Tonight Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett spoke at the annual national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign to directly address the recent tragedies surrounding youth who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In recent months, there have been far too many LGBT youth who have faced bullying and harassment, and Valerie talked about what we can all do to address this important issue.
Her remarks as prepared are below. At the dinner she also took time to recognize Tammy Aaberg, mother of Justin Aaberg who tragically took his own life in July, along with her son Andrew who joined her there. As Valerie noted, Tammy and the other parents of these young Americans are good parents, but they can’t do it alone and America’s youths can’t just stay at home where it’s safe.
Thank you, Joe, for your kind introduction and your leadership of the Human Rights Campaign. Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the attendance of a friend of the President’s and an HRC trailblazer. Terry Bean. And I understand that my friends – Governor Tim Kaine, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Andy Tobias, the DNC’s Treasurer – are here tonight as well.
There are also several members of our administration with us. I won’t be able to name them all. But I do want to acknowledge OPM Director John Berry. John is transforming our personnel operations to be more professional, inclusive, and to mirror the best practices found in any workplace. And I want to thank Brian Bond from my team at the White House. Brian is a tireless advocate for the LGBT community. Please show Brian a little love. I’m also told there is a strong delegation of fellow Chicagoans in the house.
Finally, I want to thank the staff and many supporters of the Human Rights Campaign. HRC has been a formidable force in the fight for equality. And you’ve been a great partner to President Obama over the past two years during some very tough battles. Together, we’re fighting to build a fairer and freer nation. Together, we’re working toward the day no one in this country is treated like a second class citizen – not by our laws, and not in any community.
That’s why the President asked me to come here tonight, to carry a message on his behalf. Recently, we’ve all been shocked and heartbroken by the deaths of several young people who had been harassed and bullied for being openly gay – or because people thought they were gay. It’s a terrible tragedy. 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.
I say this not only as an advisor to the President. I say this from my heart, as a mother. I cannot begin to fathom the pain – the terrible grief – of losing a child. There is no greater loss – and we have lost too many in just the past few months. Asher, Billy, Seth, Tyler, Justin. I want to express my deepest condolences to Tammy Aaberg, Justin’s mom, who is here tonight and who I just met backstage. Please join me in recognizing her for the courage she has shown in sharing her son’s story, and honoring his memory – in the hope that no other mothers or fathers will have to know her pain.
We all want to protect our children. We want to be there for our children. And the idea that a young man or woman, in some cases barely teenagers – just at the start of life – would feel so hopeless and tormented as to want to end their lives, it saddens all of us. Young people are our future. They need guidance. They need our support. And this responsibility is far too great to be shouldered by parents alone. Our whole society has to step up and reaffirm our collective obligation to all of our children. This includes the responsibility to instill in young people respect for one another. And we adults should set an example of mutual regard and civility ourselves.
No young person should have to endure a life of relentless taunts and harassment, just because they’re gay. On behalf of President Obama, I want to make clear that this administration is firmly committed to working with you and other advocates. For we all have to ensure that we are creating an environment in our schools, our communities, and our country, that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Under Secretary Duncan’s leadership, the Department of Education is fundamentally changing the way we look at bullying. And they’re working on how we can do a better job of protecting vulnerable young people.
That’s why, last year, we created a new federal task force on bullying. And just this August they held the first National Bullying Summit, bringing in experts and advocates – including folks from HRC and GLSEN – to begin mapping out a plan to tackle this issue. We are working to replicate proven programs that have helped schools cut down on bullying. We must disprove the myth that bullying is an unavoidable fact of life for young people.
The Department of Education has reinvigorated the Office for Civil Rights to help stop harassment in our schools based on race, disability, sex – and bullying of LGBT young people who may not conform to gender norms.
The Department of Health and Human Services has announced an unprecedented National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. This alliance brings together a wide range of public and private partners. And it’s going to make sure people have access to help, and to resources when they are in crisis. One of its specific goals is preventing suicide in at-risk groups, including LGBT youth.
We must also recognize that creating a safe environment for LGBT youth also means doing more for young people who are forced to leave their homes. For the first time, we have a 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. 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.
So when it comes to putting a stop to the bullying and harassment of LGBT youth, we are not going to let up. We are going to stand with you. We are going to stand with every single young person in this country who deserves the chance to grow up, learn, have fun, and live their lives without the constant threat of violence, or ridicule. Because although many turn a blind eye, and think that bullying is a harmless rite of passage – words matter. Bullying is simply cruel, abusive, and needs to be stopped. Now. And the work done on the ground by HRC, GLSEN, P-FLAG, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Trevor Project and countless others, are crucial to this fight.
The tragic loss of Seth, and Tyler, and Asher, and Billy, and Justin, and countless others whose names we don’t know – strikes at the heart of our values as Americans, and our sense of humanity. We all have an obligation to engage in the broader struggle to build a more perfect union – a nation where each of us is free to pursue our own version of happiness.
And building that more perfect union means fighting discrimination in all its forms – whether in our schools, or in the workplace, on our streets, or in our moments of greatest need. I was so proud when the President signed a directive to make sure that hospitals participating in Medicare or Medicaid – most hospitals – allow gay and lesbian partners the same visitation rights as straight partners. And we’ve made clear that, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, LGBT families are entitled to the same rights as anyone else to take leave in order to care for children.
Building a more perfect union means making sure no one ever is afraid to walk down the street holding the hand of the person he or she loves. And after a long and tough fight, with Judy Shepard at his side, President Obama marked the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act. It’s good to see Judy here this evening, and I want to acknowledge her for the incredible perseverance she’s shown on behalf of Matthew and his legacy.
Building a more perfect union means standing against anyone trying to write inequality into our laws and our Constitution – and repealing divisive and discriminatory laws like DOMA. And it means ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell once and for all. This is a promise the President has made in no uncertain terms. For the first time in history, the Secretary of Defense has testified in favor of ending this policy. For the first time in history, we have a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has argued forcefully for allowing gay men and women to serve their country without having to subvert their integrity. And for the first time in history, the House of Representatives has passed repeal. Now we’ve got to keep pushing the Senate to do the right thing and get this done.
But, as you know, building a more perfect union is not just about our laws. It’s about engendering a society where we embrace one another’s differences. And while we have made progress, we all know that these tragedies brought on by bullying do not reflect who we are as a nation. They are a painful reminder of the work we still have to do. That we must feel the fierce urgency to step up now.
We have to keep fighting together. We must not lose hope. We cannot allow people to sow division among us – not when the stakes are so high for our country.
After all, as President Obama said when he spoke here last year, the people in this room are a testament to the progress we have already made as a nation. You are a testament to the capacity of our American ideals to help us overcome old prejudices. To allow us to see in each other, our common humanity. In short, you are living proof of what has become a powerful message in recent days. Simply put: “It gets better.”
And what is clear is that this depends on all of us. It depends on changing laws, and changing hearts. It depends on creating an environment in which our children feel safe to be themselves. And it depends on reaching all of our young people, and letting them know that we care about them, and that want them to thrive and reach for their dreams, without fear.
That's exactly what President Obama said when he spoke to children across this country at the start of this school year.
“[L]ife is precious, and part of its beauty lies in its diversity,” he said. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them. Because it’s the things that make us different, that make us who we are. And the strength and character of this country have always come from our ability to recognize ourselves in one another.”
It is this character of our country that drives the Human Rights Campaign. It’s what drives President Obama. And it is this strength and character that gives us hope. That we will build that more perfect union. That there is a brighter future ahead for us all, and especially for our children.
Brian Bond is Deputy Director of the Office of Public Engagement