OUR HERO: DR. JOYCELYN ELDERS
Or, "Firing the Surgeon General"
By Jeff Jelq
[Jeff Jelq is an ALA MLS public librarian who has ordered $40,000 worth of books. When he's not reading fact books he prefers mysteries and science fiction.]
Surgeon Generals tend to be controversial. One in the '60s told us to stop smoking cigarettes. Most in the '80s and '90s have fought AIDS. Joycelyn Elders fought AIDS – and she also fought our fear of drug addicts, which was adding to our problems more than it was solving them. Dr. Elders spoke as an advocate of good health for people who weren't white, and for people who weren't male. She supported men who refused to live the lives of the stereotypical American male. She also promoted the use of condoms.
When President Clinton appointed Elders Surgeon General, she was the first African-American in that post. Many senators objected to her outspoken advocacy of abortion and her gay-friendly stance, which delayed her confirmation. Later, in 1994, the Republicans gained a majority in Congress – and things changed for Dr. Elders.
Her undoing as Surgeon General, and one of the greatest controversies ever to shake that office, was her stated concern for children. Specifically, in this age of AIDS and pregnant children, she proposed something quite radical – not that we teach children how to masturbate, something of which she has been accused, but that we give our children sex education which would include some information about masturbation.
On December 1, 1994, at a United Nations-sponsored conference on AIDS, Elders opened the floor for discussion after she had given a speech. A member of the Society of Social Issues asked: What are your views on preventing AIDS through "more explicit discussion...of masturbation?" Dr. Elders expressed the opinion that masturbation "is a part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught." As such, it should be a part of a "comprehensive" sex education program at a school-age level.
As she later said, "Education, education, education. The only way we are going to get around this disease is with education. We have no vaccine, we have no magic drug. All we've got is education."
Elders had been supported in her progressive views on health issues until the announcement of the publication of an article on her masturbation statement in U.S. News & World Report on December 12, 1994. Before the story hit the newsstands, Clinton asked for her resignation. Although he later said he had not fired her for political reasons or because of complaints coming from the Republican Congress, Clinton had cringed at the mention of masturbation.
If Dr. Elders did not resign, she was told, she would be fired.
In an interview on December 11, 1994, Elders took a stance she has staunchly defended in many speeches since: She had no regrets about her actions as Surgeon General.
After her resignation, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced it was "good for the country and good for the President." Although the immediate comment that prompted the resignation was about masturbation, some saw other reasons for the firing: The New York Times ran a December 18 column that said "black women who speak their minds are now routinely vilified with racial epithets spun off from that popular coinage of the Reagan era, 'welfare queen.'" This is perhaps a comment on the fact that Elders has been called the "Condom Queen." In fairness to Clinton, it should be pointed out that by the time of Elders's firing he had already appointed more African-Americans to the cabinet than any other president: 13% of the total.
Certainly the opposition to Elders was political and broad-based, as this comment made against Clinton during the last presidential election suggests: "Did we have to live under the reign of Joycelyn Elders? Dole could have stopped that."
To many, Dr. Elders – who had been one of our most competent Surgeon Generals, urging this country to adopt a sane and progressive health agenda – immediately became the object of jokes. Two euphemisms for masturbation were adopted: Men who masturbate are said to be "Firing the Surgeon General"; women are said to be "Joycelyn Eldering."
St. Louis OutLook commentator Brad L. Graham gave the Clinton Administration a new slogan: "Don't ask, don't tell, and for God's sake, don't talk about playing with yourself." One web site reported a bit of history not found in most textbooks: "At a press conference a member of the press corps asked Clinton if he had ever masturbated. Clinton responded with, 'Yes, but I don't ejaculate.'" And in a Top Ten list of fictitious movies showing in Times Square, talk show host David Letterman included Home Alone with Joycelyn Elders.
Minnie Joycelyn Elders was born in 1933 in Schaal, Arkansas, the eldest of 8 children. At age 15, when she started attending Philander Smith College in Little Rock on a scholarship, she had never seen a physician in her life. She graduated 3 years later, at an age when most children begin their college careers. She became a U.S. Army first lieutenant in 1952, and then a physical therapist.
The G.I. Bill helped Joycelyn through the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). In 1960 she interned at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. After she completed her pediatric residency at UAMS, she got a Master of Science degree in biochemistry from the U of A; in 1976 she joined the UAMS faculty as a professor of pediatrics and in 1978 a certified pediatric endocrinologist. Dr. Elders was Director of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1988-93, after having received that appointment from Bill Clinton. As Director she improved the immunization rate for two-year-olds and facilitated significant gains in her state's number of early childhood screenings.
When Elders was appointed U.S. Surgeon General in September 1993, she vowed to emphasize prevention and to change America's thinking about health. She started programs to stop youth smoking and teen pregnancy, and she increased childhood immunizations. She advocated public health over private profits as part of Clinton's health care reform. She preferred openness over censorship in sex education. She argued for rehabilitation over incarceration in the war against drugs. But by mid December, Elders was no longer our Surgeon General. In her book, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States [ISBN-0688147224 343, $25.95], she discusses a variety of health-related issues such as health-care reform, HIV/AIDS treatment, and women's health. She also writes about her difficult nomination process, her son's arrest for the use of drugs, and her firing. She has received the Dr. Nathan Davis Award from the American Medical Association, the National Governor's Association Distinguished Service Award, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women's Candace Award for Health Science.
In an article by CNN's Janine Sharell Dr. Elders was quoted as saying: "Our country talked about masturbation more in December of 1994 than they ever have in the history of the country – and you know, people would think you'd be embarrassed about that. I'm not embarrassed about that."
Asked if she was advocating detailed "how-to" masturbation courses in the public schools, Dr. Elders said her critics don't have any idea what health and sex education are about. "I don't think it's necessarily important to be that explicit," she said in a 1995 speech to the ACLU Assembly. "I feel that God gave us the know-how and desires and all of that. And nobody needs to be taught how-to courses. That's not what it's about.
"[Masturbation] is an alternative. Now teenagers know that they're not going to go blind, they're not going to go crazy. Hair's not going to grow on their hands. We need to just stop lying to our children."