That’s how the Department of Health and Human Services responded over the weekend to a chilling Washington Post report published last Friday night, claiming that the Trump administration has told several HHS divisions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to avoid using certain terms in documents prepared for their budget process.
In the CDC’s case, the anonymous HHS official who served as the Post’s source claimed that they were told to avoid the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” and “transgender.”
The report troubled the scientific community at large and, given the Trump administration’s track record so far, it especially horrified transgender people, who are already at heightened risk for HIV.
“As a trans person, I am furious and, as an American, I am terrified and furious,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality told The Daily Beast Monday morning. “This is what they do in dictatorships: they pretend people don’t exist.”
Like many LGBT advocates, Keisling does not feel comforted by CDC and HHS statements posted to Facebook on Sunday responding to the Washington Post report, in part because those statements conspicuously did not dispute the details of the report itself—but also because LGBT trust in the Trump administration is already low.
“This is a horrible situation,” Keisling said. “People will die because of this. So I don’t have the least bit of patience to listen to a White House that continuously lies about almost everything, lie about how they didn’t do this.”
In a Sunday Facebook post, CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald acknowledged that the public “may be understandably concerned about recent media reports alleging that CDC is banned from using certain words in budget documents.”
But rather than directly dispute the details of the Washington Post story itself, Fitzgerald wrote two general and somewhat oblique assurances: “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution” and “I want to assure you that there are no banned words at CDC.”
Depending on how they are read, those two sentences may not refute the details of the Washington Post report itself, which describes senior CDC officials being “given a list” of seven terms to avoid, including “transgender,” during a meeting last Thursday. The Post’s source, reportedly present at the meeting, recalled, “We all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, God.’”
It may be simultaneously true that CDC is committed to science, that no words have been banned institution-wide, and that the meeting took place as described.
Fitzgerald’s original statement contained no reference to the meeting but, perhaps tellingly, she did include another statement from HHS which refers to the “assertion that HHS has ‘banned words” as a “complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.”
That statement seems to indicate that the Washington Post report did not appear out of thin air. The Daily Beast asked HHS what, exactly, was being mischaracterized.
“HHS and its agencies have not banned, prohibited, or forbidden employees from using certain words,” HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd responded. “Recent media reports appear to be based on confusion that arose when employees misconstrued guidelines provided during routine discussions on the annual budget process.”
The Daily Beast asked for those “guidelines” to be clarified—and whether the term “transgender” was discouraged from use in the budget process. Lloyd did not clarify the guidelines but responded to the second question with a direct denial: “No, the use of the word ‘transgender’ was never discouraged in the budget process.”
The CDC also sent The Daily Beast a follow-up statement repeating that “there are no banned, prohibited, or forbidden words at the CDC—period,” and including more detail about the meeting: “I understand that confusion arose from a staff-level discussion at a routine meeting about how to present CDC’s budget. It was never intended as overall guidance for how we describe and conduct CDC’s work.”
Unassuaged by the HHS and CDC statements, LGBT rights groups continued to protest the reported counseling against the use of those terms by the Trump administration early this week. The National LGBTQ Task Force and other groups gathered outside the CDC offices in Washington D.C. on Monday morning.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD, urged the Office of Management and Budget to provide “full transparency about their alleged promotion of dangerous censorship that harkens back to the days that HIV and AIDS research and funding were restricted with deadly effects.”
The HHS source for the Washington Post report referred to a document provided by the Office of Management and Budget, indicating that it was used for a briefing at another HHS agency. The OMB did not respond to the Post’s request for comment and did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Monday.
For transgender people specifically, the question of the veracity of the Washington Post report carries high stakes.
As the CDC website currently notes, there are an estimated one million transgender adults in the country, who are at risk of HIV infection at “more than three times the national average”—and many of whom “face stigma, discrimination, social rejection, and exclusion.”
If transgender people, who already face “exclusion,” have now been excluded from documents used to prepare budgets at the leading public health agency in the country, that would raise deep questions about how much freedom the CDC has under the Trump administration to pursue solutions to public health problems faced by the transgender community.
Following the Trump administration rescinding guidance on transgender students’ restroom rights and its subsequent attempt to ban transgender troops, the Washington Post report is especially concerning to transgender advocates.
For now, faced with a choice between believing the Trump administration and believing the sources cited in the Washington Post report, Keisling is choosing the latter. For her, even the phrasing of the HHS statement—like “complete mischaracterization”—rankles.
“By the way, can I just say as somebody who cares about English that ‘mischaracterization’ is meant to make it seem smaller, and then ‘complete’ is meant to make it sound bigger, so it’s hard to even tell what they’re talking about,” she joked, adding, “What they’re talking about is covering their asses and obfuscating and muddying the waters.”