On January 21, a Web site with information about LGBT health run by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) was abruptly taken down by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. Critics say the action was taken because of complaints about the site that DHHS received from the conservative Family Research Council.
Last week, U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin, an out lesbian Wisconsin Democrat, sent a letter to Michael Leavitt, the federal health secretary, asking for an explanation.
“We are deeply concerned not only about the loss of an important public health information resource but also by indications that the department may have taken down the Web site in response to a campaign by conservative fringe groups attacking the Web site’s existence,” Baldwin wrote. The letter was signed by 54 other Democratic representatives.
Baldwin also released a statement saying, “It is outrageous that an organization with a long track record of attacks on the LGBT community can successfully pressure a government agency to stop providing preventative health care to LGBT Americans.”
Marc Weber, a DHHS spokesman, said the controversy is all the result of coincidence, not deliberate action by his agency taken at anyone’s behest.
“That site has been on a shutdown list for two years,” Weber said. “It was out of date, not maintained, and contained information that went way beyond the scope of the agency. It was one of 100 Web sites taken down recently.”
According to Weber, two years ago DHHS awarded SAMHSA’s Web maintenance to a new contractor, and intended to shut down several sites, of which the gay site was one. However, the incumbent contractor sued the agency to maintain its position, and the litigation prevented any movement on the department’s plan. Weber said the agency finally decided just to have done with it all in November, and finished the shutdown process in January.
“It’s a little more complicated than it appears to be,” Weber said.
However, Weber did admit that the site was the subject of repeated protests by the Family Research Council, which urged its members to express their disapproval to DHHS. He also said he was not personally aware that the site contained information considered beyond SAMHSA’s scope until notified by the Family Research Council.
“It was a gay pride site and contained things like a test to see if you’re homophobic,” Weber said. “These are not related to substance abuse and should not be supported by the taxpayer”’
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote a letter to Leavitt in early January, complaining of the site’s “politically charged language, such as condemnations of so-called ‘homophobia,’ ‘heterosexism,’ and ‘sexual prejudice.’”
Eleven days later the site came down.
In a follow-up letter sent to Leavitt on January 27, Perkins thanked Leavitt for his swift action.
When called for comment, a spokesman at the Family Research Council only offered the letters written by Perkins posted on that group’s Web site.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was the first organization to alert Baldwin to the site’s outage. PFLAG had a link to its homepage on the government site.
“We are extremely frustrated that what happened at DHHS is yet another example of the administration’s gross lack of understanding about and appreciation for the needs of our GLBT loved ones,” Jody Huckaby, PFLAG’s executive director. “Worse, it signals a willful disregard for ever understanding, and that our government prefers GLBT people and issues be rendered invisible.”
The site’s particular appeal to LGBT people, what made Weber consider it nothing more than a politically-charged gay pride website, was exactly in line with SAMHSA’s mission, said Huckaby in an interview.
“All the government’s health Web sites are tailored to specific populations attempt to appeal to them in very specific ways,” he said. “It is incumbent for them to consider and address all potential factors that contribute to substance abuse. It’s well documented that homophobia is a contributor to substance abuse by LGBT people.”
Huckaby said the six-year-old Web site’s removal after complaints from the Family Research Council was too much of a coincidence not to be related.
According to Huckaby, DHHS has not responded to PFLAG’s requests for an explanation as to why the Web site was taken down.
This is at least the second time that the content of a health Web site run by the federal government has apparently been influenced by conservative organizations.
Last July, the Bush administration’s 4Parents.gov site, developed to help parents talk to their kids about sexual and mental health, came under fire from several pediatricians and other health professionals for containing inaccurate information about condoms, sexual orientation, and single-parent families, and for emphasizing abstinence only sex education.
The site had been developed by the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, a group known for promoting a study by board member Joel Brind that demonstrates a link between abortion and breast cancer, a conclusion rejected by the mainstream medical community.
With assistance from organizations such as PFLAG, the site was redesigned. Words such as gay and lesbian replaced “homosexual lifestyle” and information was posted on how parents might broach the issue of their child’s sexual orientation with their children.
However, the site was later again redesigned with none of these changes, and almost all gay references deleted. In the section on HIV, the words gay and same-sex are not mentioned.
“If the purpose of such Web sites is to provide information to the public it should be scientifically accurate and useful. This was completely irresponsible,” Huckaby said.