Nine out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment in schools each year, according to a 2009 study. For Tempest Cartwright, it was part of her everyday life after coming out as a lesbian.
“I remember I couldn’t even go to school a day without hearing the word ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ thrown at me or around me in the hallways at school,” said Cartwright, an 18-year-old Oklahoma student ambassador for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “It was difficult to take, and I have since learned that experience is far too common.”
Cartwright’s story was similar to many told Tuesday during the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities, which UTA hosted. The gathering used such stories to issue a message of tolerance and encouragement to LGBT youth. LGBT collectively refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The conference also featured President Barack Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and LGBT advocate Judy Shepard, all of whom vehemently put intolerance on notice Tuesday.
Holder reaffirmed the administration’s stance on the topic, saying his Justice Department wants to know about all hate crimes so it can prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
“We are committed to using every tool in our arsenal, every strategy at our disposal to foster healthy learning environments for our nation’s young people,” he said.
Fort Worth councilman Joel Burns, who publicly came out as gay during a city council meeting in 2010, introduced Jarrett after telling the story of the abuse he endured from peers and reminding all that “it gets better,” a now-famous slogan that author Dan Savage popularized.
Forwarding that message, Jarrett said Obama is inspired by the people who turn tragedy, such as the assault on the LGBT community, into a message for promoting tolerance and goodwill. She quoted her boss during the conference.
“ ‘If there’s one goal of this conference,’ she said, quoting Obama said. “It is to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It is not,” she said.
The words “It Gets Better” are more than a catchphrase, Holder said, referencing his department’s working with states to combat harassment in the classroom.
“This is more than just a slogan for a popular public awareness campaign,” he said. “It’s a commitment. One we’re backing up with robust action.”
Outside the Obama administration, there stood a staunch Obama supporter in Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 for being gay. She expressed appreciation for Obama, who signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in October 2009. It makes hate crimes motivated by one’s actual and perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability a federal offense.
Change must come from peers in school, said Shepard, the Matthew Shepard Foundation Governing Board president. It can be as simple as saying one doesn’t care for another’s hateful remarks, she added.
“Students themselves play a big role because they’re dealing with their peers,” Shepard said. “And if the hate and the language is coming from their peers, they need to be the role models, set the example of kindness and respect.”
Cartwright, who came out at 15, lost friends but stressed the importance of having supportive parents. She said her mother encouraged her to talk about her feelings, which included depression as a result of negative response to her coming out.
“My mother would later reveal to me that she pushed me to share the sometimes painful feelings because she had seen the awful effects bullying had had on other students, and she didn’t want me to feel like I had no place to go,” Cartwright said. “When I told my mom I was coming here today, she told me she as so proud of me, and she offered me plenty of motherly advice.”
Cartwright said her mother had a message for parents who have children in the process of coming out.
“Try not to think so much about your own feelings,” Cartwright said, referencing her mother’s words. “Don’t automatically reject them. This will likely be one of the most challenging times in their life, and now, possibly more than ever, their going to need your acceptance and support as parents.”
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Tags: LGBT news