much of that comes from his ownership of Brazil’s second largest television network, Rede Record.
Rumors persist that he controls the Brazilian Republican Party, a small party created in 2005 under the leadership of his nephew, Senator and Universal Church bishop Marcelo Bezerra Crivelli. The party, however, officially maintains it is independent and secular. (Through a spokesperson, Macedo declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The Brazilian Republican Party won 21 seats in last October’s election, almost all of whom are reportedly Universal Church members. They are among the more than 80 evangelicals elected to Congress, a gain of around a dozen over the previous congress. An informal grouping known as the “Evangelical Bloc” now forms the backbone of a newly emboldened social conservative faction.
“I think we have the most conservative congress yet,” said Deputy Alan Rick, a freshman from the Republican Party who was tapped to lead a 330-member “Family Front.” In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rick said that the Front was organized in part to block a nondiscrimination law known as the law to “criminalize homophobia.” This law was a long-standing priority for LGBT rights advocates because Brazil has one of the highest reported rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the world. (The human rights arm of the Organization of American States counted 347 assaults or murders of LGBT people in Brazil in the one year period ending March 31 of 2014 alone.) The Front also hoped to pass its own legislation giving protections to fetuses from the moment of conception, potentially expanding Brazilian law that limits abortion only to cases involving rape or if it is the only way to save the mother’s life.
“When will we wake up to the true nature of the monster emerging from the lake?”
Many progressives are stunned to find a Congress that not only has a larger number of social conservatives, but also has stronger factions allied with the military, police, and cattle-ranching interests — a conservative coalition known as the “BBB Bloc” for bibles, bullets, and bulls. This majority is painful for them because widespread 2013 protests against economic inequality had raised hopes for a progressive election wave. But this failed to materialize, and the progressive favorite for president, environmentalist Marina Silva, finished third after she backtracked on support for LGBT rights and made other other concessions to the right to appeal to evangelicals and other conservatives.
Warning cries from progressives about the threat to LGBT and women’s rights have fallen on deaf ears, in part because of a sprawling corruption scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, that threatens to bring down the Rousseff government.
In March, investigators named 49 politicians suspected in a kickback-for-contracts scheme. Rousseff, who oversaw the company for many years as a member of the board of directors and as minister of energy, was not named and has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing while she ran the company. But there have been large-scale protests calling for her impeachment.
One of those named by investigators is Eduardo Cunha, the president of Congress’s lower chamber, the House of Deputies. Cunha has still managed to eclipse Rousseff as the most powerful politician in Brasilia. In one emblematic episode, he got Rousseff’s administration to oust the education minister and then announced his firing from the House floor before the administration had time to prepare a formal announcement.
Cunha is an evangelical who thumbed his nose at progressives when he took office by proposing bills to create a “Hetero Pride Day” and to criminalize “heterophobia.” He also told abortion rights supporters they would “have to go over my dead body to vote” on legislation to decriminalize the procedure. Brazilian political observers routinely compare him to House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, a comparison Cunha told one newspaper he dislikes because Underwood “is a thief, gay, and a cuckold.”
Through a spokesperson, Cunha declined to speak with BuzzFeed News.
Social conservative lawmakers said they were feeling bullish under his leadership.
Marco Feliciano is a megachurch leader and gospel singer who was elected to the House from São Paulo state in 2010 and won reelection in 2014 with the highest number of votes of any evangelical member of Congress. In his words, Cunha “is a political genius.” Feliciano is known as one of the most bombastic of Congress’s social conservatives. In 2013, after winning the chairmanship of the House human rights committee, he tried to advance a bill reversing a ban on mental health professionals practising “conversion therapy” to make gay people straight. When the outcry against his chairmanship began in the spring of 2013, Feliciano said even members of his own party wanted him to step down, but Cunha told him to hang on.
“You’ll get a political gain out of this,” Feliciano said Cunha told him. “You’ll be a symbol to any Christian running for office.”
The proposal that most worries social progressives in Cunha’s Congress is a new family code. The bill’s opponents view it primarily as a way to undermine a 2013 decision by a judicial panel that established marriage equality nationwide. If the bill passes, “the LGBT family will lose the legal protection of the state,” said Wyllys, the out deputy.
Wyllys and many others on the left complain that churches have an unfair advantage in the political arena: their earnings are tax exempt, even when they come from church-owned businesses that have nothing to do with worship. Many deputies are also stars of religious broadcasting or well known gospel singers, and their publicity gives them a leg up.
The chairman of the committee writing the family law, Sostenes Cavalcante, is a prime example of what they complain about. His third largest source of campaign funds is one of Brazil’s wealthiest and politically influential religious leaders, Pastor Silas Malafaia of the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro.
Cavalacante could not be reached for comment after several attempts by BuzzFeed News. Campaign financial records, show Malafaia contributed $31,000 to Cavalcante’s campaign via his Gospel Central publishing company in 2014 with an additional $17,000 via Malafaia’s brother. Malafaia’s endorsement alone carries tremendous weight: when he tweeted a demand that Marina Silva retract LGBT rights language from her presidential platform last August or lose his potential support, she cut it immediately.
During an interview at his church in the western part of Rio de Janeiro, Malafaia disputed that he and other evangelicals were using the political arena to go after LGBT people. They are simply fighting back against a movement he said wanted to send them to jail for practicing their religion.
“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity,” Malafaia said.
Malafaia, also a licensed psychologist, said he’s faced four unsuccessful suits by LGBT activists trying to have his license revoked, and said the anti-homophobia law was simply an attempt to “censor” churches.
“Soon they will make a law to forbid us to preach in our churches against practices we don’t believe in,” Malafaia said. Recent proposals in Brasilia such as a bill to allow minors a path to legal gender reassignment, he argued that evangelicals were fighting against “the state overruling the family,” a kind of “cultural Marxism” that will “destroy family and society and civilization.”
The only thing that’s changed in this Congress, Malafaia said, is that “Congress represents people’s ideology and thinking.”
“Gay activism is the most intolerant movement of postmodernity"
At base, Malafaia argued, Brazilian politics are changing in line with Brazil’s population. Census data shows that evangelical protestants now account for more than 22% of Brazil’s population, up from around 10% in 1991. (About one-third of these belong to Malafaia’s denomination, the Assemblies of God.) The rate of growth is staggering that many demographers believe that a country that was more than 90% Catholic in 1970 could soon be majority evangelical. This could lead to a continuing decline in support for marriage equality; polling data shows that only 25 percent of Brazilian protestants support marriage equality as opposed to 51 percent of Catholics.
“That’s where our power comes from,” Malafaia said. “We are more than 50 million — 50 million evangelicals who go to church.” And unlike other politicians, he said, “evangelicals do not separate the church and practical life.”
His opponents see something much more sinister: an alliance between social conservatives and those who are nostalgic for Brazil’s dictatorship, which only fell in the 1980s. For them, the most emblematic evangelical leader is Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, who infamously said in 2011 that he would rather one of his sons “died in an accident” than to be gay. Bolsonaro also recently proposed a bill that would name the waters off the Brazilian coast the “President Medici Sea” after Brazil’s former dictator.
“We live a crisis moment in Brazil,” said Erika Kokay, a deputy who represents Brasilia in Congress and is a progressive stalwart on the Human Rights Committee. “The fundamentalist bloc is making arrangements with other conservative blocs in Congress … That’s a fascist logic.”
Alexandre Orrico and Olivia Florencia contributed to this report.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 27, 2014, at 7:30 p.m. ET
RIGA, Latvia — In 1990, a new Latvian publication called MORE, which billed itself as "an independent erotic newspaper," published its first issue with a strong endorsement of LGBT rights on its front page.
Latvia was in the process of breaking free from the Soviet Union, and the article made the case for repealing the Baltic republic's Soviet-era law criminalizing homosexuality, known as Article 124, as part of "Latvia's path to Europe."
"There can be no free country that criminalizes sexual minorities," an activist who said he was from a group called the Latvian Association for Sexual Equality was approvingly quoted as saying. "This discriminatory article … only discredits Latvia in the eyes of the civilized world." The editorial, headlined "For Sexual Equality," ended with details of the organization's bank account should readers want to donate to its cause.
MORE became a sensation across the former Soviet Union. Never before in the USSR had there been a publication that dealt openly with sex. Its creator was Vladimir Linderman, who worked as a journalist and published a poetry magazine before the paper's launch. He was suddenly making serious money, but the cash was also attracting the attention of mafia bosses who demanded joint ownership of the enterprise. Linderman sold off the paper in the mid-'90s and went into politics. After Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, Linderman moved to Moscow to become part of the leadership of one of the most stridently anti-Putin political movements, and spent six years dodging Russian police until he was ultimately deported back to Latvia.
That's why many Latvians found it ironic when Linderman, who is now 56, launched a campaign last December to collect signatures in support of a referendum on a Latvian version of Russia's "gay propaganda" ban. Kremlin allies throughout eastern Europe have pushed anti-LGBT legislation in the past couple years as part of their ideological battle with the West.
It was a shock to see Linderman acting as if he were the Kremlin's man in Riga. But Latvia is the logical next battleground in Russia's duel with the European Union. The country has the largest Russian-speaking population of any EU member state that was once part of the Communist world, and they get much of their news from television stations beamed across the country's long border with Russia.
The timing of Linderman's new campaign was also telling — he unveiled the effort just after an organization that runs EuroPride, a Europe-wide LGBT rights festival, announced it would hold its 2015 event in Latvia, when the Baltic state would assume the EU's rotating presidency. The decision to hold EuroPride as close to Moscow as possible was given a symbolic boost on Nov. 7, when Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs came out on Twitter, becoming the first openly gay official from a former Soviet country.
The story of Linderman's transformation from anti-Kremlin sexual radical to moralist crusader who many Latvians suspect of being a Kremlin agent isn't really about how Linderman changed his mind about homosexuality. During a two-and-a-half-hour interview with BuzzFeed News at a hotel in the Latvian capital, he suggested he actually didn't really have any strong feelings about homosexuality at all. Rather, his story is about how many people living in the former Soviet Union went from being desperate to escape Moscow's rule to yearning for its patronage. It is also a tale of how Putin used that desire to co-opt some of his most committed enemies and convince many living in the former Communist world that what once seemed so exciting about the West is now what is most terrifying about it.
"I dislike any ideology where I see signs of totalitarianism," Linderman said between cigarettes. MORE was his answer to Soviet repression, and his "gay propaganda" proposal is a response to what he sees as a "new totalitarianism" being pushed by liberal forces in the West.
"Sometimes, my biography confuses even me," Linderman said. "I was the father of the sexual revolution, and now I'm becoming the father of the sexual counterrevolution."
MORE began publishing in 1990, about a year before Latvia's government formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Parties favoring independence had already taken control of Latvia's government, and they fended off an attempted coup by forces loyal to Moscow before the USSR recognized Latvia's independence in September 1991, three months before the USSR itself dissolved.
MORE had a fair amount of gay coverage in its first few issues, but it wasn't a gay newspaper by any stretch. It was omnivorous in its coverage but exuberantly hetero in its aesthetic: A pair of women's legs sticking up into the air substituted for part of a letter in the paper's logo. A close-up photo of a vagina decorated the numeral on the top of page 2 just because. Half of page 3 was devoted to a picture of a naked woman splayed on her knees plunging her face into a man's crotch.
The newspaper's mix of porn and satire opened up the conversation about sex in the Russian-speaking world in much the same way Playboy did in the U.S. in the 1950s, but its significance was arguably more profound. The phrase "there's no sex in the Soviet Union" had been a running joke on both sides of the Iron Curtain for several years before it fell, and there was some truth to it, at least in publishing. MORE was a joyful middle-finger to all the social strictures of the Communist years, liberating in the way it might have been to wave a giant dildo in the face of Lenin. (The editors came pretty close to doing exactly that in the very first issue, placing an image of a veiny rubber phallus alongside an excerpt from a Lenin biography with a caption that began, "Have they understood that MARXISM is more real and more serious than they thought, that you can't rag on it?")
But as much fun as Linderman seemed to be having, he quickly soured on Latvia's rush toward Europe. Just months after gaining independence, Latvia's new government stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of Russian people whose families had moved to Latvia after it was absorbed by Stalin during World War II — including Linderman. The move left about one-third of Latvia's population of 2.6 million without citizenship. Russians like Linderman saw this as discrimination, pure and simple.
"For Latvians, it is very important that they are the owners of this territory — the masters — and the others are guests," Linderman said. "The majority of the Russian-speaking population here, we believe we are owners as well. We feel we have the same rights as Latvians."
Disenfranchisement wasn't Linderman's only disappointment with what Latvia was becoming. "Maybe I had some illusions about Western life for some years," Linderman said, but when capitalism arrived he found it too crass and felt it was up to him to preserve "artistic life" in Latvia.
"When it all started here, the process of dividing all the property and money gathered here during Soviet times … it was very unpleasant and non-artistic," Linderman said. "I believed that the new capitalistic system would be more creative, [but] over the whole history of Latvian independence for 20 years, I have seen no sign of creative activity, not in government, nor in social life, nor in arts and sciences. Many people say, 'If you, Linderman, leave Latvia, then life here is dead completely.'"
As Latvia laid the groundwork to join the European Union and NATO in the '90s, Linderman fought to drag it back toward Russia. He became a leader in the Latvian branch of a new political movement that had started in Moscow called the National Bolshevik Party. The name is confusing, because the Nazbols — as movement members were nicknamed — weren't really pining for communism, but rather a Russian-led empire that harkened back to both the USSR and the "Russian World" dreamt of under the tsars. They affected a Nazi-inspired fascist drag, directly modeling the movement's flag on the banner of Hitler's Third Reich, but with a hammer and sickle at its center instead of a swastika. Its leader, a writer named Eduard Limonov, affected a kind of casual punk militarism, a posture most infamously captured in a BBC documentary that showed him firing a few rounds from a machine gun into the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo during a 1992 visit to see the Russian-backed Serbian warlord Radovan Karadžić.
Joining the Nazbols "was my reaction to the Russophobia and nationalism here in Latvia," Linderman said.
Linderman also related to the Nazbols' aesthetic. Limonov spoke about the movement as an extension of his literary life — a sort of conceptual art project — at least at first. Like Linderman, Limonov first made his name in large part by using sex to shock Soviet sensibilities, but went even further, including writing graphically about having sex with men in the autobiographical novel that established his reputation, 1979's It's Me, Eddie. In one famous scene the eponymous narrator is pulled out of the drunken despair that had seized him while living in exile in a New York flophouse when he has sex with a stranger in the middle of the night.
"I must be the only Russian poet who had ever been smart enough to fuck a black man in a New York vacant lot," the eponymous narrator of It's Me, Eddie muses after the encounter. "For the first time in several months I was in a situation that I liked, utterly and completely... At that moment I was really a woman, capricious, demanding, and probably seductive, because I remember myself playfully wiggling my butt as I leaned on my hands in the sand."
Linderman was a leader of the Latvian branch of the Nazbol party in the late '90s and wrote for Limonov's newspaper, which was called Limonka (twisting Limonov's name into a Russian term for "hand grenade"). The paper was banned in Latvia and Linderman wrote under the name Abel, borrowing a name used by a famous Soviet spy who was captured after spending years working throughout the U.S. and Europe.
The Latvian Nazbols became more militant as the decade wore on, culminating in November 2000, when three members barricaded themselves inside the bell tower of the Church of St. Peter, which looms over Riga's historic center. One of the triggers for the protest was the trial of a former Latvian KGB officer named Mikhail Fartbukh — accused of sending 31 Latvian families to Siberia a year after the Soviet Union took control of the country in 1940 — who they cast as a martyr for Latvia's Russians.
Latvian authorities moved aggressively to shut the Nazbols down. The three who seized the church were charged with terrorism and sentenced to 15 years in jail. They came after Linderman a few years later, charging him with possessing weapons and plotting to overthrow the Latvian government. But Linderman was in Russia before the police came for him, heading to Moscow to join the Nazbol central committee. By the time he arrived, the main threat to the movement was another former KGB agent: Vladimir Putin.
When Putin became president of Russia on the last day of 1999, he represented no particular ideology, but was brought in as a firm hand that would restore order following the chaos seen under the increasingly ailing Boris Yeltsin. He immediately set about consolidating power, turning on the oligarchs who brought him to power, arresting political opponents, and crushing separatist movements with a famous promise to "waste the terrorists in their shithouses."
Gay people weren't a target in Putin's early years. That came only in 2012, after mass opposition protests made Putin worry he could actually lose power. Recasting himself as a champion of Russian values, Putin could discredit the very idea of Western values as a pretense designed to promote the rights of "pederasts" and "perverts."
But the Nazbols were on Putin's radar from day one. The National Bolshevik Party wasn't formally ruled to be an illegal extremist group until 2007, but Limonov was arrested in 2001 on charges that he was plotting to invade Kazakhstan based on an article he had written, and served two years in a labor camp. Linderman, meanwhile, landed in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison — the infamous mothership of KGB interrogation under Soviet rule — a few months after he arrived in Moscow in 2003, but then he got lucky. Russian security police arrested him on the charges he was facing in Latvia, but a good lawyer and "friends among the politicians" prevented him from being extradited and he was released after a few weeks, he said.
Linderman did not say what he was doing during the six years he spent in Moscow, but much of that time was devoted to fighting Latvia's attempts to extradite him. In 2008 he was finally sent back to Latvia and spent four months in jail until a court acquitted him of the charges. He was released and set to rebuilding his life in a country where he still could not vote. Latvia was now formally part of the European Union, which it had joined in 2004 while Linderman was out of the country.
Linderman quickly re-established himself as one of the most controversial non-citizen activists in Latvia. He founded a political party dedicated to dismantling a pillar of the country's post-Soviet identity — the law establishing Latvian as the country's only official language. In 2011, he helped gather enough signatures to force a referendum on making Russian an official language as well. When the referendum was held in 2012, voters rejected it 75% to 25%, a margin so large that it would have still lost substantially even if all of the roughly 280,000 remaining non-citizens had been allowed to cast a ballot in favor of the referendum.
When Linderman started gathering signatures for a referendum to ban gay propaganda in December of 2013, his critics saw it as an indirect attack on Latvia's European identity after his direct attack had failed. LGBT rights activists speculated that the whole effort was being funded directly by the Kremlin.
"I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but it seems quite clear that this money might come from our very tiny and completely non-ambitious neighboring country that we share a border with," said Kaspars Zalitis of the Latvian LGBT group Mozaika. "This law is a direct copy of the Russian law."
Linderman denies he gets any support from Moscow and said the campaign for the referendum has raised and spent less than €7,000. In fact, he said he wished his critics' allegations were true. "I would really welcome the attempt from the Russian part to intervene somehow in local events," Linderman said.
If Linderman has any quarrel with Putin now, it is that the Russian president isn't as fervently committed to expanding Russian influence as Linderman would like.
"Nowadays everything has changed," said Linderman, borrowing a formulation that Limonov has used now that he has found himself in uncomfortable agreement with Putin on matters like Russia's fueling unrest in Ukraine: "It is not me who moved towards the Kremlin. The Kremlin moved towards me."
Linderman maintains that his anti-LGBT crusade is primarily motivated by a genuine concern about what he calls a "gender revolution taking place in the Western world." But he allows that he launched it with another goal as well: to convince ethnic Latvians that they should unite with Russians to fight against so-called foreign values.
"It was very important for us to convey the idea to Latvian society ... in this particular field it would be impossible for them to defend their traditional values without the help of Russian society," Linderman said.
Some of his supporters also hope the referendum could force Latvia to rethink its membership in the European Union. "This is, of course, a confrontation not [just] with the EU itself, but first and foremost with the Latvian government which doesn't really think about the marching orders they get from Brussels," said Ruslan Pankratov, a member of Latvia's parliament and Riga city councilman. Pankratov is a member of the Harmony Party, the center-left party that is led by the country's highest-ranking ethnic Russian politician, Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs. (Ušakovs himself has kept his distance from the referendum, dismissing it as "an attempt to draw attention.") If Linderman were to succeed in getting his proposal for the "gay propaganda" ban on the ballot, Pankratov said, "This referendum can be a turning point for Linderman, uniting Russians and Latvians."
For the moment, however, the perception that Linderman is using this referendum primarily to win sympathy for Russians seems to be weighing down his chances of it ever coming to a vote. Anti-Russian sentiment has hardened following Russia's invasion of Ukrainian territory in early 2014, as some fear that Russia might try to foment separatist movements among Latvia's Russian population. It hasn't helped that Linderman is suspected of having links to Russian separatist movements in Ukraine. Earlier this month, police raided his apartment, alleging that he was recruiting Latvian residents to go and fight with Russian-backed forces in Ukraine. The one party that had endorsed the gay propaganda ban — the right-wing Russian Union — was voted out of parliament in elections held on Oct. 4.
As of October, Linderman said the campaign had collected only about one-third of the signatures needed before year's end to qualify for the ballot. "I can't boast that we've advanced too far," Linderman said.
Even some social conservatives gathering signatures for the referendum say he has done more harm than good.
If Linderman was so enthusiastic about this kind of referendum, he should have "asked us or someone with a Latvian family name" to sponsor it, said Yelena Kornatova, of the organization Dzimta, which describes itself as a "parental social movement." "Theoretically speaking this could be an issue on which Christian and Democrats, Latvians and Russian-speakers could be united on," but Linderman destroyed hope of that alliance by putting his name on the referendum, she said. "We still blame him for that."
Latvia's newly out foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, wouldn't comment directly on Linderman's initiative. But in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rinkēvičs said there is a "Russian propaganda and information war which is actually launched by Russia … [trying] to play out that there is a clash of values and civilizations," and LGBT rights is just one facet of it. Even if Linderman's proposal fails — which it seems likely to do — he doesn't see this coming to an end anytime soon.
"You can call it an ideological battle for the 21st century," Rinkēvičs said.
Susie Armitage contributed to the reporting of this article.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 17, 2014, at 2:47 p.m. ET
A top cardinal told BuzzFeed News on Friday that the worldwide meeting of church leaders coming to a close in Rome seemed to have been designed to "weaken the church's teaching and practice" with the apparent blessing of Pope Francis.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican's highest court of canon law, made the remarks in a phone interview from the Vatican, where a two-week Extraordinary Synod on the Family will conclude this weekend. An interim report of the discussions released on Monday, called the Relatio, produced a widespread backlash among conservative bishops who said it suggested a radical change to the church's teaching on questions like divorce and homosexuality, and Burke has been among the most publicly critical of the bishops picked by Pope Francis to lead the discussion.
If Pope Francis had selected certain cardinals to steer the meeting to advance his personal views on matters like divorce and the treatment of LGBT people, Burke said, he would not be observing his mandate as the leader of the Catholic Church.
"According to my understanding of the church's teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn't be correct," Burke said, saying the pope had "done a lot of harm" by not stating "openly what his position is." Burke said the Pope had given the impression that he endorses some of the most controversial parts of the Relatio, especially on questions of divorce, because of a German cardinal who gave an important speech suggesting a path to allowing people who had divorced and remarried to receive communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to open the synod's discussion.
"The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth," Burke said. "The pope is not free to change the church's teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith."
Burke has publicly clashed with the pope since Francis took office in 2013, and he has come to represent the sidelining of culture warriors elevated by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict and as the top doctrinal official under Pope John Paul II. Burke, who caused controversy while bishop of St. Louis by saying Catholics who voted for politicians supportive of abortion rights should not receive communion, went on Catholic television in 2013 to rebut remarks Pope Francis made to an interviewer that the church had become "obsessed" with abortion and sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, saying, "We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way," Burke said. While Francis famously responded to a question about homosexuality in 2013 by asking, "Who am I to judge?" Burke described homosexual "acts" as "always and everywhere wrong [and] evil" during an interview last week.
In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church's chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
"I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it," Burke said, explaining that he hadn't yet received a formal notice of transfer. "On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust, by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important."
When the pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumors that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church's office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal. When word that Burke was on his way out began circulating last month, it signaled that Francis would take major steps to reshape the church. It coincided with the selection of a new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, whom Catholic progressives celebrated for positions like breaking with the American church hierarchy when it withheld its support for President Obama's health reform law over questions of abortion and contraception.
Internal discontent among conservatives inside church leadership began to simmer over in the weeks leading up to the synod. Just before it began, Burke, Müller, and other senior cardinals published a book in several languages attacking the ideas laid out by Cardinal Walter Kasper on allowing those who had divorced and remarried to receive communion in a speech heartily praised by Pope Francis. It broke into open revolt at the midpoint of the synod, following publication of a document presented as a summary of discussions but that conservatives said misrepresented the debate by including passages on "welcoming homosexual persons" and discussing some of Kasper's proposal on divorce. The backlash appeared to have been especially strong from the English-speaking world, which includes a large number of African and American bishops; in an apparent attempt to mollify anglophone conservatives, the Vatican released a new translation of the report that changed the phrase "welcoming homosexual persons" to "providing for homosexual persons" and made other small changes, while leaving the versions in all other languages unchanged.
The report is now being revised with feedback from small-group discussions held this week, and a final version is scheduled to be voted on on Saturday. Burke said he hoped that the committee writing the new report will produce a "worthy document," but said his "trust is a little bit shaken" by the language in the interim draft he said lacks "a good foundation either in the sacred scriptures or in the church's perennial teachings."
But there seems to be little middle ground between Pope Francis' worldview and Burke's. Francis was president of the Argentinian bishops conference when that country passed a marriage equality bill in 2010 and reportedly tried to convince his colleagues to support a civil union proposal instead. He lost the internal battle and gave voice to the hard-line consensus that the law was "sent by the devil." The fight over the bill left the church appearing out of step with the beliefs of many in Argentina, a country where 76% identify as Catholic but only 38.2% went to church in 2005, per the most recent data available from the Association of Religious Data Archives. While Francis has shown no sign he supports overhauling the church's teachings that homosexuality is sinful, he seems to have taken from this experience a desire to downplay conflicts over sexuality in order to broaden the church's message.
But, Burke said, the church must always call a "person who's involved in sinful acts … to conversion in a loving way, but obviously, like a father or mother in a family, in a firm way for the person's own good." There cannot be "a difference between doctrine and practice" on questions like homosexuality or anything else, Burke said.
"The church doesn't exclude anyone who's of goodwill even if the person is suffering from same-sex attraction or even acting on that attraction," said Burke. "If people don't accept the church's teaching on these matters then they're not thinking with the church and they need to examine themselves on that and correct their thinking or leave the church if they absolutely can't accept. They're certainly not free to change the teaching of the church to suit their own ideas."
At the request of several readers, BuzzFeed News has printed a transcript of the section of the interview wherein Cardinal Burke talks about leaving the Signatura.
BuzzFeed News: I should ask you about the reports that you're being removed from the Signatura. What message is that sending? Do you think you are being removed in part because of how outspoken you have been on these issues?
Cardinal Burke: The difficulty — I know about all the reports, obviously. I've not received an official transfer yet. Obviously, these matters depend on official acts. I mean, I can be told that I'm going to be transferred to a new position but until I have a letter of transfer in my hand it's difficult for me to speak about it. I'm not free to comment on why I think this may be going to happen.
BFN: Have you been told that you will be transferred?
BFN: You're obviously a very well-respected person. That must be disappointing.
CB: Well, I have to say, the area in which I work is an area for which I'm prepared and I've tried to give very good service. I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it.
On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust that by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important. And even though I would have liked to have continued to work in the Apostolic Signatura, I'll give myself to whatever is the new work that I'm assigned to...
BFN: And that is as the chancellor to the Order of Malta, is that right?
CB: It's called the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, that's right.
October 17, 2014, at 6:02 p.m.
Cardinal Raymond Burke is being removed from the position as the chief of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. An earlier version of this post mischaracterized that position in one instance.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 28, 2014, at 10:36 a.m. ET
ROME — On a hot Friday in late June, the walls of a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican were lit up with the face of Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon.
"We believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement," declared Bannon, who took over the American conservative new media empire after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, in 2012. Speaking via Skype to a conference on Catholic responses to poverty, he said, "You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, D.C., or that government is in Brussels… On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement."
Events across the Atlantic do look familiar to American eyes: an uprising against long-established parties in Brussels amid economic stagnation. But these elements have been around a long time in European politics. What is new — and what feels so American — is represented by the group Bannon was addressing: Europe is getting its own version of the religious right.
"There is an unprecedented anger because the average citizen [sees] what is being done in their name without their consent," said Benjamin Harnwell, who founded the group that organized the conference, called the Human Dignity Institute. Harnwell is a former aide to a longtime Eurosceptic member of the European Parliament, who founded the organization in 2008 to promote the "Christian voice" in European politics. It is one of many new groups that have sprouted on the continent in recent years with missions they describe as "promoting life," "traditional family," and "religious liberty" in response to the advance of laws to recognize same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Some are technically secular organizations, but their strength, their leaders concede, largely comes from churchgoers.
The analogy with the tea party isn't perfect for these groups, and some bristle at the comparison because they aren't uniformly conservative on other issues. Harnwell prefers "silent majority," but said he draws inspiration from the tea party movement because they also see their battle in part as a fight with a political establishment that has long ignored them.
These groups are still learning to work together, but after years on the political margins in much of Europe, they have suddenly begun flexing political muscles that progressives — and maybe social conservatives themselves — never knew they had. They have made themselves a force to be reckoned with in Brussels by learning key lessons from American conservatives, such as how to organize online and use initiative drives. European progressives, who long thought debates over sexual rights had mostly been settled in their favor, were blindsided.
"A bomb with a long fuse has been lit," said Sylvie Guillaume, a French MEP supportive of abortion rights and LGBT rights, who recently stepped down as vice chair of the largest center-left bloc in the European Union's parliament. "We don't know what's going to happen."
One month before Bannon addressed the Human Dignity Institute, elections for the European Parliament sent a shockwave through the political establishment in Brussels. Far-right parties calling for an end to the European Union doubled their numbers to hold around 20% of seats. Parties like France's National Front and Britain's UKIP won pluralities in their countries.
Some of these parties ran on explicitly anti-LGBT platforms, particularly in Eastern Europe. (Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik Party, for example, printed posters featuring a blond woman with a Hungarian flag standing opposite drag Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst with an EU flag, along with the caption: "You Choose!") For the most part, though, issues dear to social conservatives were a side issue in elections driven heavily by economic frustration. Some on the far right even support LGBT rights, most notably Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has tried to recruit LGBT voters for his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform.
Social conservatives made themselves a force months before the election. In December, the European Parliament took up a resolution known as the Estrela Report that called on member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools, ensure access to safe abortions, and take other steps that its supporters consider basic to safeguarding sexual health and rights. The resolution would have had no practical impact — the EU's own rules bar it from regulating such issues — and its supporters considered it consistent with previously adopted resolutions. The vote was expected to be perfectly routine.
Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, emails started pouring into MEPs' offices calling for the resolution to be rejected weeks before the final vote on Dec. 10. After an acrimonious floor debate, the center-right bloc helped defeat the Estrela Report by a small margin in favor of a conservative alternative that essentially said the EU has no business talking about these issues. The result stunned progressives, who couldn't recall another time that the parliament had rejected language supportive of reproductive rights.
In a sense, someone had indeed thrown a switch. A few months earlier, a new online petition platform called CitizenGo sent out its first action alert. CitizenGo was conceived of as a kind of MoveOn.org for conservatives. It was based in Spain, but it had aspirations to be a global platform and now has staff working in eight languages, with plans to add Chinese and Arabic. It has an organizer in the U.S., too, named Gregory Mertz, who works out of the Washington offices of the National Organization for Marriage — Mertz actually wrote some of CitizenGo's Esterla Report petitions. In the weeks leading up to the Estrela vote, several petitions appeared on CitizenGo, garnering 40,000 signatures here, 50,000 there.
These kinds of campaigns are so common in the U.S. that they are little more than background noise. But they were new in Brussels, especially in the hands of conservatives. Grassroots mobilization on sexual rights hadn't been common on either side, and progressive advocacy groups had won many important victories relying heavily on an elite lobbying strategy.
MEPs had no idea what hit them and many of them folded, said Neil Datta, of the European Parliamentary Forum for Population and Development, which promotes reproductive rights.
"If you have a big cannon, the first [time] you shoot it, everyone runs away scared," Datta said.
CitizenGo's founder, Ignacio Arsuaga, had spent more than a decade adapting online organizing techniques from U.S. to Spanish politics before launching the group. He had been drawn into internet advocacy while studying at Fordham Law School in New York in the late 1990s. He had been "amazed" by MoveOn.org, he said in a phone interview from Spain, and he began signing petitions by groups such as the Christian Coalition, Americans United for Life, and other organizations that were "defending the rights of religious people — specifically Catholics — to express our faith in the public sphere."
"That's real democracy — that's what I lived in the U.S.," Arsuaga said. "Spanish citizens aren't used to participating. They're used to voting to every four years, and that's it."
To change this, he created an organization called HazteOír (a name that means "make yourself heard") in 2001. It ran some campaigns throughout the early 2000s, often under separately branded sites, but it was the group's mobilization against a 2010 bill to liberalize abortion laws passed by Spain's socialist government that made the group a beacon to conservatives around the world. It helped get hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Madrid and kept up the drumbeat through the 2011 elections when the conservative party Partido Popular won control. Its efforts appear to have paid off. In December 2013, the cabinet approved legislation that opponents say would give Spain the most restrictive abortion laws of any democracy in the world, and it seems to be on track for final approval by the parliament this summer.
Arsuaga has steadily been working to build a broader movement. His group hosted the 2012 World Congress of Families in Madrid, a global summit of social conservative leaders organized by an institute in Rockford, Ill. It bussed supporters across the border to France in 2013 when a new organization, La Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All), organized large protests against a marriage equality law reminiscent of Spain's anti-abortion protests.
The protests organized by these two groups were a turning point for conservatives throughout Europe, said Luca Volontè, a former Italian MP who now runs a social conservative foundation in Rome and sits on CitizenGo's board. They showed that a progressive victory was not inevitable. And, in their aftermath, conservatives have won victories, especially in Eastern Europe — in recent months, Croatia and Slovakia both enacted marriage equality bans in their constitutions.
"So many people in Europe are standing up, because this ideology appears and [is] felt, really, as totalitarian," Volontè said, referring to advances for marriage equality.
La Manif Pour Tous is now following the same path as HazteOír, continuing the fight against marriage equality in France even though it became law in May 2013 and reorganizing itself as a permanent, international organization. The group launched a "Europe for Family" campaign in the lead-up to the EU elections in May, and 230 French candidates signed its pledge opposing marriage equality, trans rights, and sex education.
Twenty-three signatories won won seats in those elections, 11 of them members of the far-right National Front.
The suddenness with which social conservatives became a force in Brussels has many progressives speculating that they are the creations of American social conservatives seeking to "export the culture wars."
"As far as I understand [social conservative groups] have quite some money in them [from] the U.S., similar to all those missionary and evangelical groups that do work in Uganda," said Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green Party MEP who is now vice president of the European Parliament. Lunacek, who co-chaired the Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights in the last session, authored a report on LGBT rights that groups like CitizenGo and La Manif Pour Tous tried unsuccessfully to defeat this winter.
A review of tax disclosures conducted by the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way found that several U.S. groups — many of which boomed in the 1990s — had recently invested in conservative drives across Europe: The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Pat Robertson, sent $1.1 million to its European branch, the European Center for Law and Justice, in 2012, which is the most recent year for which tax disclosures are available. Another group founded by well-known American social conservatives called the Alliance Defending Freedom spent more than $750,000 on European programs that year. The Federalist Society, which promotes conservative legal philosophy, reported spending nearly $800,000 in "conferences and seminars" in Europe that year. Personhood USA, a small Colorado-based group that has tried to pass ballot measures that would give fetuses the legal status of "persons" — a strategy for rolling back abortion rights that is controversial even among pro-life activists — poured $400,000 into Europe in 2012, just after one of its ballot measures went down in flames in Mississippi. (Personhood USA President Keith Mason declined to answer questions from BuzzFeed about which organizations received the funds or what they were used for.)
But while there are links to the U.S., the movement is very much homegrown. Arsuaga said neither HazteOír nor CitizenGo get funding from U.S. groups — and they don't need it. Arsuaga said 99% of HazteOír's 1.9 million euro ($2.5 million) annual budget comes from donations from Spanish citizens. CitizenGo has been raising 30,000 to 40,000 euros (roughly $40,000 to $55,000) each month from the 1.2 million members it's signed up worldwide since its October launch.
Today, American ties seem much more about a shared vision to build a global conservative movement rather than leaning on stronger and wealthier U.S. partners for support. Arsuaga, Volontè, and La Manif Pour Tous President Ludovine de La Rochère were all in Washington on June 19 to support the National Organization for Marriage's March for Marriage. Their more important business, however, might have been in a closed-door summit the next day, where representatives of around 70 countries met to discuss creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to Volontè and another participant. A follow-up meeting is planned for next year.
Many LGBT rights supporters mocked the March for Marriage's paltry turnout. So these Europeans appeared as if they were there to encourage a beleaguered movement, not the other way around — they now possess the vigor that has evaporated from the U.S. movement as opposition to marriage equality has collapsed.
European social conservatives contend that they may have a new energy and sophistication, but Europeans have never been pro-abortion rights or pro-marriage equality. Dissenters just weren't given the floor, and they didn't know how to fight back. "[We] didn't know how to arrive here at the European [Union] level and make their voice heard in parliament," said Sophia Kuby, director of a four-year-old organization based in Brussels, European Dignity Watch.
Polling data doesn't appear to bear this out, at least in Western Europe. Support for marriage equality ranges between 52 and 79% in all seven Western European countries included in a June Ipsos poll. Less than a third of respondents from the two Eastern European countries included — Poland and Hungary — support same-sex marriage (and both countries have banned it in their constitutions), but more than 50% support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Opinion seems to range more on abortion, which is available in most countries at least before 12 weeks, though waiting periods and other restrictions are not uncommon. An April Pew study found substantial pluralities in countries including France, Spain, and the Czech Republic say they believe abortion is "morally acceptable," while there are even more lopsided pluralities saying abortion was "morally unacceptable" in places such as Poland and Greece.
But anti-abortion activists effectively used a new mechanism for direct democracy that the EU introduced in 2012 — called the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) — to make a show of popular support. One of the first ECIs ever launched, dubbed "One of Us," was a proposal to cut off EU funding to any activity that destroys a human embryo, which in practical terms would mean ending support for stem cell research and foreign aid to family planning programs that perform abortions. If organizers could get at least 1 million signatures from seven countries, the EU's executive body, the European Commission, would have had to hold a hearing on it.
The signature drive was led by Grégor Puppinck of the European Center for Law and Justice, but the continental campaign itself was funded entirely by Spanish and Italian foundations. It quickly sailed past the 1 million signature hurdle, collecting over 1.8 million signatures from more than 20 countries by the time the hearing was held on April 9. Despite this impressive show of popular support, there was little doubt that the commission would reject the proposal even as the witnesses for One of Us walked into the hearing room — Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had said as much in a January press conference.
The commission summarily dismissed the proposal in a seven-page statement issued on May 28 — just three days after the European elections, which left some organizers feeling like the commission was deliberately trying to prevent it from affecting the vote.
But that doesn't mean it was a defeat for opponents to abortion rights. Well before the process had come to an end, the One of Us campaign signalled on its website that it had bigger goals than just changing EU funding policy.
The drive "could be a starting point of a new Europe-wide mobilization of the pro-life movement," the site said. "Every experience we collect here can be used for campaigns on other pro-life issues in further course. In that sense, it can be expected that the outcome may be very enduring."
It also taught anti-abortion rights activists that they didn't have to pull their punches.
"For too long a time in Europe, pro-life people did not really say clearly and directly what they believe because [they feared] it was too much" for most Europeans to accept, Puppinck said in an interview in his Strasbourg office. "We are more direct, more open, more clear, we don't really try to negotiate on the truth…. This is why, for us, the most important [thing] is to be able to speak."
And from a political standpoint, the rejection of the One of Us initiative may have been a blessing for social conservatives hoping to build a movement. The U.S. anti-abortion movement was built in response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing abortion rights, a ruling that thrust abortion into the center of American politics for the last 40 years. And they can now frame it as a question, not just abortion.
That's exactly how the Parliament's largest bloc, the center-right European People's Party, is already poised to embrace One of Us' cause. The EPP chair, German MEP Manfred Weber, told BuzzFeed he was "disappointed" that the European Commission did not act "when there are so many people standing behind an initiative."
"We have to bring people closer to the European process," Weber said, adding that the EU must not go beyond its mandate. "Europe should not be the political body which is intervening … in this question of family rights, of abortion. Very crucial and very important."
This battle now heads to the courts. On Friday, Puppinck filed a challenge before the EU's judicial arm asking that it take away the European Commission's veto power over initiatives. The suit "is not only about the right to life, but firstly about democracy," Puppinck stated in a press release announcing the suit.
In this fight, Puppinck said, "You can really say it's the opposition between the people and the elite."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 9, 2013, at 9:51 p.m. ET
KIEV, Ukraine — In recent weeks, billboards with images of same-sex stick figure couples holding hands began to appear on the streets of the Ukrainian capital. The text warned: "Association with the EU means same-sex marriage."
The group behind the posters is Ukrainian Choice, an organization funded by Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy businessman and former parliamentarian who is so close to the Russian president that local media routinely allude to the fact that Vladimir Putin is his child's godfather. Medvedchuk created the organization with the sole purpose of lobbying against Ukraine strengthening its ties with the European Union — and is stirring up opposition to LGBT rights as part of the process.
Since passing the "homosexual propaganda" law this summer, Russian leaders have increasingly used opposition to gay rights — along with an ostentatious embrace of the Orthodox Church — to define the country in opposition to the West. Now its homophobic nationalism is moving west as part of Russia's campaign to retain its influence in the former communist nations being courted by the European Union.
The big testing ground is Ukraine, which is currently in a tug of war between the two sides. The EU wants it to sign an association agreement deepening ties — and has been urging it to release a prominent political prisoner as proof it is ready to move toward the west. Russia wants it to join a Moscow-led customs union instead — and has been warning of dire consequences for Ukraine's "traditions" if it decides to forego integration with Russia in favor of closer ties with the EU. At the end of November, EU and Ukrainian officials are due to meet in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to sign an association agreement, formalizing bilateral relations with the bloc.
Russia has not been shy about its message. On Thursday, Alexey Pushkov, the outspoken chair of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, tweeted that an agreement with the EU would mean "pride parades will be held instead of Victory Day parades" in the streets of Kiev.
"Now, the fight [is] between East and West, Russia and Europe," said Olena Shevchenko, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Insight. "Ukraine is the field of the battle."
Anti-EU protesters in Kiev have zealously seized on the LGBT issue as they rally against closer ties with the West. They have carried signs showing stick figures engaging in anal sex with slogans like, "Homosexuality is a threat to national security." They chant, "v Evropu cherez zhopu," a Russian rhyme that carries the rough meaning of "Fuck you and your Europe." Its literal meaning: "Go to Europe through the ass."
Last week, an NGO called the Parents Committee of Ukraine held a rally in front of the German embassy in Kiev under the slogan "Traditional values—ja!,, Homosexuality, nein!," nominally targeting two German foundations it says promote homosexuality in Ukraine through grants to LGBT rights groups and the promotion of sex education.
Yet it was clear the rally's target was bigger. "We oppose the signing of the association agreement with the EU, because it will lead to the inevitable homosexualizing of Ukraine," said the group's co-head Aleksandr Skvortsov in a statement posted on the group's website. Activists from Ukrainian Choice also joined in the rally, wearing signs that read, "European values are gays, lesbians, and corrupting minors."
Speaking to BuzzFeed at his Kiev office, Skvortsov said that in its current form, the association agreement would establish "the dictatorship of homosexuality in regard to the whole society" in which religious schools would be forced to employ "teachers who are … covered with rainbow flags" and anti-gay parents would be denied the right to adopt. He insisted that his group was not officially calling for the whole agreement to be rejected — it simply wanted amendments that would exempt Ukraine from having to comply with EU rules concerning "public morality."
While it does encourage some reform on LGBT rights, the EU's only explicit requirement in that realm is that countries pass legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment as part of a broad package of human rights protections. Ukraine doesn't even have to meet that obligation at this stage — that only comes into play at the next stage of integration, when countries seek to liberalize travel rules to Europe.
Even that is too much for some. Ruslan Kukharchuk, who leads Love Against Homosexuality, another of the most visible anti-gay organizations in Ukraine, said employment protection for gays and lesbians would start a chain reaction that looked like this: next would come a request for civil partnerships, then marriage, then adoption rights, and, finally, the criminalization of those who speak out against gay rights.
This "scheme is implemented in all countries in which they start from this first law," Kukharchuk said. "We are doing everything not to implement this first step."
Under current EU rules, same-sex marriage won't ever come into play — the EU charter restricts it from regulating family law, and many EU member states still do not recognize same-sex marriages or allow gays and lesbians to adopt.
But EU pressure has been critical in keeping Ukraine from following Russia's lead in passing a "homosexual propaganda" ban. A similar bill was first brought up in 2012 and passed an initial vote in the Ukrainian parliament with a vote of 289-61, uniting Ukraine's infamously warring parties like never before. EU officials vehemently opposed it. Štefan Füle, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said at the time that "such legislative initiative … stands in contradiction to the requirements of the relevant benchmarks" for closer ties with the EU. The bill stalled.
Then, this past July, just as negotiators were working out the fine print on Ukraine's association agreement and locked in a tussle over whether President Viktor Yanukovych would release his imprisoned rival Yulia Tymoshenko, a Russian-leaning lawmaker named Vadim Kolesnichenko reintroduced the propaganda ban bill. Support for the bill is broad — it has six co-sponsors from different parliamentary factions, and had support from the Yanukovych's parliamentary representative.
Lawmakers may disagree about whether to side with Europe or with Russia, Insight's Olena Shevchenko joked ruefully, but opposition to LGBT rights is "the only thing that can unite our parliament."
Despite the timing, Kolesnichenko maintained that the bill was not an effort to derail the treaty, nor was it inspired by Russia. "This is an issue of protecting of our society from corruption and from an attack on the foundations of our society's spirituality and an issue of fighting for health — our country's population is dying out," Kolesnichenko told BuzzFeed. "I do not connect in any way with European integration."
And yet, he argued that Europe's desire to spread its pro-LGBT rights agenda masked a deeper desire for conquest: Since "the time of crusades, Western Europe has practically always fought with … Eastern Christianity," Kolesnichenko said. "I do not really believe that in the past 15 to 20 years, Europe has drastically transformed itself and for some reason begun to love Slavic people from Ukraine."
That kind of jockeying appears transparently political to EU officials.
"I don't think the more pro-Western [politicians] would necessarily be that much in favor of LGBT rights," said Ulrike Lunacek, a member of the European Parliament from Austria and co-president of its intergroup on LGBT rights and sits on its foreign affairs committee. "But it's very clear that the more pro-Russian side is using the … propaganda law that [means] you're not allowed to talk about LGBT rights to enhance their political situation in the country. Very often the politicians in these countries … [use] the argument against LGBT rights to cover up problems that exist on the economic level."
Some EU policymakers fear that pushing too hard on a nation like Ukraine could backfire, driving it into Russia's arms and losing the leverage to shape national policy whatsoever. The challenge is evident in nations like Armenia, which abruptly decided earlier this year to walk away from its EU association agreement and join Russia's Customs Union. EU opponents, assisted by the country's church, had run a virulently anti-gay campaign invoking much of the same rhetoric seen in Ukraine.
Yet in places where the government is firmly committed to the EU — or where national economies are far too dependent on Europe to walk away — EU pressure has empowered national LGBT movements far beyond what they could have achieved on their own.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbor, Moldova, illustrated this dramatically in October, when it suddenly repealed a law criminalizing any information about "any other relations than those related to marriage or family" that had been enacted in June. The country is also looking to formalize closer ties with the EU in Vilnius.
Desire for EU membership has also helped enable pride parades throughout eastern Europe, activists argue. The government of the former Yugoslavian republic of Montenegro, which is vying for EU membership, mobilized half the small nation's police force to protect the first gay pride parade in its capital city late last month.
"On the road to European integration, the government of Montenegro has shown its democratic capacity, [and the pride march] shows that Montenegrin society is maturing in the protection of all minorities, including members of the LGBT community," Suad Numanović, Montenegro's minister of human and minority rights, told BuzzFeed last month.
Despite Russia's best efforts — which have included economic bullying through freezing Ukrainian imports and withholding gas shipments — the EU still has sway in Ukraine. Polls show that a narrow majority of Ukrainians prefer the EU to Russia.
"For 22 years [Ukraine] has been trying to join the EU," Valeriy Patskan, a member of the pro-European Udar party, who chairs parliament's committee on human rights, national minorities and international relations, told BuzzFeed. He had just come from a meeting with a European delegation on the human rights terms of Ukraine's association agreement and was convinced a gay propaganda ban would never pass. "Adoption of one legislative act in order to disrupt all these 22 years of efforts by the Ukrainian state is not realistic," he said. "Though a number of pro-Russian deputies will, of course, be raising such issues … for their own public relations."
Despite Patskan's optimism, and apparent evidence that EU efforts have helped derail legislative efforts to enshrine anti-LGBT laws, widespread homophobia has continued to grow on a social level, buoyed, activists say, by Russia's rhetoric next door.
Several high-profile hate crimes have recently hit Ukraine's LGBT community, and Amnesty International has accused the authorities of burying the cases. Pro-gay speech is suppressed through vandalism and violence. One video, posted to YouTube by a Ukrainian Choice activist, showed a group of young men spray-painting over posters against the propaganda law posted in a Kiev subway, apparently with the tacit approval of police.
Hate groups similar to ones that have gotten attention in Russia, including Occupy Pedophilia, also operate in Ukraine. And gay rights activists are prevented from holding street protests even without a propaganda ban.
When Insight tried to protest the proposed propaganda law on Dec. 8, 2012, Shevchenko, as its executive director, was suddenly summoned to an administrative court hearing at 10 p.m. on Dec. 7. At the late-night hearing, the court acceded to police demands and banned the protest because "the mass action may be viewed as provocative by conservative-minded citizens and groups which could lead to the threat of conflict."
Organizers pushed back — and moved the protest to another location. Shevchenko was subsequently arrested for violating the "regulations for the conduct of meetings." Seven other LGBT activists were also arrested, along with four counter-demonstrators who assaulted the activists with tear gas and were fined for "hooliganism."
Nevertheless, activists keep hope that the LGBT debate may be inching forward. When a small group of activists defied a court ban to hold a pride parade in May, the police protected them from violent counter protestors. And on Wednesday, an LGBT activist made history by becoming the first openly gay person to address a parliamentary committee.
Bogdan Globa, a member of the LGBT group Fulcrum, told a parliamentary hearing on visa liberalization with the EU, "Today's main appeal to you is, when you vote for the bill introducing the mechanism of non-discrimination on the grounds of 'sexual orientation,' you have to understand that the implementation of the EU demand is not simply [to satisfy] a requirement of the European Commission, it [affects] lives of young guys like me. And this is our chance to live in our country a safe and happy life despite our sexual orientation."
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.