Louisiana health officials told to remove LGBTQ Pride content from web

Officials deny LDH secretary gave order

By: - August 9, 2022 7:45 am
LGBTQ+ Pride flag flapping in wind

Following a call from a state legislator in June, the head of the Louisiana Department of Health allegedly asked staff to scrub the agency’s online accounts of all content related to LGBTQ+ Pride month, according to internal emails the Illuminator has obtained. (Ludovic Bertron, Flickr)

Following a call from a state legislator in June, the head of the Louisiana Department of Health allegedly asked staff to scrub the agency’s online accounts of all content related to LGBTQ+ Pride month, according to internal emails among LDH staff.

In one of the emails dated June 29, press administrator Michelle McCalope wrote to four other staffers in the communications division, saying LDH Secretary Courtney Phillips wanted them to immediately review all of the agency’s online accounts and web pages for “any Pride links to anything, anywhere and have them removed.” The Illuminator obtained the emails via a public records request.

McCalope wrote that Phillips “got a call from a legislator saying there were Pride links on the website,” and added, “but we don’t have any more details.” The email continued: “If you find something, send it to me and Aly and we’ll have it removed. We’d like you to do this ASAP.” McCalope was referring to LDH Communications Director Aly Neel. 

Before McCalope sent that email, her coworkers had removed content they had posted to Twitter and Facebook on June 24 from a Pride event at the Alexandria Convention Center that took place earlier in the month. The original post included three photos and a description that read, in part: “Local drag queens entertained the audience while the state Office of Public Health handed out health-related pamphlets and info.” 

One of the photos, taken from behind a seated audience, showed a child handing a dollar bill to someone with red hair and a rainbow-colored shirt. 

Drag queen tweet stirs controversy for Louisiana Department of Health

The post stirred controversy among different social media circles. Some shared it, suggesting the event looked like a lewd striptease in which adults were encouraging children to be gay. 

During Pride Month, LGBTQ+ communities come together throughout the month of June in different locations across the world to celebrate their progress and continuing struggles as minority groups. The original organizers chose June to pay homage to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City, which served as a catalyst for the modern gay rights movement, according to the Library of Congress. 

The Illuminator requested comment from the agency in a conference call Friday with state health officials who said the legislator who contacted Phillips did not actually complain about anything. Neel said the lawmaker simply asked why the agency was posting non-health related content.

On the call were McCalope, Neel and LDH Chief of Staff Jacques Molaison. They also denied that Secretary Phillips instructed or asked staff to remove Pride-related content. McCalope said she misspoke in her email and inaccurately relayed the instructions from Phillips. 

Internal emails do not show McCalope or anyone else from the agency ever following up with the staffers to clarify or rescind the instructions. The officials offered no explanation when asked about that discrepancy Friday.

The emails show LDH staff responded to McCalope’s initial message and forwarded it to staff members from other bureaus within the agency in an attempt to find any other references to Pride.

“Secretary Phillips did not issue that guidance,” Neel said. “Conversely, she specifically wanted and advised that we share critical health information related to LGBTQ communities we serve during Pride month. Michelle just misspoke.” 

Aside from the post about the drag queen, Neel said the agency did not remove any other Pride-related content. Staff found Pride-related content in some of the agency’s daily newsletters, but they did not identify anything else on social media or the ldh.la.gov website, according to their emails.

The health department did not host the Pride event where the photos were taken. Central Louisiana AIDS Support Services sponsored it and invited LDH to attend to hand out pamphlets and share health-related information. 

“This is what we are all about — meeting our residents where they are to get them the information and services they need,” Neel said when first asked about the situation last month.

The Illuminator has not yet determined the identity of the legislator who called Phillips.

Lionel Rainey, a political consultant for Louisiana’s Republican legislative leadership, said he recalls the day the Pride post went viral because he received a number of calls and text messages from lawmakers — both Republican and Democrat — who were unhappy with it.

“It’s small children with singles in their hands tipping a dancing drag queen,” Rainey said in a phone interview last week. “How is that OK? Exposing children to sexualized content, regardless of the orientation, should be a clear line we can all get behind not crossing.” 

Rainey said he heard from some Democrats who complained the health department had invited unnecessary criticism with the social media post.

Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, questioned why the post had to be removed. 

“I think the bigger issue that some people had with the LDH photo is that there was even a Pride event that recognized and celebrated the LGBTQ community,” Marino said. “The photos that I saw contained nothing overtly sexual or inappropriate. Men dressing as women is as old as theater itself.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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