A federal agency’s efforts to remove the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender” from the program of a federally funded conference on suicide prevention have inspired scores of experts in mental health to flood the agency with angry e-mails.
“It is incredible, the venom from these people,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is funding the conference and told presenters they should remove the words from the title of a talk.
“My boss is being called a Nazi,” Weber said, referring to SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, whom President Bush appointed in 2001 to run the $3.2 billion agency.
At issue is a conference on suicide prevention to be held Feb. 28 in Portland, Ore., and organized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of Newton, Mass., a SAMHSA contractor. On the program is a talk that, until recently, was titled “Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals.”
Everyone seems to agree the topic is important. Studies have found that the suicide risk among people in these groups is two to three times higher than the average risk.
So it came as a surprise to Ron Bloodworth — a former coordinator of youth suicide prevention for Oregon and one of three specialists leading the session — when word came down from SAMHSA project manager Brenda Bruun that they should omit the four words that described, precisely, what the session was about.
Bloodworth was told it would be acceptable to use the term “sexual orientation.” But that did not make sense to him. “Everyone has a sexual orientation,” he said in an interview yesterday. “But this was about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.”
Moreover, he noted, transgender people differ from others in terms of sexual identity, not sexual orientation.
“Unless you use an accurate term, the people you are trying to reach don’t recognize themselves and don’t attend,” he said, adding that the agency told him he should not use “gender identity.”
I understand the need for sensitivity and precision. But I doubt that “sexual orientation” — which, for all practical purposes, seems to be a sufficient term — would marginalize the constituents as much as the activists claim. I also doubt that it would significantly undercut the mission of the conference. For instance, I can’t imagine that interested transgender people would forgo attendance simply because “orientation,” not “identity,” is on the program. They, I suspect, would naturally assume that their issues are part of the agenda.
If the agency spokesman is telling the truth, and activists have branded the administrator “a Nazi” based on this proposed change, then they’ve clearly gone too far. Nothing in this episode warrants such accusations. Moreover, it seems rather paranoid to believe that the White House has much interest in the title of a relatively obscure bureaucratic event. I know that, with the Federal Marriage Amendment, George W. Bush hasn’t exactly made himself the champion of the gay community, but I question whether he even knows about the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.