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Gay Rights Groups Call for Rejection of Bush Surgeon General Nominee over Alleged Homophobia

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Opposition is growing against President Bush’s nominee to be the next surgeon general, Dr. James Holsinger. Holsinger has argued that homosexuality is unnatural and dangerous and that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice. We speak to Nation reporter Max Blumental and BoxTurtleBulletin.com founder Jim Burroway.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington, D.C., opposition is growing against President Bush’s nominee to be the next surgeon general. Leading gay rights groups are calling on senators to reject the confirmation of Dr. James Holsinger. Holsinger has argued that homosexuality is unnatural and dangerous and that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice. In 2000, he helped form the Hope Springs Community Church, which has a special program that it claims to cure gay men and lesbians. If confirmed as surgeon general, Holsinger would become the country’s chief health educator.

Dr. Holsinger is a cardiologist who has served as secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and is chancellor of the University of Kentucky Medical Center. He’s also a former medical director at the Veterans Health Administration. Already, two senators who will review his nomination, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd, have expressed concern. In a statement, Senator Obama said, quote, “I have serious reservations about nominating someone who would inject his own anti-gay ideology into critical decisions about the health and well-being of our nation.”

Much of criticism centers on a paper Dr. Holsinger prepared in 1991 for the United Methodist Church’s Committee to Study Homosexuality. The document, entitled “Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality,” tries to make the medical argument that homosexuality is unnatural and unhealthy. In it, Holsinger writes, quote, “The logical complementarity of the human sexes has been so recognized in our culture that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming various pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other. When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur,” he wrote.

The White House has declined to address criticism of Dr. Holsinger. Spokesperson Tony Snow was asked about Holsinger’s views at a White House news conference Wednesday.

REPORTER: The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both report that Dr. James Holsinger, the president’s nominee for surgeon general, has been denounced by homosexual activists, as well as by presidential candidates Edwards and Clinton, because in 1991 Dr. Holsinger wrote that sex between people of the same sex, especially men, could lead to many sexual—serious health problems. And given the medical accuracy of the doctor’s statement, what is the president’s reaction to such attacks on this physician who is his nominee?

PRESS SECRETARY TONY SNOW: You know what? I haven’t asked him about that, so I don’t know.

REPORTER: The national organization, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, has issued a statement that the denunciations of Dr. Holsinger are bigoted. The president, in supporting him, would not disagree with this, would he?

PRESS SECRETARY TONY SNOW: Again, I’m not going to speculate on that.

AMY GOODMAN: While the White House refused to address the issue, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services defended Dr. Holsinger, saying his 1991 paper, quote, “was a summary of scientific peer-reviewed studies at the time.”

Journalist Max Blumenthal has been following this story. He’s a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute. His work appears in The Nation, in Salon and other publications. He’s in our firehouse studio. And on the phone from Phoenix, Arizona, is Jim Burroway. He runs the website boxturtlebulletin.com, which seeks to refute stereotypes and misinformation about gays, lesbians and bisexuals, has written extensively about Holsinger’s 1991 paper.

Let’s begin with you, Jim, 1991, the paper that Dr. Holsinger wrote.

JIM BURROWAY: Yeah. Well, it’s an interesting paper, I have to say the least, because he writes it for the United Methodist Church, and he’s trying to provide scientific evidence to support their—what is essentially a theological theory where they talk about the complementarity of male and female couples, opposite-sex couples. And he tries to build the case that science or medicine proves that same-sex couples are pathological. He uses the term “pathophysiology”—in other words, that it’s our bodies that tell us that there’s something pathological about it. And so he wrote this paper with—I mean, if you just read the paper by itself, I mean, I could see where you’d be inclined to think, well, you know, gee, there’s clearly something going wrong if gay men are suffering from all of these terrible diseases and all of these terrible injuries from having sex with each other.

The problem with the paper, though—I’ve found that in papers like this—this is fascinating. This is true with basically all anti-gay tracts, in general, and I believe that this one kind of qualifies more as an anti-gay tract than a scientific paper. The problem is, is that you really have to go to the bibliography or the footnotes to find out what’s really going on. And the fascinating thing about it is that the sources that he used to essentially condemn gay men, the sources that he used are all describing injuries that are found in emergency room settings and sexually transmitted diseases from one STD clinic in Copenhagen, Denmark. And basically—and the emergency room injuries are also sustained by straight people having, I guess would you say, heterosexual sex. And so, it’s just a strange thing to see how someone can take, you know, evidence of what straight people are doing and ending up in emergency rooms for and saying, “A-ha! This proves that gay sex is pathophysiologically bad.”

AMY GOODMAN: It was reported Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the main writer for the committee, said the report reflected Dr. Holsinger’s view of homosexuality and that when Dr. Holsinger discerned the committee was preparing a statement that would, quote, “recognize the moral dignity of gay and lesbian life if practiced without promiscuity,” Wogaman said Dr. Holsinger angrily resigned.

JIM BURROWAY: That’s pretty amazing. I hadn’t heard that. But, I mean, I think it does fit with—I hadn’t heard those circumstances behind his resignation. But, I mean, I think that fits very well with the tone of this paper. I mean, it’s described as a wide-ranging review of the medical literature. Well, it’s clearly not. I mean, he had to step around an awful lot of compelling evidence in order to cherry-pick the pieces that he pulled out to put in his paper. I mean, this isn’t a dispassioned review of the literature. It’s an impassioned condemnation of gay people.

AMY GOODMAN: Max Blumenthal, you’ve been writing about Dr. Holsinger’s record. Put it in a bigger context. What is the Bush administration doing with this nomination for surgeon general?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, this nomination is another sop to the Christian right. You know, they’re trying to get their base revved up. I subscribe to various Christian right newsletters, and they’re just bombarding me with emails and with newsletters saying this is another case of religious bigotry by the Democrats. They’re forcing Dr. Holsinger to check his Christianity at the door. So even if his nomination fails, they’ve gotten the base revved up, they’ve gotten the Christian right interested again. The Christian right essentially controls this administration, and so they’re doing a lot of damage in the process by nominating someone to a scientific institution who’s hostile to science, someone who has shown in his career almost as much hostility to homosexuals as he has to disabled veterans. You know, before Walter Reed made it cool to abuse veterans, Dr. Holsinger was, as the head of the VA, forced to personally admit blame for six deaths at a Chicago hospital he administered. Thirty hospitals he administered were ruled by a government investigation to have substandard care for veterans.

And, you know, I think Dr. Holsinger might argue that he can hold these views about homosexuals and still be qualified for surgeon general. But he can’t argue that he doesn’t believe in science. And that’s just on the record. It’s established, if you believe in ex-gay therapy, which he does, if you believe that you can pray away the gay, which he does, you are rejecting 30 years of science. The American Psychiatric Association, the largest association of mental health professionals, has stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1974. And they’ve contributed to virtually every surgeon general’s annual report. So he’s rejecting the mental health community right there.

And this reflects a larger trend in the administration of hostility to science. You know, you have the NASA chief, Michael Griffin, who doesn’t believe global warming exists. You have the former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, which rubber-stamped his veto of stem cell science, Leon Kass, who says that women’s natural function in life is to have children. And he’s spoken out most fervently against what he sees as one of the biggest social evils: the public licking of ice cream cones. Another member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Robert George, who I profiled for The Nation, wants laws enacted to ban masturbation, which would sort of create a vicious cycle once you throw people in prison for that, because there’s nothing else to do. Robert Brame, nominated for the National Labor Relations Board, believes that homosexuals, abortion doctors and disobedient children should be executed according to biblical law. Joe McIlhaney, former co-chair of the President’s Advisory Council on AIDS, still a member, believes AIDS can be spread by sweat and tears. Current co-chair, Senator Tom Coburn, anti-condom activist, and his chief of staff told me at a right-wing conference I was covering that he thinks liberal federal judges should not only be impeached but impaled, as well.

So you have in charge of scientific institutions sexual troglodytes who might be qualified to administer, you know, tribal regions in Pakistan, but they are just not qualified to be in charge of these institutions. And so I think the nightmare isn’t over. You know, we have one year left, but the administration continues throwing these sops to the base. And you saw in your last segment how they fomented a civil crisis in Gaza. Well, they fomented a culture war at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Max, The New York Times was the one that quoted Wogaman saying that when the committee was preparing the statement that would recognize the moral dignity of gay men and lesbians, if practiced without promiscuity, Holsinger angrily resigned. They also quoted Maria Kemplin, a lesbian who works as a budget and policy analyst for Dr. Holsinger when he was chancellor, saying he never expressed anything but acceptance and fairness in the workplace. And the Louisville, Kentucky, Journal, The Courier-Journal, reports more than a dozen Kentuckians who have worked with the former secretary of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the chancellor of the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Medical Center say he is not bigoted and deeply committed to providing healthcare for all.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I’m sure he’s a very nice man, and that was the argument in favor of Samuel Alito, too. That’s their argument all the time. But he’s disqualified by his rejection of established medical science, which is required to be surgeon general. Even C. Everett Koop, who was Reagan’s surgeon general, who is a fervent anti-abortion activist, believed in science, recommended sex education to stop the AIDS crisis that was brewing during the '80s. He was forced out because of the same right-wing activists who have demanded Holsinger's confirmation. You have a really dangerous situation. This is a guy, Holsinger, who’s donated $16,000 to George W. Bush. He’s extremely compromised. He’s a right-wing activist. When he wrote this sickeningly lurid paper for the United Methodist Church, he was engaged in a sophisticated and well-funded right-wing effort to undermine the historically progressive wing of the United Methodist Church. At the time, they were liberalizing their policy towards homosexuals to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the clergy. Dr. Holsinger was the point man for the right to make sure that didn’t happen. And his paper was not a scientific review of homosexual sex. It was actually an effort to smear homosexuals to make way for this right-wing effort.

AMY GOODMAN: And that as chancellor at the University of Kentucky, he once faced down two conservative state senators, who threatened to withhold funding from a lesbian healthcare seminar at the University of Kentucky in 2002.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: He’s accused of embezzling $20 million from a foundation which he took over in Kentucky when he was in charge of Kentucky’s health services administration. Kentucky sank to the bottom of the country. And some of his peers accused him of driving their healthcare system to Third World standards. So, you know, not only is he a failure, but he’s a dedicated culture warrior who’s extremely compromised, and he doesn’t believe in science.

AMY GOODMAN: The last less than two years of the Bush administration, what do you see this—this choice, how does this fit into these two years? What kind of effect do you think Bush will have in these final two years?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, as I said before, the nightmare isn’t over. The Bush administration is going to continue to try to maintain the base and the coalition that Karl Rove has created through his strategy of establishing a majority of the majority, going for the base. This base is the Republican Party. And they’re going to push the Republican Party even further to the right. They control the nominating process. People like James Dobson, people like the characters I spoke about, are the ones who are defining the domestic policy of this administration. And on an international level, people like Elliott Abrams are creating conflict abroad. They’ve substituted—

AMY GOODMAN: But do you think Bush’s power is diminished at this point?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Bush is essentially irrelevant at this point. And what they’re trying to do is hold the Republican coalition together by throwing these various sops to the base. It’s not about policy, it’s about politics. And that’s what Holsinger represents here. Whether he gets confirmed or not, I think the Bush administration has accomplished its aim of holding the Republican coalition in place for Bush’s successor.

AMY GOODMAN: Last comments, as you not only write about Dr. Holsinger, but write about these individuals who populate the Bush administration right now.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Well, these individuals were in the Bush administration. You know, it’s hard to identify who they are. But we’ve seen through the attorney general scandal, for instance, Monica Goodling, who is one of 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University in the administration. These people become former White House officials once this is over.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Max Blumenthal, thanks for joining us, and thank you to Jim Burroway.

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