|Office of Special Counsel Director Scott Bloch?s homophobia has been particularly egregious.
The seminar in the Feb. 28 Portland, Oregon suicide prevention conference was to be called â€śSuicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals.â€ť That is until officials within the federal sponsoring agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), indicated that the words â€śgay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgenderâ€ť could not be used in the conferenceâ€™s program if organizers desired the attendance of SAMHSA Administrator Charles Curie.
For a few days the new title was â€śSuicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations.â€ť SAMSHA finally relented under pressure from gay U.S. Representatives Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and negative news reports, and the original title was reinstated. Curie stated there was no policy against gays and lesbians at SAMHSA, and announced he would attend the conference.
But given similar events within the Bush administration, when the very mention of gays and lesbians has brought executive censure, some gay activists see the whole incident as indicative of a trend to push gays and lesbians out of the federal government, and increase the role of faith-based programs.
â€śThis is not an isolated case,â€ť said David Smith, Vice President for Policy and Strategy at the Human Rights Campaign, the nationâ€™s largest LGBT advocacy group.
â€śThere have been attempts to defund National Institute of Health grants dealing with sexual health and the transmissions of STDs.â€ť
Smith referred to the $4 million decrease the Centers for Disease Control saw in its budget this year for HIV/AIDS prevention, while abstinence-only programs endorsed by President Bush, and which do not teach about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted because of objections from conservative Christians, received an additional $38 million.
Smith also added that the Bush administration needs to clarify or create an across-the-board-policy with regards to LBT issues in the federal government. When asked if the White Houseâ€™s LGBT community liaison might address this issue the way Clintonâ€™s liaison might have done, Smith simply laughed. â€śThis White House?â€ť he said.
A similar action to the suicide prevention conference occurred in October 2002, when DHHS suddenly withdrew funding for a lesbian health conference sponsored by the Mautner Project, the nationâ€™s leading lesbian health advocacy group, despite having funded a national lesbian health conference in 2001.
According to Kathleen DeBold, the Mautner Projectâ€™s executive director, officials within DHHS told her that support was withdrawn simply because the seminar focused on lesbians. â€śI was told that the conference did not fit with the plans of the Secretary [DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson].â€ť
This January, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings demanded the refund of her Departmentâ€™s money from the Public Broadcasting System for the show â€śPostcards from Busterâ€ť because a single episode briefly introduced two children and their lesbian mothers. The show was developed to teach tolerance to children. â€śCongress and the [Education] Departmentâ€™s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television,â€ť Spellings wrote to the PBS president in a letter attacking the episode.
Under pressure, PBS decided not to distribute the episode to its 349 affiliates. A week later the Department of Education canceled an invitation to the showâ€™s executive producer, Carol Greenwald, to speak at a childrenâ€™s television conference in Baltimore.
However, the most egregious example is the recent action taken by Office of Special Counsel (OSC) Director, Scott Bloch. Shortly, after his appointment by President Bush, Bloch removed all references of â€śsexual orientationâ€ť from the agencyâ€™s Web site, complaint forms and training manuals that listed the categories protected from discrimination and retribution in the federal workforce. He even went so far as to remove references to cases the OSC had successfully fought on behalf of federal employees who claimed they were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
The OSC is an independent body charged with defending federal employees who disclose incidents of abuse, waste or mismanagement, or who have been discriminated against in the workplace because of political affiliation or personal status. To protect the OSC from outside pressure, the agencyâ€™s director is appointed for five years and cannot be removed except in cases of illegal misconduct. Blochâ€™s term will be up in 2009.
After several U.S. Representatives demanded an explanation, Bloch stated in a letter that he wasnâ€™t sure current law classified sexual orientation as a protected class. However, Blochâ€™s predecessor at OSC, Elaine Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, said in a recent interview that since at least 1978 under both Republican and Democrat presidentsâ€™ previous discrimination cases have always been interpreted to include sexual orientation.
Now, three government watchdog groups, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) have called for a Congressional investigation into Blochâ€™s alleged firing of several OSC employees for expressing disagreement over the sexual orientation policy and other office practices.
In January, 12 Washington, D.C.-based OSC employees, two of whom are gay according to PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, were given ten days to decide if they would accept positions in Detroit, Dallas or Oakland, or be terminated if they declined.
â€śVirtually all of the employees affected are individuals who either work under, or have themselves dared to engage in even mild private discussions with Mr. Bloch over the advisability of management and policy decisions he has made over the past 12 months,â€ť read the letter the groups sent to Congress.
This past week, Ruch said in an interview, seven of the 12 were fired after declining the new positions, and an eighth resigned. â€śThese were career employees with decades of service behind them,â€ť Ruch said. â€śOne has even served as Acting Director for the Agency several times in between appointments.â€ť
Ruch also said that Bloch has recently broken with OSC practice by non-competitively filling open positions, and in Blochâ€™s case, mostly with recent graduates from Ave Maria Law School, a Catholic university with ties to Bloch. â€śFor somebody who should be protecting the merit system, Mr. Bloch is doing everything to avoid it,â€ť Ruch said.
Before being nominated to the Special Counsel office by President Bush in 2003, Bloch was Deputy Director and Counsel to the Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Justice. Bloch is also a former member of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank based in California. Itâ€™s Web site contains an entry applauding Bloch for his bravery in fighting the â€śgay rightsâ€ť movement.
The OSC did not return calls to SF Bay Times. However, on Jan. 11, Cathy Deeds, an OSC spokesperson, told the Washington Post that the accusations regarding retaliation at the OSC were â€śinaccurate and outrageous.â€ť â€śManagement-directed reassignment...happens a lot. Itâ€™s not targeting anybody or any punitive nature or anything like that,â€ť she said.
â€śThe problems now go beyond sexual orientation discrimination,â€ť said Representative Barney Frank, one of a half-dozen U.S. Representatives to call for Blochâ€™s resignation late last year. â€śThis is just anti-employee. I donâ€™t think George Bush or Mr. Bloch care about the rights of Sprint employees anymore than gay employees.â€ť
Ironically, a Sunday New York Times article that described secret recordings made of President Bush by a friend, quoted the President as saying he was not interested in the right wingâ€™s agenda to â€śkick the gays,â€ť and that he wanted to distance himself from conservative Christian attacks on gay people. Yet, the actions of President Bushâ€™s administrators may be doing some â€śkickingâ€ť in any case. And according to some it is having a ripple affect across the federal government.
Elaine Kaplan blamed Scott Bloch for an incident that occurred last year during contract negotiations between the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the union that represents its employees, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). The SSA bargainers removed â€śsexual orientationâ€ť from the list of protected categories in personnel matters, a category regularly included in all past contracts.
According to Warren Fretwell, AFGE 3342 president, the SSA negotiators intended to deny gay federal employees their rights. â€śThey came to the table saying that there was no law that protected gay employees and therefore a provision like that couldnâ€™t be part of the contract. It was only when we held a press conference about it, and they got bad publicity that [SSA Director] Jo Ann Barnhart stepped in and said it was all a big misunderstanding,â€ť he said.
Referring to Scott Bloch and related episodes of gay and lesbian discrimination in the federal government, Barney Frank put it simply: â€śThis is what you get for electing a radical right administration. Thereâ€™s real slippage here regarding the rights of gays and lesbians in the government. Itâ€™s becoming clearer and clearer that itâ€™s a hostile atmosphere.â€ť