A federal agency's efforts to remove the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender" from the program of a federally funded conference on suicide prevention have inspired scores of experts in mental health to flood the agency with angry e-mails.
"It is incredible, the venom from these people," said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is funding the conference and told presenters they should remove the words from the title of a talk.
"My boss is being called a Nazi," Weber said, referring to SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, whom President Bush appointed in 2001 to run the $3.2 billion agency.
At issue is a conference on suicide prevention to be held Feb. 28 in Portland, Ore., and organized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of Newton, Mass., a SAMHSA contractor. On the program is a talk that, until recently, was titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals."
Everyone seems to agree the topic is important. Studies have found that the suicide risk among people in these groups is two to three times higher than the average risk.
So it came as a surprise to Ron Bloodworth -- a former coordinator of youth suicide prevention for Oregon and one of three specialists leading the session -- when word came down from SAMHSA project manager Brenda Bruun that they should omit the four words that described, precisely, what the session was about.
Bloodworth was told it would be acceptable to use the term "sexual orientation." But that did not make sense to him. "Everyone has a sexual orientation," he said in an interview yesterday. "But this was about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders."
Moreover, he noted, transgender people differ from others in terms of sexual identity, not sexual orientation.
"Unless you use an accurate term, the people you are trying to reach don't recognize themselves and don't attend," he said, adding that the agency told him he should not use "gender identity."
According to the agency's Web site, "SAMHSA's vision is a life in the community for everyone."
The title rewrite was one of several requested changes. Another was to add a session on faith-based suicide prevention, said Weber, who said he believes the brouhaha is all a misunderstanding.
SAMHSA prefers the term "sexual orientation" simply because it is more "inclusive," he said. And besides, he added, it was only a suggestion.
Asked how strong a suggestion, Weber replied: "Well, they do need to consider their funding source."
Upon due consideration, Bloodworth renamed the session "Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations." But he is not happy.
"We find this behavior on the part of our government intolerable," he wrote in an e-mail to colleagues, in which he called upon the government to "end this shameful marginalization of an already marginalized at-risk population."
An HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage SAMHSA, said there is not a department-wide policy against using terms relating to sexual identity or orientation at federally funded venues. The official suggested it would be overreaching to link this incident with one in the fall of 2003 when hundreds of grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health bearing words relating to sexual identity or orientation fell under federal scrutiny.
Jerry Reed, executive director of the District-based Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, which has been a subcontractor on SAMHSA grants, defended the agency. "I have found them to be incredibly fair players and interested in making sure we reach out to all vulnerable communities," he said.
But Kenneth D. Stark, director of Washington state's division of alcohol and substance abuse and a member of SAMHSA's advisory committee, said he was surprised by the agency's stance and is unswayed by the "inclusiveness" rationale. "You have to ask: What's the problem?" he said. "I mean, other than something political, what is the problem with these words?"