Metro Weekly

Virginia Removes LGBTQ Youth Resources from State Website

Emails show Department of Health officials appear to have pulled the resources in response to a conservative media outlet's inquiry.

Photo Illustration: Todd Franson

The administration of Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin reportedly removed a page linking to various LGBTQ youth resources and community organizations serving the LGBTQ community after being pressured by a conservative media outlet.

The list of resources appeared on a Virginia Department of Health website geared toward LGBTQ youth, which included links to Q Chat Space, which hosts live chat and online support groups for LGBTQ youth; Queer Kid Stuff, a website for youth and families offering videos, podcasts, newsletters, and other resources for parents of LGBTQ-identifying children; and a helpline and chat rooms for LGBTQ youth run by The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization.

But on May 31, just hours after receiving an inquiry from the right-wing publication Daily Wire, the page was removed at the direction of a cabinet-level agency, according to reporting from The Washington Post.

Subsequently, the removal of the page of LGBTQ resources prompted questions from Health Department leaders and state employees over why subject-matter experts hadn’t been consulted or forewarned.

Some of those same employees also noted that the Youngkin administration had removed information from the website without consulting those experts at least three other times, targeting primarily resources on abortions, sexual health, or pregnancy.

All the decisions that have been called into question appear to pertain to the Youngkin administration’s efforts to reverse course or end policies that were in place for eight years under former Democratic Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.

In response to an inquiry about the removal, Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, framed the issue as one of parental rights — the rallying cry that helped him first get elected due to voters’ anger over school closures stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns, and objections from conservative parents about curriculum content, books on library shelves that aren’t part of official curricula, or district policies — especially those pertaining to race or LGBTQ identity — that they viewed as overly “woke.”

Porter also appeared to raise concerns about some of the helplines and chat spaces provided by the LGBTQ organizations and the possibility that youth may be vulnerable to grooming or exposed to sexually-explicit content if they access such spaces.

“In Virginia, the governor will always reaffirm a parent’s role in their child’s life. Children belong to their parents, not the state,” Porter said in a statement to the Post. “The governor supports providing resources that are age appropriate; however, the government should not facilitate anonymous conversations between adults and children without a parent’s approval. Sexualizing children against a parent’s wishes doesn’t belong on a taxpayer-supported website.”

Porter added that state officials are “reviewing other elements of the page,” which included a link to a list of transgender advocacy and resource organizations; links to the websites of Virginia Pride and the Virginia Anti-Violence Project; and contact information for a psychologist, pediatric endocrinologist, and licensed social worker, all of whom work with gender-diverse or trans-identifying youth.

Other links on the page included the website of the Fan Free Clinic, a Richmond-based health center providing STI screenings and treatment and LGBTQ-affirming medical care; Side by Side, an organization providing leadership programs, support groups, and counseling for LGBTQ youth; and the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood.

The Daily Wire inquiry was largely focused on Queer Kid Stuff and Q Chat Space, and the lack of adult permission required to access the site — echoing concerns voiced by conservative politicians throughout the country over the idea that exposure to LGBTQ-related topics will encourage children to identify as such or expose them prematurely to issues concerning sexuality or sexual health — undermining parents’ right to determine when to broach such topics with their children.

In response to the Daily Wire inquiry, two subject-matter experts drafted a possible reply that read: “VDH’s webpage includes information for all people, including transgender youth, and strives to include information consistent with best public health practices,” adding, “LGBT people are at increased risk for violence.”

Vanessa Walker Harris, the head of the Department of Health’s Office of Family Health, wrote in an email that because her team manages the content on the website, she hoped their subject matter expertise would be considered in any response to the Daily Wire. But the Department of Health reportedly did not respond to the inquiry, as noted in the Daily Wire story.

Public records obtained by the Post indicate that higher-ups in the department also did not respond to the subject-matter experts’ suggestions. 

Walker Harris later said, in a message sent to employees within the department, that Health Commissioner Karen Shelton had apologized for how the change was handled, saying “she received a directive from [Health and Human Resources] to pull the webpage down and there wasn’t much time to communicate about it.”

The Richmond-based Virginia Mercury subsequently sent an inquiry on June 5 asking if the resources on the website would be restored.

Based on internal emails obtained by the Post, Virginia Health Department Chief Operating Officer R. Christopher Lindsay told Maria Reppas, the department director of communications, that taking down the webpage was “part of an overall project to look at areas of the VDH website that can use [a] redesign.” No official, final response was ever sent from the department back to the newspaper, according to the Mercury.

“We are using data to look at website traffic and will redesign towards public health initiatives that are relevant to consumer demand,” Lindsay wrote in his email to Reppas.

But Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBTQ rights organization, criticized the Youngkin administration’s actions, casting the removal of the resource page as a “politically-motivated” move.

“This is part of a pattern with this administration, where it’s more important to appeal to an anti-LGBTQ+ political base rather than serve LGBTQ+ Virginians in any capacity,” Narissa Rahaman, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

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