America's gay rights battle goes global

As anti-gay rights leaders export ideas abroad, Human Rights Campaign ‘names and shames’ them

Starting in 2012, the leader of the most prominent American anti-gay marriage organization unexpectedly began adding a ton of stamps to his passport.

As federal judges struck down gay marriage bans left and right at home, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown appeared at meetings and marches for various anti-gay rights causes in France, Trinidad and Tobago, Russia and Australia — a surprising uptick in travel for the stateside activist. The result: In June, Brown’s group began discussing rebranding itself as the International Organization for Marriage, according to materials from a “March for Marriage” meeting in Washington, D.C.

Brown is just one of many in the American “traditional marriage” movement who are aggressively pushing their message abroad now that they face an increasingly tough sell at home. In so doing, he is making common cause with foreign activists whose anti-gay rights crusades are more robust — and more resoundingly successful — than America’s homegrown one. Among them are Americans who actively worked behind the scenes to support the passage of Russia’s law preventing gay people from adopting, as well as Uganda’s law that punishes homosexuality with up to a lifetime in prison.

The U.S. involvement in anti-gay rights international activity has become so intense that one of the premier gay rights groups in the country, the Human Rights Campaign, started a special “global engagement program” last year to track their activities and help gay rights activists abroad. The program has a $1 million budget for its first year and five full-time staffers. On Monday the group released its most comprehensive report on the internationalization of the American anti-gay rights movement.

The report, “The Export of Hate,” names the most prominent individuals and groups — Brown among them  —working to pass anti-gay rights legislation abroad.

“With anti-LGBT losses mounting in the United States, and with strong indications of increased activity abroad, more must be done to expose this work and the people doing it,” the report says.

The report calls out Scott Lively, an American missionary who traveled to Uganda to warn about what he described as the evils of gay people in the runup to the passage of the country’s law that punished homosexuality with death. (The law was later toned down so that the maximum punishment is life in prison, before the nation's highest court invalidated it.) Benjamin Bull, the chief counsel of the conservative legal group the Alliance Defending Freedom, is also cited for the alliance’s 2011 announcement that it would take its legal arguments against gay marriage overseas; it now supports groups that are working to uphold bans on same-sex marriage all over the world.

“Our primary focus is naming and shaming,” Jason Rahlan, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, said of the report. “My sense is a lot of Americans and even a lot of folks in the LGBT community have absolutely no idea this is going on.”

Some of the organizations profiled in the report have acknowledged in their own way that the line has moved irrevocably in the U.S. debate over gay rights. It’s been more than a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws allowing states to punish same-sex sex acts with prison, and the U.S. debate now revolves around whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have a right to marriage everywhere in the country, along with anti-discrimination protections at work.

Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom have given up on arguing that same-sex activities ought to remain criminal in America, and are instead focusing on preserving same-sex marriage bans. But in many other countries, including the 80 that outlaw being openly gay, the landscape is completely different — and much more welcoming to their arguments.

“Oftentimes they work under the radar and they mask their intentions,” Rahlan said of the American activists.

That’s why it took some piecing together for the group to notice that the National Organization for Marriage, which was pivotal in passing the same-sex marriage ban in 2008 in California, had gone international.

“They are a lot more active in the international space but are being very quiet about it,” said Becky Parks, the Human Rights Campaign’s associate director of global engagement.

“I have been so excited to be part of this new international solidarity movement in defense of marriage, children and family,” Brown wrote on NOM’s blog last year. He did not respond to an interview request about NOM’s international expansion.

Many of these overseas groups and individuals are expected to send representatives in October 2015 to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a World Congress of Families summit. The Human Rights Campaign will be watching the event closely, Rahlan said.

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