One of the leading exporters of U.S.-style culture wars—the World Congress of Families (WCF)—is hosting an international gathering of right-wing scholars and activists in Salt Lake City, Utah later this year. It will be WCF’s first major conference on U.S. soil, and the event’s agenda includes a who’s who list of U.S. conservatives. Among them are two individuals who have made it their business to provide academic sanction to some of the Right’s destructively erroneous claims about LGBTQ people: Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox.
Since its publication in July 2012, the infamous “Regnerus Study” (officially titled the “New Family Structures Study”) has become a favorite weapon in the Religious Right’s campaign against LGBTQ people. The study, funded by the right-wing Witherspoon Institute and conducted by University of Texas associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus, portrays LGB parents in a negative light, suggesting that children raised by a mother and father in biologically intact families fare better than children raised by LGBTQ people.
Regnerus’ work has received immense criticism from a vast assortment of academics arguing that the research is not only methodologically flawed,1 but also unethically motivated and formulated. After listening to testimony from Regnerus and examining the study, Judge Bernard Friedman included the following in his ruling striking down a same-sex marriage ban: “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” Of particular concern is the role of Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia.
By the time Wilcox took over as NMP’s top dog in 2009, he had established himself as a prominent sociologist in conservative academic circles, building a résumé featuring connections to some of the Right’s leading institutions, including the World Congress of Families and Witherspoon Institute.
Wilcox first signed on as a research fellow with Witherspoon in 2004. In 2010, he took charge of the think tank’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy and, from that position, birthed the New Family Structures Study.2 As Philip Cohen outlined in a 2013 exposé, Wilcox conceived of the study during his first year as head of Witherspoon’s marriage project, established funding (almost entirely from the Witherspoon Institute itself), and recruited Regnerus to serve as the lead investigator (reportedly because he was too busy to do it himself). Records show that he was also paid $2,000 as an official consultant for the study, and ultimately suggested Social Science Review—where he sits on the Board of Advisors—for its publication. Neglecting the obvious conflict(s) of interest, evidence additionally indicates that Wilcox served as one of three peer reviewers for Regnerus’ submission before it went to press.
This combination of poor scholarship and unscrupulous practices was seemingly justified by the greater goal: preventing same-sex couples from marrying. In an email to Regnerus sent in the early stages of the project’s development, Witherspoon President Luis Tellez wrote, “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court.”
And sure enough, Regnerus pulled through. His study was first reported on by the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News, where Witherspoon co-founder Robert P. George sits on the editorial board. It was instantly popular amongst conservative circles, including legal scholars. Regnerus’ research was cited as evidence in several amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court ,as it weighed in on the constitutionality of California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8, and has subsequently been cited in legal battles against marriage equality and adoption rights all across the country. It’s also been referenced in legislative debates over numerous anti-LGBTQ bills and ballot initiatives, and has even found an international fan-base. According to a Right Wing Watch investigation, Regnerus’ study influenced the authors of Russia’s “Anti-Gay Propaganda” law, and was also cited extensively in a proposed law that sought to strip LGBTQ people of their parental rights (the legislation classified homosexuality in the same category as drug abuse and child abuse as offenses meriting the loss of custody).
Who can we credit with translating and distributing the New Family Structures Study to a Russian audience? One of the responsible parties is Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage.
In its early days, NOM (also co-founded by Robert P. George) shared an office with Witherspoon Institute, and Luis Tellez has been a member of the NOM board of directors since it began in 2007. The organization was explicitly formed for the purpose of passing California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment, and in the years since, NOM has established itself as one of the leading antagonizers of LGBTQ people in the U.S. and around the world. In June 2013, Brown testified in Russia at a joint Duma committee hearing on “traditional values.” Right Wing Watch reported that Regnerus’ study played a central role in that discussion.
During this same time period, leaders from the World Congress of Families (WCF) were also in Moscow, preparing for what was intended to be their 8th international convening (subsequently “canceled,” purportedly due to concerns over Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine3). NOM has been a member of WCF since 2011, and Brown is a big fan. In WCF promotional material, he’s quoted as saying, “The World Congress of Families is THE group standing up for the family around the world. They have done amazing work in uniting all of those who stand for the truth about marriage and family.”4
Wilcox, too, is a long-time WCF supporter. He’s been on the editorial board for The Family in America—a publication of WCF’s parent organization, the Howard Center, since 2009—and this will be his second time to take the stage at one of WCF’s international gatherings. Though it will be Regnerus’ first official appearance, his work will make him a familiar—and popular—face.
Speakers at the event will likely do their best to moderate both their tone and rhetoric while in front of U.S. press, but the destructive impact of WCF affiliates on LGBTQ people and reproductive justice—both locally and globally—cannot be overstated. Just as Wilcox and Regnerus have learned to cloak the Right’s vitriolic rhetoric in academic terms, WCF and its myriad supporters have become increasingly deceptive in their anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive justice agenda.
But be not deceived: promotion of the “natural family”—no matter how glossy the brochure or eloquent the speech—is intended as an attack on LGBTQ people and women, and WCF IX presents a unique and important opportunity to confront and hold accountable some of the key leaders behind this deception. Students and colleagues of Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus who are opposed to their manipulation of academia for the purpose of furthering anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive goals need to speak out. Their work has severe implications for social justice efforts across the country and around the world, but if we can confront these culture warriors in their places of origin—before they board that plane to Salt Lake City (or Russia, or Uganda)—we can begin to contain this toxic spill.
- In a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in 2012, a report by the 14,000-member American Sociological Association argued, “If any conclusion can be reached from Regnerus’s study, it is that family stability is predictive of child well-being.” (The report observed that more than half the subjects who were described as children of “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” were the offspring of failed opposite-sex marriages in which a parent later engaged in “same-sex behavior,” and that many others never lived with same-sex parents.)
- Incidentally, Wilcox’s tenure at the conservative (and controversial) Witherspoon Institute has been omitted from his official CV. His connections to WCF are also curiously missing.
- The event actually went ahead as scheduled, only slightly disguised by the use of a different name: “Large Families and the Future of Humanity International Forum” (held on the exact dates and in the exact same venues that WCF VIII was originally scheduled).
- Brown spoke at WCF VI in 2012, and is also scheduled to speak at WCF IX in October.