The Seven Four Dirty Words

From Holden:

Newspeak at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), where the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender” are verbotten.

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.”


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, [SAMSHA spokesman Mark] 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.”


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?”