In Geneva, lobbying the UN largely means sitting at a round glass table in an enormous coffee bar called the Serpent. The name always gives conservative Christians the willies; they think they’re in the guts of Satan anyway. The bar lies in the imperial sprawl of the Palais des Nations. Through windows on the one side, blue Lac Leman unfurls, with the alabaster Alps beyond; on the other, government delegates lumber by, and you try to nab them on their way to cappuccinos. I slumped there one afternoon in 2004, just after Brazil, which had introduced the first-ever resolution on sexual orientation at the Commission on Human Rights, had withdrawn its efforts, partly under pressure from the Islamic bloc. For all of us who’d sustained hope for weeks, a gloom settled thick as Gauloise smoke. Three diehard resolution opponents plumped themselves down deliberately at my table. I knew them well. Two were American: Blond, taut-smiled Lynn Allred, with a perpetual whiff of hairspray, represented a shifting range of Mormon organizations; Jeanne Head, stern and square-jawed, was designated driver for several Roman Catholic anti-abortion groups. Between them sat Amr Roshdy, a strutting mass of machismo from the Egyptian mission, who had led the fight against Brazil’s resolution on the Commission floor.
A promiscuously ecumenical crew, as always: in other eras or gatherings, they might have burned each other at the stake. Only the strange power of sex brought them together — not, of course, to have sex with each other, but to dissuade anybody from having sex they didn’t like. Their alliance across deep confessional divides embodied the peculiar conjunctions that fear of feminism, and hatred of human rights, can bring about. Allred, in her organization’s newsletters, used to ladle praise on Roshdy, whose work as spokesman for the UN’s Islamic bloc surely placed him high in right-wing nightmares about the coming Caliphate. “During our time in Geneva,” she wrote, “I began to suspect that beneath Roshdy’s shirt and tie there was very likely a big red ‘S’–of the variety that Superman wore.” Was she sure it didn’t stand for “Saracen”?
As we monitored the negotiations of numerous resolutions with other pro-family non-governmental organizations, we would often pass by them in the hall, frantically looking for him. “Where’s Amr?” “Go find Amr!” “We need Amr!” He raced from room to room whenever a problem arose that required pro-family input. He saved the day on many occasions.
This day, the trio staged a little conversation for my benefit, since they knew me as chief UN representative for Satan’s sexual wiles. I remember Jeanne Head asking Roshdy theatrically, “What if the homosexuals bring this resolution back next year?” The Egyptian, loudly: “We’ll kill it.”
It’s nine years later, and a similar resolution long since passed in Geneva, and LGBT people’s rights as human rights are more safely ensconced in the UN than ever. Yet defeat for these folks is only an aphrodisiac. Their capacity to set principle aside in their political copulations is still going strong.
Consider Austin Ruse.
Ruse heads the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as C-FAM, one of the most powerful anti-choice, anti-sexuality groups lobbying at the UN. I remember his dour presence from many a Geneva and New York meeting. This Friday, he published an article at Breitbart.com, the huge US right-wing website, defending Russia’s new anti-homosexual law, which he claims “human rights groups” actually support. Ruse’s intervention reveals the alliances these campaigners are trying to build.
It’s an astonishing article. Consummately smarmy, Ruse cites news reports on the anguish of queer Russian kids growing up surrounded by homophobia. And he claims he wants to help them:
[The Washington Post] tells the story of 16-year-old Maxim of Moscow who came out publically [sic] as gay at 13-years-old. He says his classmates called him names and that a teacher tried to cut his “longish hair.” …
So, who is supposed to be talking to Maxim about such a complicated and thorny issue? Should it be gay advocates who have an ax to grind? Certainly, they would like to increase their tribe … The Russian people, supported by 100 human rights and other groups from around the world, have determined that such unscientific ideologues should be kept out of schools and out of sight of school children …
Like all young people, Maxim deserves space to grow and learn and change and to be free from ideologies that may not have his best interests in mind.
There’s a Dickensian hypocrisy to Ruse’s woozy New-Ageism, his tender concern that Maxim “grow and learn and change” while kept far away from any facts that might help him feel slightly better about himself. Mind you, the “ideology” that Ruse thinks does have Maxim’s “best interests in mind” is not some spongy-soft, vodka-soaked version of family values. It’s the authoritarian State ideology of Vladimir Putin.
Ruse is on a regular campaign to prop up Putin. In another recent op-ed, he turned on gay right-wing journalist Jamie Kirchick (an ambitious, long-time brownnoser to the Breitbart empire, by the way, who must be hurt that his flattery has gone unrequited). Ruse called Kirchick “hysterical” for opposing the anti-“propaganda” legislation. He applauds the fact that Jamie and his ilk “cannot have their way with those in other countries and certainly not with the Russians who overwhelmingly support the reasonable new law.” Meanwhile, C-FAM, Ruse’s organization, has come up with the most inventive defense yet of the odious provision. By their lights, its stiff fine on anyone who produces positive information about homosexuality merely “acts as a tax on public displays of affection by homosexuals”! After all, “$155 is hardly unmanageable for homosexuals who want to kiss in public.” Taxing kisses! You’d have to admit those smooches come kind of pricy.
Finally, C-FAM helped organize a letter by 102 “pro-family” organizations (mostly European Catholic and Orthodox circles, with a few American exemplars like Linda Harvey’s weird and militant US cult) in support of the Russian law. These are the “human rights groups” Ruse refers to. The letter waxes piously indignant over the “heavy attacks” that Russia endures over its actions — though in fact, as with Syria, oil-fed nationalism seems to cushion Putin against any vestigial sensitivity to criticism he might feel.
What is up with Ruse, and his passion for Putin?
Probably most Americans reading Ruse’s recent drivel know little about him or his organization. C-FAM has a relatively small budget – $1.2 million in 2012, according to its tax filings – but outsized influence. It is the not-exactly-legitimate offspring of an anti-abortion group called Human Life International (HLI), founded in 1981. HLI’s creator, Father Paul Marx, a DC-based Catholic priest, exploited two networks to build his brainchild: Reagan-era US conservatives, and the Vatican. The former provided funding, the latter global connections. HLI grew quickly, establishing outposts across Latin America, Africa, and Europe. An odor of disreputability hung about it, though, partly from its ties to violence-inciting anti-abortion fanatics such as Randall Terry. Several times in the 1990s, Jewish leaders in the US and Canada condemned Paul Marx for a trail of anti-Semitic statements. Marx had tried to win favor with the French, for instance, by claiming:
A famous genetics professor in Paris told me that the leaders of the abortion movement in France were Jewish. I saw one, a Jewish female liar, do her thing on behalf of abortion at the World Population Conference in Bucharest.
HLI proved too controversial for the UN, which denied it consultative status in 1993. In response, its leaders set up C-FAM in 1997, as a more respectable and NGO-like front for its lobbying at the world institution. Minutes from C-FAM’s first internal meeting, obtained by the progressive group Catholics for Choice, say:
Not public knowledge that HLI is funding office. Use discretion. Initially state that we are supported by multitudes of individuals/organizations. Don’t hide the fact that HLI is funder — just don’t volunteer that fact to uncertain/non-friendly persons.
Austin Ruse, an unknown who had worked on the financial end of various magazines from Fortune to Rolling Stone, rose to be its head – perhaps because he had no spoor of embarrassing political comments behind him.
This was in the aftermath of two landmark UN meetings, which produced unprecedented affirmations of women’s sexual rights; The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 Fifth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. Women’s rights opponents were on the defensive at the UN. One thing they’d learned, though, was that a critical mass of conservative States rejected reproductive freedoms, and reacted against homosexuality as a classic wedge issue. Yet many of these countries — in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — didn’t take well to HLI’s highly religious, Catholic-specific message. HLI, after all, had held panels on topics like “The Muslim Threat to the World.” This didn’t exactly go down easily with Egypt’s or Pakistan’s UN delegations.
Austin Ruse and C-FAM helped perfect a strategy of reaching out to those States. He switched rhetoric, no longer focusing exclusively on religion but on vague and elastic “traditional values,” and –- most importantly — on respect for “sovereignty,” supposedly threatened by outside forces and by international norms. I’ve written elsewhere how the latter language proved especially seductive, for repressive governments resisting human rights scrutiny. C-FAM helped them figure out how to fight back against intrusive rights advocates. Ruse talked in terms of power, not principles. He warned sympathetic countries that “UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”
His tactics included packing UN meetings with supporters – sometimes priests and nuns — who intimidated women’s and progressive groups, and in some cases virtually staged putsches in NGO spaces. “We attended all of the women’s meetings and essentially took them over,” he boasted. “Memos were going back from [conferences] in New York to governments in the European Union that radical fundamentalists had taken over the meeting, and that was us.”
He built close relationships with other US conservative forces, including Mormon and evangelical Protestant campaigners. After the century’s turn, he nuzzled up to the Bush White House, even moving his own office from UN Plaza to Washington in 2006. Ruse’s greatest victory, though, was in making improbable buddies out of some of the Bush administration’s international enemies. Sudan, Libya, and Iran all became his allies in fighting sexual and reproductive rights, along with China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. C-FAM turned into one of the best friends of brutal dictatorships ever to lobby the UN.
And that tells you what’s behind Ruse’s pandering to Putin. His history of fraternal intimacy with repressive States has served him in good stead. Austin Ruse owes one to Russia’s authoritarian government, and he pays his debts.
At the UN Human Rights Council in recent years, Russia has pushed for, and passed, a resolution on “traditional values” and human rights. The initial Russian draft, Austin Ruse has written approvingly, “could easily have come from the pen of Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council” — one of America’s most far-right advocacy groups. The resolution was concocted with clever ambiguity; its passage owed partly to several Latin American states who believed, wrongly, that it might bolster indigenous people’s cultural claims. In fact, the text aims implicitly at the rights of women and minorities, shunting them into second priority behind protecting undefined customs and traditions.
Most likely, Russia’s initial motive was to strike at reproductive rights — its action in Geneva coincided with a move in Moscow to restrict abortion severely, for the first time since the fall of Communism. Ruse, however, quickly saw that the resolution, if successful, could become a tool for conservatives worldwide to roll back an array of freedoms — and crack down on LGBT people. At a time when LGBT rights seemed ascendant at the UN, Russia handed Ruse a gift. “What we are witnessing,” he declared,
is an awakening of the Russian social policy bear. Many governments have grown weary of the aggressiveness of the sexual left, now firmly ensconced in the U. N. bureaucracy and human rights machinery. … Russia seems happy to join this fight with her geopolitical competitors.
Ruse’s gratitude to the Russians makes him a reliable defender of almost any excess of Putin’s regime. He’ll go to rhetorical extremes to repay them. He added:
Some will say, that’s all well and good, but should social conservatives make common cause with a geopolitical competitor of the United States? Some will ask if we’re concerned about Russia’s domestic crackdown?
Yes on one, no on two. “Russia is far from perfect, but on social policy she is a good deal better than we are at the moment.”
There’s one small kink, but it’s unlikely to bother Ruse. It does, however, expose the lie that lingers in C-FAM’s very name: the Catholic Family Institute. The day before Austin Ruse’s Breitbart piece appeared, a new law came before the Russian Duma. It would let the State take children away from lesbian or gay parents, adding homosexuality to a list of conditions (including drug and child abuse) that give legal cause for loss of custody. “In cases when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alexei Zhuravlyov.
It’s not clear whether the bill will pass. Zhuravlyov is a member of Putin’s ruling party. More importantly, he’s a leader of Rodina (“Motherland”) a populist, neo-fascist faction sometimes called ‘Putin’s special force.” Racist and nationalist, Rodina speaks for just the right-wing constituencies that Putin is trying to peel away from the divided political opposition. There’s a good chance that, expedient as always, he’ll give them exactly what they want.
Ruse might just possibly claim he didn’t know about the anti-family bill before he mounted his latest defense of Putin. If so, Ruse is lying. Rumors of the legislation have circulated — in the Western press, too — for months. Lesbian journalist and activist Masha Gessen warned weeks ago, in the Guardian, that lawmakers had “pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.” She added:
In March, the St Petersburg legislator who had become a spokesman for the law started mentioning me and my “perverted family” in his interviews. I contacted an adoption lawyer asking whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000. The lawyer wrote back telling me to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: “The answer to your question is at the airport.”
So much for Austin Ruse and his hypocritical group’s “family values.” Ruse and C-FAM will watch and cheer a monstrous State tearing children from their families, if it advances their own political power.
Ruse has never cared about human rights. Ten years ago, after all, he palled around with Amr Roshdy and the Egyptian UN delegations at the very same time their government was torturing men accused of homosexual conduct in Cairo. Ruse didn’t give a damn about the blood and agony. He couldn’t give a damn about dissent, or murders, or free speech, or anybody’s rights in Russia now.
Still, Ruse’s assault on Russian families — the families his group claims to value — is a new low. “Defending families” is supposed to be his group’s reason for being, not exposing them to State annihilation. Ruse has been willing to use his own family in the past, to promote himself and his political agenda. He’s been featured on “Fathers for Good: Newsworthy Dads,” holding his children up to view. He’s exploited his daughter as example and argument, claiming the Food Network exposed her to the sight of a “lesbian chef’s” wrongful relationship:
My eight-year-old Lucy, sweet Lucy, turned to me and said: ‘Did she say wife?’ And I said, ‘No, I think she meant girlfriend.’ And Lucy said, ‘I think she said life.’ God bless the innocence of this child. But they will not let us off the mat, the ideologies who want to cram this thing down our throats no matter where we go.
But Ruse is the one who won’t let go, of the beliefs that put other parents and other kids in danger. Ruse’s own ideology matters more to him than any family. Even, I suspect, his own.