The seminar in the February 28 Portland, Oregon, suicide prevention conference was to be called “Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals.” That is until officials within the federal sponsoring agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), indicated that the words “gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender” could not be used in the conference’s program if organizers wanted the SAMHSA administrator, Charles Curie, to attend.
For a few days, the new title was “Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations.” SAMSHA finally relented under pressure from two gay Democratic members of Congress, Barney Frank, from Massachusetts, and Tammy Baldwin, from Wisconsin, and negative news reports. The original title was reinstated. Curie stated there was no policy against gays and lesbians at SAMHSA, and attended the conference.
But given similar events within the Bush administration, when the very mention of gays and lesbians has brought executive censure, some gay activists see the suicide conference incident as indicative of a trend to push gays and lesbians out of the federal government, and increase the role of faith-based programs.
“This is not an isolated case,” said David Smith, vice president for policy and strategy at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy group. “There have been attempts to defund National Institute of Health grants dealing with sexual health and the transmissions of STDs.”
Smith referred to the $4 million decrease the Centers for Disease Control saw in its budget this year for HIV/AIDS prevention, while abstinence-only programs, endorsed by Pres. George W. Bush, received an additional $38 million.
The flap over the suicide prevention conference echoes a sudden decision by DHHS in October 2002 to withdraw funding for a lesbian health conference sponsored by the Mautner Project, the nation’s leading lesbian health advocacy group, despite having funded a national lesbian health conference the previous year.
According to Kathleen DeBold, Mautner’s executive director, officials within DHHS told her that support was withdrawn simply because the seminar focused on lesbians: “I was told that the conference did not fit with the plans of the secretary [at the time, Tommy Thompson].”
This January, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings demanded the refund of her department’s money from the Public Broadcasting System for the show “Postcards from Buster” because a single episode briefly introduced two children and their lesbian mothers.
“Congress and the [education] department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television,” Spellings wrote to the PBS president.
At the same time, PBS decided not to distribute the episode to its 349 affiliates. A week later the Department of Education canceled an invitation to the show’s executive producer, Carol Greenwald, to speak at a children’s television conference in Baltimore.