Days after several AIDS service organizations accused the federal government of engaging in a "witch-hunt" against those who promote condoms in the fight against AIDS, the Department of Health and Human Services is being taken to task for backing out on support promised to a national lesbian health conference. As they had last year, federal health officials initially agreed to underwrite this year's "Healing Works" conference on lesbian health issues, sponsored by the Mautner Project for Lesbians With Cancer. According to The Washington Post, HHS officials had promised $75,000 for the conference, which ran September 26-28. But early this summer, federal officials notified conference organizers that the promise to underwrite the session had been rescinded.
HHS officials blamed the decision on technical problems in the grant application. But conference organizers and other activists are skeptical, saying they believe the decision was part of a series of moves by the Bush administration that have been hostile to issues important to gays and lesbians. "Lesbians have been left out of research; they don't have equal access to care," said Kathleen DeBold, executive director of the Mautner Project. "This could have killed the conference."
DeBold said two high-ranking staffers told her that a "conference on lesbian health did not fit with Secretary [Tommy G.] Thompson's vision." DeBold scrambled for private donations, increased the registration fee from $75 to $300, and managed to put on the conference as scheduled last weekend in the District of Columbia.
But the incident has fueled growing concerns among activists.
"The big problem with the Bush administration is not that they are blatantly attacking lesbian and gay populations," said Patricia Dunn, policy director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. "It's just that they've been completely silent."
Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the Washington, D.C.-based gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said there have been other instances during the past year when the Administration has rescinded a promise of financial support, transferred people serving as gay liaisons to federal agencies, and distanced itself from supporters of comprehensive sex education, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Any one or two or three of these things would be merely policy changes or the natural course of a new administration, but taken together they are of real concern to us," Stachelberg said. "While we hope that antigay bias is not going on at the department, it's hard to look at the totality of these things and not wonder what is going on."