Back in the closet, no matter whom it hurts

Last week, several workshop coordinators who will participate in a suicide prevention conference at Portland State on Feb. 28 sent out a "Statement of Concern and Protest" in an e-mail that was forwarded chain-letter style to mental health professionals, educators and anyone whom they felt "needs to read it."

Apparently, someone in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal organization funding the conference, objects to the terms "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender," and the phrase "gender identity" which appeared in the workshop description, though it’s unclear exactly who that person is.

The participants’ concern expressed in the e-mail involves a federally coerced rewording of one of the workshops to be presented during the conference, originally titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender [GLBT] Individuals."

It’s unclear what happened or why, though as the co-presenters noted in a second communiqu퀌�, "The facts are still clear: ‘GLBT’ is not in [the] workshop title, and this was not our idea. ‘Gender identity’ is mentioned nowhere, and this was not our idea. No matter what the spin or the reason … something’s not right here."

The story begins when SAMHSA project manager Brenda Bruun contacted Ron Bloodworth, a co-presenter of the workshop and one of the originators of the statement, to give feedback on the workshop titles and descriptors. She made clear to him that unless these words were omitted the Bush-appointed SAMHSA administrator Charles G. Curie would not be attending the conference.

After the statement was sent out, Curie and SAMHSA received countless emails from angry people concerned about the organization using its financial clout in this heavy-handed manner.

That the debate about this issue has degenerated into a childish "did not/did too" argument – complete with finger-pointing and countless contradictions – is disturbing not only because of the apparent inability of anyone in these federal organizations to take responsibility but also because the effectiveness of their stonewalling and spin has obscured the tragic way the victims in this fatal issue (suicide among GLBT, especially youth) have been muzzled once again.

Lloyd Potter, director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) and one of the conference organizers, issued a response statement conveying his view that the conflict is the result of a misunderstanding between him and Bloodworth, and that SAMHSA suggested the changes because the organization "consistently uses the term sexual orientation when referring to GLBT issues."

Note that Potter is taking responsibility for this misunderstanding … so did he convey SAMHSA’s message to Bloodworth or did Brenda Bruun?

Regardless of the contradiction, this, the consistent use of the term sexual orientation, is the argument many SAMHSA people use to explain what happened, but interestingly enough, Potter uses the phrase GLBT in his statement, negating his argument.

In addition, it might be difficult for Potter to explain how the part of the SAMHSA website dealing with these issues repeatedly uses all of the aforementioned designations as well, with the exception of the phrase "gender identity." They use the phrase "sexual identity" which is distinct but similar, in light of this alleged terminology policy.

In a Feb. 16 article by Rick Weiss of The Washington Post, an anonymous Health and Human Services official (HHS-SAMHSA is a division of this federal department) revealed this excuse to be a blatant lie, denying that there is any policy against using the terms in question at federally funded venues.

The reason Mark Weber, a spokesperson and public affairs official for SAMHSA gave in same Washington Post article for the suggested removal of the designations is that the term "sexual orientation" is more "inclusive." Mark Weber could not be reached by press time for comment.

Weber seems to be either ignorant or ignoring individuals for whom the issue is not about their sexual but their gender identity. The issue at hand for many people is not who they are attracted to, but how they identify in a society that insists on preserving the binary gender system; where babies who have genitalia that doesn’t fit into the binary are altered before they even have a chance to begin forming an identity.

Weber’s argument is transparent spin, unsurprisingly given his position as Director of the Office of Communications at SAMHSA (read: public relations). Ironically, Weber’s advice to concerned citizens who emailed the department was "consider the source" of the "false, misleading and hateful information," claiming that they were enacting a "concerted effort … to spread malicious and deceitful information."

Well, taking that advice, it’s easy to see that Weber and the other officials are attempting to backtrack and cast doubt on the integrity of the workshop presenters who were originally concerned with what appears to be a sick and ironic attempt to hide-or metaphorically put back into the closet-a group of people who already experience significant oppression.

The reaction of these government agencies demonstrates the xenophobia and ignorance inherent to this administration’s approach to people and things it doesn’t understand, as well as the effectiveness of the bureaucracy to operate with impunity.

Regardless of who did or said what and why, the effect of these events is the same.

As Bloodworth noted in The Washington Post, "Unless you use an accurate term, the people you are trying to reach don’t recognize themselves and don’t attend."

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected]