Historic gathering focused on safe schools for gay youth will feature top administration officials and is one of eight on LGBT topics nationwide
ARLINGTON — Hundreds of LGBT youth, advocates, educators and politicians from Texas and national organizations will join Obama administration officials for panel discussions and workshops at the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington on Tuesday, March 20.
The conference is the third in a series of eight LGBT conferences hosted by the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice. The conferences were announced in February and are expected to run through June.
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.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett will give the keynote addresses at next week’s conference in Arlington.
Their remarks will be followed by panel discussions and workshops in the afternoon on topics including bullying prevention and intervention, violence against LGBT youth of color and transgender people, family acceptance, and federal legal protection for LGBT students.
Robert Pittman, an openly gay man who was appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas by President Barack Obama, is among the panel participants. And Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, who’s become a celebrity thanks to his 2010 “It Gets Better” speech, will speak before introducing Jarrett. Judy Shepard, mother of the late Matthew Shepard and co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, will give closing remarks.
Attendance is expected to be about 400 and will include representatives from high school and college Gay-Straight Alliances, superintendents and deans of colleges of education from Dallas and Tarrant counties, and elected officials, Thomas Anable said.
Anable, chair of the local steering committee for the White House conference and president of Fairness Fort Worth, said his conversations with U.S. Department of Justice officials in Dallas last fall at the Out & Equal convention led to the talk of more conversations by topic on LGBT issues. The idea was then mulled over by the administration, and Anable received a call saying the White House wanted to break down the topics by city.
Being an integral part of the local planning, Anable said he was able to pick the topic for the Texas conference, so he chose school safety based on the progress the state has made recently in protecting students from bullying. And with LGBT students making up 5 percent of school populations but four times more likely to commit suicide, he said he “wanted to continue that focus” on school safety.
The Texas Legislature passed an anti-bullying bill last May, outlining the definition of bullying as anything verbal, written or electronically communicated that threatens a students’ safety or interferes with their education. Each school district must create a plan to prevent, report, investigate and stop bullying, and students found to be harassing other students may be transferred to different classrooms or campuses.
Anable said Fairness Fort Worth, Resource Center Dallas and Councilman Burns have been working with Fort Worth and Dallas school districts to create bullying prevention and reaction plans.
The recent Anoka-Hennepin school district settlement in Minnesota — under which federal authorities will monitor the district for five years as it implements measures to protect LGBT students — is seen as a national model, and is expected to be a focus of the UTA conference.
“This is the most comprehensive, detailed program that has ever been in a consent decree regarding LGBT students,” Anable said about the agreement.
“My suspicion is that the attorney general is going to talk about that consent decree and probably lay that down as the standard they’re going to hold all districts to. … And if he does, that’ll be truly groundbreaking.”
Although the definition of bullying in the Texas Education Code doesn’t explicitly protect LGBT students with the language, it still protects every student, said Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas.
Coleman said Texas legislators “put children first” when they passed the legislation last year. He said he’s grateful that Texas was able to pass anti-bullying legislation without federal intervention. He also said the selection of Texas as one of the eight states for a conference showed the national support for the Lone Star State.
“I think it just sends a signal to everyone that Texas does matter to the White House, especially on LGBT issues,” Coleman said. “I think the White House doing these summits around the country, and Texas being one of those, says a lot about where they are and who they’re listening to.”
With state and federal officials and educators in one place discussing LGBT issues, Coleman said he hopes students voice their concerns, calling it “the best way to have your voice heard.”
One of those voices will be Alohi Valdez, president of UTA’s GSA. An openly gay junior, Valdez said she often faced bullying in middle school for being overweight. In college, she came out and began to dress more masculine with neckties. She said people drive by her as she walks on campus and shout gay slurs and ask if she is a man or a woman.
Last year, her apartment was targeted. She and her three roommates came home to find that someone had spray-painted gay slurs on the side of her apartment near campus. While the event worried her roommates enough to move out, she did not.
“I didn’t want to bullied out of my apartment out of fear,” she said. “I just hope it [the conference] brings awareness. It’s a really serious issue.”
The conference is also hosted by UTA’s department of criminology and criminal justice and College of Education and Health Professions.
Alex del Carmen, chair of the department, said he was pleased UTA was selected after a civil rights conference at UTA last November focused on hate crimes.
“I think UTA is a prime place to host the conference because academic universities and academic settings are ideal places for an equal exchange of ideas and of thoughts,” he said. “When academics, along with the practitioners and the elected officials, get together and coordinate their efforts to work for the betterment of society, it’s a good day for us all.”
Zak Murphy, a junior at UTA, served as the vice president of the campus GSA last year.
While he said he’s been “minorly bullied in the past,” he’s never been targeted at UTA because of the effort of the students, faculty and staff to respect equality, he said.
Murphy said he values the conferences and appreciates the fact UTA was selected as a location. But he added that he wants the issue of bullying to stay with those who attend and those in other states who cannot, so that the pain some students face is never forgotten.
“I hope people don’t let this issue diminish,” Murphy said. “I hope that by doing things like this, the issue is brought back into the prime spotlight, and hopefully legislation and other initiatives can be done to help further the cause.”
Anable, a UTA alumnus, said although he was closeted as a teenager, he found out after he left high school that his three older brothers would go around and make sure no one picked on him — a luxury many LGBT youth don’t have.
Now, Anable wants to give students an opportunity to talk about the issues he couldn’t growing up in conservative Texas.
“I’m just so excited that we can have these conversations, we can educate each other, and that’s what I hope and expect this event will do, is just open the dialogue, continue it at a higher level,” Anable said. “There will be a lot of influential decision makers and politicians and schools that will come to this high-profile event, and they’re going to hear the LGBT word, they’re going to hear the issues. And once you hear it, you can’t ignore it.”
Register or watch online
The White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, in the E.H. Hereford University Center at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Registration for the event is available at http://go.usa.gov/U7Y.
A live stream of the first three hours, as well as the closing remarks, can be watched at www.whitehouse.gov/live.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 16, 2012.