This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World

The soon-to-be White House chief strategist laid out a global vision in a rare 2014 talk where he said racism in the far right gets “washed out” and called Vladimir Putin a kleptocrat. BuzzFeed News publishes the complete transcript for the first time.

Last updated on November 16, 2016, at 2:49 p.m. ET

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 15, 2016, at 4:40 p.m. ET

Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon laid out his global nationalist vision in unusually in-depth remarks delivered by Skype to a conference held inside the Vatican in the summer of 2014.

Well before victories for Brexit and Trump seemed possible, Bannon declared there was a “global tea party movement” and praised European far-right parties like Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front. Bannon also suggested that a racist element in far-right parties “all gets kind of washed out,” and that the West was facing a “crisis of capitalism” after losing its “Judeo-Christian foundation,” and he blasted “crony capitalists” in Washington for failing to prosecute bank executives over the financial crisis.

The remarks — beamed into a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican — were part of a 50-minute Q&A during a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute that BuzzFeed News attended as part of its coverage of the rise of Europe's religious right. The group was founded by Benjamin Harnwell, a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva, to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics. The group has ties to some of the most conservative factions inside the Catholic Church; Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis, who was ousted from a senior Vatican position in 2014, is chair of the group’s advisory board.

BuzzFeed News originally posted a transcript beginning 90 seconds into the then–Breitbart News chairman’s remarks because microphone placement made the opening mostly unintelligible, but we have completed the transcript from a video of the talk on YouTube. You can hear the whole recording at the bottom of the post.

Here is what he said, unedited:

Steve Bannon: Thank you very much Benjamin, and I appreciate you guys including us in this. We're speaking from Los Angeles today, right across the street from our headquarters in Los Angeles. Um. I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. And it's really the organizing principle of how we built Breitbart News to really be a platform to bring news and information to people throughout the world. Principally in the West, but we're expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.

It's ironic, I think, that we're talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we're talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind's history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.

That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.

But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.

That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.

"I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."

And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

Now, what I mean by that specifically: I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.

I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist. I was trained at Goldman Sachs, I went to Harvard Business School, I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get. I specialized in media, in investing in media companies, and it’s a very, very tough environment. And you’ve had a fairly good track record. So I don’t want this to kinda sound namby-pamby, “Let’s all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around capitalism.”

But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing.

One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.

The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States.

However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom."

"Look at what’s happening in ISIS ... look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism ... at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook."

The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.

Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.

If you look at what’s happening in ISIS, which is the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, that is now currently forming the caliphate that is having a military drive on Baghdad, if you look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism. If you look at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook and modern ways to fundraise, and to use crowdsourcing to fund, besides all the access to weapons, over the last couple days they have had a radical program of taking kids and trying to turn them into bombers. They have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they've took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.

That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly.

So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”

I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.

They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it's going to come to Western Europe, it's going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we're now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.

"With all the baggage that those [right-wing] groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially— but we think that will all be worked through with time."

Benjamin Harnwell, Human Dignity Institute: Thank you, Steve. That was a fascinating, fascinating overview. I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated. Before I turn behind me to take a question —

Bannon: One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians' faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.

Harnwell: Over the course of this conference we’ve heard from various points of view regarding alleviation of poverty. We’ve heard from the center-left perspective, we’ve heard from the socialist perspective, we’ve heard from the Christian democrat, if you will, perspective. What particularly interests me about your point of view Steve, to talk specifically about your work, Breitbart is very close to the tea party movement. So I’m just wondering whether you could tell me about if in the current flow of contemporary politics — first tell us a little bit about Breitbart, what the mission is, and then tell me about the reach that you have and then could you say a little bit about the current dynamic of what’s going on at the moment in the States.

Bannon: Outside of Fox News and the Drudge Report, we’re the third-largest conservative news site and, quite frankly, we have a bigger global reach than even Fox. And that’s why we’re expanding so much internationally.

Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.

The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos. A group of kind of — we're not conspiracy-theory guys, but there's certainly — and I could see this when I worked at Goldman Sachs — there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they're going to dictate to everybody how the world's going to be run.

I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don't believe that. They believe they know what's best for how they will comport their lives. They think they know best about how to raise their families and how to educate their families. So I think you're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that.

 "Putin’s ... very, very very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of."

Now, with that, we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better. However, like I said, there’s two strands of capitalism that we’re quite concerned about.

One is crony capitalism, or what we call state-controlled capitalism, and that’s the big thing the tea party is fighting in the United States, and really the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left, because we’re not there yet. The biggest fight the tea party has today is just like UKIP. UKIP’s biggest fight is with the Conservative Party.

The tea party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things. And, quite frankly, it’s the reason that the United States’ financial situation is so dire, particularly our balance sheet. We have virtually a hundred trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities. That is all because you’ve had this kind of crony capitalism in Washington, DC. The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition. And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories.

On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we're winning victory after victory after victory. Things are turning around as people have a voice and have a platform of which they can use.

Harnwell: The third-largest conservative news website is something to be extremely impressed by. Can you tell for the people here who aren’t within the Anglosphere and they might not follow American domestic politics at the moment — there seems to be a substantial sea change going on at the moment in Middle America. And the leader of the majority party, Eric Cantor, was deselected a couple of weeks ago by a tea party candidate. What does that mean for the state of domestic politics in America at the moment?

Bannon: For everybody in your audience, this is one of the most monumental — first off, it’s the biggest election upset in the history of the American republic. Eric Cantor was the House majority leader and raised $10 million. He spent, between himself and outside groups, $8 million to hold a congressional district. He ran against a professor who was an evangelical Christian and a libertarian economist. He ran against a professor who raised in total $175,000. In fact, the bills from Eric Cantor’s campaign at a elite steak house in Washington, DC, was over $200,000. So they spent more than $200,000 over the course of the campaign wining and dining fat cats at a steak house in Washington than the entire opposition had to run.

Now, Eric Cantor, it was a landslide. He lost 57–43, and not one — outside of Breitbart, we covered this for six months, day in and day out — not one news site — not Fox News, not Politico, no sites picked this up. And the reason that this guy won is quite simple: Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor who say they’re conservative selling out their interests every day to crony capitalists.

"That center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India."

And you’re seeing that whether that was UKIP and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, whether it’s these groups in the Low Countries in Europe, whether it’s in France, there’s a new tea party in Germany. The theme is all the same. And the theme is middle-class and working-class people — they’re saying, “Hey, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I’m getting less benefits than I’m ever getting through this, I’m incurring less wealth myself, and I’m seeing a system of fat cats who say they’re conservative and say they back capitalist principles, but all they’re doing is binding with corporatists." Right? Corporatists, to garner all the benefits for themselves.

And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi's great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.

Harnwell: I think it’s important to understand the distinction that you’re drawing here between what can be understood as authentic, free-market capitalism as a means of promoting wealth that [unintelligible] involves everybody with a form of crony capitalism which simply benefits a certain class. And we’ve watched over the course of our conference, we’ve watched two video segments produced by the Acton Institute about how development aid is spent internationally and how that can be driven away from — it damages people on the ground but it also perpetuates a governing class. And the point that you’re mentioning here, that I think that you’re saying has driven almost a revolution movement in America, is the same phenomenon of what’s going on in the developing world, which is a concept of government which is no longer doing what it is morally bound to do but has become corrupt and self-serving. So it’s effectively the sa—

Bannon: It’s exactly the same. Currently, if you read The Economist, you read the Financial Times this week, you’ll see there’s a relatively obscure agency in the federal government that is engaged in a huge fight that may lead to a government shutdown. It’s called the Export-Import Bank. And for years, it was a bank that helped finance things that other banks wouldn’t do. And what’s happening over time is that it’s metastasized to be a cheap form of financing to General Electric and to Boeing and to other large corporations. You get this financing from other places if they wanted to, but they’re putting this onto the middle-class taxpayers to support this.

"I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that [right-wing parties] have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial ... My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?"

And the tea party is using this as an example of the cronyism. General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism, and the Acton Institute is a tremendous supporter of, and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.

Harnwell: Thanks, Steve. I’m going to turn around now, as I’m sure we have some great questions from the floor. Who has the first question then?

Bannon: First of all, Benjamin, I can tell you I could hardly recognize you, you’re so cleaned up you are for the conference.


Questioner: Hello, my name is Deborah Lubov. I’m a Vatican correspondent for Zenit news agency, for their English edition. I have some experience working in New York — I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers auditing investment banks, one of which was Goldman Sachs. And considering this conference is on poverty, I’m curious — from your point of view especially, your experience in the investment banking world — what concrete measures do you think they should be doing to combat, prevent this phenomenon? We know that various sums of money are used in all sorts of ways and they do have different initiatives, but in order to concretely counter this epidemic now, what are your thoughts?

"For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a [financial] bailout."

Bannon: That’s a great question. The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson. He was secretary of Treasury. As chairman of Goldman Sachs, he had gone to Washington years before and asked for those changes. That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity. And so the crisis of 2008 was, quite frankly, really never recovered from in the United States. It’s one of the reasons last quarter you saw 2.9% negative growth in a quarter. So the United States economy is in very, very tough shape.

And one of the reasons is that we’ve never really gone and dug down and sorted through the problems of 2008. Particularly the fact — think about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks' balance sheets.

In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. So I think it’s a whole area that just — and I will tell you, the underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.

Questioner: Thank you.

Bannon: Great question.

Questioner: Hello, Mr. Bannon. I’m Mario Fantini, a Vermonter living in Vienna, Austria. You began describing some of the trends you’re seeing worldwide, very dangerous trends, worry trends. Another movement that I’ve been seeing grow and spread in Europe, unfortunately, is what can only be described as tribalist or neo-nativist movement — they call themselves Identitarians. These are mostly young, working-class, populist groups, and they’re teaching self-defense classes, but also they are arguing against — and quite effectively, I might add — against capitalism and global financial institutions, etc. How do we counteract this stuff? Because they’re appealing to a lot of young people at a very visceral level, especially with the ethnic and racial stuff.

Bannon: I didn’t hear the whole question, about the tribalist?

"One of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department, 35 [bank] executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on."

Questioner: Very simply put, there’s a growing movement among young people here in Europe, in France and in Austria and elsewhere, and they’re arguing very effectively against Wall Street institutions and they’re also appealing to people on an ethnic and racial level. And I was just wondering what you would recommend to counteract these movements, which are growing.

Bannon: One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.

And that all trickles down to the man in the street. If you look at people’s lives, and particularly millennials, look at people under 30 — people under 30, there’s 50% really underemployment of people in the United States, which is probably the most advanced economy in the West, and it gets worse in Europe.

I think in Spain it’s something like 50 or 60% of the youth under 30 are underemployed. And that means the decade of their twenties, which is where you have to learn a skill, where you have to learn a craft, where you really start to get comfortable in your profession, you’re taking that away from the entire generation. That’s only going to fuel tribalism, that’s only going to fuel [unintelligible]… That’s why to me, it’s incumbent upon freedom-loving people to make sure that we sort out these governments and make sure that we sort out particularly this crony capitalism so that the benefits become more of this entrepreneurial spirit and that can flow back to working-class and middle-class people. Because if not, we’re going to pay a huge price for this. You can already start to see it.

Questioner: I have a question, because you worked on Wall Street. What is the opinion there on whether they think bank bailouts are justified? Is there a Christian-centered [unintelligible] that they think should be bailed out? The crisis starts earlier than 2008. What was the precedent then? What was the feeling on Wall Street when they bailed out the banks? How should Christians feel about advocating or being against that?

Bannon: I think one is about responsibility. For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a bailout. I think the bailouts in 2008 were wrong. And I think, you look in hindsight, it was a lot of misinformation that was presented about the bailouts of the banks in the West.

And look at the [unintelligible] it. Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.

The bailouts were absolutely outrageous, and here’s why: It bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management. And the management team of this. And we know this now from congressional investigations, we know it from independent investigations, this is not some secret conspiracy. This is kind of in plain sight.

In fact, one of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department 35 executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on. Because even with the Democrats, right, in power, there’s a sense between the law firms, and the accounting firms, and the investment banks, and their stooges on Capitol Hill, they looked the other way.

So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.

And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.

And I think that’s why you’re seeing — when you read the media says, “tea party is losing, losing elections,” that is all BS. The elections we don’t win, we’re forcing those crony capitalists to come and admit that they’re not going to do this again. The whole narrative in Washington has been changed by this populist revolt that we call the grassroots of the tea party movement.

And it’s specifically because those bailouts were completely and totally unfair. It didn’t make those financial institutions any stronger, and it bailed out a bunch of people — by the way, and these are people that have all gone to Yale, and Harvard, they went to the finest institutions in the West. They should have known better.

And by the way: It’s all the institutions of the accounting firms, the law firms, the investment banks, the consulting firms, the elite of the elite, the educated elite, they understood what they were getting into, forcibly took all the benefits from it and then look to the government, went hat in hand to the government to be bailed out. And they’ve never been held accountable today. Trust me — they are going to be held accountable. You’re seeing this populist movement called the tea party in the United States.

Harnwell: Okay, I think we’ve got time for just one or two more questions for Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media, third-largest news organization in the States. I know you’re a very, very busy man, so we’re very grateful for the time that you’ve agreed to put aside for this, to close this conference.

"I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?"

Bannon: I’m never too busy to share with a group that can do as much good as you guys can.

Questioner: What do you think is the major threat today, to the Judeo-Christian Civilization? Secularism, or the Muslim world? In my humble opinion, they’re just trying to defend themselves from our cultural invasion. Thank you.

[Question restated by Harnwell]

Bannon: It’s a great question. I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?

If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.

But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act [unintelligible].

"The way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States."

Questioner: Thank you very much. I’m [unintelligible]. I come from Slovakia. This is actually the source of my two very quick questions. Thank you very much for the work that you do to promote the Judeo-Christian values in the world. I really appreciate it, and I also feel that the danger is very high. I have two minor questions, because you have mentioned, in terms of UKIP and Front National [unintelligible]. From the European perspective, listening to the language which has become more and more radical from these two parties, especially before the European Parliament elections, I’m just wondering what are your plans on how to help these partners from Europe to maybe focus on the value issues and not with populist? And also it goes in terms — you have mentioned the involvement of state in capitalism as one of the big dangers. But these two parties you’ve mentioned, they actually have close ties with Putin, who is the promoter of this big danger, so I’d like to know your thoughts about this and how you’re going to deal with it.

Bannon: Could you summarize that for me?

Harnwell: The first question was, you’d reference the Front National and UKIP as having elements that are tinged with the racial aspect amidst their voter profile, and the questioner was asking how you intend to deal with that aspect.

Bannon: I don’t believe I said UKIP in that. I was really talking about the parties on the continent, Front National and other European parties.

I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.

I believe that you’ll see this in the center-right populist movement in continental Europe. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with UKIP, and I can say to you that I’ve never seen anything at all with UKIP that even comes close to that. I think they’ve done a very good job of policing themselves to really make sure that people including the British National Front and others were not included in the party, and I think you’ve seen that also with tea party groups, where some people would show up and were kind of marginal members of the tea party, and the tea party did a great job of policing themselves early on. And I think that’s why when you hear charges of racism against the tea party, it doesn’t stick with the American people, because they really understand.

I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.

"Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand."

Question: Obviously, before the European elections the two parties had a clear link to Putin. If one of the representatives of the dangers of capitalism is the state involvement in capitalism, so, I see there, also Marine Le Pen campaigning in Moscow with Putin, and also UKIP strongly defending Russian positions in geopolitical terms.

[Harnwell restates, but unintelligible]

Harnwell: These two parties have both been cultivating President Putin [unintelligible].

Bannon: I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he's got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what's called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.

One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he's trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don't believe in the centralized government in the United States. They'd rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.

"You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that."

I'm not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he's talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it's what can see us forward.

You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you're facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I'm not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.

Questioner: One of my questions has to do with how the West should be responding to radical Islam. How, specifically, should we as the West respond to jihadism without losing our own soul? Because we can win the war and lose ourselves at the same time. How should the West respond to radical Islam and not lose itself in the process?

Bannon: From a perspective — this may be a little more militant than others. I think definitely you’re going to need an aspect that is [unintelligible]. I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.

If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places... It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.

And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you've taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?

Because it is a crisis, and it's not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.


Bannon during his speech referred to Russia as an "imperialist power." A transcription error in a previous version of this story had Bannon referring to Russia as a "perilous" power.


Bannon and Harnwell refer to the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank based in the United States. This was mistakenly transcribed as Aspen Institute, a different think tank, in a previous version of this story.


Bannon says in the recording that the West is in the "very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." A previous version of this story read "end stages," due to a transcription error.

Would-Be Asylum Seekers Are Stuck At Guantanamo Bay

The Obama administration says it has no plans to end a decades-old program that holds would-be asylum seekers without access to lawyers on the same legal grounds underpinning the detentions of those held in the so-called “war on terror.”

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 20, 2016, at 3:27 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama heads to Cuba this weekend with the shadow of Guantanamo Bay hanging over him. He has made a last ditch effort to close the base, which holds dozens of detainees linked to the “war on terror.”

Entirely ignored in that debate is the fact that Guantanamo also holds another group of people the U.S. doesn’t want to let into the country: people fleeing persecution — mostly from Cuba and Haiti — who the Coast Guard picked up at sea before they made it to U.S. shores. The U.S. can’t send them home — to return those believed to have a well-founded fear of persecution would be a violation of international law — so the U.S. takes them into what the government calls “protective custody” at Guantanamo.

Today, just eight people are held in what the government calls the Migrant Operations Center in Guantanamo, a building reminiscent of a budget hotel on an isolated side of the base far from its commercial district and the military detention center.

If they had managed to set foot on dry land in Florida, they would have a right to request asylum in the United States and would be entitled to lawyers and other legal protections as their claims were processed. But since they were picked up at sea, they have no right to asylum in the United States and instead have their cases processed at Guantanamo Bay, where they have no access to lawyers or courts. If they prove their persecution claims to the satisfaction of a U.S. official, they are resettled abroad, not in the U.S.

In the run up to Obama’s visit to Cuba this weekend, the White House affirmed that it would leave what’s known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy unchanged. That means it will continue using Guantanamo Bay to process those who have a credible fear of persecution.

The numbers now held in the Migrant Operations Center are small, though 121 people have been resettled from there since Obama took office. Lawyers who have fought the program say that, regardless of the numbers, it keeps Guantanamo as a place outside the Constitution for people fleeing persecution even as the Obama administration says it is trying to comply Supreme Court rulings that the Constitution must apply to people in military detention.

“It’s inconsistent as a matter of policy … [to] close that part of Guantanamo and bring alleged terrorists into the United States while keeping bonafide refugees detained,” said Ira Kurzban, a Florida immigration lawyer who first sued on behalf of thousands of Haitian refugees captured at sea while fleeing after a coup 1991. “There’s just no justification for that.”

The U.S. government used Guantanamo to warehouse thousands of people fleeing persecution for at least a decade before the military base became known to world as the home of the dozens held in the name of fighting terrorism.

The White House turned to the base at a time when there was widespread fear in the United States that large numbers of refugees would unleash a threat that many Americans hoped could be contained abroad.

The country at the time was Haiti, which had been viewed as a security threat to the United States since the late 1700s, when slaves overthrew their masters and set up the first black-led government in the Americas just off the coast of Florida. This continued through the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who struck a deal with the country’s then-dictator in 1981 to return any Haitians caught fleeing by sea because these migrants “threatened the welfare and safety and communities” in the U.S.

When a new wave of thousands fled Haiti after a 1991 coup, there was an additional fear: HIV. The Reagan administration declared HIV a “dangerous contagious disease” in 1987 and barred those carrying the virus from entering the United States. Haitians, like gay men, were widely perceived as especially dangerous carriers of the virus from the early days of the epidemic in the United States. Haitians living in the U.S. were evicted from their homes, had their businesses boycotted, and encountered graffiti like “Haitians = Niggers with AIDS.”

A court briefly blocked President George H. W. Bush from returning thousands of Haitians who had been stopped at sea by the Coast Guard because they might have valid asylum claims. Rather than bring them to the U.S., he ordered a camp of tents and razor wire built for them on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, New York Law School Professor Brandt Goldstein recounted in his book about the legal battle that followed, Storming the Court.

It would ultimately hold more than 15,000 people before the administration found a way around the court’s order and resumed simply sending newly apprehended Haitians back. Those on Guantanamo were considered for political asylum, and more than 6,000 were ultimately brought to the United States while thousands of others were ultimately returned. As the Bush administration rushed to empty the camps, around 300 people were stuck in limbo in a compound that had been set up as a camp to “concentrate the HIV-migrants and their families,” Goldstein reported.

The administration was using a special procedure for those with HIV that seemed designed to make their cases fail, Goldstein reported. Most refugees were flown to the U.S. for their final asylum hearing, where they had a right to an attorney. But those with HIV were processed entirely at Guantanamo and were denied attorneys even when they asked for them.

A team from Yale Law School brought two lawsuits on behalf of the Haitians: One challenged the administration’s power to return people picked up on the high seas without evaluating the fear of prosecution. The other one was brought on behalf of those with HIV, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed them access to an attorney and other rights of due process, even on Guantanamo Bay.

The arguments in the second case raised the same set of issues that lawyers for those detained in George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” would raise after 9/11. And the government’s response in 1992 was almost verbatim what its lawyers would argue to justify those detentions.

“Guantánamo is a military base in a foreign country,” a Justice Department lawyer argued in an early hearing in the case of the Haitians. “They’re outside the United States and therefore they have no judicially cognizable rights in United States courts.”

The Yale team hoped that then-President Bill Clinton would free the Haitians before the court had to rule. He won the White House while the matter was in the courts, and had denounced the elder Bush administration’s policy during the campaign. Hillary Clinton had even privately assured the Yale professor leading the litigation, Harold Koh, that she would advocate their cause with her husband during an October 1992 meeting at Yale, Goldstein reported in Storming the Court.

(Koh, who later served as an assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton and as the department’s legal advisor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

The trust in Clinton “reflected our naivete about the nature of these political processes,” Tory Clawson, one of the then-law students on the Yale team, told BuzzFeed News.

But in a dramatic about-face that stunned the Yale team, Clinton declared shortly before taking office that he would continue the Bush administration’s practice of returning fleeing Haitians. Once Clinton took office, Bush administration lawyers who lingered at the Justice Department continued to fight Koh and the Yale students all the way to the Supreme Court, where the government trounced the Yale team in the case concerning rights on the high seas.

But the Yale team won a sweeping ruling from a lower court in the other case, the one concerning whether the HIV-positive Haitians had constitutional protections on Guantanamo.

“The detainees have a right to due process,” the judge declared, noting, “If the Due Process Clause does not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo, [the government] would have discretion deliberately to starve or beat” people held there.

The Clinton administration didn’t challenge the Haitians’ release, but it threatened to keep fighting the legal issues on appeal until the Yale team agreed to have the ruling nullified. To allow the arguments to stand, Stuart Gerson, who was the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Litigation department at the time, told BuzzFeed News, “would be a surrender of executive branch constitutional authority that would hurt them in the future.”

They were specifically worried that the ruling could some day cost the president’s power to hold people on Guantanamo outside the reach of the courts, Gerson said. And the Clinton administration quickly found a new purpose for Guantanamo — to hold thousands of Cubans who fled by boat in 1994. That’s when “wet foot, dry foot” was born — those who made it to the U.S. mainland were fast-tracked for residence, while those with political persecution claims caught at sea went to Guantanamo while the U.S. found another country to take them in.

The question of the Constitution’s power over foreigners at Guantanamo was not addressed by the Supreme Court until 2008, when the Bush administration had sent military detainees to Guantanamo in an attempt to place them outside the reach of the courts. The Supreme Court ruled against the administration.

“Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court — in an opinion that referenced the Yale litigation at one point.

Shortly after taking office, Obama called for the Guantanamo detention center to be closed because it was created based on “the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law.”

But that notion was first raised in the courts concerning people fleeing persecution, and Obama has made no moves to change to that program — which the government has used for more than 400 people since 1996, according to the State Department.

To press that principle with respect to military detainees while not doing the same with people fleeing persecution is not just “hypocritical as a moral position but [also] lawless,” said Michael Wishnie, one of the students on of the Yale team in the Haitian cases who now teaches at Yale Law School.

It’s especially galling, Wishnie said, because the executive branch could unilaterally move to close the Migrant Operating Center. “That’s stroke-of-the-pen territory.”

In response to questions by BuzzFeed News, a State Department spokesperson said those sent to the Center are “neither detained nor imprisoned,” though she would not say how long they generally stay in the facility. Unlike the military detainees, they are free to leave at any time, though their only option to leave without being accepted by another country as a refugee, however, is “to return to their country of origin” — the very place the U.S. government decided it would violate international law to return them to.

The administration also argues it doesn’t ferry boats of asylum seekers to U.S. shores for a very good humanitarian reason: Crossing miles of ocean is dangerous, and it doesn’t want to create an incentive for more people want to make the trip.

The White House responded to several questions from BuzzFeed News about why the Migrant Operation Center remains in operation while the president is seeking to close the military detention facility with a statement from a senior administration official that said, “The United States is committed to supporting safe, orderly, and legal migration. The Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba.”

But even though the numbers of who pass through the program are small, lawyers who’ve worked on the issue say the underlying principle at stake is the same as the one at stake with the military detainees.

The military detention program was built on the foundation laid by the treatment of the Haitian asylum seekers — the facility where the military detainees were first held on Guantanamo stood on the exact spot where a camp for the Haitians once stood.

And as long as the U.S. treats Guantanamo as outside domestic law in asylum cases, said Jonathan Hafetz who was a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, it will call into question the U.S.’s commitment to its principles.

The government is still using the base “as a way to minimize [people’s] legal rights,” he said.

Pedophilia Claim Exposes Rift In The "Pro-Family" Movement

The World Congress of Families closes today amid debate how to continue to oppose same-sex marriage without being anti-LGBT. “Ten years ago people could say, ‘The homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t,” one leader told BuzzFeed News.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 30, 2015, at 4:58 p.m. ET

SALT LAKE CITY — When the father of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said Wednesday that the “next thing [LGBT activists] are going to push [is] to try to legalize pedophiles,” the idea wasn’t new to the organization that was hosting him.

Rafael Cruz, an evangelical pastor, made the remark following a panel at a conference that drew more than 3,000 people from around the world to Salt Lake City called the World Congress of Families. Since the event first grew out of a wonky conversation between American and Russian academics in 1995, it has grown into an event bringing together social conservative activists from every continent and a top target of groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Many associated with the organization have raised the specter of pedophilia as part of making the case against greater social and legal acceptance for homosexuality over its 20-year history. That same morning, for example, WCF gave an award to Andrea Minichiello Williams of the British group Christian Concern, who said in a 2013 speech to Jamaican activists fighting repeal of the country’s sodomy law that LGBT advocates “hate the line of homosexuality being linked to pedophilia. They try to cut that off, so you can’t speak about it. So I say to you in Jamaica: Speak about it.”

So even some of the WCF’s participants were surprised when the conference’s lead organizer, Janice Shaw Crouse, issued a statement saying that Cruz’s views “are not those of the World Congress of Families,” which “advocates for life and the natural family in a civil, constructive and transparent way.”

The episode is a sign of growing pains for an organization that still partly sees itself as a rag-tag academic conference at a time when major geopolitical disputes are being fought over LGBT rights. It invited deeper scrutiny from its fiercest critics by bringing the event to the United States, where the media and political context has changed so fast that arguments against homosexuality that were once largely uncontroversial among its participants now threaten the “civil, constructive” image its organizers have tried to project. Navigating this terrain is even more complicated because so many of its participants work in countries that have grown more hostile to LGBT rights at the same time so much of the Americas and Europe have embraced marriage equality.

This has some of the group’s key players wondering if the new reality demands a new approach.

“We’re no longer under the radar — we’re actually smack dab in the middle of a whole bunch of radars,” said the organization’s co-founder and long-time director Allan Carlson, who recently retired. “At some point when you’re being watched closely you have to reign it in.”

“Ten years ago people could say ‘the homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t.”

The World Congress of Families “emerged on a frigid night in early 1995 in a modest apartment in Moscow,” according to Carlson, a walrusy academic with a bushy mustache and whose speaking style brings to mind a professor whose lectures college students sleep through.

When he teamed up with a handful of Russian sociologists to plan the first World Congress of Families, held in Prague in 1997, it wasn’t conceived of as a permanent organization. And in reality, it still isn’t much of one today. It maintains only a handful of part-time staff in between its biannual conferences. They’re operate under the auspices of something called the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois, which primarily publishes papers to promote “the natural family.”

But it casts a big shadow because its conferences, have become an important vector for connecting social conservatives from every continent who work on issues ranging from banning abortion to combatting sex-trafficking to morality education for children.

Smaller progressive groups like People for the American Way, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Political Research Associates have been trying to publicize the anti-LGBT work of WCF affiliates for several years, but it’s only in the past two years that it’s become a major target of the U.S. LGBT movement. That’s thanks in part to a change in the landscape on the left: In 2013, the Human Rights Campaign began turning its formidable media and fundraising machine to international work for the first time. Many of the WFC’s American partner organizations were long-time opponents of HRC at home, making it an ideal early target as the group figured out what its international operation would actually do.

This was made easier by the fact that a WCF conference was planned to be held in 2014 inside the Kremlin in Moscow and its organizers repeatedly defended the country’s “homosexual propaganda ban” in events promoting the conference in the U.S. This was around the time of the Sochi Olympics and the showdown over the Russian law thrust questions about LGBT rights into the heart of geopolitics. (After an American WCF sponsor withdrew from the event after Russia invaded Ukraine WCF reluctantly removed its official imprimatur from the event, which was still held in September under a different name.)

As a whole, he said, the group isn’t “anti” anybody; it is “pro”: “We are for the family as the natural fundamental unit of society.”

WCF is perhaps kind of global brand more than an organization, an entity that allows a wide variety of activists to fly under its flag but has nothing approaching a clear governing body. It partners with some of the world’s most established social conservative organizations — like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage — and confers honors on activists in places with less mature “pro-family” movements in order to raise their stature at home and abroad. This also gives the World Congress of Families the appearance of direct influence on conservative victories abroad — like passage of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” ban in 2012 or the 2014 anti-LGBT law in Nigeria — where foreigners have played only a peripheral role.

“This is a loose confederation … but the WCF never endorses all the views of any particular individual or organization,” said the group’s interim director E. Douglas Clark in an interview with BuzzFeed News. He said Cruz’s remarks linking homosexuality and pedophilia “offends my sensibilities.” As a whole, he said, the group isn’t “anti” anybody; it is “pro”: “We are for the family as the natural fundamental unit of society.”

And there were several harsh comments made about transgender people, frequently at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner, whose name brought boos from the audience.

Sex reassignment is a "mass delusion that is destructive and dangerous," said Miriam Grossman, whose website bills her as “100 percent MD, 0 percent PC. “We are fighting a war. Hard science is a weapon of mass destruction. Let's use it."

A sign of the pressure the group feels it is under is that the “Questions and Answers” section of the conference’s website is actually a lengthy rebuttal to an HRC document that calls the WCF “one of the most influential American organizations involved in the export of hate.” WCF’s response states that “these activist organizations are taking statements out of context and extrapolating conclusions, as well as attempting to hold WCF accountable for pronouncements made by individuals who have no official relationship with the organization.”

Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the sponsors of this year’s event, said it was unfair for LGBT groups to demand that groups like his repudiate positions of its international allies. These questions will continue to confront NOM, which on Monday held the latest in a series of meetings over the past three years to explore the creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to multiple people invited to attend.

Though Brown and other organizers of the conference say they oppose laws that criminalize homosexuality, the WCF named as 2015’s “Woman of the Year,” Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian activist who supported a 2014 “Anti-Same Sex Marriage Law” that went far beyond defining marriage as a man as a woman. With sentences up to 14 years, it also criminalizes promoting LGBT rights or even public displays of affection.

When asked whether that was a conflict for NOM, Brown said, “I don’t understand why there’s any problem … One can oppose [extended prison sentences for homosexual acts] and still work with folks around the world who agree on the issue of marriage.”

But to the WCF’s critics, this posture simply allows the group to distance itself when some of their affiliates’ work or comments play badly in U.S. or European media.

“That’s the issue with the World Congress: They will never take responsibility for the havoc and damage their participants do all over the world,” said Troy Williams of the LGBT rights group Equality Utah, an organizer of events that countered the WCF program in Salt Lake City. “You can’t invite a rabid homophobe like Rafael Cruz to the stage and claim that you’re not responsible for the things that they’ve said.”

The case of Andrea Minichiello Williams — the WCF awardee who urged Jamaicans to “speak about” a link between homosexuality and pedophilia in 2013 — does give the appearance that the group sanctions saying different things to different audiences. When asked for comment for this story, Williams said in a phone call that BuzzFeed News had misquoted and distorted her remarks in Jamaica when it first reported them.

After BuzzFeed News provided her with a recording of her comments, she sent a comment by email, “I am at the World Congress of Families to push back against the elitist sexual agenda and celebrate the beauty and hope that is found in the natural family as defined in the bible and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have heard repeated, undeniable evidence of how children do best when raised by their mother and father.”

“It comes as no surprise that the veneer broke and the true anti-LGBT animus that's lurking right below the surface was exposed for all to see,” said Kerry Brody of the Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday afternoon. “The World Congress of Families has tried very hard this week to hide its and its affiliates' positions, actions, and advocacy behind a wall of sunshine-and-rainbows sounding rhetoric … These aren’t examples of one of two people going ‘off message.’ They're saying what they think is true, and are spewing vitriol and venom to a cheering crowd who likely agrees with them.”

At the same time WCF has been hammered by groups like the Human Rights Campaign in the months surrounding the event, it also is getting criticized on the right by activists who claim that it is “sacrificing principle” in its efforts to be seen as “pro-natural family” rather than anti-LGBT.

This charge was laid bare in an 11-hour conference held in Salt Lake City just before WCF kicked off, titled, “Understanding Homosexuality – The Politically Incorrect Truth,” organized by the anti-LGBT group MassResistance. Its organizers billed it as “possibly the most powerful conference to date dealing with the radical LGBT agenda,” and included Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, the lawyer for the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Kim Davis.

“I think there is a place for being insulting and degrading, and I think I can back that up by scripture,” said MassResistance’s director, Brian Camenker, in a video posted online by People for the American Way. “I think we have to look at this as a war, not as, you know, a church service.”

Camenker, who is Jewish, said later in the program that scripture lays out a separate set of rules for people “who want to tear down the moral structure of society,” asserting that “God says those people who want to do that must be destroyed.” (Camenker declined a BuzzFeed News request for an interview.)

It appeared what Camenker’s group described as “shameful cowardice” had invaded even his own conference — he made his remarks after other speakers, including some activists who were also appearing at the WCF, had argued that their work against homosexuality was motivated by love rather than hate. (This includes Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, author of a 2010 pamphlet that asserts gay men are disproportionately likely to be child molesters. He also declined an interview request.)

This tension is a sign of a real strategic disagreement among advocates who oppose LGBT rights about how to continue their work in an era where comments that can be construed as homophobic provoke a media storm, said Austin Ruse of C-Fam, also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights, who was on the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City conference.

“One of the leitmotifs in the planning for this [was] not wanting to be overt” about criticizing homosexuality per se, said Ruse, who sent an email about the conference to his group's supporters on Thursday in which he said, “One of the more monstrous lies of our time is that same-sex desire is normal and natural.”

This is an especially delicate question given that the conference is being held in Salt Lake City, the seat of the Mormon Church, which worked with LGBT activists to get a bill — known as the “Utah Compromise” and aimed at barring discrimination in housing and employment — through Utah’s Republican legislature. The bill had substantial exceptions that Mormon leaders said were necessary to protect religious liberty, and it was criticized by both religious conservatives and LGBT activists. But the détente between LGBT activists and Mormon leaders was still remarkable, especially since so much ill will had formed among LGBT people for the church because of its support in 2008 for California’s Proposition 8, which blocked same-sex marriage there until courts struck it down.

One of the most controversial speeches inside the conference was arguably its opening keynote, delivered by Mormon Elder M. Russell Ballard, who used his remarks to highlight the Utah compromise.

“We can love one another without compromising personal divine ideas,” he said. “We can speak about those ideals without marginalizing others.”

Ballard concluded his remarks by calling “upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote these measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society,” and he got enthusiastic applause, but the principle of the Utah compromise was rejected out of hand by many of the WCF’s key players.

C-Fam’s Ruse voiced the sentiments of many in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

“The Mormons think that they can sign a treaty of nonaggression with the LGBTs, and I just think it’s lunacy,” Ruse said.

This conference is more careful than most previous years’ events have been, Ruse said, because the context has shifted so much.

“Ten years ago people could say, ‘The homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t,” Ruse said. Some in the movement now count it as “a great victory” when “one of our opponents don’t see us as evil,” paraphrasing comments by an anti-same-sex marriage activist.

But, Ruse said, “A lot of us think that’s not a victory at all.”


Austin Ruse works for C-Fam, which is also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights. A previous version of this story misstated the organization's name.

Will Supreme Court Ruling Put LGBT Rights At The Heart Of The U.S. Global Human Rights Push?

Last week's ruling on same-sex marriage is a tipping point in the conversation over how LGBT rights are human rights.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 29, 2015, at 8:58 a.m. ET

SEOUL — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a question of basic equality before the law is not only the end of the long political battle in the U.S., but is also a tipping point in the global conversation over whether LGBT rights are human rights.

This is not because the United States has raised the bar of what LGBT equality means — it is well behind more than 20 countries in Europe and Latin America in crossing the marriage equality finish line. Nor is it because now that the U.S. has accepted marriage equality, the rest of the world will follow — the wave of anti-LGBT legislation adopted in countries like Uganda and Nigeria in 2014 were in part a reaction to marriage wins in the West, and some countries may intensify their anti-LGBT rhetoric in response to this decision.

But once its full implications are understood, the decision will push the global debate over what it means for countries to fully protect the human rights of gays and lesbians into a new phase. Before the Obergefell decision, even many campaigners trying to get international human rights institutions to treat LGBT rights kept marriage at an arm's length out of fear that asserting it as a fundamental right would intensify opposition to any LGBT rights protections in many parts of the world. After Obergefell’s statement that this is a clear question of equality for gays and lesbians, it seems impossible to exclude partnership rights from the list of fundamental rights that same-sex couples are entitled to regardless of what country they live in.

You won’t hear many LGBT rights organizations saying this, at least not yet — the reality of the decision is still sinking in, and those organizations based in the U.S. and Europe that work globally have treaded carefully or steered clear on this issue for years. But the U.S.’s own trajectory on marriage equality — and the personal trajectories on the issue of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — make it clear why it seems impossible for it to stay on the margins.

Obama and Clinton were the essential figures for making LGBT rights a serious part of the global human rights discussion. Before Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was one of the most important opponents in blocking an LGBT rights push at the United Nations. In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its first resolution addressing LGBT rights with U.S. support, and Clinton gave what was considered a groundbreaking speech in which she declared, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

But at the time, Clinton herself was on record as opposing marriage equality. So was President Obama, who announced his support for marriage equality only six months before the 2012 election. It would be hard for the U.S. to endorse anything that suggested marriage was a universal right in 2011 — far more U.S. states banned recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages than established marriage equality.

So when the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first global survey of LGBT rights — a report ordered by the 2011 resolution — it barely considered partnership rights, focusing instead on the criminalization of same-sex relationships, free speech rights for LGBT activists, and hate crimes.

This sometimes put U.S. diplomats in awkward situations as the global battles over marriage equality intensified at a breakneck speed. Ahead of a 2013 vote on a marriage equality ban in Croatia, for example, the State Department’s then-top officer for human rights, Uzra Zeya, said in a press conference at Europe’s largest annual gathering of LGBT activists that “the U.S. government does not advocate for or against same-sex marriage in other countries.” Instead, she said, it limits its promotion of “rights for LGBT persons” to countering criminalization of “LGBT status,” combating hate crimes, and “other core issues.”

When asked by BuzzFeed News why she said marriage was not a “core issue” for LGBT rights, she said, “I’m not saying it’s not a core issue. I’m just telling you what our focus is.”

In less than two years, the State Department went from the confused position Zeya presented to a strong statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks to the clarifying effect of Obergefell.

“The Court’s decision also sends a clear message to every corner of the globe: no law that rests on a foundation of discrimination can withstand the tide of justice,” Kerry said in a statement released following the judgement’s announcement. He also noted that he’d recently appointed “the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry” — himself a married gay man with two children — “who is fighting every single day so that people all over the world have the rights they deserve.”

The U.S.’s symbolic status and soft-power clout has given its steps toward marriage equality huge weight even though it has never been at the vanguard. The first European nation to establish marriage equality, the Netherlands, passed its law in 2000, and today the only two major EU members in Western Europe without marriage equality are Germany and Italy. In the Americas, marriage equality has been the law in Canada since 2005, in Argentina since 2010, and in Brazil since 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court has been ruling state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional since 2012, taking an additional important step toward establishing universal marriage equality earlier this month.

And the global impact of Obergefell is so significant in part because the conversation has already progressed so far in other corners of the globe. In some ways, the symbolism of Ireland becoming the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality by popular vote in May was more powerful than Obergfell in countries like Australia or Italy — the lopsided vote refuted the argument from conservatives that marriage was being imposed by ruling elites over the will of the people. And the shift at U.N. was detectable weeks before Obergefell — in his 2015 version of the LGBT human rights report, the high commissioner for human rights said partnership protections were necessary to protect gays and lesbians’ human rights.

More countries could very well enact marriage equality before 2015 is over. Opposition parties in Australia began making a serious push for a vote on a marriage equality law following the Irish vote, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shown signs that he might allow members of his ruling coalition to vote for it despite his personal opposition. The proposal’s sponsors are expecting a vote to happen this fall.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision may have its most direct impact in Colombia, which has a marriage equality case currently pending before its constitutional court. Colombia and the U.S. are joined under the human rights system of the Organization of American States, and the Colombian court takes into consideration foreign rulings (even though the United States explicitly does not follow foreign precedent).

Mauricio Albarracín, head of the Colombian LGBT rights group Colombia Diversa and an attorney who has worked on the litigation, told BuzzFeed News that, just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling on racial discrimination in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education has influenced law throughout Latin America, Obergefell “is a beacon for our national debates [on marriage equality]."

Of course, the number of countries that have marriage equality are still a small minority — just over 20, as compared to the around 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Americas and Western Europe, lending ammunition to LGBT rights opponents in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who say they’re standing up for national customs against “cultural imperialism” from the West. The celebrations in Ireland and the United States feel very far away in countries like Morocco, where two men were sentenced to jail on charges of embracing in public, or Turkey, where police shut down a pride march on Sunday with tear gas and water cannons.

“Maybe Korea will follow the U.S. ruling, but never in our time,” a 22 year-old student named Jang Hyun-joon told BuzzFeed News on Sunday at a pride march in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was almost banned in the face of opposition from Christian groups.

But the ground for the debate has shifted, and it could change faster than even people like Jang expect. A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found 53% of South Koreans support legal protections for same-sex couples. And the country’s best known politician, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who polls show would easily be elected if he decided to run for president of South Korea in 2017 — sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he spoke about the Obergefell decision on Friday.

The ruling “marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States,” Ban said during a ceremony in which he was presented a medal for his work promoting LGBT rights. “When the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first U.N. secretary-general to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.”

Obergefell is a turning point for the LGBT movement, not only because the United States has crossed what many now view as the clearest litmus test over whether LGBT people are equal citizens. It will change how LGBT rights campaigners talk about their own agenda on the global stage.

It’s hard to imagine any politician — or government — maintain that marriage equality is not a “core issue” while maintaining that “gay rights are human rights” ever again.

Obama Administration Stalls Response To Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act

"Delay is putting lives at risk," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET

The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.

Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.

This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.

As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.

"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."

"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask

that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."

Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."

National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.

"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."

Gay Rights Crusade Against Stoning in Brunei Began with a Los Angeles Labor Dispute

"Stories need a hook," said a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 11. The union had been fighting the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air for over a year, but it wasn't until LGBT activists got on board that their efforts found traction.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 7, 2014, at 4:44 p.m. ET

For more than a year before the Beverly Hills Hotel became the target of a boycott, a Los Angeles labor union had been trying to draw attention to the fact that it is owned by the sultan of Brunei, a tiny Southeast Asian nation with laws criminalizing homosexuality. Almost no one cared.

How this went from a failed ploy in a labor dispute to an advocacy campaign involving celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres to Jay Leno is one that could only take place in the age of internet outrage, when relationships between American activists and social media go a long way in determining which human rights causes blow up and which ones go virtually unnoticed in the United States.

UNITE HERE Local 11 spokeswoman Leigh Shelton told BuzzFeed that the union began trying to shine the spotlight on Brunei's LGBT rights record in February 2013, as part of an effort to drive business away from the Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, both owned by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's Dorchester Collection hotel company. The effort stemmed from a feud stretching back to the 1990s, when the union was shut out from representing the Beverly Hills Hotel after it went through renovations. The union was shut out in similar fashion from the Hotel Bel-Air in 2009. In researching the hotel's ownership, UNITE HERE discovered that Brunei has actually long had a law criminalizing sodomy well before the new Sharia code, dating back to its days under British colonial rule.

The union produced a video urging people to "take a stand against homophobia" and "dump" the Beverly Hills Hotel. "The Beverly Hills Hotel is owned by the nation of Brunei, where it is illegal to be gay," the video proclaimed.

That campaign went nowhere.

"Stories need a hook," Shelton said. "I just don't think it had a hook at the time."

Last month, that changed: National organizations called for boycotts, and personalities including Sharon Osbourne and Richard Branson took to Twitter to urge their followers to join them in staying away from the hotel. On Monday, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno added fuel to the fire when he joined a rally outside the Beverly Hills Hotel, calling for the sultan to either change the law or sell the hotel. Organizations ranging from the Motion Picture & Television Fund to the International Women's Media Foundation to The Hollywood Reporter have canceled events at the hotel as well. DeGeneres tweeted:

The "hook" was that the sultan was going to impose a new penal code based on Sharia law, which would punish homosexuality — as well as adultery — with death by stoning. The sultan had actually announced the new proposal in October, but few in the United States noticed nor made the connection to the hotel. Nor did it get much notice when a United Nations spokesperson made a statement on April 11 condemning the proposal, which was originally set to go into effect on April 22. But then, longtime LGBT and labor activist Cleve Jones — who had consulted for UNITE HERE in its fight with the Dorchester hotels — saw a mention of the U.N. statement on his Facebook feed.

"That caught my attention," Jones said. "I knew who this guy was and I remember thinking to myself that maybe this will get people to pay attention. I started waiting two days, maybe three days, and see who would pick up on it. And nothing."

So he posted about it on Facebook and tagged several major players in LGBT rights and Hollywood, including Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, screenwriter and LGBT activist Dustin Lance Black, and film producer Bruce Cohen. His post was shared over 400 times.

The next day, the Gill Action — an organization set up by tech mogul Tim Gill to advance LGBT rights — issued a statement announcing it would move an upcoming conference connecting donors with state-level LGBT organizations to another venue. This was a rare public statement from the organization, which generally likes to keep its name out of the press. (A spokesperson declined to comment on when the organization learned about the Sharia proposal.)

"In light of the horrific anti-gay policy approved by the government of Brunei, Gill Action made the decision earlier today to relocate its conference from the Beverly Hills Hotel to another property," Gill Action Executive Director Kirk Fordham said in a statement to the LGBT publications that first reported the move, including the The Washington Blade, which ran the story under the headline "Secret gay donor conference moved from Brunei-owned hotel."

A week later, according to Feminist Majority spokeswoman Stephanie Hallett, it pulled an event scheduled for May 5 and instead organized a rally in front of the hotel joined by UNITE HERE, the California Women's Law Center, and several LGBT organizations — including Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The campaign against the hotel has largely focused on the Sharia code's potential impact on LGBT people, but the policing of women's sexual relationships has often been the major focus in other places where versions of Sharia law have been implemented. Indonesia's Banda Aceh province — the only other place in Southeast Asia with a version of Sharia — originally stipulated a punishment of death by stoning for adultery but only 100 lashes for homosexuality. And because women are often expected to defend sexual honor, harsh punishments tend to be meted out disproportionately for sexual misconduct in other countries with Sharia-based systems, according to a report from the organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

The U.S.'s largest LGBT rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, gave its imprimatur to the boycott on Friday, publicly calling on other organizations with events scheduled for the Dorchester hotels to stay away. On Tuesday, HRC took aim again, introducing a campaign under the hashtag #callitout highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of the Dorchester Collection's same-sex wedding business.

All this organizing has taken place with virtually no consultation with activists in Brunei, in large part because U.S. organizations can't find anyone to consult. Hallett said that they did not talk to anyone in Brunei before organizing Monday's rally, and several LGBT organizations working internationally said they've been unable to find partners in the country of fewer than 500,000.

"Good luck getting a hold of someone over there," said a staffer of an LGBT organization doing international work.

Focusing on international issues is relatively new for HRC, which made a high-profile announcement in late 2013 that it would launch a global program with a $3 million initial investment. This caused concern among some LGBT activists who have been working overseas, who feared HRC might not adequately consult with activists on the ground before getting involved abroad. During the fights over marriage equality in the U.S., many state-level activists complained that the group stepped on local activists when it launched state-based campaigns.

Although HRC is "incredibly concerned about [coordination with local activists] because we always want to show great sensitivity to the real-world impact on the ground," said Vice President for Communications Fred Sainz, the group jumped in because the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office had made public statements criticizing Brunei's proposal earlier this month. "Our involvement has been driven by the U.N. action," said Sainz.

Sainz also added, "Unlike a lot of LGBT international issues, the Brunei government has an indisputable presence here in the United States through their hotel holdings. It's our mission and responsibility to ensure that LGBT Americans know what the owners of these hotels stand for."

As the push against the hotel gathered steam in Los Angeles, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission held its fire. IGLHRC, one of the oldest U.S.-based groups working on LGBT rights abroad, had been working with a coalition of activists in Southeast Asia to try to develop a way to pressure Brunei to reverse the law. Brunei is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a trade bloc including countries like the Philippines and Thailand, whose governments have at times been supportive of LGBT rights.

And the situation in Brunei was unclear — there were some hints that the sultan might already be looking for a way to back out, and forcing a confrontation over the issue might cause him to take a more hard-line position. The law was initially slated to go into effect on April 22, but the boycott began after the government announced it would delay implementation. And when the sultan set a new implementation date of May 1, the government also announced it would be implemented in three phases, with the capital punishment provisions not taking effect until next year.

"I felt that it would be counterproductive to attack Brunei, when there was a decision to put things on hold," said Grace Poore, IGHRC's Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands. She also stressed that framing this issue primarily through the lens of LGBT rights could backfire.

"It's important not to just focus on the LGBT issue," said Poore. "That is counterproductive. It's divisive, it gives the impression [to] other people who suffer under these penalties that we're only focusing on our issues instead of focusing on how they're all interrelated."

But it's also an issue that grabs Americans' attention in the way that other human rights issues often do not. "It's a measure of our success in the United States that gay is the bright, shiny object that catches the attention of some people," said a source with an LGBT organization doing international work.

It's unclear whether this boycott is having any impact on the sultan, who is one of the world's richest men and presides over a nation whose wealth is built on its oil exports. But it could have a lasting impact on the hotels, whose CEO says its employees are being "totally unfairly picked on" and that protesters are only "hurting a local business."

This doesn't seem to bother Cleve Jones, if that's what it takes to get the message across.

"The way this boycott has taken off, it looks like you'll be able to soon play polo inside the [Beverly Hills Hotel's] Polo Lounge, because there won't be any people in it," Jones said.

What Would You Do To Become A Father?

Meet Roy Daiany and Fabrice Houdart. In seeking out fatherhood, the Washington couple faced many hurdles in building their family beyond simply getting their union recognized.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Mar 22, 2013

WASHINGTON — Days before moving furniture into their new house in D.C.'s LeDroit Park neighborhood, Fabrice Houdart and Roy Daiany were still arguing about where to put the master bedroom.

Roy was leaning toward the large front room on the second floor, which had a view of the newly refurbished Howard Theater on the other side of Florida Avenue. Fabrice wanted to turn the third floor into a master suite. This would give them a little space from the nursery on the second floor. In just a few months, they would be fathers.

"I'm planning to raise the children the French way," Fabrice joked. "They can come visit for a while and then come back downstairs with the nanny." Plus, the room on the third floor was closer to what Fabrice had dubbed the RuPaul's Drag Race room. It was the only spot Roy would be allowed to watch the program or another favorite, Mob Wives.

They didn't have a whole lot of time to get the house ready. They were surprised to learn five months earlier that their surrogate mother was pregnant. They hadn't expected the process to work on the first try. It often takes many tries to get an embryo to implant, and their egg donor had given them a disappointingly small number of eggs to work with. But the surrogate was not only pregnant — she was carrying twins. One is Fabrice's biological child; the other is Roy's. They are due in May.

The process of getting pregnant was miraculously easy compared with the legal nightmare that preceded it. It required consulting lawyers on three continents and spending twice what they had expected on the process. There are many more hurdles for a same-sex couple trying to build a family than just getting their union recognized, they found.

Fabrice, who is French, grew up in an upper-crust Parisian family and now works in the World Bank's Washington headquarters. His fair features make him look much younger than his 34 years. On the day they gave me a tour of their house, he was wearing a white waffle shirt and a pair of Diesel jeans with a six-inch rip in the crotch. He'd locked himself out of the house that morning and ripped his pants trying to get back in by jumping over the 8-foot-high wooden fence separating their backyard from the funeral home next door.

Roy is a 32-year-old American who grew up in New York and Tel Aviv. He is dark and stubbly and was dressed that afternoon every bit like the hipster Google employee he is: blue hoodie, plaid shirt, Converse sneakers. He liked the idea of having the master bedroom just on the other side of the nursery's door. "I want to be near my babies," he said.

Decorating the rest of the house caused less debate. A friend suggested they paint the nursery a light green rather than blue — they didn't want to oppress their sons if they turned out to be transgender. (The color would also accent the tile work around the fireplace.) Fabrice wanted to paint the front door black and strip the banisters down to their original wood; Roy didn't care — his domain was the granite-countered kitchen.

For those gay couples who want to be biological parents, they must navigate a shifting patchwork of laws governing surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization, technology that is banned or denied to same-sex couples in many places. France is one of these countries, with a law so strict that it will not grant citizenship to the children of French citizens born in countries where surrogacy is legal. Fabrice and Roy had planned to work with a foreign surrogate because the process abroad costs a fraction of what it does in the U.S. But there was a risk they would never be able to get the child out of the country of its birth if Fabrice was the biological father.

They ultimately found the resources to have the child in Pennsylvania. But their struggle reflects that once same-sex marriage is a reality, much harder questions will remain about what equality really means for same-sex couples. Does biological parenthood remain a right for same-sex couples even thought their biology makes that impossible? Will restrictions on certain types of assisted reproduction one day be regarded as fundamental barriers to full equality for gays and lesbians the way same-sex marriage has become?

Roy had long dreamed of being a father. When he was coming out at age 17, he believed he would probably have to give up on getting married. But he never thought he would have to sacrifice having a family.

"For me, really having a family and being a father was always and absolute, I always wanted it, I knew it was going to be part of my life — I never wanted to give up on that dream because I was gay," Roy told me in a boutique coffee shop across the street from the couple's new house. And though he has a lot of respect for those who adopt, he always wanted biological children. "I always dreamed of having biological children of mine and my partner's," he said.

But marriage still seemed a little weird to him.

"I never thought about myself getting married because I'm a gay man. One of the things that I gave up on is marriage," he said. The test of a mate was not whether he could imagine one day exchanging rings with him — it was whether "you can picture your life in 20 years with you and him, sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper while the kids run around."

Before Fabrice started dating Roy, he didn't think either fatherhood or marriage was in his future. When he came out to his parents at 24, he recalls his father saying, "Well, it's very easy to be gay when you are young, but when you are old … you age alone." Much of his family remains chilly toward his relationship to Roy; his grandfather recently marched in the protests against France's impending legalization of same-sex marriage and then posted pictures of it on Facebook.

When I met Fabrice one afternoon in the atrium of the World Bank's glass-and-metal headquarters by the White House, he told me he'd believed that a long-term relationship "was not something that was in the cards." He had a hard time imagining a future, even after he started dating Roy in 2008.

"I have been a very unhappy gay man for years, and I thought my life would be over at 30," Fabrice said. His struggle with these doubts delayed their plans to start a family. But by New Year's Eve of 2012, the couple felt ready to move ahead. "He was feeling better and healthier, and [it seemed like] he felt like he was in the best place of his life," Roy remembers.

Roy ultimately did ask Fabrice to marry him. He surprised him on his birthday with a ring with three interlocking gold bands modeled on the one French poet Jean Cocteau gave to his lover.

"That's the only day that I really started to really relax," Fabrice said; he could count on a future with Roy. And having children on the way has gone further in erasing the shame he felt about being gay. "I'm so proud," he said.

Fabrice and Roy have had to postpone their wedding — they'd picked out a date in May before they learned that was when their twins would be born. By the time they finally tie the knot, same-sex marriage could be fully legal in both the United States and France.

But many of the roadblocks to parenthood that they've encountered will remain even if their marriage is given the force of law.

Assisted reproduction pushes many of the same buttons as abortion in some countries. While in-vitro fertilization is legal in most countries, several, like France and Italy, only allow married, heterosexual couples to access the procedure. Gay male couples who need a surrogate to carry a biological child face even greater restrictions. Countries like China and Germany ban surrogacy outright, and several more make it illegal to pay a woman for carrying a child.

The landscape isn't simple for those who want to work with a surrogate in the United States, either. Fabrice and Roy could technically have faced jail time if they had hired a surrogate in their hometown. The District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction where contracting a surrogate is a criminal offense, but such contracts are banned or unenforceable in several others. They also couldn't have worked with a surrogate in Virginia. Like many other states, including Texas and Utah, Virginia only allows surrogacy for married heterosexual couples.

"Surrogacy in general, it's very state-by-state, country-by-country," said Meryl Rosenberg, of ART Parenting, a Maryland attorney who specializes in surrogacy arrangements. "You have to be really, really careful."

Fabrice and Roy went into the process assuming that they would work with an Indian surrogate. It costs less than half what surrogacy costs in the United States, and they knew other couples had gone this route. But they decided India was too risky after consulting with their lawyers. If the child was Fabrice's, France would not grant the child citizenship and Roy wouldn't be able to get the child U.S. citizenship either, because the U.S. government wouldn't recognize him as a parent. There was a possibility that India might also refuse to recognize the child as an Indian citizen too, which could mean an even more serious legal headache.

"I had to really ask if there was a really a big risk [that] my kids [could] not have any nationality or be stuck in India in an orphanage until I find a way to get them out of there," Fabrice said.

Being unable to use an Indian surrogate may have been a blessing in disguise. India recently enacted rules barring same-sex couples from going there to have a child. But unless they were willing to only use Roy's sperm — and they wanted chance to decide who would be the father — having the child anywhere outside the country was going to be risky. Fabrice could still technically face problems getting his child French citizenship if the child is born in the U.S., which is important the child ever wanted to live in Europe or study at a French university. But Fabrice's lawyer expects the French government will ultimately defer to the U.S. government's recognition of his paternity.

Couples who live in countries where surrogacy is illegal are not so lucky. In February, a couple from Israel got worldwide attention when they put a video online asking for contributions to help them continue finding a way to have a child around Israel's bans on surrogacy and adoption. They had spent $120,000 in their seven years of trying to become fathers without success.

Despite their difficulties, Fabrice and Roy have been incredibly fortunate. Not only were they able to come up with the more than $100,000 to hire a U.S. surrogate, but, they joke, they're getting two kids for the price of one. They had the money to buy a house when they realized the second child meant their apartment would be too small. And child care will be considerably easier and cheaper because Fabrice's visa status gives him the right to hire a live-in nanny from abroad.

They are also fortunate to work for employers that will give them generous paternity leave. The World Bank even has a specific policy for surrogate parents granting them 70 days of leave, the same amount of time given to parents of newborn biological children.

However, Fabrice is still frustrated where he perceives unequal treatment. World Bank employees who give birth to more than one child are entitled to an additional 20 days of leave, and he is fighting to access that benefit. Bank spokesman David Theis said this is a separate medical benefit for mothers who give birth to twins and its application has nothing to do with sexual orientation; a lesbian mother would be able to access it and a straight couple having children by surrogate would not.

But Fabrice says it's discriminatory to create a benefit that a gay couple can't access. Plus, they've had plenty of unique difficulties in having their twins, and the Bank should take that into account.

"My point of view is that it's very hard to create your own family as a gay man, and you're already starting from a pretty low point," he said. "The reaction of my parents, the reaction of society … and plus the emotional journey of surrogacy, which is a difficult one."

Although there isn't a lot of data on how common families like Fabrice and Roy's are, they seem to be growing in number. A recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 27.4% of all lesbian couples and 10.6% of gay male couples are currently raising children. The percentage is even higher among couples who consider themselves married: 34.5% of lesbians and 27.9% of gays. International surrogacy is also a booming trend: A recent survey of five surrogacy agencies reported a 1,000% increase in international arrangements in just the past four years.

Fabrice doesn't expect the dispute over the additional leave to be resolved until after the kids are born. Right now they're mainly just scrambling to get the house ready. Any improvements they want to make to the house have to be done before their children arrive, and they have to do the work themselves.

After the cost of the surrogacy and the house, Roy said, "We don't have any money left to pay someone to do it. When we were making the down payment, we held the couch upside down and shook the change out — we were paying the down payment with change."

Fabrice has claimed a room at the back of the house, just off Roy's kitchen, for his library. He's planning to use it to enjoy an indulgence he had given up to save for the kids: his newspaper subscription.

While the kids run around, he said, "I'm going to take a subscription to The Washington Post and sit in here reading."

J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and a 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.

Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Posted originally on Religion Dispatches on JUNE 23, 2010.

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith?

“Doing away with this New Testament nonsense…”

Louise Elizabeth Dailey was the daughter of a Baptist minister in Annapolis, Maryland, who observed some odd customs. He salted chicken after it was slaughtered, for example, and covered mirrors during a period of mourning. When she saw these same customs observed by a Jewish family for whom she worked as a maid after moving to Philadelphia around 1940, she decided this was more than coincidence. “Coincidence,” she was fond of saying, “is just God’s way of being anonymous.”

She began keeping kosher. She adopted a Saturday Sabbath, which ironically got her fired by her Jewish employers when she refused to wash dishes on the holy day. While raising six children, she started hosting a prayer group in her living room. It quickly grew, its ranks swelling with the large numbers of African Americans then pouring into Philadelphia from the South. In 1951, the group formally declared itself the Bethel Holy Commandment Church.

As the name makes obvious, they were not yet a synagogue. Dailey’s daughter, Debra Bowen, became leader of Bethel after her mother’s death in 2001, and she is the official keeper of her legend. Bowen confessed in a rare moment of candor during an interview with a University of Pennsylvania student named Dan Ross, “One thing that was difficult for [Mother] to relinquish in a really quick way was that we worshipped Jesus Christ.” (Dan Ross’s impressive senior thesis is the only in-depth history of the congregation.)

A group of African Americans who thought of themselves as the children of Israel yet who worshipped Jesus Christ—this is not as odd as it may at first sound. Around the turn of the 20th century, some of the children their forefathers’ white masters. The Hebrew bible’s exodus narrative had long made it central to black theology, making Judaism a logical model for crafting a new faith for free people. But Jesus, too, was important in black faith, and most of the Jewish-inspired denominations that sprang up did not renounce him. Instead, they claimed white Jews were imposters to the faith who had misunderstood Christ’s significance. Broadly speaking, these black “messianic” groups held beliefs that resemble elements of Seventh Day Adventism and Jews for Jesus colored by Black Nationalism and the worship practices of the African American church.

In the mid 1950s, Dailey’s reputation as a preacher came to the attention of the “chief apostle” of one of these denominations, the House of God, Inc. The House of God, founded in Washington, DC in 1918 and later headquartered in Kentucky, describes itself as a “Hebrew Pentecostal” denomination. Bishop S. P Rawlings asked Dailey to affiliate with his church and later recruited her for the third-highest position in its national leadership.

Dailey ensured that Bethel would keep its autonomy, but she signed on with the House of God because it gave her a national platform to share her message. Around the time her first grandchild, Eli Aronoff, was born in 1960, Dailey spent several weeks on preaching tours each year. Exactly what she preached in those years is unclear, but it clearly increasingly challenged Christianity. According to one family legend, a group of ministers in South Carolina put a snake in a house where she was staying as a form of lynching.

Increasingly, her beliefs became more and more grounded in the Jewish daily prayer, the Shema: “Hear, o Israel, … the Lord is one.” By the time Aronoff reached bar mitzvah age, Dailey decided the time had come to renounce Jesus. “There was a moment she said, ‘OK, we’re doing away with this New Testament nonsense—we’re not doing that no more,’” he remembers. Bethel voted to break from the House of God, though about a third of the congregation left Bethel, choosing Jesus over Mother. This included her son George, who remains a House of God bishop to this day.

Once Mother Dailey made this leap, she was neither gentle nor quiet. “This ain’t no milk and no eggs,” she warned during a sermon broadcast on the radio. “This is meat! You can’t digest this, honey, you gonna choke to death!” She let loose with a staccato lyricism:

We’ve been taught lies all our lives.
We were taught that we had two gods—we were taught that we had three gods:
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Hallelujah! HALLELUJAH!
But I heard Satan say:
I’m gonna deceive the people [because] you threw me out of heaven.
I’m gonna exalt my dome above the stars.
And I’m gonna be as the Most High.
I’m gonna make men worship ME
and make them think they’re worshipping YOU!
I know you said besides you there is no other, but I’m gonna give you another god.
I’m gonna tell men they can’t be saved unless you go through this other god!

Dailey used to believe in that “other god,” she told her audience, but the Almighty revealed the truth to her through scripture. “You said in Your word, Israel only gonna be saved … and if you’re not in Israel, you’re not gonna be saved. And there ain’t no Hebrews worshipping Jesus!”

“We know your people were Hebrews”

Just because the Bethelites believed they were Jews did not mean they knew how to practice Jewish rituals—and it certainly did not mean that they were accepted as by those whose ancestors had brought the faith to America from Europe. Neither Dailey nor members of her congregation went before a rabinnical court to convert according to Jewish law. They were not converts, they believed — they asserted that their African ancestors had been Jews before slavery imposed a false religion upon them.

Dailey held up her father’s Judaic customs as evidence of this history, and also pointed to scriptural prophecy: “If you do not observe to fulfill all the words of this Torah,” it is written in Deuteronomy 28, then the “Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships…. And there, you will seek to be sold to your enemies for slaves and handmaids … [and] serve other deities unknown to you or your forefathers.” The ships were the clincher—why would Jews be carried back to slavery in ships if they were living in the desert? This could only refer to the ships that carried Africans to the New World.

This didn’t wash with the administrations of Jewish schools, which denied Bethelite children admission. Nor was it accepted by dealers of Torahs and other ritual objects, who refused to sell to Bethel. They were even blackballed from buying prayer books.

One person who shared Dailey’s interpretation of history was Morris Shoulson, an Orthodox rabbi who was one of Philadelphia’s best-respected mohels. And it is was through him that Mother Dailey’s lifelong prayer, “God, show me the way of the Hebrews!” was most directly answered.

Performing a circumcision ceremony for a Bethelite family in 1976, Shoulson noticed Eli Aronoff — then an almost painfully skinny teenager — intently watching his every move. He invited Aronoff to come study with him, asking one thing in return. “You must promise me that you will not take what I teach you to [any established] synagogue,” he said. “Take this back to your people so they will know who they are.”

Aronoff remembers Shoulson telling him, “We know your people were Hebrews.” Training the boy was also part of a larger agenda, Aronoff explains. “He wanted to have a conduit, somebody who could go to the [African American] community … [to] educate them about their history and where they come from.”

Shoulson, who died in 1990, was a short, balding man who always had the distracted air of someone trapped in serious concentration. He held classes for students from many different congregations in the row house he converted into a shul by knocking out the walls on the ground floor to create a sanctuary. Aronoff attended classes alongside students from other synagogues around the city, where the rabbi lead informal discussion sessions based each week on a different subject—a ritual’s details, the laws of keeping kosher, the celebration of the High Holy Days.

Shoulson also had Aronoff attend classes at a local Jewish college, and had Aronoff submit to a conversion ceremony in order to be allowed to enroll. “I know who you are,” he told Aronoff, “but the powers that be [don’t].” Aronoff says that it felt strange converting to something he already believed himself to be, but he understood that he was jumping through a hoop in order to achieve a larger goal of getting a Jewish education. “Ultimately, it opened a number of doors for me,” he says.

After completing his studies and receiving his ordination from Shoulson, Aronoff honored his commitment to his teacher by teaching in his grandmother’s congregation for more than 20 years, while earning his living as an accountant. Bethel member Dave McClam, whose mother was among the congregation’s founders, says that Aronoff was “on the cutting edge” of Judaizing their practices as they transformed into a synagogue. “He’s one of the first ones to start with questions about our faith and the Jewish way,” McClam said. “He would go sit in the caucasian setting, and the information he brought back … [provided] clarification” on how to say the prayers, order worship services, and fulfill ritual requirements.

When a group in Washington asked him to leave Bethel and help them build a synagogue, he had no desire to leave. But then he remembered the deal he had made for his training. “I’m willing to help you because I had promised Rabbi Shoulson,” Aronoff told the organizer of the Washington group, Shelliyah Iyomahan. “I will do this even if it comes at some personal sacrifice … if this means that this helps me to fulfill my obligation.”

“This school is for Jewish kids — maybe you can’t read!”

Shelliyah Iyomahan is a solidly built woman who laughs in a way that makes clear she doesn’t tolerate foolishness. She was raised in Brooklyn in a household of Trinidadian Jews, and her husband, Bright, is from a Nigerian community that claims descent from the ancient Israelites.

She set her mind on starting a new congregation after an incident that occurred one morning when she was volunteering in the office of a DC synagogue. There was another African American there, a man also born Jewish, who was answering phones. Someone stuck their head in the office to ask them to come pray—they were short of the ten Jews required to form the minyan. When they joined the group, the leader assumed the black man was a convert, and asked if he had fulfilled all of the process’s legal requirements.

After that incident, she says, “my eyes [were] opened.” Regardless of their devotion to the faith, Jews like her would always be greeted skeptically in DC’s white congregations because of their black skin. Of course, she had also experienced this bias directly—the reception she received when she visited Jewish schools for her children was so hostile that she vowed “never [to] put my children in any Jewish day school in this area, even if it were free.” She remembers, “The looks on their faces [said], ‘You want to enroll your children here?! This school is for Jewish kids—maybe you can’t read!”

Iyomahan and a handful of other black Jews—along with a white woman who was looking for a multicultural setting to raise teach the faith to her Guatemalan-born son—formed a congregation they called Temple Beth Emet, and recruited Aronoff to lead them. They improvised a sanctuary in a conference room of an administrative building of DC’s Sixth and I Synagogue. Sabrina Sojourner, DC’s former shadow representative to the US Congress, volunteered to be the new congregation’s cantor. She had “returned” to Judaism at a major reform synagogue where she felt very much at home, but had felt called to a greater leadership role. In the months before Aronoff moved to the Washington area, Sojourner would start services every Saturday morning at 10:00, often without enough worshipers to form a minyan.

This, sadly, is a large part of the reason Beth Emet proved unsustainable—they never achieved critical mass, and they were strapped for resources because they were launching a small congregation during the recession. But their faith and need for a community lead them to try for two years before giving up.

What a Jew looks like

While working on my story for The Washington Post, I attended services almost every weekend for several months, more time than I have ever spent in synagogue. And I felt more at home in these services than I have ever felt at any other. Lasting two hours or more, so much time was set aside for discussion of scripture and tradition that it felt more like a study group than worship service to me. I didn’t feel expected to know the rituals or the prayers—a good number of Beth Emet’s members were in the middle of the conversion process, and were also learning.

It spoke to my love of history, and my delight in arguing over the meaning of words. But it did not awaken any religious feeling, which part of me hoped it would. The rituals still did not resonate, and the only emotional response prayer elicited was jealousy of those who find such activities so meaningful.

As I was coming to realize this was not my path to Jewish faith, I was reminded that my appearance would always make my Jewishness more accepted than the members of Beth Emet who had worked so hard to build a community to worship. When I arrived early one Shabbat morning, Sojourner was arguing with a young man dressed in a dark suit. He was with a group of orthodox professionals meeting downstairs, and he had tried to abduct Beth Emet’s Torah to use in their services. The minute I walked into the room, he stopped engaging Sojourner assuming I was in charge — because I looked like he expected a Jew to look.

In Lomax’s Place

Money and Music in the Field

The Oxford American, November 2008

Even though Della Daniels had always dreamed of a singing career, she didn’t want to sing for the producer from New York. Michael Reilly had come down to Mississippi to record her nephew’s rap group, the Money Hungry Youngstas. Della first saw the skinny white producer when he pulled up to her sister’s double-wide trailer in October of 2004, and he looked like he was hardly out of college. But Michael had brought real equipment, and she thought maybe this could lead somewhere. Della’s nephew, Kevin, had never really believed that a producer would come from New York to a Mississippi town as small as Como, and his group was not ready to record. One of them was still at school, in the middle of football practice.

With help from her sister, Angela Taylor, Della stalled for time. They told Michael about how their grandfather had recorded for the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. They got their cousin, Ester Mae Wilbour, to bring over photographs of their grandfather and the CD with his songs on it. Della and Ester, who were ten at the time of Lomax’s visit, remembered him playing guitar atop his red mare, who would keep time with her hooves. As they talked, Della realized that Michael was so fascinated with Lomax’s work that they were at risk of stealing the show. “It was as if he had read the man’s biography and seen himself in it,” she thought. “It’s like he put himself in Lomax’s place.”

When he asked the ladies to sing, Della and Angela looked each other right in the eye and thought, “We can’t do this to Kevin.” But Kevin still had not rounded up his group, so what could they do? The three large women reluctantly stood up, settled on a song they used to sing on Mother’s Day at Mt. Mariah Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and shook the trailer’s walls with their voices. When they finished, the soft-spoken Michael quietly said, “Awesome,” but they could see the depth of his excitement in his reddening face. Ester could tell their singing had the effect Angela and Della feared. “When you come back next time, you’ll be coming back at us,” she told Michael.

Though the hip-hop he had come for did not pan out, Michael was in a “blissful state” driving out of Como. The trip had started as a half-baked plan to make a movie with two friends, a slapstick buddy film improbably combined with a journey through Lomax’s old stomping grounds. The twenty-seven-year-old Michael was not much of a “producer” at the time—he was working a meaningless job in the office of a New York construction contractor called ZZZ Carpentry and living in a room too small to stand up in. But he had discovered the Lomax Archive at Manhattan’s Hunter College, reconnecting with music that had hooked him ever since he had heard one of Lomax’s Mississippi recordings in an African American music class he took in college. Needing to shake up his life, Reilly came up with the idea of making a film with the help of two friends.

The Archive suggested he visit Como because Della Daniels had just sent them a CD of the Money Hungry Youngstas in the hopes that her grandfather’s connection to Lomax might be the ticket to a music career. The film never got made, but Michael quit his job at ZZZ Carpentry almost a year later and returned to Como in June of 2005 with a high-end field recording setup he had put on a credit card. He set up a recording session at the Mt. Mariah church with the three women he met on his first visit, whom he had come to call the Como Mamas. He shopped a CD of their work after he returned to New York, ultimately hooking up with Brooklyn-based retro-soul label Daptone Records. The label sent Michael back to Mt. Mariah in 2006 to record more tracks with the Como Mamas and five other local acts whom Della Daniels helped recruit. In August, Daptone released Como Now, a collection of searingly powerful a cappella gospel.

It is ironic, yes, that the album is called Como Now, when Michael passed up recording a hip-hop group to make a gospel CD that Alan Lomax could have made. Lomax believed the folksong collector was fighting against the music industry’s “corrupting” influence by preserving the talent of people who could not appreciate their own worth. But Lomax’s notion of “folk music” does not make sense in Como—“I wasn’t really in touch with that word, folk music,” Angela Taylor says.

In Como, records and money go hand in hand. And it is only because the Pratcher family believed their music had value—cash value—that this “folky” recording ever got made.


Michael Reilly’s road to Como really began when Ida Mae Carter got a check from the Alan Lomax Archive. Ida Mae is the Como Mamas’ aunt, and she was one of many relatives who recorded for Lomax at the same time as their grandfather, Miles Pratcher. (Some of the Pratcher family’s recordings can befound on Atlantic’s Sounds of the South and volume three of Rounder’s Southern Journeys.) Ida Mae told Della, “I got a check! Three hundred dollars! He’s still sending us money!” Della reported this to her cousin, who started to wonder why she was not getting royalties on recordings she remembers her mother making for Lomax. The cousin called the Archive, where an employee named Bert Lyons said he would be interested in connecting with the younger generations of Pratchers.

Della pounced on the opportunity. “Kev’ an’ ’em got this record, girl!” she exclaimed. Hoping to give Kevin the shot at a musical career she had wanted at his age, Della had already been checking out library books on the music business and had written to record companies without success. From what she learned, you could not promote a record without an established producer. “We down here trying to promote this record,” she told her cousin, “[Bert] might have somebody who may be interested in some rap.” Her timing had been perfect. She called Bert right around the time Michael asked him to recommend some musical stops for his road-trip film.

The Pratcher family has a complicated relationship to the Lomax royalties. Sizeable checks like the one Ida Mae Carter received were rare—usually they were for four or five dollars, and sometimes for as little as seventy-two cents. They heard about Lomax’s ties to the Library of Congress and the archive that bears his name in New York. “I don’t know what his studio looked like in New York, but Alan Lomax must really have done good,” Della says. The small, erratic payments that showed up in their mailbox made her wonder: “Had Alan Lomax really been fair to the people that he recorded?”

Her grandfather and other relatives had mostly been illiterate, and Lomax came through at a time when segregation made it all but inevitable that a white man would take advantage of black folks. “I felt like Alan Lomax knew there was no way for them to know…whether he was being fair or not,” Della explains, saying she had overheard her aunts’ suspicions that they had been cheated. Perhaps the occasional payments were just token amounts to assuage his guilt? “I believe that Alan Lomax had a conscience,” she says. “I believe that there was a part of him that knew that he didn’t really need to come down to Mississippi and just take advantage of poor helpless black people that didn’t have anything.”

Charges of racism have plagued Lomax, in part because his work is sometimes conflated with that of his father, John Lomax. The senior Lomax was a paternalistic segregationist who once infamously described the Louisiana inmate musician Leadbelly as “a nigger to the core of his being” in a letter to the New York press. Alan Lomax, on the other hand, was a liberal, but was limited on racial matters by what folklorist Patrick Mullen called an “arrogant lack of self-awareness.” Alan came under heavy criticism for copyrighting Leadbelly’s songs and those of other musicians he recorded under his own name. But, according to fellow blues scholar Jeff Todd Titon, Lomax justified this because he needed to earn a living in order to keep collecting songs. “I don’t think he could see that it was problematic,” Titon remarked.

Lomax Archive associate director Don Fleming is weary of battling allegations that Lomax exploited the people he recorded. He says that members of the Archive staff have at times dedicated more than thirty hours per week tracking down musicians’ heirs. Fleming would not disclose the exact terms of Lomax’s agreement with the Pratchers, but he said they were “on par with standard industry contracts of the same time” in which Lomax would have been compensated as the record’s producer. Industry practice gives musicians and producers only a small share of profits, with the lion’s share remaining with the company. According to Bruce Nemerov, former audio archivist at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Popular Music, an artist might receive a royalty in the neighborhood of six to eight percent, while some producers would get a fee equal to roughly half that amount in the late ’50s. Though Lomax had put his name on the copyrights of songs he collected, the Pratchers were assigned the copyright for the song on the collection released by Atlantic.

The suspicions Della Daniels and other Pratcher family members harbor likely arise from expectations about records that clash with Lomax’s. “I heard maybe my aunts and things say they didn’t really feel like they got like what they should have gotten because they felt records made a lot of money,” Della says. For Lomax, however, recordings were first and foremost tools to preserve treasured songs, not a major source of revenue. Sales of Lomax’s Como recordings were modest when they were first released by Atlantic records in the early 1960s, as they are with the Rounder reissues. The Lomax Archive says the Rounder reissue of Southern Journeys has sold under ten thousand copies in ten years, and only eighty in the last six months. When such small sales are divided up between all the artists’ heirs, royalty checks sometimes go out for well under one dollar.

Michael is about as mild-mannered as Alan Lomax was blustery, and the Como Mamas gained confidence in him as their collaboration proceeded. “We trusted Mike,” says Angela Taylor, “Mike is like part of our family now.” But Della also felt comfortable because she had prepared herself. “Even though I didn’t have anything but maybe a twelfth-grade education…. I had educated myself again as to what was going on today, and I felt like we weren’t going to just jump up and sign something without knowing or believing.” And they did in fact turn down the first contract Michael brought them, from Rounder Records, which appeared to benefit the record company at their expense. (Michael says he thought it looked like “bullshit,” but wanted to give the Como Mamas a chance to make up their own minds.) Daptone offered the artists a $250 advance and a fifty-fifty split of any profits, which Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth presented to the artists in a meeting at Mt. Mariah.

Michael returned to Mt. Mariah in September 2008 to deliver copies of the CD to the musicians, who were going to be performing a concert in Memphis the next day. They sat in small clumps around the church’s one room. Reilly wanted the meeting to be informal, but Della was so excited she set up the church microphone so that it would feel like more of an event. “Y’all just don’t know how long we’ve been trying to sing—yes, we thank you, thank you, thank you!” she told Michael. “I had given up on anybody ever being willing to put any money behind it, anything I was doing.”

Tonight, she felt like the chance she took with Michael was finally leading to a career in music. Fresh out of high school, Della wrote a song she still believes should have been a country hit. Not that she intended it to be a country song (“I’m black,” she laughs. “I won’t sing country and western”). But the only way she could find into the music business was through a Nashville company advertising in the back of the pulp magazine, True Stories. Saving up eighty-nine dollars from her job at a hospital drawing blood, she mailed a set of lyrics to Music City and got back two 45s of her words set to a country arrangement. “I believe to this day I wrote a hit,” she says, “but there was no way for me to do anything with it.” She ached to be on the radio. “I used to say to myself, ‘I wish I could climb up a light pole and figure out how to play it and make it go into all these homes.’”

The lyrics came out of twin tragedies: her mother had died, and a man she thought loved her suddenly married someone else. “The name of the song was called ‘Mighty Jesus’ because no matter how hard I tried to get away from church, it was in me,” Della explains. She felt like “church music wouldn’t make me any money,” and she would have pursued a career singing in nightclubs if her strict mother had not stood in her way. But after she realized there was no way to get her songs on the radio even if she paid to have them recorded, Mt. Mariah and the other churches in her hometown became the only place to keep her dreams alive. “I just kept a-singing, kept a-singing, kept a-singing,” she remembers. “I used to want to think when I go ’round to churches and things to sing, who knows who’s visiting that church that day.” There was always a chance someone sitting in the back had ties to the music industry.

And now, some fifty years later, her improbable fantasy came true: a producer was in her church delivering a CD with her name on the back. Some of the musicians sitting in Mt. Mariah’s pews had been less ready than Della to take the chance. Della, whom Michael asked to find more singers for the 2006 session, originally wanted to charge other musicians twenty-five dollars to record as a way to raise money for Mt. Mariah. But the Pratchers were not the only family that felt they had been burned by music collectors. Only one group was willing to pay the fee. Even once she waived the twenty-five dollars, she had to coax singers like Brother Raymond Walker and his wife to join Como Now. Others before Michael had come to Como to record Brother Walker, who had crossed paths with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers when he sang on the gospel circuit in the ’50s, and nothing had come of it. But Della’s pleading convinced him to record a deeply moving call-and-response spiritual with his wife, Sister Joella Walker, which they wrote together in their youth while working the cotton fields. Now Daptone is planning to release another CD devoted to the Walker Family, along with one dedicated entirely to the Como Mamas.

The Walkers and the other musicians gradually left Mt. Mariah with copies of their CDs, until only the Como Mamas and a couple others remained. Robert Smith, a steward at Mt. Mariah who had been too skeptical of Reilly to sing for the record, was among those who lingered. Della offered him the microphone and coaxed him to sing. “I tried to get him to sing that night” they recorded, she told Michael. “Come on Robert, just sing him a verse of a song.” Maybe seeing the CD changed his mind—the stooped man carefully made his way to the front of the church where Della sat with Angela Taylor and another singer, Mary Moore. Robert quickly tested the microphone before turning loose a powerful vibrato. “Looooord, I hope I meet you!” he called. The three women answered in unison, their voices like bugles sounding a battle call for Jesus.

“When we sell all we can and can’t sell no more, they gonna come get you,” Della teased Robert. “Then you gonna make some money! It’ll start all over again.”

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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