A top White House adviser on Saturday decried recent incidents of young gay men committing suicide as “a terrible tragedy” and promised the Obama administration would work to combat the school bullying that reportedly led to these deaths.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, made the remarks to an estimated 3,100 people during a speech at the 14th annual Human Rights Campagin national dinner in D.C.
Jarrett said the recent suicides of five young gay men who were bullied because they were gay, or perceived to be gay, has made those who hear their stories “shocked and heartbroken.”
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” she said. “And it has turned a harsh spotlight on an issue that often doesn’t get the public attention it deserves: the struggles of LGBT youth, the enormous pain that too many experience as a result of bullying and the desperate, tragic decision by some young people who feel that their only recourse is to take their own lives.”
Jarrett said just prior to her remarks, she met backstage with Tammy Aaberg, the mother of one of the young gays who committed suicide, Justin Aaberg, as well the deceased child’s brother, Andrew. The 15-year-old Minnesota student reportedly committed suicide in September after he was bullied in school.
“We stand to recognize the courage that these two people and their families have shown by [being] willing so soon to share the story of Justin and honor his memory in the hope that no other mother or father or brother or sister will have to know their pain,” Jarrett said.
In his introduction of Jarrett, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also addressed the suicides and said leaders and institutions who decry homosexuality were to blame.
“There are billions of kids struggling with the sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said. “They are quite literally under attack by the people that they look up to … people who falsely perpetuate the idea that being gay is somehow unhealthy or immoral.”
Solmonese cited as an example of such statements Mormon Apostle Boyd Packer’s remarks last week against gays during a sermon at a general conference in Salt Lake City. Solmonese called the religous leader’s words “horrifying and irresponsible.”
The HRC president said he plans to deliver to the Mormon Church a collection of 100,000 letters and petitions condemning the remarks in an upcoming visit to Utah.
During her speech, Jarrett identified many of the initiatives that President Obama has taken to address the kind of bullying in schools that reportedly led to these suicides.
She said the president is committed to creating an environment in schools and other places throughout the country “that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Among the initiatives cited by Jarrett were the Education Department’s creation a task force on bullying and the reinvigoration of the department’s Office of Civil Rights activities against harassment in schools.
Jarrett also said protecting young people who are forced to leave their homes is important for protecting LGBT youth and cited the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s new national strategy to fight homelessness.
“It specifically addresses the needs of LGBT youth who are living on the streets because they have been ostracized by their families, friends, and community,” she said. “This includes figuring out whether it’s possible for these children to go home, and if they can’t, that we have safe and nurturing alternatives.”
Jarrett’s remarks in general were well received by attendees, who greeted her with applause when she entered the stage and throughout her remarks.
Lane Hudson, a gay D.C. activist who was in attendance at the dinner, said Jarrett’s remarks on bullying and suicides were “nice to hear.” Still, he maintained the president needs to speak directly on the issue.
“What is needed is for the man she advises, President Obama, to speak out publicly against the terrorizing that occurs in schools and on our streets, particularly to LGBT people,” Hudson said.
In addition to bullying, Jarrett also mentioned efforts on repealing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Eyes have been on the Obama administration and whether it will pressure the Senate to pass repeal after an effort in that chamber to end the law failed last month.
Jarrett said ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a promise Obama has made “in no uncertain terms.”
“For the first time in history, the House of Representatives has passed repeal,” she said. “Now we’ve got to keep pushing the Senate to do the right thing and get this done.”
Solmonese also addressed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Senate failure to move forward on the issue last month. He blamed the inability to move forward with the legislation on “people who are fundamentally against any measure of LGBT equality” in the Senate.
“And one of them, who may have been our president, is Sen. John McCain,” Solmonese said. “His filibuster effort and his election year politics brought that long overdue justice to a halt for now.”
Solmonese maintained that another opporunity for the Senate to take up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal would emerge after Election Day in the lame duck. Many pundits have said the chances of the Senate passing the legislation at this time would be limited.
Still, Solmonese recalled repeated attempts at passing hate crimes legislation — recalling how LGBT activist Judy Shepard vowed to pass the law after earlier defeats — and suggested a similar path lay ahead in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“It will be an uphill battle, and partisan divide and a cluttered legislative calendar are going to work against us,” he said. “But [be] rest assured that we will be guided by the words of Judy Shepard and we will stay at it until we win.”
Some LGBT advocates were unhappy with the remarks Jarrett gave on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and said they didn’t demonstrate a sufficient commitment from the administration to end repeal this year.
Hudson said placing responsibility on the Senate to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t enough from the White House.
“She needed to commit to the White House making a major effort to end the ban once and for all,” she said. “She came nowhere close to that.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, had been pressuring Jarrett to meet with gay veterans prior to her speech to talk about efforts in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Following her remarks, Nicholson said he’s pleased she focused on bullying as opposed to a describing litany of accomplishments, but still expressed dissatisfaction with the White House on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We reiterate that we still do not feel strongly supported by this administration’s record of action so far, and that we still want her to meet with true gay military advocates to talk about those ‘no uncertain terms’ she mentioned when referring to the president’s promise on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ our community’s top legislative agenda item of 2010,” Nicholson said.
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