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White House hosts anti-bullying conference

Obama unveils as resource to address harassment



President Obama speaks at anti-bullying conference (Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama on Thursday opened the doors of the White House to anti-bullying advocates for a conference in which participants discussed harassment of students and devised strategies to curtail bullying.

In remarks starting off the conference, Obama said if the conference had one goal, it would be dispel the myth that bullying is “a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.”

“It’s not,” he said. “Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people.  And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students, as teachers and members of the community, we can take steps — all of us — to help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe; a climate in which they all can feel like they belong.”

The conference, in which around 150 students, parents, teachers and anti-bullying advocates participated, wasn’t specifically directed toward the bullying of LGBT students, although harassment of children because of their sexual orientation or gender identity was often mentioned.

Bullying against LGBT students received renewed attention late last year when several young men who were gay or perceived to be gay took their own lives after they were reportedly bullied. Among them was Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, who leaped off the George Washington Bridge in September after a video was posted online of him reportedly having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room.

During his remarks, Obama noted that students who are gay are among the types of children who often face bullying at school.

“A third of middle school and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year,” Obama said. “Almost 3 million students have said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, even spit on. It’s also more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.”

Obama also announced that his administration had launched a new website,, as a resource housed within the Department of Health & Human Services for parents, students and teachers on how to confront the issue of bullying in schools. The website is set to provide information on the risks of bullying and its warning signs and effects.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key)

First lady Michelle Obama, who introduced the president at the start of the event, said the issue of bullying is personal for both her and her hisband because of their concern for their two daughters: Malia and Sasha.

“As parents, this issue really hits home for us,” she said. “As parents, it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground, or even online. It breaks our hearts to think about any parent losing a child to bullying, or just wondering whether their kids will be safe when they leave for school in the morning.”

Michelle Obama urged parents “to make a real effort to be engaged in our children’s lives” and to listen to them and be there when needed.

“We need to get involved in their schools and in their activities so that we know what they’re up to, both in and out of the classroom,” she said. “And when something is wrong, we need to speak up, and we need to take action.”

Following the president remarks, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, led a panel discussion of anti-bullying experts to discuss ways that parents, administrators and government officials can work to curtail harassment of students.

Points that were mentioned included recommending that parents be friends with their children on Facebook for oversight purposes and how the behavior of those who perpetuate bullying must also be addressed as part of anti-bullying efforts.

After the panel, conference participants split into five break-out sessions for more extensive debate on particular issues related to bullying. Topics of the breakout session included cyberbullying and in-school programs to confront bullying.

Top Obama administration officials during a wrap-up session at the close of the conference emphasized the support that anti-bullying advocates have in the White House.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new initiative — a technical assistance center — which would specifically address harassment to complement anti-bullying efforts that are already underway.

“By trying to highlight these best practices, we will state and local policy makers and educators work to keep children safe and provide the best learning environment for all students,” Duncan said. “We can provide support, which is why I’m happy to announce today our department’s intention to establish a new technical assistance center specifically dedicated to bullying prevention.”

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius urged teachers and others to speak out when anti-gay slurs are used in schools.

“Building safe neighborhoods and schools where young people can thrive is a job for all of us,” Sebelius said. “It means speaking out next time you hear a homophobic slur, stepping in when you see someone being preyed upon and letting your local education leaders — from principals to schools — know that bullying is not an isolated part of growing up. It’s a serious danger for all of our children.”

Participants had a largely positive reaction to the event and thought it was productive in devising strategies to thwart bullying.

In a statement, Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, said the conference “put a national spotlight” on bullying and its potentially “destructive impact.”

“Although the event is born out of tragedies, the conference will hopefully spark a robust national discussion about what we can all do to stop this problem,” Krehely said. “With an increase in bullying and full-on assaults on youth who are perceived to be gay or transgender, as well as those who are perceived to be Muslim, now is the right time to show leadership on this issue.”

Caleb Laiseki, executive director of the Arizona-based Gays & Lesbians United Against Discrimination, said the conference was “much more productive” than he expected.

“I’m coming from Arizona, and Arizona can’t even pass the anti-bullying bill through committee, so I was extremely happy to see the White House was very dedicated to this,” Laiseki said.

Laiseki, who’s 16 and gay, dropped out of high school after he was bullied because of his sexual orientation and completed his education by earning a general equivalency diploma. He founded GLUAD to help address the  problems he faced in school.

“The reason I started the organization was because I was pushed into lockers and humiliated,” he said. “I received death threats [and was] followed home. It was just one thing after another. And I also had friend commit suicide after several attempts. So, the main goal of GLAUD is homelessness, suicide prevention and anti-bullying work.”

Laiseki attended the breakout session focused on cyber-bullying and said he proposed that law enforcements have the tools to intervene immediately when such harassment takes place.

“We can immediately track down the [Internet protocol] address and go from there,” Laiseki said. “And both of the representatives [from the Obama administration] were in agreement. And we took notes actually and discussed it for at least one-third of the meeting.”

Dan Savage (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Dan Savage, founder of the “It Gets Better” online video campaign aimed at helping troubled LGBT teens, said the conference was of “tremendous symbolic importance” because it identified bullying as a national problem, but said more could be done with the issue of parents being the bullies of LGBT youth.

“What was never addressed is when the parents are the bullies,” Savage said. “LGBT kids whose parents reject them are eight times likelier to attempt suicide; kids who are LGBT are four times. It literally doubles the risk of the already quadrupled risk of suicide for LGBT kids when their families reject them.”

Legislation pending before Congress known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act would address the issue of LGBT bullying of students in schools. Savage, who’s gay and also a sex-advice columnist, said the passage of this legislation would be effective.

“It puts schools on notice,” Savage said. “It establishes a national sense of accountability. Schools are reactive. They don’t like to be sued. They don’t like to get in trouble with the folks that pay the bills — at the federal or state level — and it really creates a way for school administrators and school boards to be held accountable.”

Shannon Cuttle, director of Safe Schools Action Network, said she felt the event was effective because it drew more attention to the issue of bullying.

“I think that anytime that you can collectively get a group of people to work in collaboration to try to discuss this issue, it’s going to put a dent in the issue,” Cuttle said. “Today is making the right step. Being able to bring people from across America — teachers, administrators, individuals and students — that’s key.”

But Cuttle, a lesbian D.C. activist, said the best way to address the issue of bullying in schools to confront harassment with “boots on the ground.”

“We have to be able to go into the schools, we have to have conversations and we have to be able to discuss the issue,” she said. “We have to be able to have those honest, open conversations with teachers and school administrators, and as parents and students, we need to talk to our school boards and local officials and be able to put rules and policies in place to keep kids safe.”

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  1. shaffiate

    March 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    my son was bullied for all most a whole year, in is 51 in staten island,he is mentaly damage for life,and all the kids gets is 12 months probations ,what the use of making all these laws if the is no sentence,to make the bullys know that if they do bully some one the will go to jail,because all school kids are minors,they gets away with it. and mr obama why do you all seems to ignore my son case when he is the one who stand up and make bullying a household topic ,

  2. Sheramie hillman

    April 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    I would really like for someone of importance to acknowledge that a 9th grade hispanic boy shot and killed himself yesterday April 2 2012 after being bullied for so long either by not being athletic enough or by his hispanic race. He was bullied by a team of white jocks in junior varsity that call themselves wolfpack. The Incident occured in Corpus Christi, Tx. This childs family needs resolution or awareness raised by people that care. This can be anyones child School District or Faculties should not turn a blind eye to whats happened and sweep this under a carpet

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VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights



(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1



Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service



For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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