Why the CDC Must Speak Freely

Back in the day, comedian George Carlin did a stand-up monologue that became a classic: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” He used irreverent humor as social commentary to question the censorship of seven “dirty” words considered to be too profane and indecent to be used on public airwaves in the U.S.

Times have changed. Instead of fighting for the freedom to use words like “ass” and “piss,” we are sadly compelled to mount opposition to a ban on seven words that support public health and a diverse America. The real indecency is the Trump administration’s directive to the CDC banning the use of the words “diversity,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” “fetus,” “science-based,” “transgender,” and “vulnerable.” Fueled by partisan politics, it reflects an agenda that intentionally and consistently distorts and obscures the truth. Censoring these words will create ambiguity, confusion, and misinformation. Misleading information coming from the government’s leading health authority will perpetuate significant barriers to care for communities experiencing the greatest health disparities. Transgender individuals and other marginalized communities already face a higher risk for violence, murder, suicide, and overwhelming barriers to accessing quality, culturally competent health care, including stigma, discrimination, unemployment, and a lack of knowledge about the community’s health needs. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 28 percent of transgender individuals surveyed have been harassed in a doctor’s office. Lambda Legal found that nearly 27 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents have been denied needed health care outright. A symptom of these disparities, the HIV epidemic disproportionately affects the transgender community – transgender women are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. History has shown the devastating results of silence around health issues. When the first cases of what is now known as HIV/AIDS were detected in America in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration remained silent, not even publicly saying the word “AIDS” until 1985. Years of silence and inaction led to an epidemic that has cost millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of American lives – an epidemic that we are still fighting today. We must learn from the past. As ACT UP said, “silence = death.” The Trump administration’s ban on words is more than a bad policy that hinders the CDC from doing its job; it erases entire communities of Americans by pretending they don’t exist, turning back the clock to a time when diverse racial, ethnic, LGBTQ, and other populations were treated as if they were invisible in mainstream society. The word “diversity” is critical to fighting health disparities. By understanding diversity, we can understand the specific health needs of various communities and ensure that we employ health care providers with backgrounds and perspectives to address those needs. The CDC website contains information on diversity in staffing, a focus on diversity in understanding public health, and the role of diversity in addressing the health needs of all types of communities. Failing to acknowledge, identify and shed light on the health challenges of diverse populations will mean failing those who are at risk for the worst outcomes. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people of color have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke, HIV/AIDS, and numerous other illnesses. Additionally, the CDC reported that the infant mortality rate among black women is 2.4 times higher than for white women. This disparity has persisted over time and clearly has not been adequately addressed. Furthermore, if current diagnosis rates persist, half of Black gay men and a quarter of Latino gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetimes. We should not have to fight for the right to use words that will advance positive health outcomes for our nation’s diverse communities—but taking a stand is the only option. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle must act to defend the CDC from this baseless and aggressive censorship. Health officials and researchers must be able to speak plainly and truthfully about their work. The health of every American depends on it.

This is leading us down a destructive, divisive path that pits everyday hard-working Americans—and yes, the most vulnerable among us — against each other. We end up fighting over a small slice of the pie, leaving the wealthy to feast. In the end, most of us end up with crumbs.

Words have power. They are powerful tools that can be used to divide or to unite, to hurt or to heal, to oppress or to liberate. They can be deceitful and manipulative or they can be illuminating and life-affirming—and they can make a difference. We must join our voices to protect “liberty and justice for all.” Let’s speak out against censorship and oppression. And during Christmas, a most sacred time for many Americans, if even Scrooge can be moved by Tiny Tim, perhaps you too will want to bless us, every one.

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