Mar. 3, 2006 – Last month, the leadership of the Family Research Council announced a political victory: They had mobilized members to write complaints to the Department of Health and Human Services over a webpage that promoted what they viewed as destructive behavior and "biased" viewpoints. Within two weeks, the material in question had silently vanished from the site.
But the public reaction was not so quiet.
A victory for the Family Research Council (FRC), which says non-heterosexual people pose a threat to Judeo-Christian family values, looked very different to advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The content that had riled the FRC was health information about substance abuse posted to a federal government webpage dedicated to LGBT individuals.
Activists with the group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) say the real bias at play is not on the webpage, but in the FRCâ€™s drive to squelch it, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrationâ€™s (SAMHSA) apparent willingness to comply.
Turning the rhetoric of the Christian Right back on itself, PFLAG Executive Director Jody Huckaby called the FRC "another radical extremist group, making demands on the government to do things according to their theocratic ways."
"By taking information off the website," Huckaby added, "itâ€™s not going to make our [LGBT] loved ones go away. And what a lot of these groups want to see happen is have us disappear."
Activists say the real bias at play is not on the webpage, but in a conservative group's drive to squelch it, and the government's apparent willingness to comply.
Though the webpage maligned by the FRC has disappeared from its original site, the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information, archived materials obtained by PFLAG and reviewed by The NewStandard show its former contents.
Organized into topics such as "Homophobia & Heterosexism," "Social Support & Violence Prevention" and "Youth and Suicide," the page offered health information as well as links to medical resources and support groups on the web. The aim of the page, according to its mission statement, was to "increase knowledge, awareness and sensitivity to the unique issues facing the LGBT populations related to substance-abuse prevention and treatment."
The page also discussed risk factors contributing to suicide and sexually transmitted diseases among LGBT individuals, safer-sex practices, and the psychological impact of discrimination. One section provided parents with advice on how to cope with their teenâ€™s sexual identity. Under a rainbow flag emblem appeared the tagline: "Celebrating the Pride and Diversity Among and Within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Populations."
Health and Human Services says the gay-pride-oriented theme of the webpage was inappropriate for its information clearinghouse.
In a January statement to its members, the FRC expressed outrage that the site presented LGBT health information in a non-judgmental manner, "rather than warning that homosexual conduct is itself a significant health risk." The group denounced the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which runs SAMHSA, for including links to support groups like PFLAG "while ignoring groups with a different perspective, such as Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays," referring to an organization that seeks to "reform" LGBT people into heterosexuals.
The FRC urged members on January 11 to "let HHS know that you don't want this kind of propaganda being supported by your tax dollars," and provided the e-mail address of a SAMHSA official. About eleven days later, the page was gone.
Though the Department claims the decision to remove the site was part of a routine website maintenance process, a January 27 letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt from FRC President Tony Perkins, published on the FRC website, boasts that the page was removed immediately after the group lobbied HHS both privately and through its e-mail campaign. Perkins thanked Leavitt and the HHS staff "for responding to the concerns raised by the Family Research Council and [its] constituents.
Suspecting that the FRC catalyzed the removal of the webpage, PFLAG denounced HHSâ€™s posture toward LGBT issues. "It greatly troubles us that the government would respond to this kind of group," Huckaby told TNS, "completely leaving out the important health information that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people need."
PFLAG takes the webpage controversy as disturbing evidence of the Christian Rightâ€™s expanding reach within the federal bureaucracy.
PFLAG is not the only party claiming discrimination. The debate over the pageâ€™s disappearance intensified when FRC members reported receiving antagonistic e-mails from an HHS-contracted employee in response to the conservative criticisms. The e-mails, published on the FRC website, are purportedly from an HHS employee but bear only the generic HHS address, "firstname.lastname@example.org."
The messages contain comments like: "Last time I checked this was the United States with a Constitution and amendments as well. Or am I mistaken? Just wondering." The mystery e-mailer told some FRC activists that their complaints would be exposed to the workplaces indicated by the domain names in their e-mail addresses.
Perkinsâ€™ letter to Leavitt demanded "immediate disciplinary action for this unprofessional conduct." And on February 2, Perkins reported to members that again, HHS had responded swiftly to FRCâ€™s complaints, notifying the group that the employee had been terminated.
SAMHSA spokesperson Mark Weber confirmed to TNS that HHS took action against the contractor of the employee who had "attacked and threatened" the FRC members. As for the website itself, Weber said that the site had been removed primarily because "it was old and not being maintained," but also because the gay-pride-oriented theme was inappropriate for SAMHSAâ€™s clearinghouse.
Weber said that the deleted page "had very little to do with basic health information or about providing substance abuse or mental health services." But the archived version displays LGBT-specific data and research that parallels information on similar SAMHSA pages dedicated to Native Americans, Hispanics and other demographic groups.
In a February 6 CQ Weekly article, Weber was quoted as saying that while SAMHSAâ€™s site had hosted the webpage for over five years, it was only after the FRCâ€™s actions that the agency fully realized "it was an LGBT pride site, and that goes beyond the scope of what [SAMHSAâ€™s] mission is."
But activists within the LGBT community see questions of acceptance and identity as intertwined with health issues.
Seattle PFLAG activist Barbara Clark-Elliott said the governmentâ€™s handling of LGBT issues has offended her on several levels, as the mother of a bisexual 26-year old son and a 30-year former employee of HHS. She was "incensed" by the Departmentâ€™s move, she said, because as a public-information resource, the government has a duty to help people navigate a sea of potentially misleading or politically skewed media.
In Clark-Elliotâ€™s experience as a parent and advocate, she said, individuals and family members confused about LGBT issues often seek information on the Internet because "they can do it without telling anybody." But she recalled that when doing her own research, she has encountered conservative websites that urge family members to ostracize or "convert" their gay relatives. When faced with such circumstances, she said, families "need some place to say, â€˜Now, hereâ€™s the real stuff. Hereâ€™s the honest stuff.â€™"
Whatever the governmentâ€™s main motive was in purging the webpage, both sides read politics out of the move.
In a statement following the e-mail altercation with the HHS employee, Perkins commended the Departmentâ€™s disciplinary action but still expressed disappointment with what the FRC saw as the agencyâ€™s promotion of "the unhealthy homosexual lifestyle." The entire incident, he wrote, revealed that "even under a friendly, pro-family administration, the bureaucracy can run amok."
But PFLAG takes the webpage controversy as disturbing evidence of the Christian Rightâ€™s expanding reach within the federal bureaucracy, and the group is now leading its own campaign to counter the FRCâ€™s. In partnership with Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), PFLAG has mobilized its national membership to demand that HHS fully explain its actions in the matter.
More broadly, PFLAGâ€™s campaign argues that systemic discrimination mars the Departmentâ€™s public outreach, leading to the further marginalization of the LGBT community. The group also decried the lack of LGBT-specific information on 4parents.gov, a website designed to help parents initiate open discussions with children about sexuality. In the siteâ€™s extensive guidelines for starting sex-related conversations â€“which include exhortations like, "Your teen son or daughter needs to know why you do not want them to have sex now" â€“ there is no mention of queer relationships.
If such information is completely absent from a sex-education website, Huckaby questioned: "What message does it send? â€˜My familyâ€™s different, my familyâ€™s not as important, my gay child is not relevant.â€™ It sends very harmful messages for parents who are trying to deal with these issues."
When a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender personâ€™s quest for objective government health information leads only to a blank page, he warned, "it sends the message that youâ€™re not important, and quite frankly, maybe you shouldnâ€™t exist."