MY involvement with the World Congress of Families conference in Melbourne started to get weird when its organiser called me at home at 9pm on a Tuesday night to tell me I was the only journalist she could trust.

We’d had email contact before that when I applied for a media pass for the conference, but this was the first time I had actually spoken to Babette Francis, the diminutive but formidable woman organising the whole affair.

She told me the media had turned against the WCF and asked if I had a science background — I don’t — because she wanted to send me something explaining the work of Dr Angela Lanfranchi on the debunked link between abortion and breast cancer. It would apparently convince the Star Observer to publish “a small item” on the subject.

I suggested it probably wasn’t going to be relevant enough to our readers to publish anything, but Francis countered by saying the study was of supreme relevance to lesbians, who have (she claimed) a higher body mass index and are therefore also at greater risk of cancer.

I held my tongue.

Of course, to Francis’ ire, we didn’t run the story.

Although I didn’t have much to do with her again before the conference, the incident left me unsettled. As Australian media continued to damn the WCF, I worried Francis’ misplaced trust in me was evidence I’d become compromised.

It didn’t help when, on the Saturday, I was booed by protesters as I passed through the imposing line of police to enter the conference venue at Catch the Fire Ministries. Keen to correct their assumption that I was a delegate, once I’d registered I came back outside to introduce myself as a journalist.

I mingled a little with the protesters throughout the day, but for the most part I sat up the back of the conference room, tweeting as those paying any attention applauded my apparent bravery for reporting from inside the lion’s den.

Speaker after speaker got up on stage to celebrate the “natural family”, couching anti-gay and anti-women rhetoric in crazy but watertight logic. Almost every speaker addressed the media storm and the protesters outside the building.

Francis’ role on the day was something between guest of honour and crazy uncle. Sitting in the middle of the front row she would interrupt the emcee about once an hour to throw in her two cents on the previous speaker.

In the breaks I spoke to a few conference delegates. One man had travelled to the event from Sydney, and when he learned I was a reporter he grilled me for some explanation of the media’s response to the event. Seeming genuinely exasperated, he didn’t understand why journalists were evidently ignoring “the facts” about, for example, the link between breast cancer and abortion.

A woman from the anti-gay group Salt Shakers smiled as she explained the two protesters who’d staged a demonstration inside the conference had thought they’d got them past security by dressing like stereotypes of conservative Christians.

In spite of the occasional oddity the experience was remarkably banal.

I tried to explain this to people afterwards — these are not the fire and brimstone preachers of the Westboro Baptist Church, they are lobbyists and bureaucrats. Like the protesters outside, like anyone with conviction, a lot of thought goes into their arguments.

I don’t say this to excuse them — clearly their beliefs are both abhorrent and damaging — but I find it hard to believe the storm of outrage surrounding the event will change anything. When we cast these people as somehow fundamentally evil, we write them off.

Babette Francis makes it easy to hate the WCF. She’s eccentric, abrasive and easy to dislike. But for the most part these aren’t monsters, it’s far worse than that: they’re people.

At the end of the day I worried I should have felt worse about the experience. I was exhausted, but on some level reporting on the WCF hadn’t felt much different from reporting on any conference. I wanted to be angry, even disgusted, but I wasn’t.

I’m glad I went. I think the WCF is a vile organisation actively making the world a worse place. They stand against everything I believe in. But I also think it’s important to understand exactly what we’re criticising here: ordinary people fighting for what they believe.

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