ARLINGTON — Hundreds of Texas educators, politicians and LGBT activists attended the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities to hear about the Obama administration’s efforts to fight bullying and prevent hate crimes and to discuss local progress.
The conference at the University of Texas at Arlington on Tuesday was the third in a series of eight LGBT conferences hosted by the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The first conference Feb. 16 in Philadelphia focused on LGBT health, and the second in Detroit on March 9 focused on LGBT housing and homelessness. The next five conferences are expected up until the end of June.
Two hour-long morning panels opened the conference, bringing together local, state and national leaders to discuss efforts to ensure safe schools and communities.
White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett was then introduced by Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, who told the story of how his “It Gets Better” speech in 2010 about being bullied and beaten up when he was 13 attending Crowley High School gained national attention.
“It changed my life in ways I could’ve never imagined, and it changed my life for the better,” Burns said of the video.
Burns added that Tuesday was also his 19th wedding anniversary with his husband, J.D. Angle, and he’s proud to “have a president and an administration that celebrates with us, one that gets us and one that actually honors our relationship.”
Jarrett called Burns “a leader in the fight against bullying,” and said efforts in Fort Worth and Dallas schools helped bring the conference to the area. She assured local leaders that the administration would help them.
“I know that you still face tremendous challenges as you implement your new policies and create an environment where those policies are fully embraced by the community, but you’ve already made great progress, and I know that working together, there are even better days ahead,” Jarrett said.
Recognizing the handful of students who attended, Jarrett asked them to stand, honoring them for their “courage and willingness to stand up for what’s right.”
Jarrett then shared personal stories of meeting others who had championed for change, such as Judy Shepard, who was set to speak at the close of the conference this afternoon, and Tammy Asberg. Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student killed in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998.
Jarrett said she met Aaberg last year and heard her story of how she found her 15-year-old son Justin after he’d killed himself from the torment he’d received in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin student district for being gay. Aaberg now advocates for anti-bullying efforts.
“It’s people like Joel, people like Judy, people like Tammy who inspire President Obama, who motivate him, and who make him determined that his administration will do everything possible to fight for safe schools and safe communities for our children,” she said.
Saying that change rarely happens in Washington, Jarrett told the audience how Tempest Cartwright “changes the world around her” every day, bit by bit, and she called for the 18-year-old Oklahoma student to stand up. Jarrett explained how Cartwright refused to allow bullying in her high school to overcome her, pressing forward after losing friends and facing bullies to quadruple the size of the Gay Straight Alliance.
Jarrett said the administration has issued guidance to schools, colleges and universities to clarify that civil rights laws apply to bullying, and has helped states craft anti-bullying bills.
“Schools have not just a moral responsibility, but a legal responsibility to protect our young people from harassment,” she said, adding that the Obama administration supports the Student Non-Discrimination Act, federal legislation that would prohibit anti-LGBT harassment in public schools.
Jarrett then explained the resources and partnerships that have grown out of the fight against bullying.
Facebook launched a $200,000 digital citizenship research grant that rewards people who use technology to prevent bullying. MTV’s “Over the Line?” app allows students to share their bullying stories and combat those who instigate hateful environments in school.
And even Lady Gaga, who Jarrett met recently, launched the Born This Way Foundation.
“Every day we’re striving to do our part to make progress and I believe that day by day, step by step, we will change not just our laws and our policies, but our behavior, our attitudes, our tone, so that every young person is able to strive at school without worrying about people bullied,” she said.
Speaking after Jarrett, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder explained that the conference series is designed “to help shine the light on some of the unique challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals face.”
Holder said the administration has “created a record we can all be proud of” in terms of protecting LGBT rights and “a sense of momentum that today we stand poised to build upon.”
“This morning I’m proud to join you in affirming a very simple truth and renewing this administration’s commitment, as well as my own, to an essential idea that no one, no one, deserves to be bullied, harassed or victimized because of who they are, how they worship or, and hear it when I say it now, or who they love,” Holder said.
Equal opportunity and equal justice under the law “are anything but novel concepts,” Holder said. “They are written into our founding doctrines.”
Since its creation in 1957, Holder said the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has been examining the motivation behind violent acts. The Department of Justice set a record last fiscal year with the number of hate crimes cases filed and the number of defendants charged, Holder said.
Since the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, seven cases have been indicted, 24 defendants have been charged and 18 have been convicted, Holder said.
Explaining that officials are constantly investigating hate crimes including those that target actual or perceived sexual orientation, Holder mentioned the hate crime in Northeast Dallas March 13 where two men in their 20s were beaten with baseball bats by five men because they were gay.
“When incidents like this occur, we want to hear about it,” he said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that justice is served.”
Sharing the tragic story of gay 13-teen-year-old Seth Walsh in California who hung himself in the fall of 2010 after years of physical, verbal and sexual harassment at school, Holder said that tools must be in place to prevent such incidents from happening.
Holder said the “It Gets Better” campaign is more than a slogan, but something the administration is backing up with “robust action,” like the five-year settlement with the Anoka-Hennepin school district reached March 5.
Holder called the settlement, which brought resolve for six students for the harassment they had endured for years, “a blueprint for sustainable reform.”
The administration is continuing to focus attention on LGBT youth with studies, outreach campaigns and support for the Student Nondiscrimination Act and the Violence Against Women Act, Holder said, ensuring that equal justice under the law “is a guarantee for all time and for all Americans.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the conference continued with workshops presenting solutions to the problem of bullying in schools.
Bob Kim from the U.S. Department of Education said that Title IX, usually used to require equal funding for women’s sports on campuses, also covers gender nonconformity issues.
He also explained the Equal Access Act, passed under the Reagan administration with the support of religious groups that wanted access to school facilities, is what gives GSAs the right to meet on campus.
A variety of suggestions came from attendees. A college coach said that anti-bullying training for coaches who spend several years with the same group of students should be implemented by school districts serious about ending bullying.
Several teachers talked about having to argue with their school administrations to be allowed to come to the conference. Their principals didn’t see the connection between a White House conference on bullying in schools and teaching.
Cartwright, a GLSEN student leader from Broken Arrow, Okla., introduced Shepard at the closing plenary. Cartwright described herself as “ostracized by people I thought were friends.” But she said she is getting through school with the support of her parents.
“If my mom isn’t the best mom in the world, then the next person on stage is,” she said.
Shepard closed the White House conference by telling attendees, “You are who you are. You love who you love. That’s just the way it is.”
She described herself as the token Democrat living in Wyoming. She said that when she hears anti-gay talk, she comes out to that person.
“Call them to task,” she said. “We have to come out over and over and over again.”
She said the only difference between the LGBT and straight community is who they love.
Then she asked, “How does that matter to anyone else?”
Staff Writer David Taffet contributed to this report.