On January 21, a website containing information about substance abuse and mental health issues among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people was pulled from the larger Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website. SAMHSA took down the site only eleven days after the far right organization, the Family Research Council (FRC), launched a campaign against it.
On January 11, a portion of FRC president Tony Perkins' “Washington Update” email alert was devoted to attacking the SAMHSA website. Perkins dismissed “stigma, alienation, and discrimination” as reasons why LGBT people might have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems and instead warned that “homosexual conduct is itself a significant health risk.”1 He then encouraged his supporters to email an administrator at SAMHSA with complaints about the website.
Two weeks later, just days after the SAMHSA website had been removed, Perkins issued a second email alert notifying his supporters that the website was down and directing them to his personal letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael Leavitt. In his letter to HHS, the parent agency of SAMHSA, Perkins thanked the Secretary for removing the website.2
SIECUS has been working with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and other health and civil rights advocacy groups to bolster official resistance to the removal of the website, which offered information critical to the health and well-being of many LGBT people and families. The website addressed the issues that studies show put LGBT people at higher risk for substance abuse and mental health problems, including isolation, violence from family and peers, and stigmatization. It advised that “counselors and service providers need to be sensitive to the issues faced by the LGBT population, and treatment facilities need to accept them without discrimination, without denying their sexuality and without attempts to ‘cure' their sexual preference.”3
Officials from HHS have offered a number of explanations for the website's removal, but spokespeople for the agency have continuously rejected the assertion that the site was taken down at the specific request of the FRC. They have instead called the timing a coincidence and argued that it was out of date and “not appropriate within the context of our mission.”4 One SAMHSA administrator declared that he was not even aware of the site's existence despite the fact that it had be up for six years.5
After hearing about the website's removal through PFLAG constituents, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) took on this issue. The Congresswoman quickly alerted her colleagues and sent a letter, signed by 54 other House members, to HHS secretary Michael Leavitt asking the website be reinstated with medically accurate information. Baldwin also released a press 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.”6
PFLAG executive director Jody Huckaby said, “this shouldn't be about politics or fringe ideology. It should be about the responsibility of the government to provide complete, accurate and accessible health information that serves all Americans effectively, including our GLBT loved ones.” He continued, “HHS has removed basic health information on one site at the demands of an extremist group, and has completely omitted all content about GLBT youth on another. This is outrageous and unacceptable. We're proud of Rep. Baldwin's call to action on this matter of basic fairness.”7
This censorship is at least the second recent example of right wing organizations influencing the content of health information on HHS websites. Last July, the department launched its 4parents.gov site to much criticism by public health professionals who were concerned by its inaccurate information about condoms, single-parent families, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, as well as its lack of resources for LGBT youth or families.8 The site, intended to help parents talk to their kids about sex, was developed with the exclusive input of the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, a conservative group known for promoting an erroneous link between abortion and breast cancer.9 SIECUS led efforts to remove the inadequate 4parents.gov website and, although the site remains up, some of the more egregious language has been changed.
- Tony Perkins, “Celebrating Gay Pride at HHS,” Email alert published on 11 January 2006.
- Tony Perkins, FRC President Tony Perkins's Letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt (27 January 2006), accessed 28 March 2006, <www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=LH06A15&f=WA06A76>.
- Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Issues , SAMHSA (2004), accessed 11 January 2006, <www.health.org/features/lgbt/substance.aspx>.
- Shawn Zeller, “Colorful Messages: Government Contractor Takes a Few Liberties,” Congressional Quarterly, 3 February 2006.
- Stefen Styrsky, “Fed. Gay Health Web Site Shuttered,” Gay City News, 16 March 2006, accessed 22 March 2006, <www.gaycitynews.com/gcn_511/fedgayhealthwebsite.html>.
- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), “PFLAG Wants Answers for Anti-GLBT Actions at Health and Human Services; Praises Baldwin for Swift Call to Action,” press release published 23 February 2006.