That’s why so many people and organizations were alarmed by reports that the Trump administration told top Centers for Disease Control officials to avoid seven terms as they prepared budget documents: transgender, fetus, evidence-based, science-based, vulnerable, entitlement, and diversity. (The CDC’s head denies that the terms are banned and that any language suggestions were meant to help dodge criticism from Republican Congress members, but skepticism abounds.)
And that’s also why the Out Alliance – formerly the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley – organized a demonstration last Thursday protesting the directive. The organization’s leaders say the CDC’s whole purpose is to work on saving lives, and the administration’s reported actions remind them of a time when silence about a serious public health crisis cost many lives within the LGBT community.
“One of the last memorable times the CDC and other federal agencies have avoided certain language was really notably during the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s,” says Rowan Collins, communications manager for the Out Alliance. “People were dying every day from HIV- and AIDS-related illnesses because the federal government refused to say the words and refused to put money behind programming.”
The country didn’t make progress on the HIV/AIDS epidemic until the government and the public acknowledged the crisis and the fact that it was disproportionately affecting gay people, Out Alliance leaders said in a press release about its demonstration. Public health threats need to be described clearly in order to be addressed, or the consequences can be fatal, the release says.
But as the CDC has acknowledged LGBTQ people and their public health needs, it’s been able to do research that has, in turn, led to better policies and health outcomes for the population, Out Alliance leaders say.
Organizations across the country now fear that the CDC is about to take a big step backwards. If agency officials aren’t free to talk about vulnerable populations – whether they’ve been directly ordered to avoid the term or whether they feel pressure to avoid the topic – then the agency may not be able to adequately address the specific public health needs of rural populations, of people living in tribal areas, and of low-income people, Collins says.
The Out Alliance and other LGBTQ advocacy groups across the country are also worried about the inclusion of “transgender” on the list of banned words. They fear that the CDC may not look at “the transgender community and the specific health risks that exist within that population,” Collins says.
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, lashed out at the directive as an extension of the Trump administration’s “assault on science.” He pointed to the Trump administration’s scrubbing of climate change references from federal websites as an example. And he referred to several other actions restricting public and media access to scientific data, killing studies on issues including teen pregnancy, and preventing staff from speaking on issues including climate change.
In one post, Halpern called on the CDC’s new director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, to make it plain and clear that agency staff members aren’t restricted from using the so-called banned words and that they’re encouraged to make science the focus of their work. And he referenced that agency’s own scientific integrity policies – though they date to the end of the Obama administration – which emphasize research and results that drive decisions and aren’t influenced by policy or political issues.
“Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans,” Halpern wrote in one of the posts.
By Jeremy Moule