Long before President Obama selected three gay athletes to lead the American delegation to the Sochi Olympics, long before President Vladimir Putin declared Russia to be the world's new "moral compass," and long before practically anyone in the West had even heard of that country's new "homosexual propaganda" law, one American had thought deeply about it—because he'd helped invent it. "My greatest success, in terms of my own personal strategy, is Russia," Scott Lively says from his native Massachusetts, where he launched a quixotic bid for governor this year.
Lively, who is being sued in U.S. federal court by a gay-rights group for alleged crimes against humanity over his work fighting "the gay agenda" in Uganda, led a 50-city tour through the former Soviet Union several years ago to warn its citizens about the international gay conspiracy. His message and his proposed solution—to criminalize LGBT advocacy—were received with open arms in town-hall meetings, local legislatures, and St. Petersburg, which sent an open letter to the Russian people and later became one of the first cities in the country to outlaw "homosexual propaganda," paving the way for the national legislation.
"I was an alcoholic and a drug addict until I got saved in 1986, and since that time my focus has been to restore a biblical focus with regards to marriage and sexuality," he says. Lively became a lawyer, author, and advocate in pursuit of the cause, but he gave up on the United States almost a decade ago, when one of his cases (challenging an antidiscrimination law)failed. "I began shifting my emphasis, which is going to the other countries in the world that are still culturally conservative to warn them about how the Left has advanced its agenda in the U.S., Canada, and Europe—and to help put barriers in place. And the goal is to build a consensus of moral countries to actually roll back the leftist agenda in my country," he explains matter-of-factly.
For Lively and the rest of a small but incredibly influential band of American activists who spend their time crisscrossing the globe to meet with foreign lawmakers, deliver speeches, make allies, cut checks, and otherwise foment a backlash against the so-called international gay-rights agenda, this is nothing less than a war for the fate of human civilization.
And in a large part of the world, they're winning. In the last month of 2013 alone, India's Supreme Court re-criminalized homosexuality, Nigeria outlawed LGBT advocacy (gay sex was already punishable by up to 14 years in prison), and Uganda passed a watered-down version of its infamous "kill the gays" bill, which allows for life prison terms—if not the death penalty—for "aggravated homosexuality." Homosexual relations are illegal in at least 77 countries; same-sex marriage is legal in only 16.
As the push for gay rights has made remarkable strides in the West, the story is very different in much of the developing world. Middle Eastern governments continue to threaten gays with the death penalty. And while parts of Latin America and East Asia have seen progress, from Eastern Europe to Africa, India to the Caribbean, gays are losing, not gaining, rights. In almost all of these countries, American veterans of the culture wars have been working behind the scenes. "When you scratch the surface on a lot of the backsliding that's going on in a lot of countries where it's getting harder to be LGBT, you find a lot of Americans," says Ty Cobb, director of global engagement at the Human Rights Campaign, which is just now ramping up efforts to combat those efforts abroad.
As they've lost battle after battle in the U.S., conservative activists have found responsive audiences abroad, eager partners, and a way to remake themselves. For some like Lively, whose views would be completely unacceptable in the United States—in his book, The Pink Swastika, he explains the Holocaust by alleging that most senior Nazis were gay—it's thrilling. "It was really bizarre," Lively says, reminiscing about the glowing reception he received on his first tour of Russia almost a decade ago.
Mainstream American conservative groups keep their distance from Lively and his compatriots, having abandoned their support for criminalizing gay relations after the Supreme Court's 2003 decision striking down Texan sodomy laws. "There's the very conservative groups that are fighting the gay-rights agenda in this country, and then there's the farther right groups that are fighting the agenda elsewhere," says Warren Throckmorton, a professor at the evangelical Grove City College in Pennsylvania, who has written critically of the international agenda.
But even these far-right groups are hardly as fringe as, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. In his trial, Lively has enjoyed legal representation from the Liberty Counsel, a group affiliated with Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. "This lawsuit against Rev. Scott Lively is a gross attempt to use a vague international law to silence, and eventually criminalize, speech by U.S. citizens on homosexuality and moral issues," said Mathew Staver, the Liberty Counsel's founder and chairman. Right-wing sites like Accuracy in the Media and WND have published Lively's columns, and the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer has cited his work.
And Lively is hardly alone. "It's not necessarily that he's more extreme; he's just more obvious about it," says Pam Spees, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the case against Lively on behalf of a Ugandan LGBT group. At least a half-dozen American organizations specialize in international LGBT issues, defending sodomy laws abroad or advocating for the criminalization of gay advocacy. Even some domestic groups also dabble in international work. Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, the most prominent group fighting same-sex marriage in the U.S., spoke this summer to the committee in the Russian Duma responsible for the gay-propaganda law, just days after it passed the full parliament. "I think that this visit, the invitation to visit Russia, will enable the development of this movement around the world," he told the lawmakers. He came to support an anti-LGBT adoption law, which passed five days later.One of the biggest groups in this space is the Alliance Defending Freedom. From its base in Arizona, ADF says it works in 31 countries, with an annual budget of $30 million and a staff of 44 lawyers and 2,200 allied attorneys.
More-mainstream groups like the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson as a counter to the American Civil Liberties Union, have set up offices in Africa and Eastern Europe that, among other efforts, combat LGBT equality. And the Family Research Council spent $25,000 lobbying Congress "to remove sweeping and inaccurate assertions that homosexual conduct is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right" in a bipartisan resolution condemning Uganda's antigay law. FRC made it clear it does not support the law or the death penalty for gays, but in a radio message (later deleted from the website), FRC President Tony Perkins criticized President Obama's condemnation of Uganda's legislation. "Mr. President, as long as you characterize efforts to uphold moral conduct that protects others and in particular the most vulnerable, as attacking people, civility will continue to evade us," said Perkins, who did not answer requests to comment for this story.
In places where discrimination and sometimes violence against gays is not just tolerated, but celebrated, audiences have lapped up the Americans' messages, and the Americans are eager to dish it out—along with the cash raised from their congregations back home.
One hundred years ago, there were only about 10 million Christians in Africa. Today, there are 500 million.
For years, evangelical missionaries have been deeply invested in Uganda—even more so since President Yoweri Museveni declared the country to be in the service of God and the first lady started worshiping at the evangelical church run by Robert Kayanja, who compares homosexuality to murder. "Whatever you see here is the fruit of American labor," Kayanja tells Roger Ross Williams in the filmmaker's new documentary, God Loves Uganda, as they sit in a well-appointed church built with American money. (Kayanja is one of the richest men in Uganda.)
Kapya Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia, and when he started attending evangelical conferences and visiting Christian bookstores across Africa as part of his Ph.D. dissertation research, he found something surprising. "Their language sounded more like they were American, not like African Christianity," Kaoma says. "You go to Zambia, you go to Zimbabwe, you go to Uganda, Nigeria.… Wherever you go, where conservatives are winning, they're using the same talking points that are used in America."
David Bahati, the parliamentarian who authored Uganda's infamous anti-homosexuality law, told The New York Times he got the idea for the bill from conversations with members of the Fellowship—a powerful Arlington, Va.-based group that puts on the National Prayer Breakfast and owns the C Street house where several members of Congress live (the organization has since distanced itself from Bahati).
Lively has been deeply involved in Uganda as well, and an LGBT-rights group there is suing him under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign victims of human-rights abuses to seek compensation in U.S. courts. During the debate over the bill, a Ugandan tabloid outed 100 gay Ugandans, with a banner that read "HANG THEM." A few weeks after David Kato, known as "Uganda's first openly gay man," won a defamation lawsuit against the paper, he was killed in his home. Kayanja's rival, pastor Martin Ssempa, once gave the editor of a local magazine a copy of Lively's book about gay Nazis, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
Lively dismisses the suit against him as "frivolous" and the notion that he, a white American, is responsible for a Ugandan law "racist." Still, the case is moving forward; in a 79-page decision last August, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that the plaintiffs had provided "detailed factual allegations supporting" the claim that Lively "bears individual liability for aiding and abetting the commission of a crime against humanity."
Spees says she hopes the decision will set a precedent to hold others accountable. "It's not just someone going in and spouting off about their ideas and what the Bible is. It's someone who has a very clear agenda of how to strip away basic rights," she explains. "And if he was doing it domestically, he would be subject to civil claims."
American social conservatives are also heavily involved in one of the most high-profile cases in the world, defending the right of Belize's government to preserve its sodomy laws. The tiny Anglophone country carries outsize importance because both sides see it as a means to toppling laws in the rest of the Caribbean (one of the most repressive regions on the planet for LGBT people) and other former British colonies. Eighty percent of the countries in the 53 Commonwealth of Nations outlaw gay sex, and because their legal systems and criminal codes are all similar, reform in one could set a precedent elsewhere. The legal systems of tiny Caribbean nations are unusually intertwined, and 12 members of the Caribbean Community share a common court of last resort in the Caribbean Court of Justice.
"The single-biggest thing people need to understand is the link between taking down sodomy laws and same-sex marriage," says Bradley Abramson, senior counsel at the conservative ADF. "It's a doorway to same-sex marriage. If they can knock down sodomy laws, it's a very short step—inches—to same-sex marriage."
On the other side of that fight is Caleb Orozco, the founder of the main LGBT group in Belize. He's suing to overturn the sodomy laws and has faced so many threats that his lawyers worry he will be assassinated before the case can go to trial. No one else has been willing to come forward, and just a few weeks ago a gay man got beaten up at a party and had his ear bitten off. When the man went to the police station, bloodied and dazed, they laughed at him, Orozco says. "You won't see local evangelicals doing this, but it is evangelical Americans funding this stuff," he says over the phone from Belize. "They've chosen small countries with weak human-rights investment to galvanize support. They've been doing it very strategically."
WHY GO ABROAD?
In 2011, Pew surveyed more than 2,200 evangelical leaders from around the world gathered at a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, and found a wide gulf between the developed and developing world when it comes to optimism about their faith. Most leaders from the Global North said evangelicals were losing influence in their home countries—Americans were particularly bearish: 82 percent said their influence was waning—while 58 percent of leaders from the Global South said they were gaining strength, and almost three-quarters predicted they'd be even stronger in five years.
It's hardly that Americans invented homophobia in the developing world. In Nigeria, for instance, 98 percent of those surveyed by Pew disapprove of homosexuality; that figure stands at 99 percent in Kenya. Life was never easy for gay people in these places, regardless of whether the Americans had come to town.
But the Americans offer a rationale for cracking down by tapping into a deep nationalistic nerve that may not have been exposed naturally. Much of the developing world sees homosexuality as a foreign problem—a Western problem—and its legitimization as an insidious form of cultural neo-imperialism. Citizens in these countries look around and see no gay people, because laws and cultural norms keep gays hidden, so their only exposure to homosexuality is often from abroad. "Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a postcolonial plot; their homophobia is as much an expression of resistance to the West as a statement about human sexuality," Kaoma wrote in a report for Political Research Associates, a liberal Massachusetts-based group that has been at the forefront of tracking American conservatives' work on LGBT issues abroad.
It's not hard to see why they believe this. The first gay-pride event in Kenya was held at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, as the Obama administration has made the advancement of LGBT rights "central ... to the realization of our foreign policy goals," an embassy spokesman said. When Obama promoted gay rights during a visit to Senegal last year, African leaders lined up in opposition. "Those who believe in other things, that is their business. We believe in God," responded Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto. The Catholic archbishop of Nairobi said Obama should "forget and forget and forget" about decriminalizing homosexuality on the continent, scoffing at the notion that Americans should "become our teachers to tell us where to go."
The American activists working abroad play directly into these fears, coming from a place where so many institutions—the media, government, academia, Hollywood—have, as they see it, been co-opted by the homosexual agenda. "The only challenge was convincing them that that it could happen in their country," Lively says.
The threat is not that gay couples will have sex with each other and get married; it's that they'll marginalize Christianity, fundamentally disrupt the social order, and—most important—recruit your children. "European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa," President Museveni has said.
This all comes literally out of Lively's playbook. "Had it not been for that argument [about recruiting children], it was not going to come up," Kaoma says. "They're doing these laws because they want to protect their children from the international gay agenda."
LGBT advocates see these fears as especially ironic because the laws in all the Commonwealth countries, including Uganda and India, are relics of British colonial "anti-buggery" rules. "We really still need to find a way to have a conversation about basic rights that doesn't bring in all the baggage of colonialism, economic imperialism, cultural imperialism," lamented Mark Bromley, chairman of the Council for Global Equality, an LGBT group based in Washington.
That's part of the reason India's recent Supreme Court ruling that a sodomy law is constitutional was such a setback. "It's important for us in the greater dialogue to say this isn't just a North American, Western European thing," Bromley says.
THE FORMER SOVIET UNION
In Russia, Putin's proudly homophobic, hyper-masculine posture is a way to confront the West and foment nationalistic fervor. The country decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and saw some gains on smaller issues such as the legalization of blood donations from gay men and the right to change one's legal gender. But, beginning in 2006, as Russia experienced a revival of the Orthodox Church, which had been persecuted under Soviet rule, a dozen or so regions passed laws banning "propaganda" of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. The laws are often written so broadly they make it very difficult to discuss or advocate for gay rights.
Things have only gotten worse for LGBT Russians since then: Moscow's city council passed a 100-year ban against gay-pride parades in 2012; TV personality Anton Krasovsky was fired in 2013 after coming out as gay; and the parliament approved a national version of the propaganda law, which had been overwhelmingly rejected as recently as 2009. When gay Russians have tried to demonstrate in recent years, they've been subject to violence from antigay mobs and even the police, who often arrest LGBT activists and leave violent counterprotesters alone. Putin's government has encouraged the crackdown, finding that strident social conservatism is useful in uniting his base and building power internationally. "He's saying essentially that to be pro Russia is to be anti-LGBTQ, and to be pro-LGBTQ is to be pro-Western and anti-Russia," says Cole Parke, who studies LGBTQ rights in Russia for Political Research Associates.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the ongoing proxy fight between East and West in Ukraine, a country split between joining the European Union and maintaining ties with Russia. Pro-Russian activists hyped fears of the moral decay if Kiev joined the West, and as mass protests roiled the capital, ominous billboards appeared warning that "association with the EU means same-sex marriage."
The chair of the Duma's foreign affairs committee tweeted that closeness with the EU would mean "pride parades will be held instead of Victory Day parades" in the streets of Kiev. And pro-Russian demonstrators marched with banners saying, "Homosexuality is a threat to national security."
Meanwhile, in nearby Latvia, Lively joined with a local mega-church leader, a Seattle-based pastor, and a Russian-language media owner to found a group called Watchmen on the Walls, which has been active around post-Soviet Eastern Europe and believes "there is a war between Christians and homosexuals." "Putin is trying to build a nonaligned movement that can be proudly homophobic, as opposed to mildly homophobic at the U.N.," explains Bromley, nothing that Russia's veto power on the Security Council circumscribes hope for progress at the international body.
WORKING WITH ROBERT MUGABE AND OTHERS
Having been largely driven out of North America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Latin America, American social conservatives will forge alliances wherever they can, even when they admit those ties are less than ideal. From Putin to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (where the ACLJ opened an office that opposed the addition of an LGBT equality provision in a new constitution), the Americans have thrown their lot in with whoever will work with them. "At the United Nations, we find our allies where we can get them. We don't support what Islamic countries are doing to Christians, but at the same time, they support us on the marriage issue, they support us on the life issue," says Abramson of ADF.
Critics joke about a "Baptist-Burkha alliance," but it's proven to be tremendously effective in defeating international declarations to support abortion and gay rights. Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which works mostly at the U.N. and opposes the criminalization of homosexuality, even as it fights same-sex marriage, agrees. "On sexual identity, our coalition is really huge," he says, pointing to between 80 and 100 countries as allies, depending on the specific issue. The big question, Ruse added, is what China does. Beijing has largely abstained from international debates on sexual identity. It tolerates LGBT social groups domestically as long as they're not too political, but if it reverses its policy, that could change the game in a big way.
The same goes for major Christian denominations, where American conservatives often align with conservatives in Africa and elsewhere on key social-policy votes against their fellow Americans. After Gene Robinson was elected the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003, at least 30 congregations switched their allegiance to the archbishop of Kenya to avoid being associated with the U.S. church.
American social conservatives realize that associating with these countries looks bad, but they insist they "hate the sin and love the sinner," as the saying goes. "We really are not monsters," Ruse says. "We really do not want to harm anyone." Indeed, they all distanced themselves from Uganda's antigay bill when it included the death penalty. Lively, perhaps the most extreme of the bunch, calls even the life-in-prison version overly draconian and says it's his "biggest failure."
But for LGBT-rights advocates, that's not enough. Even if the U.S. conservatives don't support laws that harm gays, they say, LGBT people are being harmed in places where the Americans work. "The blood of African gays in places like Uganda and other parts of the world is on the hands of the U.S. extreme Right," Kaoma says. "When you lie to people, when you tell Ugandans that 'there is a well-financed group that is coming after your children—defend yourself against this movement,' they will take the law into their own hands and you don't know what they'll do."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Lively's court case a war-crimes trial. A gay-rights group is suing him for alleged crimes against humanity.
This article appears in the January 25, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Marriage Plot.