Every summer for the past four years, the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) Ruth Institute has invited college students from across the country to participate in its weekend-long “It Takes A Family To Raise A Village” (ITAF) conference in San Diego, CA. According to NOM, the conference is meant to prepare college students to defend “natural marriage” on their campuses by introducing them to a number of prominent anti-gay speakers and activists.
This year, NOM expanded its ITAF conference to include recent college graduates in their early twenties. Being a 24-year-old gay blogger who has spent the better part of the past two years tracking NOM’s anti-gay extremism, I wasn’t expecting much when I applied to ITAF’s “Emerging Leaders” program in mid-June. I’d spent most of the month publishing blog post after blog post about ITAF’s anti-gay“suggested reading” list, its roster of extreme anti-gay speakers, and its ties to a megachurch linked to the “ex-gay” movement. The application didn’t require me to disclose my place of employment, but a quick Google search of my name would plainly reveal that I was no friend of NOM. Jennifer Morse, the president of NOM’s Ruth Institute, had even specifically responded to a post I’d published about her. I saw my application as more of a joke than anything else.
So when I got a “Congratulations” email at the end of July informing me that I’d been accepted into ITAF, I wasn’t sure how to react.
I also wasn’t keen on the idea of having to pretend to be straight in front of dozens of strangers for four days, as I didn’t expect I’d be able to attend a NOM conference as an openly gay man without raising a few eyebrows. I’d been out of the closet for over eight years, and I lived in a city where being gay is as about as common and unremarkable as wearing glasses. I’d grown pretty accustomed to not having to worry about people figuring out my sexual orientation. Having to go back in “the closet,” even just for a few days, sounded more like an unpleasant high school flashback than an exciting work opportunity.
Eventually, though, my curiosity got the better of me.
Since its founding in 2007, NOM has loudly proclaimed that its “battle is not with an orientation”; that, despite opposing gay marriage, the organization isn’t motivated by animosity towards gay and lesbian people. This distinction - “we’re not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage” - has allowed NOM to differentiate itself from organizations that have been labeled “hate groups” for peddling known falsehoods about LGBT people.
But, I wanted to see it for myself. Attending ITAF would give me an opportunity to find out what NOM was really saying about LGBT people when it wasn’t mincing words for mainstream media outlets.
So on Thursday, July 26, armed with little more than my camera phone, a notepad, and a hastily-concocted backstory, I boarded a flight to San Diego to attend what would end up being one of the most disturbing and overtly homophobic experiences of my life.
Day One: Opening ceremony, Dr. Morse’s keynote speech, and meeting my conference roommate.
Day Two: “Unstable” same-sex relationships, gay stereotypes, and Jesus’ condemnation of homosexuality.
Day Three: Parenting misinformation, the pedophilia connection, and Leviticus.
Day Four: Morning services, a “conversation on marriage,” and a confession.
Same-Sex Relationships Are “Dysfunctional,” “Inherently Unstable”
At Skyline, we shuffled into a large room that appeared to be reserved for putting on performances for kids. There were colorful shapes on the walls, a large stage, and even a small window for puppet shows.
It was disturbing setting for a conference that focused on the threat gay people pose to their own children.
The first seminar of the morning was given by Bill Duncan, director of the anti-equality Marriage Law Foundation. His talk - “Marriage and the Law” - attempted to establish a legal case for barring same-sex couples from marrying. The speech was basically a rehashing of NOM’s list of pre-approved marriage talking points; marriage is about procreation, marriage equality would redefine the institution of marriage for everyone, mothers and fathers aren’t optional, etc.
Robert Gagnon, associate professor of the New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminar, gave the final lecture of the night, “Jesus and Marriage.” Just a month earlier, I’d published an extensive record of Gagnon’s history of anti-gay extremism: linking homosexuality to pedophilia, calling homosexuality an unhealthy and destructive lifestyle, promoting “ex-gay” therapy, and so forth. He’d spoken at every ITAF conference since the program’s inception.
More Myths About Same-Sex Parenting
At noon, I sat in on a talk titled “The Truth About Same Sex Parenting Studies,” led by economist Douglas Allen. I had read Allen’s work through the Ruth Institute blog before - including a piece in which he wrote that same-sex relationships were more unstable, unhealthy, and promiscuous than heterosexual relationships.
Allen began his talk by attempting to debunk the enormous body of research indicating that same-sex parents can effectively raise children. He listed a number of familiar but inaccurate criticisms of modern same-sex parenting studies: sample sizes are too small, sample sizes aren’t random, the studies’ authors are biased, and so on.
Allen went on to claim that lesbian relationships are more likely to experience instability and dissolution because women’s menstrual cycles become synchronized when they live together for a long period of time:
ALLEN: This is a puzzling one, but very interesting. The lesbian households, they tend to be much more likely to marry in the rates, not just in numbers, in numbers and rates, but they’re much less stable than the gay households. And lots of theories about why that is. You know, getting on the same menstrual cycle, getting really attached to your own biological child and not being willing to share the biological child with your female spouse.
I could barely choke back my laughter when I heard Allen’s explanation. I’d been exposed a lot of terrible arguments against allowing same-sex couples to raise children, but “lesbians will menstruate at the same time” was the kind of claim I’d expect to hear from someone parodying the anti-gay position.
A few moments later, though, I wasn’t laughing.
Like Erickson, Allen had begun discussing the discredited Regnerus study on gay parenting. Earlier that morning, I had snuck away from the BYU students to read about how an internal audit by the journal which published Regnerus’ study had found it to be severely flawed, with the reviewer bluntly calling the paper “bullshit.”
At first, I was shocked at my own reaction to Allen’s statements. I’d heard this kind of anti-gay rhetoric hundreds of times before. For nearly two years, I’d written extensively about NOM’s repeated promotion of the myth that gay people are more likely to engage in pedophilia, including of their own children. Anyone who has spent time tracking anti-gay organizations knows that the “gays-as-pedophiles” smear is one of the mostdamaging but common manifestations of hate speech directed at the LGBT community.
So why was I getting so upset?
From the comfort of my desk in DC, it’s always been easy to think of NOM’s anti-gay efforts as somehow beingoutside of my own life. I don’t wake up each morning worrying about NOM denying me the ability to build my own family or raise my own kids. I’m legally allowed to marry and adopt children with a same-sex partner if and when I choose to do so. NOM’s talking points were offensive and extreme, but I’d grown accustomed to treating them the same way I treated every argument as a debater in college - assess its merits, find its flaws, and debunk misinformation.
Being in that room, though, watching dozens of people craning their necks to hear Allen explain the harms posed by same-sex parenting, I realized that he wasn’t just talking about “gay parents” in the abstract; he was talking about me. Each time Allen accused same-sex couples of sexually abusing their own children, he was questioning my ability to be a good parent one day, too.
That sensation of feeling personally targeted would stick with me for the rest of the conference.
During the next session, titled “The Question We Never Thought We’d Ask: Do Kids Need A Mom & A Dad?,” BYU’s Erickson again relied heavily on the Regnerus study to claim that children raised in same-sex households are more likely to be sexually abused by their parents.
Comparing Same-Sex Relationships To Incest And Polygamy
After dinner, ITAF participants converged for a conference-wide lecture by Gagnon titled “Paul and Homosexuality.”
At the beginning of Gagnon’s talk, Ruth Institute employees handed out packets of Bible passages related to homosexuality, ostensibly compiled by Gagnon himself. The four-page document included several references to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the passage from Leviticus which calls for gays and lesbians to be put to death:
While many of the biblical passages had certain portions bolded for emphasis, only the Leviticus quote was entirely bolded.
I looked around, expecting other students to at least appear unsettled by distribution of the notoriously violent anti-gay biblical passage. Nobody seemed to be reacting.
NOM’s Morse - who had previously promised that the ITAF conference would be about “marriage, not gayness” - sat just a few chairs away from me in the front row, listening as Gagnon spent yet another hour explaining to a room full of college students why homosexuality was unacceptable in the eyes of God:
ITAF’s overt conflation of Christianity with intense homophobia left me dumbfounded. When I decided to attend the conference, I expected to be exposed to a good deal of pseudoscience about gay parents and same-sex relationships. For the most part, NOM has been open about its willingness to misinform people about LGBT families in order to slow the advance of marriage equality.
But what I saw at the conference - selling a book that labels gay people as pedophiles worthy of death, distributing Bible quotes to college students similarly calling for gays to be killed, hosting entire speeches devoted to condemning gays and lesbians as deviant sinners - represented a brand of anti-gay extremism that I assumed even NOM would have shied away from.
n reality, though, the “enemy lines” were a bit blurrier than I had imagined them to be. Most of the students who attended NOM’s ITAF conference weren’t anti-gay zealots; they’d decided to show up after hearing about the event from their professors, their churches, or their parents. Many of them, like the BYU student, were genuinely interested in preventing divorce and ensuring that married couples maintain healthy and lasting relationships. Few of them had ever even heard of the Ruth Institute before attending.
It seemed silly that I had spent all weekend feeling so embattled.
Then I remembered the Regnerus study - how NOM’s speakers had spent the weekend trying to depict gay parents as predatory towards their own children.
I remembered Gagnon’s speeches and NOM’s use of Christianity as a weapon to condemn LGBT people as unrepentant sinners.
And I remembered Leviticus.
The ideological divide between me and the BYU student may have been small, but NOM had spent the entire weekend trying to widen it by teaching her that gays and lesbians - including me - are unstable, dangerous, and unworthy of raising their own families. Despite the promise to focus on “marriage, not gayness,” ITAF had been a veritable crash course in demonizing LGBT people.
That’s because, for NOM, there really isn’t much distance between being “anti-gay marriage” and being “anti-gay” - the latter motivates the former. “Raising the negative on homosexuality,” as one NOM memo put it, is a central part of the organization’s effort to defeat same-sex marriage. Even Morse recently confessed that NOM’s decision to publically attack gay marriage instead of gay people is purely “strategic.”