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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
May 18, 2007

AIDS program stopped after group complains

Mansfield, Ohio--An anti-gay religious group trumped science and health care when the head of the local health department canceled an AIDS Awareness Week program because it dealt with transgender issues.

Mansfield-Ontario-Richland County Health Department commissioner Stan Saalman halted the seminar by an Ohio Department of Health nurse only days before it was to take place.

Intended for health professionals and students, it had been set for May 7 at Ohio State University’s Mansfield branch.

Opposition to the program was organized by the Richland Community and Family Coalition, which is tied to Citizens for Community Values of suburban Cincinnati, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association and other anti-gay enterprises.

The Richland County group collaborated with CCV and its president Phil Burress to pass Ohio’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Its spokesperson, Ben Mutti, is a health department employee.

It appears that Mutti and Larry Walters, pastor of the Godsfield House of Prayer in Mansfield and also a member of the group, led the opposition to the AIDS awareness program.

Mutti and Walters have received a substantial amount of press for their Christian activism, including organizing public prayer events, protesting the television show Girls Gone Wild, and supporting President George W. Bush.

Saalman says he is unaware of Mutti’s avocation, or of his involvement in this matter.

Mutti, a sanitarian with the department who tests sewage, was among the first to contact the Ohio Department of Health attempting to stop the presentation. Other Family Coalition members followed, and Walters took credit for scuttling the program in a Cleveland Plain Dealer article.

The group erroneously claimed that tax dollars were used to hire the presenter.

“The talk had nothing to do with health,” Walters told the Plain Dealer.

The speaker, Cassandra Chronos, administers programs to care for people with AIDS for the Ohio Department of Health. She is also transsexual.

She has given the talk dozens of times in the past few years, but does it on her own time, not the health department’s.

Her program, “Trans-Cultural Concepts, Under the Transgender Umbrella” includes 94 Powerpoint slides. It starts with a call from the American Public Health Association for awareness of transsexuals’ specific health needs, and to remove barriers to health care for the population, including HIV prevention and treatment.

The presentation contains a section specific to HIV, including such things as the vulnerability of transgender sex workers and other risky behaviors specific to TG and TS populations.

It also tells participants the difference between transgender and transsexual, drag kings and drag queens, how to address TS and TG clients, their prevalence, the Harry Benjamin Institute and statements from health organizations, including the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association regarding care for the population.

Chronos has given the presentation to a national social work convention in Florida and as continuing education credit for nurses. She presented it last year to the Rural HIV Collaborative’s “Keeping it Real” conference at Wright State University in Dayton.

Still, Saalman said, “It did not appear that the subject matter was HIV and AIDS.”

Saalman said his observation is based only on the program abstract, which contains 14 references to HIV and 12 to AIDS.

Saalman said he was “not aware” how much of the program was about AIDS or that there are HIV issues specific to the TG and TS populations. He added that he has no problem addressing TG and TS health issues, just not at a program observing AIDS Awareness Week.

He said one of his employees who had attended the presentation recommended it. That employee is Tina Nichols, a social worker. He also said she was present when the decision was made to cancel it.

Nichols did not comment for this report, saying she had been ordered not to talk.

Asked whether that was general agency policy or just regarding this matter, Nichols replied, “Just this one.”

Saalman said Mutti, in his official capacity, had no influence on the decision, but board members did.

Saalman said he got 40 to 45 calls from the public outraged at the presentation.

The calls occurred after a small mention of the program in the Sunday Mansfield News Journal--the day before the program was scheduled--which titled the program: “Transsexualism: Breaking the Myths.”

The altered title also appeared on flyers around the campus. Saalman said he doesn’t know whether someone in his department or on the campus changed the title, but acknowledged that the change contributed to the controversy.

Because of the calls, Saalman cancelled the presentation that afternoon, without discussion with the program’s other two sponsors, OSU and the Pennsylvania Mid-Atlantic AIDS Education and Training Center’s local site at OSU in Columbus. Chronos is also a faculty trainer for the Mid-Atlantic center.

The Mansfield presentation was open to the public, but targeted to students studying social work, psychology, nursing, counseling and other health professions.

Chronos was informed of the cancellation by e-mail at 2:22 pm for the 6 pm program. She had no other contact with the Mansfield health department. That e-mail, which is from the department’s director of nursing, Amy Vincent, says only, “Hello Cassandra. I know that Loretta Cornell has spoken with you earlier this afternoon about the situation in Mansfield. We have heard from our Board of Health president and he has requested that the evening program “Transexualism: Breaking the Myths” be canceled. If you have any questions or comments, please call the Health Commissioner, Stan Saalman . . . I am sorry for any inconvenience this may cause. Thank you again for your understanding.”

Jane Russell of the Mid-Atlantic center said neither she nor the university were notified of the cancellation, either.

Saalman said Chronos was contacted for the purpose of asking that the presentation be limited to HIV and AIDS, and that she declined.

Chronos says that’s not true, and that as of the previous Thursday, “everything seemed to be fine.”

Saalman added, “We could not reach anyone in charge at OSU to make them aware we were canceling our sponsorship, but that they could go on [without us].”

Russell said the health department has been “very easy to work with in the past,” and that she would work with them again.

Chronos said she is “personally distressed” by the health department’s decision, adding that it is “outrageous to have a public health authority bullied by those who call themselves Christians to the point of shutting down a public health presentation.”




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