Late last week, Don Feder of the Illinois-based World Congress of Families sent out a press release announcing that his group was “concerned about the crisis in Ukraine” and would “pray for world leaders to come together to promote peace and resolve the conflict.” The group also announced that it would go ahead with a planned meeting in Kiev later this year; it did not mention whether its planned summit at the Kremlin in September was still on.
But the World Congress of Families’ involvement in relations between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union is more complicated than Feder’s release lets on. Although WCF has distanced itself from Feder’s foreign policy opinions, Feder has been very clear where his loyalty lies in Ukraine’s unrest. In a column earlier this month, Feder attacked the “Maidan mob” that had ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and bashed the EU’s “willingness to accept same-sex ‘marriage,’ abortion on demand, and anti-religion ethos.”
And the WCF itself has allied with anti-EU activists in Ukraine to push anti-gay causes, putting itself right in the middle of a powerful anti-EU wedge issue .
Many right-wing groups, including the World Congress of Families, have enthusiastically praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new focus on opposing gay rights and abortion access, promoting large families, and close alliance with the Russian Orthodox church, while conveniently ignoring the role these “family issues” play in his consolidation and expansion of power. When Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine two weeks ago, that dynamic became harder to ignore.
In fact, the World Congress of Families, an offshoot of the Howard Center on Family, Religion and Society, has done more than ally with Russia’s leaders as they seek to impose harsh anti-gay policies in their own country. The group has also brought its advocacy to Ukraine, where it has worked to push anti-gay legislation backed by pro-Russia, anti-EU groups in the lead-up the governmental crisis, which was precipitated by Yanukovych’s decision to back out of an association agreement with the EU in favor of a customs union with Russia. Putin strongly opposed closer ties between EU and Ukraine and offered Yanukovych’s government financial incentives to fortify its relationship with Russia.
In November, Buzzfeed’s Lester Feder (no relation to Don) published an extensive report on how Russia was pushing “homophobic nationalism” in Ukraine as part of its campaign to prevent the country from strengthening its association with the European Union. Those efforts were aided by pro-Russian lawmakers pushing a “homosexual propaganda” ban similar to the one passed last year in Russia. A similar bill had passed in parliament with wide support in 2012, but had become a potential sticking point in negotiations with the EU. An EU parliament member explained to Buzzfeed:
“I don’t think the more pro-Western [politicians] would necessarily be that much in favor of LGBT rights,” said Ulrike Lunacek, a member of the European Parliament from Austria and co-president of its intergroup on LGBT rights and sits on its foreign affairs committee. “But it’s very clear that the more pro-Russian side is using the … propaganda law that [means] you’re not allowed to talk about LGBT rights to enhance their political situation in the country. Very often the politicians in these countries … [use] the argument against LGBT rights to cover up problems that exist on the economic level.”
That is, Ukraine’s proposed “homosexual propaganda” law had support from advocates on both sides of the EU issue; but it was the anti-EU politicians aligned with Putin who were using it as a wedge issue to promote a larger geopolitical agenda.
In July, 2013, a pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker reintroduced the “homosexual propaganda” ban. Three months later, in October, WCF announced that Feder, the group's communications director, would travel to Kiev to meet with “key Ukrainian leaders, including members of parliament.” Speaking at a press conference in Kiev in October, Feder warned Ukrainians against following the US into the “abyss” of gay rights.
“Everywhere you look, from Washington to the United Nations to the European Union to the courts, the family is threatened,” he said. “There are forces in your country that want to put you on the road America’s taken. I urge you to resist them.”
He went on to warn that gay rights advances in the United States were leading to legalized pedophilia, “a campaign to abolish gender distinctions,” and ultimately “the criminalization of Christianity.”
“What starts by asking for tolerance ends by demanding obedience,” he warned.
The video below contains Feder's full speech; we have edited out the interjections of a translator.
Feder was surrounded at the news conference by Alexey Komov, WCF’s main organizer in Moscow, Fabrice Sorlin, a far-right French activist allied with WCF who has praised Russia for stopping gay rights advances like it fought off “Mongol hordes,” and by Aleksander Skvortsov of an NGO called the Parents Committee of Ukraine.
Skvortsov’s group doesn’t just oppose gay rights; it also pressed the Ukrainian government to reject an agreement with the EU because, as Skvortsov put it, “it will lead to the inevitable homosexualizing of Ukraine.” A couple of weeks after the press conference with Feder, Skortsov’s group burned a rainbow flag to protest the planned EU agreement. In November, when Yanukovych rejected the EU deal, tens of thousands of Ukrainians marched in protest; but Skortsov helped organize a flash mob dance in celebration of Ukraine’s rejection of "homodictatorship.”
WCF was also involved in the effort to pass the gay “propaganda” bill that threatened to harm EU negotiations. In May, WCF’s “ambassador to European institutions” Pavel Parfentiev worked with Skvortsov’s group to write a memo to the Venice Commission defending the proposed “homosexual propaganda” bills in Russia and Ukraine, claiming such laws are “fully compatible with international human rights law provisions.”
In early November, shortly before Yanukovych rejected the EU deal, Parfentiev joined Skortsov at a press conference urging Ukraine not to sign an association agreement with the EU without amending it to prevent Ukraine from adopting gay rights laws. “I find it surprising that Ukrainian leaders did nothing to protect the family and family values in the Ukraine Association Agreement with the European Union,” Parfentiev reportedly said, adding that EU gay rights protections present “a very real threat to the family and morality in Ukraine.”
“You need to work to change the treaty or simply refuse to accept it,” he said.
At the press conference, Skortsov also announced the creation of a campaign called “Stop It Now,” to counter “homototalitarianism” throughout the world. The campaign’s website contains various colorful materials educating readers about the myriad of dangers gay rights supposedly present to society.
The New York Times reported in December about how pro-government demonstrators were using opposition to gay rights as a wedge against an agreement with the EU:
"We are against the spiritual expansion of the West,” said another protester, Andrei A. Shyropov, a teacher. “We are against the Euro Sodom,” he continued, using a phrase rhyming with and mocking the name the supporters of European integration have given to their movement, the Euromaidan, which means “Eurosquare” in Ukrainian.
Valentin B. Lukyanik, an organizer of the march Friday, said the economic benefits of European trade were outweighed by “the expansion of European values that destroy the family.”
The World Congress of Families and the American groups it allies with– including Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage – seem to be conveniently ignoring the role that anti-gay activism is playing in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist plans, including his efforts to wrest Ukraine’s loyalties away from the European Union.