What FRC's exploitation of Robin Williams' death is really about

When I first heard that Peter Sprigg, the Family Research Council Senior Policy Fellow who infamously called for gay people to be "exported" from the United States and who has admitted he sees a place for criminal sanctions against "homosexual behavior," was using the sad occasion of Robin Williams' death to advocate for so-called "ex-gay" therapy, my most obvious reaction was disgust.  Not surprise, mind you, since Sprigg's past comments (more here) leave me little room for shock.  I was disgusted, nonetheless.

Here's a snippet from the FRC senior spokesman's scientifically unsound piece, for those who were lucky enough to miss it:

In the wake of Williams’ suicide, many TV commentators and friends of the late star talked about the challenges of mental illness (Williams suffered from depression), addictions — and rehab. I saw comedian Andy Dick say, “I’ve been to rehab seventeen times.”

In light of this history, I have only one question for socially liberal political activists — why aren’t you trying to outlaw rehab?

I ask the question because such activists are trying to ban a form of mental health treatment — not drug and alcohol rehabilitation, but “sexual orientation change efforts” (“SOCE”), also known as “sexual reorientation therapy.” Such therapy involves assisting people with unwanted same-sex attractions to overcome them.


Whatever the motivation, there are those who have simply made a choice to walk away from the homosexual lifestyle, without clinical help — much like how Robin Williams simply stopped using drugs and alcohol in the 1980’s. Others have sought professional help, perhaps at the urging of family members, in the form of “sexual reorientation therapy” — much like when Williams entered a formal alcohol rehab program in 2006. Whether simply through personal development, religious counseling, or with the help of a licensed or unlicensed counselor, thousands (if not millions) of people have experienced significant changes in one or more of the elements of their sexual orientation (attractions, behavior, or self-identification).

FULL: Robin Williams, Rehab, and Reorientation [FRC]

Again, disgust is an obvious reaction to a piece that is so simultaneously fallacious, hostile, and opportunistic.  But for me, since the disgust was so expected, there is something else that rose to the surface, at least in terms of the politics surrounding Sprigg's commentary.  Namely, it was the increasing way in which anti-LGBT activists, who are so obviously down on their luck in a landscape where their "wins" are now few and far between, are looking for any opportunity to capitalize on a conversation that is more prominent, newsworthy, or mainstream than their own personal crusade against basic fairness.

In this case, Sprigg knew that Williams' death was the top story going and that it would likely remain in the headlines for some time.  Also knowing that his niche and woefully lacking cause in support of "ex-gay" nonsense is one with fewer allies, more repudiation from past allies, and a growing push to outright ban the scientifically-shunned idea, Sprigg (who serves on the board of "ex-gay" organization PFOX) is in dire need for some angle—any angle—that might earn new eyeballs.  In his mind, Peter was surely thinking that some who were distraught over Williams' death and what could be seen as a failure to meet his mental health needs might stumble on his commentary and connect some previously disconnected dots.  He was hunting for mainstream credence by tacking his fringe cause onto a mainstream figure's death report.

I saw a similar thing over at the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal organization that fights against LGBT rights in most prominent court battles.  In this case, the subject was marriage equality.  In a post for ADF's main site, Eric Porteous, Director of Digital Marketing, turned to Hollywood to try to make what he must see as a sellable point about why discrimination is something the mainstream should support.  For Porteous, the inspiration came via The Giver, a new film that's getting lots of attention.  In the ADF staffer's telling, a world with same-sex marriage is one that will mimic the sad and frightening dystopia portrayed in the film.  A snippet:

No need for diversity. No need for emotion. No need for love. Just plain, passionless people whose sole purpose is to protect a community of sameness disguised as perfection. 

This is the glimpse of what such a society could look like in the movie The Giver, now playing in theaters. It’s a society that, for the sake of avoiding conflict and all that comes with it, everything is decided for you. 


It doesn’t take much to realize we are heading down this path right now as, little by little, we are forced to sacrifice our beliefs on marriage and the family all for the sake of tolerance and sameness. 


Marriage is the foundation of society. Love is the foundation of marriage, and that love is so strong it forms a family through procreation. And children deserve a stable family relationship and the diverse benefits that both a mother and a father bring. 

Without these ingredients, we can’t have a strong and healthy society. 

See the movie. Discuss it with your friends and family. But don’t just make this about awareness, for awareness only gets us stirred up enough to think about the issue. This is about supporting marriage—the foundation of society. We must do something. 


It's unbelievably wacky to use a science fiction fear-world (where one half of a set of twins is automatically euthanized at birth) as a template for a nation that simply acknowledges legal parity for same-sex couples.  But the hope here, just as in Sprigg's piece, is that the ADF might be able to reel in some new supporters by taking this new path.  In this instace, maybe they are going for science fiction lovers, young adults, or simply the mainstream moviegoer who sees the flick and starts thinking about its real life application.  But let's be clear: Porteous is looking for backers beyond the ADF's usual echo chamber.

Shades of this same approach can be found in the latest study from discredited researcher Mark Regnerus.  The man who has earned national repudiation for his clumsy and obviously politically-motivated attempt to portray same-sex parents as lacking recently came out with new "data" that claims supporting marriage equality makes people more lenient in other areas regarding sex and relationships.  Yet again, it's an obvious attempt to expand the conversation beyond the usual crowd of "culture warriors."  In this case, Regnerus and his allies (the Heritage Foundation and NOM have both been eager to push Regnerus' supposed findings) are looking to more moderate conservatives, or even non-conservatives, who might be inclined to support same-sex marriage but who are more traditional in their views on monogamy, pornography, cohabitation, etc. Much like Sprigg's efforts to exploit concerns about how Robin Williams' might have been helped or Porteous's attempts to parlay weekend moviegoing into political consciousness-raising, the crowd that's pushing Regnerus' latest "study" are looking to engage a new audience member: the kind of person who doesn't really pay much mind to the LGBT rights or marriage equality debates.  They know that speaking to the same crowd, in the same way that they have been speaking, is a recipe for their rapid demise.  They need to change their fates; they need to find new interested parties.  

But the most obvious way our opponents are making this push to expand their base is with the abortion.  For the past couple of years, several commentators and groups on the wrong side of the marriage debate have delivered ham-fisted attempts at saying the debate around abortion is just like the debate around same-sex marriage, and that a high court that comes down in support of fifty state fairness will open up a forty year debate, much like the Supreme Court did with 1973's Roe v. Wade decision.  The commentators who make this claim know that these two conversations are completely different because, well—duh.  But they also know that the choice/"life" debate is one with a larger, more diverse, and more demographically convenient audience than the marriage debate.  They know, based on polling, that there's a sizable crowd that supports marriage equality but opposes choice, and they are hoping to make inroads with this group. They know that expanding their tent is the only way forward.

None of it will work, obviously.  When a Peter Sprigg answers to the lightbulb over his head that tells him the exploitation of a beloved comedian's death will earn new respect for his junk science attempts to "convert" gay people, it's obvious the approach will turn off drastically more potential supporters than it will recruit.  When a staff member of America's biggest anti-LGBT legal outfit turns to a Hunger Games-like world for inspiration of what an equality-supportive America will resemble, you can be sure that many more will ask "Huh?!" than will offer an enthusiastic "Heck yeah!"  When activists look to connect loving marriages and families to things that they find unseemly or causes that they find more righteous, it's likely that even ardent opponents of things like pornography or adultery are going to have to wonder how, exactly, opposing Joe and Bob's commitment and civil recognition thereof is going to stop on-screen sex work or philandering businessmen.  And with the abortion point, it is certainly true that even staunch conservatives have come out against that clumsy attempt to link wholly unrelated debates.   

I would argue that in all of these instances, the anti-LGBT crowd only makes itself look more desperate.  We know that those who oppose our rights rarely like to debate the causes at hand, instead raising ego-centric fear-points that turn themselves and their supporters into the supposed "victims;" the concrete issues on the table, from basic nondiscrimination laws to equal marriages, into weaponized assaults; and the activists who oppose their discrimination into monstrous caricatures who are really against society itself.  Nowadays, however, our opponents are going so far afield the matters at hand that I have to believe even their onetime supporters are tiring of the charade.  Because regardless of your stances, you do have to wonder why, if their causes are so pure and their arguments are so sound, those who lead the charges against LGBT rights have to try so damn hard to sell the narratives.