World Congress of Families summit in Budapest. Photo: Claire Provost.
In a small meeting room, dozens of people are listening closely to speakers, from around the world, talk about how to craft “winning messages” and draw new supporters into causes that are often considered to be among the most divisive.
Activists, non-profit workers, and some politicians, take turns with the microphone, sharing their experiences of what has and hasn’t worked, opportunities and threats, fundraising challenges, and their passion for the work that they do.
On one hand, it feels familiar: I have covered international development and human rights as a journalist for years and I have been to meetings like this before.
But this was different: a training session for “emerging leaders” in anti-abortion and anti-gay rights campaigns, at last month's World Congress of Families (WCF) international summit in Budapest, Hungary. At times, it felt like a boot camp on how to spin intolerance and re-brand hate with “positive images”.
The summit itself was organised under the banner of “building family-friendly countries,” which may at first glance seem unobjectionable and even warm. But this is a deeply exclusionary movement that opposes all 'deviation' from its ideal family of a married man and woman and their (preferably many) children.
In the US, the progressive think tank Political Research Associates has been tracking groups like the WCF for years. It calls the “pro-family” rhetoric “deceptive” and part of a campaign that has unleashed “a torrent of destructive anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ legislation, persecution, and violence around the world”.
This agenda, it’s warned, “ultimately damages – and seeks to dismantle – any and all “nontraditional” families”.
But it seems to have been alarmingly effective, bringing diverse groups together in a conservative movement of movements, working at the international level and, likely, in your country as well. The WCF says it has a network of allies in at least 80 countries.
The “protection of the family” discourse was also highlighted in a report last month from the new Observatory on the Universality of Rights – an initiative of more than a dozen women’s organisations – as “a key example of the religious right's move towards holistic and integrated advocacy, binding together disparate narratives, histories, themes, and rights-foci under a seemingly innocuous umbrella term”.
After all, how do you take a stance against “family”?
“There’s a lot of holistic ultra-conservative organising...”
Naureen Shameem, working with the OURs initiative, said the religious right has, with notable success, developed complex yet coherent frameworks for alliances that have multiple components to them.
“They basically do a lot of intersectional work,” she said, referring to the concept that has been key to progressive feminist and social justice organising for years.
Coined in the late 1980s by US scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, “intersectionality” sees identities and systems of oppression including racism, classism, and gender and sexuality-based discrimination as interconnected.
Understanding the multidimensional nature of injustices and inequalities should encourage broader coalition-based work – but realising the promise of this approach remains an ongoing challenge.
For instance, while the Women’s March, following the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, explicitly referenced intersectionality, “the experience was anything but,” according to Black Lives Matter organiser DiDi Delgado.
She said it was “bittersweet for women of colour and trans women” and that, “for all its symbolism and potential, the Women’s March was largely a tightly packed shrine to alabaster skin and pink vulvas”.
Surprisingly, perhaps, “there’s a lot of holistic ultra-conservative organising and concepts, like the protection of the family,” said Shameen. This discourse, she said, is “pretty savvy, because the language sounds quite friendly, because everyone in some sense has family relations and it can be a zone of love, though not always”.
This is “really embedding all these patriarchal, heteronormative, regressive concepts in a package which sells very well,” she said.
Attendees at the WCF summit in Budapest included delegates from Russia and America, Poland and Hungary. There were priests and pastors, MPs and party officials, anti-abortion activists and campaigners against marriage equality for LGBT couples.
Speakers included a former Fox News producer from the US, an anti-abortion campaigner from Trinidad and Tobago, and a youth activist from Poland. A representative of the right-wing Lega Nord political party in Italy, infamous for its xenophobic rhetoric, spoke alongside participants from Nigeria and Kenya.
At one session, WCF president Brian Brown celebrated that “something new is happening”. He insisted: “what unites us is so fundamental...we have to be willing to speak together”.
At the international level including at the United Nations, the OURs report also documented alliances between “traditionalist actors from Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Russian Orthodox, and Muslim faith backgrounds” which it said have “found common cause in…attempting to revert feminist and sexual rights gains”.
Shameem said such alliances are now “not merely trying to block or undermine [such gains]...but also trying to embed a concept of human rights where rights move from the individual to powerful institutions like the traditional family”.
“Disguising gender discrimination under an ideology of conservative family values...”
Hungary’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has taken up the “family-friendly” rhetoric with gusto.
Language was also included in Hungary’s 2011 constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman and to state that life begins at the moment of conception. The same year, images appeared plastered across the Budapest metro system depicting a fetus begging: "LET ME LIVE!" – part of a controversial government anti-abortion campaign using European Union funding.
Government schemes have also been set up to encourage large families in particular – including one programme that gives grants of 10 million forints ($35,076) to couples who agree to have three children in 10 years.
Politicians at the highest levels have publicly made homophobic remarks – including the mayor of Budapest who reportedly called homosexuality “unnatural and repulsive”. At hostels in the city, visitors' guides warn of a “rather unprogressive... attitude towards the LGBT community. It is advisable to avoid public displays of affection”.
Access to abortion, while legal, can be limited by “unnecessary waiting periods, hostile counselling or conscientious objection,” warned a UN working group on discrimination against women in 2016.
This working group also called on the Hungarian government “not to disguise gender discrimination under an ideology of conservative family values”. The group's chairperson said: "the pervasive and flagrant stereotyping of women, including by some political leaders...and the insistence on a woman’s role as primarily wife and mother, are extremely alarming”.
Indeed, the propaganda and public campaigns of conservative alliances around “the family” are something of a masterclass in 21st century political communications – a sharp-edged lesson on how language matters and, when combined with strategic action, how it can have dangerous real-world impacts. Watch this space.