In early June 2011, leaders of U.S. government agencies and non-profit organizations gathered in Washington, D.C. with over 50 young activists from across the country at the very first Federal LGBT Youth Summit. Hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, the goal of the two-day summit¾ “Creating and Maintaining Safe and Supportive Environments for LGBT Youth”¾was to “bring together youth along with leaders from non-profits, advocates and the federal government to take on the issues facing LGBT youth” in the United States. This timely and unprecedented event came during a year following several highly publicized suicides of gay teenagers as a result of bullying, and emphasized the current administration’s position that the rights and protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are worth government sponsorship and attention.
The LGBT Youth Summit was held at the Washington Court Hotel on June 6 and 7. Pam Hyde, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administrator for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, was first to speak, noting, “Your federal government has finally come out of the closet in support of LGBT youth.” Hyde, who is a lesbian, introduced HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, declaring that Sebelius “gets us” and is “tireless” in her support of LGBT youth. Secretary Sebelius’s speech underscored the Obama administration’s commitment to the safety and well-being of LGBT youth, noting, “Since President Obama took office he has led a commitment, shared by all of us in the Administration, to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have a chance to reach their full potential.” She also highlighted some of the Obama administration’s efforts to address the “unique needs” of LGBT youth, including the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention; an initiative to work with the U.S. child welfare system to place LGBT foster children in supportive home environments; and the release of recommendations for “providing the best possible care in shelters for homeless LGBT youth.”
Secretary Sebelius’s remarks also stressed the amount of work that remains to meet the needs of LGBT youth. For example, she cited a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released on the first day of the LGBT Youth Summit, that found that gay or lesbian students have higher prevalence rates for seven of ten measured health risk categories, including violent and suicidal behaviors and the use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Bisexual students experience similar rates. According to the CDC, these health-risk behaviors “contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults.” In a CDC press release, Howell Weschsler, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, called the report “a wake-up call . . . that we need to do a much better job of supporting these young people.” He added, “Any effort to promote adolescent health and safety must take into account the additional stressors these youth experience because of their sexual orientation, such as stigma, discrimination, and victimization.”
Other speakers at the LGBT Youth Summit included U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who discussed the recent release of the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleagues” policy letter. The letter praises gay-straight alliances (GSAs) for their important role in making schools safer and more welcoming for LGBT students, and reminds educators that the outlawing of GSAs violates the Equal Access Act, which “protects student-initiated groups of all types.” “It is important to remember . . . that the Equal Access Act’s requirements are a bare legal minimum,” writes Secretary Duncan in the letter. “I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students’ sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech.”
The Summit featured a panel presentation on transgender-specific issues, giving voice to transgender youth even when “it’s said that the T in LGBT is often silent,” wrote the National Center for Transgender Equality in a blog post. Emily Greytak, senior researcher at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, received a strong round of applause after declaring that “researchers should only include the ‘T’ in their LGBT surveys when they have truly taken the transgender perspective into account, and should not endorse the tokenization of the transgender community.”
Participating organizations also included the American Federation of Teachers; Advocates for Youth; the Human Rights Campaign; the National Coalition for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Health; the National Education Association; and the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Federal LGBT Youth Summit: Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health & Human Services,” 6 June 2011, accessed 14 June 2011, <http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/speeches/sp20110606.html>.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “CDC Report Finds Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Students at Greater Risk for Unhealthy, Unsafe Behaviors,” Press Release published 6 June 2011, accessed 12 July 2011, <http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2011/p0606_yrbsurvey.html>.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “CDC Report Finds Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Students At Greater Risk for Unhealthy, Unsafe Behaviors.”
Arne Duncan, “Letter to Colleagues Announcing Release of Legal Guidelines Regarding the Equal Access Act and the Recognition of Student-led Noncurricular Groups,” U.S. Department of Education, 14 June 2011, accessed 12 July 2011, <http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/secletter/110607.html>.
National Center for Transgender Equality, “NCTE @ the Federal LGBT Youth Summit,” 10 June 2011, accessed 12 July 2011, <http://transgenderequality.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/ncte-the-federal-lgbt-youth-summit/>.