The following article is adapted from PRA’s 2012 report, Colonizing African Values.
Sharon Slater co-founded Family Watch International (FWI) with the goal of defending “fundamental institutions and values that are so critical to any society.” She believes those institutions and values are “under increasing attack by UN agencies and treaties, unelected activist judges, politicians, special interest groups, much of the media and popular entertainment.”1
The Arizona-based FWI has never claimed assets totaling more than $35,000, according to its available tax forms, and its intake in “gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees” has never exceeded $150,000.2 Yet Slater is opportunistic in finding ways to impact the international debate about families, abortion, and the LGBTQ population, and her influence far exceeds the modest resources of her organization.
Slater, a Mormon, traces her politicization to the World Congress of Families in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1999. “Before that,” she wrote, “I had never been involved in a cause.” But the Congress “changed the direction of my life, as I learned about the assaults in almost every area of family life and was instilled with the hope that if we all worked together, we could effectively stop many of these attacks.”3 She co-founded FWI later that year.4
From 2001 to 2006, Slater served as president of another organization, United Families International (UFI), which was founded in 1978 by a Mormon, Susan Roylance, for the purpose of protecting “the institutions of traditional marriage and the natural family from the growing threats they face today,” according to the organization’s tax forms.5 At UFI, Slater forged ties in several African countries, including Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Kenya, while promoting programs like “Stay Alive,” which taught African youth ages 9 to 14 an abstinence-only and fidelity-in-marriage curriculum.6
FWI has followed a similar model. At the outset, its work primarily involved advancing conservative ideologies that idealize the nuclear family as the antidote to all societal ills, and promoting abstinence as the key to curtailing abortion and ending the spread of HIV/AIDS.7 References to the “natural family” are ubiquitous in FWI’s policy briefs and in Slater’s writings and speeches.
FWI has recently expanded its focus to include the harms of homosexuality. Though the majority of its efforts are geared toward the United Nations and the international arena, the group makes some effort to stymie the rights of same-sex couples in the United States. It filed amicus briefs in marriage and adoption cases in several states, for example, including New York, Louisiana, and Rhode Island.8
“It is one thing to allow others the right to engage in self-destructive behavior,” Slater warned in a 2009 article. “But allowing and even granting those same individuals the right to introduce this behavior as normal and healthy to society at large, especially to children, is a very different proposition. This is why we have laws that prohibit sexual acts such as incest, sexual abuse, and rape as well as drug dealing, assaults, and other crimes.”9
Pushing a “pro family” agenda at the UN
FWI was founded under the name Global Helping to Advance Women and Children (Global HAWC). The organization operates as Family Watch International, its legal alternative name, everywhere except at the United Nations. There, Global HAWC is listed as approved for Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consultative status, allowing it to participate in meetings on economic and social issues.10
At the UN, Slater’s group is part of an effort to limit international advancement of comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive health services that include abortion, and basic rights and protections for LGBTQ people.11 (An organization that shares this agenda, Human Life International, created an offshoot group to regain access to the UN after losing ECOSOC approval because of its controversial reputation.12)
To advance her agenda, Slater helped assemble the “The UN Pro-Family Handbook,” which advises UN diplomats about negotiating consensus language to produce a “more family friendly outcome.” It suggests, for example, that the phrase “reproductive health services”—which is “often misinterpreted to include abortion,” according to the Handbook—be replaced with this phrasing: Services that “enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy baby.”13
When they are unable to change the language altogether, Slater and her colleagues attempt to block the UN from reaching consensus. Slater’s prepared remarks in a speech at the regional World Congress of Families in London in 2010, in which she boasted of FWI’s successes at the United Nations, explain this tactic:
“Did you know that UNAIDS, the UN agency charged with trying to stop the AIDS pandemic, is actually seeking to legalize and promote the very behaviors that fuel the AIDS pandemic such as prostitution, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity—even among children? Family Watch was instrumental in getting UN Member States this year and last year to reject a provision endorsing the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights created by UNAIDS which calls upon member states to: Legalize abortion and same-sex marriage; Punish people who criticize same-sex relations; Repeal laws against adultery, fornication, oral sex and sodomy; and Provide children with explicit sex education.”14
FWI’s actual role in foiling certain UN votes is unclear. While it isn’t singlehandedly disrupting negotiations at the UN, it appears to be an integral part of a web of conservative players that are slowing the advancement of women’s and LGBTQ rights.
Slater has close ties to Theresa Okafor, CEO of the antichoice Nigerian group Life League and director of the Nigerian-based Foundation for African Cultural Heritage (FACH), which cosponsors forums for U.S. diplomats with FWI. In 2012, FWI staged a repeat performance of the Global Family Policy Forum for UN delegates that it sponsored with FACH the previous year.15 Slater claimed this two-day conference was attended by 26 delegates from 23 countries (mostly developing and/or culturally conservative), for the purpose of briefing them on international issues regarding marriage, the family, and sexual rights. Attendees reportedly included representatives from Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean Islands, and Africa.16
Slater recounted in a newsletter that “one of the most moving presentations” at the 2011 conference was given by a person “successfully reorienting” from homosexuality to heterosexuality.17 According to Slater, “For many of these diplomats, this was their first exposure to the scientific and clinical evidence that proves homosexuality is not genetically determined and fixed like skin color or race and that in many cases, individuals who experience same-sex attraction can be helped by therapy.”
The programming at the 2012 Global Family Policy Forum emphasized promoting the traditional family and understanding sexual orientation and gender identity. The “Family Policy Brief” on homosexuality included in the forum’s literature began: “Issues related to homosexuality and so-called ‘homosexual rights’ are driving much of the current worldwide assault on marriage, the family and family related issues.”18
Conference panelists varied. They included a new brand of less vitriolic pro-traditional family advocates such as Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia; Piero Tozzi, an attorney for the Christian, right-wing Alliance Defense Fund; and Floyd Godfrey, a practitioner of the harmful and discredited practice of reparative or conversion therapy for “treating” same-sex attraction.19
Godfrey recently defended his work to Arizona news outlet KTAR.com: “With this kind of therapy, you are trying to heal the wounds that cause [same-sex] attraction … The belief is that homosexuality is a symptom of emotional needs and wounds.”20 Slater proposes to delegitimize the idea that homosexuality is genetic and therefore cannot be “cured,” which she views as a grand deception advanced by LGBTQ activists.
This stance attracted the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which gave Slater a platform during its annual conference last year.21 As organizations that employ discredited research in support of “curing” homosexuality continue to be marginalized, they seem to be reaching out to Christian Right figures such as Slater. In return, FWI’s website utilizes NARTH resources on ex-gay therapy.22
Exporting a dubious expertise
To curry favor with foreign diplomats and people from developing countries, Slater continually asserts that the West is imposing its bankrupt and deleterious values on the rest of the world. FWI’s documentary “Cultural Imperialism,” for example, is described as a “hard-hitting exposé of how the U.S. and other Western governments and UN agencies are blackmailing developing nations to accept controversial sexual rights in the guise of fighting AIDS.”23
FWI’s affiliation with the United Nations has led to confusion about Slater’s status, which is particularly troubling for African leaders who are taking on the issue of overpopulation. One Nigerian news outlet quoted Slater following a speech at a Nigerian forum: “Slater, a spokeswoman of the United Nations, said: ‘The developed countries are actually importing people from other countries because they don’t have enough workers, they don’t have enough people to support their social security system, to support the old people and run their economies.’” The article went on: “She stressed that if Africa took the advice to limit its population, it would eventually run into the same problem of lack of human capacity.”24
It was probably during that same sweep through Nigeria during the summer of 2011 that Slater “encouraged delegates attending a law conference in Lagos, Nigeria, to resist the United Nations’ calls to decriminalize homosexuality,” as Dr. Warren Throckmorton reported for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. “Keynoting the Nigerian Bar Association Conference, Slater told delegates that they would lose their religious and parental rights if they supported ‘fictitious sexual rights.’ One such ‘fictitious right’ is the right to engage in same-sex sexual relationships without going to jail.”25
While Slater’s homophobic and pro-life messaging may seem more-or-less common in the marketplace of conservative rhetoric within the U.S., what she conveys while traveling abroad is more troubling.
She seems driven by the notion that antichoice and antigay advocates can eventually impact the course of those two issues worldwide by enlisting the help of foot soldiers in other countries, connecting with like-minded individuals and educating and persuading others. With her keen understanding of the inner workings of the UN, as well as her tenacity and savvy, Slater is committed to building those relationships and pushing that trajectory forward.
Kerry Eleveld is a journalist who spent four years covering Barack Obama, first as a political reporter on the campaign trail and then as a White House Correspondent for The Advocate. She is the only reporter from an LGBT news outlet to get a one-on-one sit-down interview with Obama as president. Since she began covering LGBT issues in 2006, Eleveld’s work has won numerous accolades, including the 2010 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for “Excellence in LGBT Media” from the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association and the 2011 “Outstanding Digital Journalism Article” for her weekly View from Washington column from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Eleveld’s work has been published at Salon, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and the Washington Post. Eleveld also offers insights about political developments to news outlets such as PBS NewsHour, MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Associated Press.
1-“Now is the Time to Take a Stand for the Family!” Family Watch International, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/.
2-“Short Form – Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax,” The Foundation Center, http://dynamodata.fdncenter.org/990_pdf_archive/860/860981658/860981658_201012_990EZ.pdf.
3-“Join Us at the World Congress of Families in Madrid!” Family Watch International, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/newsletter/0573.cfm.
4- Sharon Slater reports that she started Family Watch International in 1999, but GuideStar lists its 501(c)(3) incorporation as 2002. See “Who We Are,” Family Watch International, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/who_we_are.cfm; and Guidestar, “Global Helping to Advance Women & Children,” http://www.guidestar.org/organizations/86-0981658/global-helping-advance-women-children.aspx.
5- “Form 990: Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax – 2004,” United Families Foundation, 18, 20.
6- “Stay Alive,” United Families International, http://unitedfamilies.org/default.asp?contentID=22.
7- Jeremy Adam Smith, “Living in the Gap: The Ideal and the Reality of the Christian Right Family,” Public Eye (Winter 2007), http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v22n4/christian_family.html.
8-“Legal Briefs,” Marriage Law Foundation. http://www.marriagelawfoundation.org/briefs.html; Brief of Amici Curiae United Families International, Family Watch International, and Family Leader Foundation, Margaret R. Chambers v. Cassandra B. Ormiston. No. 2006-340. http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/ri_amicus.pdf.
9-Sharon Slater, “The Homosexual Agenda, The US Constitution and Our Children,” Meridian Magazine, April 27, 2009, http://www.ldsmag.com/news/article/3777-the-homosexual-agenda-the-us-constitution-and-our-children.
10-“DESA – Social Policy and Development Division,” United Nations, http://social.un.org/index/CommissionforSocialDevelopment/Sessions/2012/NGOsStatements.aspx.
11-Sharon Slater, “CSW 2012: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” The Family Watch, March 26, 2012, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/newsletter/0572.cfm.
12- Catholics for Choice, “Human Life International,” Opposition Notes, http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/oppositionwatch/documents/HLIweb2.pdf
13- Family Watch International, UN Pro-Family Handbook, vi.
14- Sharon Slater, “A Strategic Plan to Defend the Family,” http://worldcongress.org/wcfreg.spkrs/wcf.reg.uk.slater.pdf.
15-“The 2011 Global Family Policy Forum,” Equality Matters, http://cloudfront.equalitymatters.org/static/equality/pdf/family-watch-delegate_invitation.pdf.
16-Kerry Eleveld, “Right-Wing Group Fuels Homophobia at the UN,” Equality Matters, May 24, 2011, http://equalitymatters.org/blog/201105240010.
17-Sharon Slater, “FWI’s Global Family Policy Forum Was a Huge Success!” The Family Watch, February 3, 2011, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/newsletter/0502.cfm.
18-“Family Policy Brief: What You Need to Know About Homosexuality,” Family Watch International, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/documents/FWIpolicybriefwhatyouneedtoknowaobouthomosexualityREVISED.pdf.
19- 2012 Global Family Policy Forum, “Program Outline for Friday, January 27,” 1-2.
20-Taylor Summers, “California bill could ban ‘gay conversion’ therapy,” KTAR.com, http://ktar.com/6/1541066/California-bill-could-ban-gay-conversion-therapy.
21-Warren Throckmorton, “NARTH to Feature Anti-gay Activists at Annual Convention.” Warren Throckmorton, September 23, 2011, http://wthrockmorton.com/2011/09/23/narth-to-host-anti-gay-activists-at-annual-convention.
22-“Family Policy Brief: What You Need to Know About Homosexuality,” Family Watch International, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/documents/FWIpolicybriefwhatyouneedtoknowaobouthomosexualityREVISED.pdf.
23-The World Congress of Families, “Press Release: 04 May 2012, Rockford, Illinois,” The Howard Center, http://www.profam.org/press/wcf.pr.120504.htm.
24-Anayo Okoli, “Decline in world population worries NGO,” Nigeria Daily News, July 18, 2012, http://www.nigeriadailynews.com/news/24217-decline-in-world-population-worries-ngo.html.
25-Warren Throckmorton, “American Anti-Gay Campaign in Africa Opposes ‘Fictitious Sexual Rights’: How One Religious Fight Organization Lobbies Against Gays in the Developing World,” Religion Dispatches, August 21, 2011, http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/4996/american_anti-gay_campaign_in_africa_opposes_%E2%80%9Cfictitious_sexual_rights%E2%80%9D.