Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 28, 2019, at 6:00 a.m. ET
VERONA, Italy — Brian Brown made his name fighting against marriage equality in California, and his National Organization for Marriage once had a budget in the millions. But his stock plummeted as the Supreme Court allowed same-sex couples to marry nationwide with the support of the majority of Americans. His annual “March for Marriage” in Washington was so poorly attended that progressives gleefully shared pictures of empty grass around its rallying point on the National Mall.
But now he’s back.
This weekend Brown will be in the spotlight again, as the World Congress of Families (WCF) conference that he organizes heads to the Italian city of Verona. Billed as a gathering to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society,” the event will be held over three days in a 17th-century palazzo. Brown is due to speak on the same program as one of Europe’s most influential — and divisive — politicians, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party, who has become infamous for anti-immigrant rhetoric and his bullying Facebook persona. Other speakers include a minister of the far-right Hungarian government, a Nigerian anti-LGBT activist, and the Russian-aligned president of Moldova.
Behind all this is an alliance of conservative activists that connects a group of Russians close to Vladimir Putin with far-right Italian politicians and major players of the United States’ religious right. At a time when the fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has some questioning whether concerns about Russian interference in Western politics were overblown, the WCF is a reminder of the many ways Putin has helped turn the politics of the West on its head. A social conservative movement that has lost much of its popular support has looked to Moscow to find new channels to power.
After a few years of meetings in small former communist capitals, the meeting in Verona gives the WCF a chance to return to the West with the backing of a party that is at the forefront of a right-wing European alliance. The location is significant: The small city an hour west of Venice has become ground zero for a new assault on women’s rights under Salvini’s Lega party.
Verona’s local government recently declared the city to be “pro-life” and diverted funding to anti-abortion groups, a measure that has since been introduced by local governments across Northern Italy. The former deputy mayor of Verona, who now serves as Italy’s family minister, wants to undo language in Italy’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion, and is seeking new measures to prevent gay couples from becoming parents. Another local lawmaker has proposed that people be allowed to adopt fetuses as a way to stop women from getting abortions. And a senator from a neighboring region is seeking to overhaul divorce laws to weaken protections for women and abuse victims.
All these initiatives have been made possible by the political earthquake that made the Lega party Italy’s dominant political force in 2018. Salvini is not a committed social conservative — in fact, he’s a divorced former communist. But he was seeking support from the same Moscow circles that were cultivating ties to the Western religious right, and he has since welcomed Catholic fundamentalists into his party as he seeks to unite the Italian right behind him. Italy is the clearest test of whether the same formula that brought the religious right back to influence in the White House can work in Western Europe.
But former members of the Lega party view Salvini’s courting of the religious right as a calculated and cynical move. Flavio Tosi, a former mayor of Verona and one-time rival to lead Salvini’s Lega party, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini recognized that neofascist groups had been “orphaned” by Italy’s major parties, and went after their supporters.
And so, just like immigrants, Salvini finds feminists and other social progressives to be useful political targets.
“He understood he had to find the enemy.”
When it was first launched in the 1990s by a trio of obscure historians and sociologists, the World Congress of Families styled itself as an academic conference focused on reversing declining birth rates in the West. Over the years, its biannual forums featured everyone from early childhood education experts to anti-pornography crusaders to wannabe European royalty.
It also drew a number of major figures from the US religious right as it grew into a hub for anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups around the world. Its importance grew during the years that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were promoting LGBT and women’s rights around the world. It was especially helpful to Brown — just as he was being defeated in his years-long crusade to stop marriage equality in the US, he began plotting to go international. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brown’s organization chose Verona after it passed unprecedented anti-abortion legislation in 2018. Known by the name of its sponsor, Alberto Zelger, the legislation funds what are known in the US as “crisis pregnancy centers” to divert women away from having abortions. While these centers are common in the US, they broke a taboo in Italy. Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal in 1981, but now government money was being used to stop women from accessing the procedure.
The Zelger law, which has already been introduced in dozens of other local governments across Northern Italy, is especially alarming to reproductive rights advocates because Italy’s strong legal protections for abortion access are also being undermined by a growing movement among doctors to refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds. Earlier this month, the leader of an Italian gynecological association warned that the shortage of abortion providers was reaching crisis levels because so many universities were now refusing to even teach the procedure.
Italy’s courts have also recently dealt some shocking blows to women’s rights. Earlier this month, a court reduced a man’s sentence for killing his wife, citing his “anger and desperation” about her relationship with another man. In another, a rape conviction was tossed out in a case where judges had doubted the alleged victim because she appeared “too masculine” to be an attractive target.
On the national level, women’s rights activists are especially alarmed by a revision of the divorce laws proposed by a senator from the Lega party, which a United Nations human rights official has warned could dramatically reverse protections for women and victims of domestic abuse.
“It’s just a way to put women back in their place,” said Giulia Siviero, a journalist from Verona who is also a spokesperson for a feminist coalition called Non Una di Meno that is organizing protests against the WCF meeting.
Siviero sees Italy as a proving ground of what happens to women’s rights when an opportunist nationalist wins power. Salvini was elected in 2018 with a campaign featuring Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he gained just over 17% of the vote and was forced to partner with a larger party to take control of government. He is now the most popular politician in Italy with his party supported by 1 in 3 Italians, and his best path to power is to consolidate as many factions on the right as possible.
“It’s common ground in ideology. They come together on immigration issues and on women’s bodies — they fit together ideologically,” Siviero said. “It’s as if Lega created a sort of tank where all these parts could come together in one big pot.”
When asked whether he was trying to defend the “Christian family” during a right-wing forum last summer, Salvini responded, “Not for me — I’m divorced.” But he’s also happy to portray himself as a champion of Catholic fundamentalists. When he was sworn in as deputy prime minister last June, Salvini held a rosary in his hand, a gesture that shocked even some members of his own party for crossing well-established rules in Italian politics about the boundaries between religion and politics.
He is now one of the greatest heroes to the global right and the greatest villains for the left. “Italy is now the center of the universe of politics,” Steve Bannon has said of Salvini’s rise to power.
The unofficial leader of Lega’s religious right is a former deputy mayor of Verona and member of the EU Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, who asked Salvini to be a witness to his wedding. Fontana’s longtime spiritual mentor is reported to be a priest who believes homosexuality is “a rebellion against God” caused by the devil.
“I know that Salvini doesn’t give a shit about the rosary — I told you he’s cynical,” Flavio Tosi, the former Lega mayor of Verona who was once Fontana’s mentor, told BuzzFeed News. Tosi said that the Lega wasn’t interested in fundamentalist causes until Fontana got close to Salvini.
Salvini’s spokesperson, following questions about allegations that he was backing social conservative causes out of political expediency, said in a WhatsApp message: “Non-existent controversies. We protect Italian families. But divorce, abortion, equal rights between women and men, freedom of choice for all are not in question.” Fontana’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Salvini, whose favorite way to communicate with the public is by livestreaming on Facebook, excels at the kind of chauvinism that excites people who hate feminism. In 2016, he mocked one of Italy’s most senior women politicians by saying a sex doll was her “double.” Italian police are now conducting an investigation of another incident, in which a 22-year-old woman received hundreds of insulting messages after Salvini posted a picture of her online carrying a sign during a protest against Salvini that read “Better a slut than a fascist.”
“What a lovely lady 😂,” he tweeted.
“Is Salvini a convinced fundamentalist Catholic? Absolutely not. He is a sexist,” said Siviero, the feminist coalition spokesperson. “But he goes along with people who represent that other world that he does not completely believe in, and so seals the relationship between the extreme right and Catholicism.”
WCF leaders have been thrilled to embrace Salvini despite his often abusive rhetoric toward women and immigrants. “Proud to be in #rome with Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini,” Brown tweeted after a meeting late last year.
What’s scary, Siviero said, is that these ideas are “contagious.” Whether or not the more radical proposals from Lega to roll back women’s rights become law, they’re “planting a seed” that is giving marginal right-wing factions new life. These include neofascist groups in a country where the ideology has been outlawed since World War II.
But at this conference, unlike the ones held in Eastern Europe, Siviero said the WCF will face a backlash. Non Uno di Meno is holding four days of protests, including an international conference featuring the founder of the Argentinian feminist organization that inspired them. And the leader of Lega’s coalition partner in government has denounced the conference, saying the group has “medieval views on women.”
At the center of the web of alliances that connects the WCF to Italy sits a little-known Russian named Alexey Komov with connections to major powers in Moscow.
Komov first became known to Western religious conservative circles about a decade ago, billing himself as “a Christian family advocate and professional marketing and real estate consultant and entrepreneur.” Komov was “very eager” to play a leading role in the WCF, a former American member of the organizing committee named Austin Ruse told BuzzFeed News, but his first bid to bring the conference to Moscow was rejected because it was half-baked.
The group accepted his bid for the 2014 WCF when he returned with the backing of some powerful Russian oligarchs, including an investment banker named Konstantin Malofeev. They started planning a 2014 summit to be held in the Kremlin, which they promoted as the “‘Olympics’ of the international Pro-Life movement supporting the Natural Family.”
The Moscow summit came at an extraordinary moment. All eyes were on Russia, with the Winter Olympics due to be held in Sochi in January 2014. The lead-up to the Games was upstaged by a global showdown over LGBT rights. Putin, who had been in power since 1999, had begun to cast himself as the defender of Orthodox values against the hedonistic West, namely through a campaign to demonize homosexuality, epitomized in the passage of a law banning so-called gay propaganda. Major players in the US religious right — who came of age with a Cold War mindset that saw Russia as godless enemy — were suddenly wondering if Putin were the counterweight to the Obama administration they’d been waiting for.
Soon, Komov began pushing the limits of even what some American organizers were comfortable with. Ruse said his organization and other prominent WCF sponsors nearly walked out of an October 2013 planning meeting because Komov wanted to include Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist from Massachussets who played a key role in inspiring Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill and the author of a book that suggested gay people were responsible for the Holocaust. Komov also went on a spectacular rant during a press conference in Washington in early February 2014, suggesting hundreds had been murdered to cover up the true story of John F. Kennedy’s assasination and questioning whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
When Russia seized Crimea in February 2014, it suddenly seemed like a bad idea to be openly aligned with the Russians. The US government slapped sanctions on Malofeev, who was funding seperatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine at the same time he was backing the WCF. The WCF ultimately took its name off the Moscow conference, but many of its key players attended the meeting, which was hastily rebranded.
A spokesperson for Malofeev declined to comment for this story, writing, “We do not comment on rumors and conjectures distilled from unknown resources to us by journalists.”
Dozens of Komov’s emails about the meeting were leaked in 2014 by a group of hackers, which showed that Komov was involved in another one of Malofeev’s major projects — building relationships with far-right groups throughout Europe. In one note, Komov called one of Italy’s best known neofascist leaders a “friend.”
The leak included an email from Brown, in which he told Komov, “the Forum was amazing and all of this press will work to the greater benefit of the pro-family worldwide movement if we respond properly."
Komov forwarded this email to Malofeev with the note, “The empire strikes back :)”
Brown has denied that the Russians held sway over the WCF, telling BuzzFeed News in the summer of 2018 that he had “absolutely never been asked by [his] Russian associates, friends, or Alexey Komov to do something that would undermine the United States.”
“I think it’s sad there’s an attempt to paint all Russians as somehow anti-American and not united with us on family,” he said. Komov did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Komov had begun courting Lega from the moment Salvini took control of the party. He was invited to address the 2013 convention in which Salvini was selected as party secretary. And he has a leadership role in an organization that was instrumental in brokering a meeting between Salvini and Putin in 2014. Salvini has since proved a key ally to Russia in the EU, working to undo sanctions imposed by the bloc. There are also new allegations from the Italian magazine Espresso that the Russian state oil company was looking for ways to funnel cash to Salvini’s party.
The Verona conference brings these relationships full circle.
Verona is a “perfect match” for the WCF, Brown wrote in a fundraising email last year, shortly after the event was announced. “Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini will welcome us to his wonderful country with arms wide open.”
“We’ve never been more effective than we are right now,” he continued, “and we intend to do even more in the coming year.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 4, 2015, at 12:24 p.m. ET
Around the world, being close to someone who has had an abortion makes people substantially more likely to support unrestricted abortion.
That's among the findings about abortion in a new BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll of 23 nations. We looked at the marriage equality results from the survey in a post last week. In at least 10 of these countries, people who are close to someone who has had an abortion were over 50% more likely to support abortion without restriction.
The survey was conducted online over a two-week period ending May 8. We have the clearest picture of attitudes in 16 countries where the internet is widely accessible because it is possible to get an online sample that is representative of the country as a whole. These are concentrated heavily in Europe and North America. There are obviously large parts of the world that aren't represented in this survey, but unfortunately data collected online in these countries simply wouldn't give us an accurate look at the overall feel of a country because so many people lack internet access or local laws make it hard to poll on social issues.
But we included some data from seven additional countries — Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa, India, Turkey, and Russia — because they appear to reflect broader public opinion based on comparisons with other public opinion surveys. They're marked with an asterisk as a reminder that these figures may not be truly representative.
This is what we found.
Several countries that we surveyed in Western Europe had widespread support for allowing abortion “whenever a woman decides she wants one” — essentially unrestricted abortion. In other parts of the world, we found widespread support for allowing abortion with restrictions, like in cases of rape or when pregnancy could cause the death of the mother.
Even in countries where opposition to abortion was strongest, a majority still favored allowing abortion in at least some circumstances. Total opposition to abortion was strongest in Brazil*, but even there we only found roughly 18% of our sample saying they believe the procedure should be illegal without exception.
Pollsters have long found that people who know someone who is gay or lesbian makes them much more likely to support same-sex marriage. To test whether there was a similar effect on opinions about abortion, we asked respondents if they had ever had an abortion or if they were “close to someone who has had an abortion.” We found a substantial impact in every country we surveyed — sometimes dramatic ones.
In Russia*, for example, people close to someone who has had an abortion were nearly three times more supportive of unrestricted abortion. In Ireland, Poland and Australia, they were around twice as supportive.
Russia* appears to top this list, probably a reflection of the fact that abortion was used essentially as a form of birth control under communist rule. High numbers in China* are possibly due to the country’s one-child policy, a 1979 law which prohibited families from having a second child. Mothers who became pregnant again were often forced by the government to abort their pregnancy. (The policy was relaxed in 2013 to allow for two children in most households.)
That last chart doesn’t simply reflect how common abortion is in each country — it also hints that in some countries, it’s much more common for women who have had abortions to talk about it.
Compare China* and and the United States, for example: Data from the United Nations shows that about the same percentage of women have had abortions in both countries, around 2% of women of childbearing age as of 2010.
Support for unrestricted abortion is highest in Sweden, France, and Great Britain, ranging from 78% to 66%. But these three countries fall solidly in the middle of the pack when we rank how common it is for people to be close to someone who has had an abortion, ranging from 38% to 31%. This puts them alongside — or even well below — several countries with far more conservative views on abortion where more people report being close to someone who has an abortion.
There may be other factors that explain this — like different ways people interpret the question — but it's notable that these measures don't line up. Mexico* is a particularly interesting example: 39% of people reported being close to someone who has had an abortion, giving it the fourth-highest figure on that question. But it appears to be the second-most anti-abortion country in our study, where more people said they favored a total ban on abortion (16%) than supported unrestricted abortion (14%).
Take a look at South Africa*, where only 21% of people in our survey said they support unrestricted abortion — even though South Africa has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. First-trimester abortion has been unrestricted in South Africa since 1996, and second-trimester abortion restrictions are seen as very liberal because they include concerns like mental or socioeconomic harm to the mother from her pregnancy.
Roughly 90,000 women in South Africa had abortions in government clinics in 2012–2013, according to the most recent years of data available from South African health officials, but experts estimate that the real total could be even higher: Around 50% of the abortions performed in South Africa are done illegally, because of backlogs in service at public hospitals.
Ireland’s social policy is in the spotlight after it became the first country in the world to establish marriage equality by popular vote last month. While our poll does not show that Ireland is also moving rapidly to the left on abortion — only 37% of the population currently supports unrestricted abortion — there is a solid majority in favor of allowing abortion in circumstances now prohibited under Irish law.
Ireland had a total ban on abortion before two years ago, when the law was changed to allow abortion only when a mother’s life is in danger. This was the result of a court ruling following the death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar who miscarried and then died in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion.
In addition to the 37% of people who favor no restrictions on abortion, our survey found 38% of Irish voters said “abortion should be permitted in certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped.” Only a total of 15% said they favor the existing life exemption or support a total ban on abortion.
We took a look at this chart in our story last week on global attitudes on marriage equality, but it’s worth another glance. While Catholic countries in the Americas and Europe either have majorities supporting marriage equality or are heading in that direction — with the notable exception of Poland — support for unrestricted abortion remains very low in many of them, especially outside Western Europe. And a couple of countries that appear liberal on abortion — Turkey* and Hungary — don’t show any signs of embracing marriage equality anytime soon.
*The seven countries asterisked throughout this post have too many people without internet access for us to be sure that our online survey was truly representative of the country as a whole. We only included ones where we believe our findings appear likely to still reflect broader public opinion based on data from other sources, but we can’t be 100% sure that the data for these countries are truly representative.
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 October 26, 2013, at 8:54 a.m. ET
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Muern Sarun's parents had turned down several offers of marriage when they asked a motorbike mechanic named Rous Savy to take their daughter's hand.
Rous had taken a liking to Muern after she parked in front of his house in Cambodia's Kandal Province on her way to weave scarves on a friend's loom. Rous began visiting so often that the neighbors began to gossip: "Who would marry [Muern] if there is a man that goes to her house so often?" Rous quickly got the necessary permissions from the police and village chief, who granted the marriage certificate after Rous was able to reassure them that he would be able to support a family. Rous' mother helped organize the wedding, which included blessings from four Buddhist monks.
This would be a fairly typical story about a Cambodian marriage, except that Rous Savy was not born male. He had long dressed like a man and referred to himself in male terms, but he was what is known in Cambodia as a "tom." Gender and sexual orientation categories in Cambodia — as in much of Asia — don't neatly line up with the terms used in the West. Some toms would probably identify as butch lesbians in the West, while others, like Rous, speak about always feeling "like a man" and would probably be considered trans men.
The wedding caused a sensation in Muern's village as gossip rapidly spread about her groom's gender. Muern recalls "4,000 or 5,000 people" came to witness the curious event. Muern had shelled out to hire a special band for the day, but the gawkers showed little interest in the expensive entertainment. Instead, many of the guests were occupied by placing bets on whether Rous was really a man or a woman. Muern remembers many people approaching her to ask: "You are so adorable! Why would you marry someone of the same sex?"
Muern, who was 17 when she married, looks regal in photos from the wedding. Her black hair, swept high on her head, is crowned with a tiara, and her cheeks and lips are painted a rosy red. She wears a beige skirt and a lacy wrap with golden bangles around her wrists, upper arm, and neck. Rous wears a blue double-breasted suit, which hangs loosely on his wiry frame. Though he was a decade older than his bride at the time, in the photos he looks like he could be her kid brother.
What makes their wedding even more remarkable is that it took place in 1993. Same-sex marriage was just beginning to become thinkable in the West; it was only in 2001 that the Netherlands would become the first country to grant same-sex marriages. Cambodia was not particularly advanced, to say the least, on human rights at the time. The country was just emerging from a period as a protectorate of the United Nations, which took control after the country had weathered three catastrophic years under the Khmer Rouge followed by a decade of occupation by Vietnam. The constitution adopted that year expressly banned same-sex marriage, and the country's LGBT movement remains in its infancy to this day.
Muern and Rous were not activists taking a stand with the backing of an organized movement, as so many same-sex couples who sought to marry in the West have been. They were simply a couple who wanted to be together, and they used the only avenue available to them: marriage. They got lucky that their families and local leaders sanctioned the relationship (despite national policy) — family rejection, forced heterosexual marriage, and gruesome violence threaten LGBT people in Cambodia as much as they do in many other countries.
The couple is not entirely unique. The same weekend I met Rous and Muern, I met Peng Sanh and Un Sreyphai, a couple that has been together for 34 years. They fell in love while doing forced labor on a commune set up by the Khmer Rouge. Their commune chief refused to register them as spouses after the Khmer Rouge fell, but did agree to register them as siblings on official documents, thus giving them the right to live together. Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch also bribed their commune chief $20 — a hefty sum in one of the world's poorest countries — to register as siblings, and the chief has recently promised to re-register them as spouses after Cambodia's election is settled. (The outcome of the July 28 vote is still in dispute.) Their family book also includes the four children they have raised. Three are Thuch's nephews, the last Hout conceived by having sex with a man so the couple could have a biological child.
These couples owe much of their success in getting some level of official recognition to Cambodia's rampant corruption and lawlessness — local officials can do more or less what they want regardless of national policy. But the past few decades have seen stories of same-sex couples — especially lesbian couples — attempting to formalize their relationships across Asia, from India to Indonesia. In many cases, these couples risk arrest and violence. Many cases end in tragic stories of suicide by couples who have no way to escape being separated.
These stories show that despite the fact that all the countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, with the notable exception of South Africa, are in Europe and the Americas, the West did not invent same-sex marriage. Nor is it a "cherry on the sundae" of LGBT rights, as same-sex marriage has sometimes been described — an important prize, but one that is only worth pursuing after sodomy laws are struck down and other more basic rights are won. Many gay, lesbian, and trans people in Asia live in areas that lack organizations centered on fighting for their rights. Many don't have the money or ability to run off to the city. In much of the world, marriage is an inevitable part of life, something expected and often organized by families. And there are often no imaginable ways for people to support themselves without a family unit. Taking the risk of marrying the spouse of one's choice is the most obvious way to resist being forced to marry someone else.
The modern history of same-sex marriage in Asia goes back several decades. Since at least the 1980s, there have been reports of couples performing marriage rites in secret or even holding large public weddings. Often these stories made headlines because they ended tragically — couples were arrested, kidnapped, and forcefully separated by their families, or even driven to commit suicide.
One of the best-known cases came in 1987 in India's Madhya Pradesh, which made headlines across India. Two police constables named Leela Namdeo and Urmila Srivastava exchanged vows at a Hindu temple in the city of Sagar in a ceremony conducted by a Brahman. The two women took turns placing garlands around each other's necks, a Hindu ritual equivalent to exchanging rings. They went to a photo studio to have pictures taken of the garland exchange, something that would have legal as well as sentimental value; marriages in India do not require government registration, so such photographs are often used as proof in cases where marriages are disputed.
The story of Namdeo and Srivastava might have stopped there if a jealous co-worker hadn't stolen their wedding photo and given it to their police commander. The two women were imprisoned — theoretically for violating the country's sodomy law, though the law only criminalizes sex between men — kept without food for 48 hours, and then fired and forcibly removed to Srivastava's village, supposedly because they were a bad example for other women on the police force. The harassment had been so severe that, within a few months, the couple began disavowing they had ever got married in the first place. They started telling people they were friends who were playing around when they decided to have the wedding photograph taken.
The marriage of Namdeo and Srivastava is just one of dozens of same-sex marriages attempted in India over the past four decades and documented by academic Ruth Vanita in her book, Love's Rites. Many others ended far more tragically.
In 2000, Bindu and Rajni, two twentysomething women from the south Indian state of Kerala, tied their bodies together with a dupatta, a women's scarf, emulating another Hindu wedding custom. They had tried, and failed, to elope a few days earlier. They then threw themselves down a granite quarry.
Similar cases continue to unfold around the region, often in places where the LGBT community is most embattled. At least 11 couples have tried to marry in Indonesia in the past three years, according to Andhanary Institute, a Jakarta-based queer women's organization.
This includes a 2011 case from Central Java, in which a 26-year-old trans man known as Rega wound up in jail after the family of his bride "discovered" he was born a woman on the day of his wedding. His 17-year-old bride, identified in news reports as Siti, claimed she had no idea that her groom was biologically female even though they had had sex repeatedly while they were dating. Rega was charged with fraud and having sex with a minor, and was forced to hold up the sex toys he used to "trick" Siti during the trial. He wound up serving 18 months in prison.
The first Asian nation to legalize civil unions could be Vietnam. The government in Hanoi has already endorsed civil union legislation, which is expected to be voted on by the National Assembly in the spring.
Thailand's parliament is also working on a civil union proposal, though activists involved in the effort say shortcomings in the proposals and disagreements between activists over strategy may derail the legislation. The proposal would only allow same-sex unions, meaning intersex or transgender individuals might still have difficulty marrying. It also doesn't provide adoption rights, and has a higher age of consent than that applied to heterosexual couples seeking to wed. Some activists are still hoping the law will come to a vote to force debate, but others oppose it outright.
Marriage equality could be a point of intersection between Western and Asian activists. And yet the topic of marriage makes Western LGBT activists working internationally uncomfortable: Many frequently warn that marriage is a volatile issue and pushing it abroad can backfire. Their caution is largely borne of the experience where reports or mere rumors of same-sex weddings can provoke anti-gay legislation or lynchings of people suspected of being gay.
There is no doubt this threat exists in many countries, especially in Africa. The most blatant evidence of this at the moment may be the "Anti-Same-Sex Marriage" bill, which has passed the Nigerian legislature and is awaiting the signature of President Goodluck Jonathan. In reality, it would increase penalties for same-sex relationships of any kind and even criminalize advocating LGBT rights and public displays of affection.
But the rhetoric of many LGBT rights activists often suggests that marriage is a concern to a narrow portion of the world, while the rest of the world pays for that desire.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decided to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Jessica Stern, the executive director of the New York–based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the move made them "rejoice." She then quickly tempered her enthusiasm:
In countries where discrimination against LGBT people is high, the decisions are likely to be used dangerously against LGBT individuals, organizations and human rights defenders…Over the last decade, allegations of "gay marriage agendas" and/or "gay weddings" have been used to crack down on social gatherings attended by LGBT people and to crack down on free speech, assembly, and access to life-saving information on HIV/AIDS.
Alistair Stewart, assistant director of the London-based Kaleidoscope Trust, was more blunt. "Gay Marriage and Other Wins for LGBT People Here Are Making Life Worse for Gays and Lesbians in Developing Countries," he titled his Huffington Post July column.
Inside the countries where same-sex couples have tried to marry, these concerns also exist — particularly in countries like Malaysia, where Islamists have considerable sway, adding to fears that raising the issue could do more harm than good.
Yet other concerns exist: in countries as varied as India, Thailand and Singapore, many lesbians and feminists argue that marriage shouldn't be a goal because it is associated with practices like forced marriages, child marriage, and domestic violence.
"I don't believe in marriage as an institution, especially marriage as it is in India," Sumathi Murthy, a queer feminist activist in Bangalore who helped found the organization LesBIT, said in a recent interview. "There are lots of other issues: Even now lesbians are committing suicide, trans people are facing severe violence, and discrimination is going on with a very heavy hand."
Yet throughout much of Asia, it appears that women and trans men who most frequently try to access the institution. There are a handful of cases involving gay men or trans women, such as a 2011 Indonesian case in which a trans woman known as Icha was jailed after her husband claimed she had lied to him about being a woman and tricked him into marriage, presumably because he was afraid their relationship would be discovered. And in Taiwan, a marriage case involving two men was headed to the country's top court until they abruptly dropped their lawsuit last winter.
But most of the cases — at least those that make headlines and come to the attention of activists — seem to involve women and trans men. This may be because men in many of these countries have far greater freedom to manage, or avoid, family pressure to marry. Men often have the option of leaving home, living on their own, or marrying a woman and having sexual relationships outside their marriage. Women's life choices are frequently far more constrained, especially if they are poor, uneducated, and live in rural areas: Many jobs are off-limits to them, their sexual behavior is closely monitored by friends, and their physical safety is constantly at risk.
Men "have the luxury of going to a completely different city and being themselves — their family will never know," said Sunil Babu Pant, founder of Nepal's Blue Diamond Society, one of Asia's most successful LGBT organizations. "But for girls, living at home, you must give explanation. Only when they get desperate and they leave [to marry another woman], then it becomes a case."
Pramada Menon, who helped found the New Delhi–based feminist human rights organization Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action, said that most of the lesbian couples who have tried to marry in India show "marriage per se … is the only visible way in which [most] people can actually live together and that is the only understood framework," though she is also no big fan of the institution.
Six weeks after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, I was in Phnom Penh and met Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch, two women who had been together for 26 years and had adopted three kids, but had only decided to have a wedding ceremony in 2011.
I thought perhaps they had heard about marriage equality victories abroad and decided they could have a ceremony too. But when I asked, they answered just like Muern and Rous had: They said they didn't know same-sex marriage was legal anywhere — they hadn't even heard about the Supreme Court ruling a few weeks earlier or the marriage equality laws passing in Britain and France.
Their decision to marry was much more simple. "We celebrated [a wedding ceremony] because we wanted to live with each other by following Cambodian tradition," Hout said.
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism