Second lady Jill Biden emphasized acceptance and support in a speech Friday against school bullying before an audience largely made up of parents of LGBT youth.
“There is a direct connection between acceptance and positive, healthy outcomes in every important area of life, including education, mental health, and physical health,” Biden said.
Biden, an educator at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, made the remarks during the opening ceremony for PFLAG’s 2011 national convention, which took place at the Westin Alexandria. PFLAG is an organization that aims to provide a voice for the parents, family and friends of LGBT people.
Amid news stories of gay youths committing suicide after they had been bullied because of their sexual orientation, Biden stressed the importance of instilling a sense of self-confidence in children as they head through their teen years.
“For children who are struggling with understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity, the teen years can be particularly challenging,” Biden said. “And, of course, kids are not always kind to each other during these times, especially when one of them is different.”
As English teacher, Biden said she has students write about themselves in journals and through these entries knows the “pain and anxiety” felt by LGBT students who are bullied. She said this harassment “makes it almost impossible for students to concentrate on their school work.”
Biden said “no child should be subjected” to the kind of bullying that would lead to them to commit suicide and “no parent should suffer that horrific loss.”
In addition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and passing hate crimes protection legislation, Biden touted the work the Obama administration has done for LGBT youth, such holding a White House summit on bullying and issuing guidance to schools to combat student harassment and support gay-straight alliances.
“This progress is important, but there is still more to do,” Biden said. “At this critical time for education in our country, we need to ensure that our schools are producing the next generation of American leaders and heroes. We must insure that our classrooms are safer for all students
to learn, grow, and thrive.”
Biden’s speech was well received by those in attendance at the convention. An estimated 300 attendees from across the country took part in events after participating Thursday in a lobby day on Capitol Hill.
Jody Huckaby, PFLAG’s executive director, said Biden’s message “connected the dots” between acceptance and support and “positive mental health and education outcomes.”
“Spending so many years in the classroom, [she] really recognizes when she’s got a student who is LGBT or thinks that they might be that — when the family is accepting — there’s a much, much higher likelihood that they’re going to have a positive education outcome,” Huckaby said.
Rustin Furlow, a gay 21-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, said he thought Biden’s speech was “inspirational” and he related to her remarks about student harassment.
“Going up I experienced bullying,” Furlow said. “Just to hear someone of that caliber mention bullying — it made me feel like people are hearing that — do understand the problem. It was nice to hear someone acknowledge that it is a problem, and we’re trying to do something to fix it.”
Ann Ogg, a 63-year old Littleton, Colo, resident, she said came to the convention to advocate for her adult lesbian daughter and praised Biden’s speech.
“It was really good to get support for our LGBT loved ones from high offices because we want our LGBT people to have equal rights,” Ogg said. “We want them to have the very same rights we have. We think it’s horrible that they don’t. I want my gay daughter to have the very same rights that all the rest of us enjoy.”
Despite the work the Obama administration has done to combat bullying, President Obama has yet to endorse legislation that would help protect LGBT students: the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The administration has said it supports the goals of the bills, but has yet to provide full-throated support.
Advocates have been pushing for inclusion of the anti-bullying bills as part of an education measure known as Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization. The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee approved this legislation on Oct. 20 while leaving out the anti-bullying bills, although their backers pledged to bring them up as amendments on the Senate floor.
Huckaby said “there’s no reason” the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act should left out of education reform.
“We’re talking about life and death for young people,” Huckaby said. “In terms of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, there’s no reason why those issues of key pieces of legislation can’t be a part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act if that’s the direction that we need to take to get those things accomplished and create safer schools.”
Asked whether he wants the Obama administration to endorse the bills, Huckaby replied, “I think it’s critically important they speak up, and if they take a look at what our opportunities are, I think there are tremendous opportunities right now for them to speak out and to say this legislation that can make a difference.”
PFLAG was among eight LGBT organizations that signed a letter to the leaders on the Senate HELP committee saying they’re withholding support from the education reform bill as it currently stands because it lacks enumerated protections for LGBT students.