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Reacting to CDC's banned words

by BAR Editorial Board

When the Washington Post broke the story of the seven words banned from budget documents at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we were both outraged and unfazed. We were angry that once again President Donald Trump's administration was making no secret of its disdain for the LGBTQ community, but we weren't surprised that it would stoop to censorship. After all, this is the same administration that, for nearly a year, has sought to marginalize us. If the administration thinks it can make transgender issues disappear by prohibiting the CDC from using the word "transgender," it is just as incompetent as we suspected and engages in magical thinking that doesn't jibe with reality.

The other reported banned words are "diversity," "fetus," "vulnerable, "entitlement," "evidence-based," and "science-based." You know, words that the CDC regularly uses in its myriad programs, funding requests, and reports. Of course, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald denied the existence of a forbidden words list, writing in Twitter posts on Sunday, "There are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC, period." She may say that, but count us skeptical. The Post quoted several sources for its story, and while they were not named, this is not the Trump administration's only attempt at deception. We'll see soon enough when the proposed budget is released in February.

So, do we believe Fitzgerald? No. And while the CDC still has pages on its website addressing LGBTQ issues, the official funding requests - and everything in Washington, D.C. revolves around money, or "resources" - likely will not have "transgender" or "diversity" or the other prohibited words in them. For an agency that deals directly with science and evidence, it's inexcusable that it is being ordered to omit any words from budget requests.

This decision could have a profound impact on LGBTQ health care as it has in the past. More than 30 years ago, homophobia, transphobia, and religious dogma kept the Reagan administration from following sound public health practices to educate the public about AIDS, Gay Men's Health Crisis officials said in a news release. "Because of this, the government failed to mount a specific campaign targeting diverse communities with explicit and effective public education messages that could have prevented the spread of HIV," the agency noted.

Words, or the lack thereof, have a powerful effect on policy. Reagan didn't utter the word "AIDS" until years into the epidemic, and politicians ignored the disease that was ravishing minority populations. This resulted in years of federal inaction and a dearth of government policy, leading cities like San Francisco to establish their own response to the crisis.

Fenway Health interim CEO Jane Powers called the reports on the restrictions on the use of words "deeply troubling."

"It does not matter whether there is an outright ban based on ideology, or whether the list originated as a strategy to gain support for the CDC budget among Republican conservatives," Powers stated. "Telling public health officials working to prevent Zika, HIV, and other diseases what words they can use is Orwellian."

The CDC, however, is only the latest federal agency that has been directed to change the way it operates, to the detriment of LGBTQ people. Since Trump took office and named many anti-LGBTQ people to his Cabinet, the government has tried to eliminate us from surveys and the Affordable Care Act. But here's the thing: trans people are not going away - they are becoming more visible - and government workers shouldn't be tasked with trying to undermine whole segments of the population.

But if the administration is serious about going down that slippery slope toward authoritarianism, the 12,000 workers at the CDC will have to be more creative to comply with the administration's directive and to remain inclusive. As we approach the first anniversary of Trump taking office, it's time for federal bureaucrats to step up their game and muster the courage to not be bullied by a president who often doesn't tell the truth.

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