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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.”



Trans experiences with the internet range from ‘harrowing’ to ‘powerful’

New survey provides insights into the stakes of web use for LGBTQ adults



(Image courtesy of LGBT Tech)

Alex, 29, would not have met their friends without the internet. While living in a small city surrounded by farmland, finding community was not always easy.

Alex tried out one of those apps for adults seeking to make friends. It turned out to be a remarkable success. “I’ve made my friend group as a direct result of using the internet,” they said, explaining that even though all the friends are trans, due to their diverse interests, “we would have been hard-pressed to have ever really run into each other by happenstance.”

Making friends online is also safer for Alex. Before they pursued HRT and surgery and looked more “visibly queer,” they were in scary situations. “I’ve had pickup trucks chase me while driving, people call out slurs while driving by me, and I’ve been shot at,” they said. 

Having the internet available for appointments, work, and social activities is fundamental to their life.

But the web was not always such a friendly place for Alex. “There’s so much hate and falsehoods out there about trans people,” they said. “It’s why it takes so long for some of us to learn about who we are.”

This dissonance is widespread within the LGBTQ community. A recent report—”ctrl+alt+lgbt: Digital Access, Usage, and Experiences of the LGBTQ+ Community”—by LGBT Tech and Data for Progress provides insight into that phenomenon. 

Shae Gardner, director of policy at LGBT Tech, explained that most of the research about the LGBTQ community’s internet use historically has focused on youth. The project aimed to fill the gap. From surveys with 1,300 people across the country, the report found that while the internet is a foundational space for LGBTQ community building and self-expression, it also comes with a high risk for bullying and harassment.  

These findings intensify when looking specifically at the data for underrepresented groups within the LGBTQ population like the transgender community, who are by far the group that faces the most harassment online, per the Anti-Defamation League. Gardner explained that the survey was over-sampled for transgender individuals intentionally. “We really wanted to understand that specific experience,” Gardner said.

The Blade interviewed five trans people about their experiences to gain insight into how different community members felt while navigating the web and specifically identified sources who do not have public platforms and therefore do not face heightened public scrutiny. Due to concern for backlash, all sources for this story spoke on condition of anonymity with gender-ambiguous names and they/them pronouns.

Four out of five of the people interviewed emphasized that the internet is a vital resource for accessing healthcare. 

Riley, 24, explained, “I have such immense dread about transitioning because I don’t want to have to interact with doctors around my identity. I feel like I don’t have access to providers who are able to understand me.”

The internet, for many, provides a safe location to access health information and care without the judgment of doctors. Kai, 23, and Cameron, 27, both shared that the internet was an important place for them to learn specifics around trans healthcare and seek out trans-friendly providers. Alex agreed and added that they have made it so all of their doctors’ appointments through tele-health.

These experiences are consistent with the larger trans community. LGBT Tech’s survey found that 70% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly healthcare. By comparison, only 41% of cisgender LGBTQ adults use the internet to find the same friendly care.

All the sources interviewed said they sought LGBTQ community online with varying degrees of success. 

Jordan, 24, said that not only is social media a good way to stay connected with people they know, but it also helps them find a broader community. “It’s nice to follow other trans and queer people whose experiences can inspire me or make me feel seen.”

Cameron emphasized that the internet provides connections to activities and communities around town. “Social media has facilitated my in-person queer and trans community,” they explained. “I learn a lot about what queer events are happening around town via social media. I have a wonderful community playing queer sports that I wouldn’t have found without the internet.”

Kai shared that it hasn’t been a successful pursuit for them: “I wish it did more than it does.” 

Per Trans Tech’s survey, transgender adults “often” use social media to connect with existing LGBTQ friends and family 41% of the time (as opposed to “sometimes” “rarely” or “never”). This is 21% more than the LGBTQ community at large. The survey also reveals that transgender adults are 20% more likely to “often” use social media to connect with new LGBTQ community than the LGBTQ community at large.

Everyone but Cameron has experienced some form of direct bullying or harassment for being transgender, either online or in person. The survey found that 83% of transgender adults have faced bullying online. By comparison, 59% of the cisgender LGBTQ community faced bullying online. 

“Technology is only as good as its application. And this is the other side of the dual-edged sword,” said Gardner. 

Gardner explained that the online and in-person harassment was mirrored. “The experiences of anti-LGBTQ bullying were very high, both for LGBTQ+ individuals and especially for trans individuals, but those numbers were nearly equitable to the experiences that that they have in the real world with anti-LGBTQ+ bullying,” she said. The survey found that 82% of transgender adults faced bullying in person.

The survey found despite the comparable levels of harassment and high levels of misinformation (93% of transgender adults saw anti-LGBTQ misinformation online), respondents overwhelmingly felt safe online—67% of trans adults and 76% of cisgender LGBTQ adults. 

When she compared this phenomenon to her life, Gardner wasn’t surprised. “The harassment that I have faced online has certainly felt less immediately threatening than what I’ve faced in person. The mental toll it takes is significant, but I would argue individuals probably have an easier time getting away from it.”

That doesn’t stop Gardner from noting, “We need to be fighting [harassment] in both places.” 

She explained that, “when we are staring down the barrel of record-setting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation yet again, it is so integral to keep fighting for digital spaces to be as safe as possible.”

Regardless of its safety, it is a space that is a constant for many. “I use the internet constantly,” said Alex. “I use the internet a lot at work since I have a desk job,” said Jordan.

When reflecting on the internet, Riley summed up the tensions they experience. “It can be harrowing often but simultaneously it’s where I feel a sense of community and access.”

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

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Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate



Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month



(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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