Critics Block Health Talk On Transsexuality
Saturday, May 12, 2007
by Regina McEnery
Plain Dealer Reporter
The topic was too much for the more conservative folks in Mansfield: Transsexuality.
Why not just tell people to live dangerously?
The talk was planned Monday as part of AIDS Awareness Week at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus. A nurse was supposed to discuss how to better serve the transgender population, one of the highest-risk groups for HIV.
But at the 11th hour, the local health department cancelled the talk amid outcry from a growing chorus of conservatives in Richland County offended by the content and what they called the public agency's role in promoting it. The county agency arranged for the talk along with two other sponsors.
Discomfort about transgenderism is nothing new, but the swirl of events that led to Monday's decision illustrates the moral minefield public health agencies face when sexual orientation is added to the mix. Public health agencies consider education and prevention of AIDS a primary goal but do not want to get embroiled in discussions where science is at odds with religion.
Stan Saalman, health commissioner for the Mansfield-Ontario-Richland Health Department, said he was unaware of the talk until angry residents read about it in the Mansfield News Journal on Sunday and called his office the next day. He said he thought the county had ordered a lecture about AIDS.
"The purpose of AIDS Awareness Week is to encourage people to avoid risky behavior, to practice safer sex and to get tested if they have engaged in risky behavior," Saalman said. "We also tell them where they can get care. But how someone becomes a transsexual . . . we don't get into that."
The nurse hired to give the talk said public health officials missed an opportunity to provide some scientific perspective about a hard-to-reach population ostracized by both the straight and gay worlds.
"I was extremely distressed," said Cassandra Chronos, who works for the Ohio Department of Health's AIDS division but planned to present the talk on her own time.
Chronos said she has delivered the same talk about 25 times over the last three years, without a hitch. She said the Powerpoint slides offer a clinical perspective for health-care workers, and she objected to claims that the talk promoted a transgender lifestyle.
"It's not a lifestyle choice, and it's not something you can promote," she said.
Chronos' talk might have occurred without incident, were it not for a Richland County Health Department nurse. Eager to spark interest, the worker jazzed up what had been an antiseptic title: "Transcultural Concepts: Transgender Issues."
Instead, fliers announcing "Transsexualism: Breaking the Myths" were posted around campus, and a news release was sent to the local newspaper.
Several churches and the Richland Community Family Coalition objected, saying tax dollars were being used to promote a lifestyle they found objectionable. "The talk had nothing to do with health," said Larry Walters, a pastor with the Godsfield House of Prayer in Mansfield.
Chronos was to receive no state or county tax dollars for her presentation, but critics were disturbed that the talk would occur on a college campus.
"We have a lot of impressionable youth," Walters said. "But we would have felt the same had the talk been held in a hotel."
Thomas O'Brien, an OSU social studies professor who chairs the university committee that booked the talk, said the university probably would have gone forward with the talk on its own. But O'Brien didn't learn about the cancellation until Monday evening.
"The bigger issue is that a conservative effort in the community was able to squash the talk," he said.
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