My Photo
Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Erasing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth

"If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?" asks the old conundrum. A more recent take on that question might well be: If a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth downs a handful of sleeping pills, puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, slashes a jagged wound across her wrist with a razor or is found hanging lifeless from a rope attached to a ceiling beam in the garage, does it really matter?

Unlike the question about trees and sound that can be argued and debated and lead to still more debates on the nature of sound, the question about GLBT youth suicide has a definite answer. According to the Bush Administration, the answer is "no, it doesn't matter."

On Feb. 28, a program on suicide prevention is planned in Portland, Ore. The event is organized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of Newton, Mass., a contractor with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is funding the conference. So far, so good. Few could argue that preventing suicide is a bad thing.

But among the programs being offered at the conference is one titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals." Ah, there's the rub ... for SAMHSA decreed, according to the Feb. 16 edition of The Washington Post ( that the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," and "transgender" couldn't be used. Instead they insisted that the title of the talk be changed to "Suicide Prevention and Sexual Orientation" in order that the talk be made more "inclusive." Along with the request was an only slightly veiled threat that future federal funding for the group could be in jeopardy if they failed to comply.

Program organizers fumed that this was not the purpose of the talk. We all have a sexual orientation, they explained, but this talk was about young people with a specific sexual orientation and with specific needs when it came to ways of preventing suicide among the group. Studies have shown that young GLBT people take their own lives at a triple the rate of their straight counterparts. They are also seven times more likely to seriously contemplate suicide when faced with society's prejudice, bias and rejection.

Finally a compromise of sorts was reached. The title would be changed to "Suicide Prevent in Vulnerable Populations," thus watering down the subject matter to the point of meaninglessness and protecting the unsuspecting public of coming across words like "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," and "transgender."

Fortunately, as word leaked out about the dictates of SAMHSA and the Bush Administration, an outcry arose and the agency was besieged with angry phone calls and e-mails. "It is incredible, the venom from these people," said Mark Weber, a spokesman for SAMHSA quoted in the Post's story. "My boss is being called a Nazi," he added, referring to SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, Bush's appointee to run the $3.2 billion agency.

(I won't even comment on that beyond saying: If the jackboots and swastika armband fit, wear 'em!)

After a couple of days of angry e-mails and phone calls - including several directly to Curie from openly gay Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank - the agency relented and Curie was forced to admit "there is no policy on the use of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" ( the program title was allowed to use the previous restricted words.

Congressman Frank and all those who held the administration's feet to the fire over the issue should be commended. It's clear the Bush administration is no friend to the GLBT community. It's policies run from the outright homophobic - as when they stir up their base of alleged "Christian" supporters with anti-gay rhetoric - to a policy of benign neglect - as when they try to make GLBT people invisible by erasing any reference to them as they tried to do at the suicide prevention conference.

The next four years under Bush and his minions in the "religious Reich" will not be easy ones for the GLBT community. But they remind us that we must remain vigilant and ready to challenge them at every turn.

As tempting as it may be to bury our heads in the sand and hope America comes to its senses in 2008, it's never been more important that we make our voices heard now.