From the March 2017 issue

Family Values

Mapping the spread of antigay ideology

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Coming to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, always feels like traveling through time. The city can be spectacular, with its winding streets and mountains all around. But as soon as the sun disappears what begins to stand out is how dilapidated it is. In the past quarter century Tbilisi has endured the collapse of the Soviet Union, a civil war, and a revolution. What remains is a maze of broken sidewalks, haphazard residential structures that were probably conceived as temporary, and clotheslines that stretch between them: children’s clothes and men’s pants, and giant duvet covers, all of which have been laundered too many times.

A torn flag on the ground at a gay-rights demonstration in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2, 2013 © Roma Yandolin/Getty Images

A torn flag on the ground at a gay-rights demonstration in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2, 2013 © Roma Yandolin/Getty Images

At the heart of the city sits the Tbilisi Concert Hall, a 2,200-seat circular building with an air of faded modernist glory. Backstage, a giant collage of black-and-white photographs from the first rock festival ussr 1980, the title written in English in hand-cut letters. Downstairs is an American-style diner called Elvis, closed, perhaps to make way for the event taking place in the hall: the tenth World Congress of Families. The conference brings together delegates from more than fifty countries, all of whom are committed to the “defense of family, faith, and freedom.”

Their essential narrative is that the family — the “natural family,” that is, one that consists of one man and one woman and their biological children, the foundation of human civilization — is under attack from a trinity of threats: same-sex marriage, “gender ideology,” meaning the very idea that gender is a social construct, and contraception and abortion. All three are part of the “culture of death.” W.C.F. represents the “culture of life.”

A few minutes before the congress is scheduled to start, V.I.P.’s wearing laminated red badges are milling around near the stage. An extremely tall Orthodox priest is holding court in American English. This is Father Josiah Trenham from Riverside, California, the founder and director of Patristic Nectar Publications and a tireless campaigner against what he calls “L.G.B.T. ideology,” which is shorthand for acceptance of same-sex relationships. He is chatting with a burly blond man from Washington, D.C. This is Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage and a father of eight, with a ninth on the way. N.O.M. is at work on a campaign against civil-union legislation in Bermuda.

This is another kind of time travel, but I do not realize that yet. I am here under the terms of a negotiated experiment in open-mindedness. I am queer, Jewish, anti-Putin, and a critic of marriage as an institution. I have emigrated from Russia to the United States twice, first to escape Soviet anti-Semitism and then to flee the Kremlin’s antigay policies. Right-wing family-values advocates have cited me by name as a representative of the enemy, indeed as someone who has personally set out to destroy the natural family.

It is May 2016. Virtually no one has heard the term “alt-right” and few people believe that Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee for president, win the election, and appoint a Cabinet of homophobes, racists, and antigovernment activists. At this gathering the news from the West is bad: next to me, Allan Carlson, the founder of W.C.F., is commiserating with the ultraconservative British barrister Paul Diamond about advances in transgender rights in America and the United Kingdom. The Americans, Brits, and Western Europeans in attendance are people living under siege. They’ve come to Georgia to rest their souls.

The Russians, Georgians, and Poles, on the other hand, exude confidence. Poland has successfully restricted access to abortion and has purged the word “gender” from its schools, and Russia and Georgia are winning their wars against queers. Levan Vasadze, the wealthy Georgian businessman who brought this year’s W.C.F. to Tbilisi, is a former rugby player. Alexey Komov, a Russian who represents W.C.F. at the United Nations, has the air of pampered health that usually comes only with money. Father Josiah does not wait for Komov to approach him but leaps up enthusiastically to greet Komov himself.

Komov is the first to recognize me. “Well, hello,” he says in Russian, sounding half-amused and half-angry. He is not happy to see me.

A few minutes later, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan Bishop of Abkhazia and Bichvinta, His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II — the leader, in other words, of the 3 million Orthodox believers of Georgia — arrives. The hall, filled to capacity with W.C.F., including more than a thousand Georgians, comes to order as the patriarch delivers his greeting. “The family is the cornerstone of the prosperity of the state, of the strength of the state,” he says, leaning his tiny body on a very large gold-tipped walking stick. Five minutes later he’s finished and gone, as are most of the locals.

Larry Jacobs, the managing director of W.C.F., speaks next. He has been running around backstage for two hours, and it shows. The jacket of his baggy double-breasted suit is unbuttoned, his oversize red shirt has come untucked, and his tie, a darker shade of red, hangs too long. He references G. K. Chesterton on the family: “The only place where the good man can survive a bad government.” Jacobs is the one who made the controversial decision to let me in and even grant me a V.I.P. badge. There are Russian television correspondents, local Georgian reporters, and alt-right American bloggers here, but I am a representative of the ruling Western liberal establishment, and I can tell that Jacobs is flattered by my interest. There is something undeniably seductive about the civility with which he can open up this gathering for me. It’s as though the war is over and we are learning to live side by side.

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is the author, most recently, of The Future Is History (Riverhead), which will be published in the fall. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Northern Exposure,” appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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