>GLSEN Board Member Sirdeaner Walker delivered the keynote speech today at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas. The following is Sirdeaner's speech about her family's story, Dr. King's legacy and the need to do more to make our schools safer for all.
Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this event today as we honor one of our American heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And thank you to Mike Duke and the Wal-Mart Associate Resource Groups for organizing this event.
My name is Sirdeaner Lynn Walker, and I am here to speak with you about the need for action on bias-based bullying and harassment in our schools.
I must start by saying that I am not a polished professional speaker, but a mom sharing my tragic story. I have been proud to speak often on this subject, but today, as we reflect on the legacy Dr. King left to us, I am especially sad that we haven’t fully learned the lessons of justice and equality that he taught us. I try to remind myself, as Dr. King said, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
I hope you will open your hearts to hear my story and my son Carl’s.
Two years ago, I was an ordinary working mom, looking after my family and doing the best I could.
But my life changed forever on April 6, 2009.
That was the night I was cooking dinner when my son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, went to his room where I imagined he'd be doing his homework or playing his videogames. Instead, I found him hanging by an extension cord tied around his neck.
He was 11 years old.
Carl liked football and basketball and playing video games with his little brother. He loved the Lord and he loved his family.
What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life?
That question haunts me to this day, and I will probably never know the answer.
What we do know is that Carl was being bullied relentlessly at school. He had just started middle school in September, and we had high hopes, but I knew something was wrong, almost from the start.
He didn't want to tell me what was bothering him, but I kept at him, and he finally told me that kids at school were pushing him around, calling him names, saying he acted "gay," and calling him "faggot."
Hearing that, my heart just broke for him. And I was furious.
So I called the school right away and told them about the situation. I expected they would be just as upset as I was, but instead, they told me it was just ordinary social interaction that would work itself out.
I desperately wish they had been right.
I did everything that a parent is supposed to: I chose a "good" school; I joined the parent-teacher organization; I went to every parent-teacher conference; I called the school on a regular basis to bring the bullying problem to the staff's attention.
But the school did not act. The teachers did not know how to respond.
After Carl died, I was devastated. More than anything, I wanted to do something to make sure his death hadn’t been in vain, but I didn’t know where to start … and I wasn’t sure that anyone really cared.
So I can’t tell you what it meant to me, when only days after Carl died, I received a letter from Eliza Byard and GLSEN, which stands for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
It was the first letter I’d received. I have to admit, I was a little confused. My son Carl didn’t identify as gay or straight. He was still a child. But it was such a comfort to hear that I was not alone.
It was the start of a personal journey I never imagined I’d take.
Over the past two years I have learned so much and GLSEN has shown me ways that I can truly make a difference.
I have learned that the taunts that my son faced are a daily part of life for too many students – more than four out of five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report experiencing verbal harassment at school because of their sexual orientation. At least a third reported facing physical violence.
Students who experience this kind of bias and violence are more likely to have lower grades, more likely to skip school, and less likely to plan to graduate and go on to college than students who do not face the same discrimination.
And as I learned more about the problem, I’ve also learned about the solutions.
Bullying is not an inevitable part of growing up. It can be prevented.
Educators need additional support and clear guidance about how to ensure that all kids feel safe in school.
That is why I have chosen to advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act – federal legislation that would make effective anti-bullying policies mandatory in nearly every school in the United States.
And when I say effective, I mean policies that have been shown to correlate with reduced victimization and a greater sense of safety and belonging for ALL students–anti-bullying policies that include enumerated categories of protection, such as race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and any other distinguishing characteristic.
If you don’t name the problem, schools don’t act—especially, if they are afraid of the controversy that can surround particular issues, like sexual orientation.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act currently has bipartisan support with 130 cosponsors in the House and 13 cosponsors in the Senate. The Act is supported by the National Safe Schools Partnership, a GLSEN-led coalition of more than 70 national organizations, including:
The National Association of School Psychologists
The American Federation of Teachers
The National Council of La Raza
Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America
I know that the only way to end this destructive bullying is to find common ground, and passing comprehensive federal legislation will offer a significant step forward in reaching that objective.
In the 1950s when the federal courts ordered schools to desegregate, African American students were subjected to bullying that today shocks most of us. Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School talked about the crowd of adults who greeted them on their first day,
“They moved closer and closer ... Somebody started yelling ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
What used to be considered acceptable behavior in parts in the United States is now considered detestable to all but the most racist among us. And yet, it continues to be difficult for our society to understand the damage that is being done today when we accept bullying in our schools.
We can’t know how Dr. King would have reacted to this situation where the bullying of children over their real or perceived sexual orientation has come to such tragic consequences. But we do know that Dr. King was concerned with justice and equality. We know that he changed our perception that if you’re “different” the majority of people can treat you differently. We know that he believed we are connected to each other.
He said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
I like to think that Dr. King would have been a leader in the fight against bullying because he understood how important education was – for the oppressor as well as the oppressed. I imagine he would have counseled the kids tormented at school as he once encouraged African Americans, to assert their dignity and worth. In his It Gets Better video, he might have drawn on his earlier call to “stand up amidst a system that oppresses you and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.”
Early in Dr. King’s career, his main advisor and mentor was Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who had studied the teachings of Gandhi. Rustin was openly gay and that fact led many of Dr. King’s advisors to demand that he distance himself from Rustin.
Some of my closest and dearest friends and family members protested that I should not align myself with a “gay” organization. So you see, even we adults have not yet learned that sexual orientation is not cause for alarm or fear, or even hate.
If we had learned this – if we had embraced Dr. King’s hope that we would judge people by the content of their character above all else – our children wouldn’t suffer with homophobic taunts. They would not be treated badly, and they wouldn’t be ashamed to be different from the majority. And we would co-exist without the need to pull others down, threaten them, or drive them to despair.
My partnership with GLSEN has helped me see that this issue is about what kind of learning environments we want for our children and how far we’re willing to go to protect and teach them.
In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”
My son was denied a lifetime of opportunities.
Dr. King was able to persevere because, as he said, he had faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. And I hope that’s true for those of us who have lost our children.
But I feel that Dr. King’s call for change applies to this issue, today. “Now…is not the time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
So I will continue my work to build awareness of this critical issue. I will also continue to be an involved parent in my children’s education—I must not fail my children or anyone else’s child.
And I will continue to advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, to provide schools and educators with the tools and resources that they need to more effectively intervene.
So in closing, I thank you once again for the honor of this opportunity. I ask each of you to think of others as equals so that we come closer to Dr. King’s dream of a country where we all live together in brotherhood, and to please do everything in your power to help us to put a stop to school bullying.
From GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard (@ebyard).
Welcome to 2011, the year we will put an end to the casual and unthinking use of anti-LGBT language. And what can you do to start this year and this effort off right? Take a moment to say "Thank you" to Reggie Bush, star running back for the NFL's New Orleans Saints.
Last week, Bush took a moment to think about the phrase "No Homo," which he senses is becoming more and more popular. He asked his twitter followers if they thought the phrase was offensive to gay people. The answer from the twitterverse was a resounding yes. Bush's conclusion, tweeted out to the world:
(For the record, research bears out Bush’s informal poll results. 85% of LGBT youth who had heard "no homo" said the phrase caused them to feel bothered or distressed to some degree, according to our 2009 National School Climate Survey.)
When someone like Reggie Bush speaks, young people listen. And he has set a terrific example about being willing to think before you speak that needs to be known far and wide.
Many of us are still reeling from the fall's brutual drumbeat of bad news about bullying in our schools and suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, not to mention the frenzy of media attention that followed. Here's a chance to start the New Year focused on the positive change that must come out of last year's horror, by thanking a friend for taking a step that could make a huge difference in the crucial battle to make respect for all - despite our differences - the rule, rather than the exception, in our schools.
All of GLSEN’s work is designed to do just that. This month will mark GLSEN's eighth annual No Name-Calling Week (January 24-28), designed to get K-12 students to end name-calling of all kinds. I can think of no better message or example than Reggie Bush's to lead us into No Name-Calling Week, or to get us started on all of the work ahead in this critical year. (Join the conversation on the NNCW Facebook page.)
Happy New Year, and thank you, Reggie Bush.
(If you're on Twitter, please take a moment to thank @reggie_bush personally using the hashtag #thanksreggiebush.)
>My name is Joey Kemmerling, and I am a junior at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pennsylvania. I am also a GLSEN Ambassador, speaking out against the anti-LGBT bullying I have endured for four years.
I’m writing to tell you that students like me desperately need people like you — people willing to support the essential work of GLSEN, so they are not alone in their struggles.
When I came out to a few friends in the eighth grade one day, the entire school knew about it by the next morning. Nearly every day since, I’ve been subjected to snickering, name-calling, threats, shunning and outright hate from my peers. From my teachers, I got virtually nothing — no support, and certainly no intervention. One school administrator’s “solution” was to ask me to be “a little less gay.” I have since graduated to my local high school, and while the teachers are more accepting, the administration is not.
I decided to become a little more the person I am. And your support for GLSEN and its programs made a huge difference. I took a leadership role in my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I set up a Facebook page and web site (theequalityproject.net) where students and our allies can support one another and organize for positive change. (Guess what — the site is blocked on my school’s computers, even though “God Hates Fags” is still accessible.)
I created an assembly presentation about bullying and my own experience, and have presented it to schools and groups all over my area. And I have worked with GLSEN to get the word out to Congress, state legislators, the media, parents groups and the public at large about just how huge and dangerous anti-gay bullying is in our country. I honestly believe most people have no idea how many kids suffer, and how much that suffering destroys their spirits, their grades and their faith in the future.
In addition to thanking you for being a part of GLSEN, I want to ask you to support GLSEN once again. As we look at our lives and the things that matter most to us, solutions to the epidemic of bullying are high on my list. I hope they are for you, too. If so, GLSEN needs your help.
The bullying in my school hasn’t stopped. But I’m much more able to deal with it, because of my own resolve and hope, and because of the extraordinary support I have received from GLSEN.
In closing, I wish you a happy holiday season and a safe new year — for all of us.
Council Rock High School
North Newtown, Pennsylvania
P.S. When I first contacted GLSEN, I wasn’t sure that a national organization like it would take the time to help someone like me. But it was just the opposite. The entire GLSEN team at its New York headquarters took me under their wing, and gave me the support and encouragement I needed to stand up for myself. Today, I’m proud to be a GLSEN Ambassador, spreading the word about the crisis of bullying. I’m also spreading the word about how much GLSEN is counting on your special support today. Please give generously by clicking here. Thank you.
>GLSEN is pleased to announce that Google has joined that Safe Schools Movement as the newest GLSEN National Corporate partner, and released the following blog posting today in support of our work.
We believe the Internet can provide a safe space and resources for youth who are struggling with their identity and looking for help. And we’ve been happy to see products like YouTube being used to deliver messages of hope. There are many organizations out there doing an extraordinary job providing resources for LGBTQ youth, and we wanted to highlight a few as part of GLSEN’s National Ally Week: Trevor Project, GroundSpark’s Respect for All Project, the YouTube “It Gets Better” project and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. GLSEN’s Safe Space campaign page provides resources and support for educators, policy makers, community leaders and students to take action to make a positive difference. We recently made a $50,000 donation to the Trevor Project, in support of the Levi’s Challenge Grant announced on The Ellen DeGeneres Show—they will be matching up to $50,000 dollars in donations to the Trevor Project. We’ve also donated to GroundSpark and GLSEN. We hope that other companies and individuals will
consider doing the same.
This announcement comes on the heels of a significant financial commitment from Deutsche Bank. They join the ranks of longterm partners like Cisco, Wells Fargo and IBM who are making a positive impact in the lives of students nationwide. GLSEN commends the brave and bold stance these corporations are taking. We are seeing an outpouring of support from all walks of life — from the cast of Modern Family to the single mother of three in Springfield, Mass. — from the It Gets Better Project to the President of the United States. Please join us in our efforts to put an end to bullying and harassment once and for all at http://my.glsen.org/.
Google employees' It Gets Better video:
>I am so humbled by the attention my story has received in the past week, and grateful for all of the personal words of encouragement. Rightly, the focus will soon move from my story to the opportunity to galvanize all the support and love into action for those young people who are currently struggling.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth need hope for the future and help today. That’s why GLSEN’s work is so important. And that's why I'm asking you to take action now.
Visible adult support - at home, in school, in the community - is one of the most important lines of defense for a young person in crisis. GLSEN's Safe Space Campaign is designed to build that crucial lifeline in schools.
I urge you to visit the Safe Space website to take part in this campaign and send a Safe Space Kit to the school you attended, or that your child attends, or another school that you care about. With a Safe Space sticker to make supportive adults visible to the students who need them but may be too afraid to ask, and a guide to improve school climate for LGBT students, the Safe Space Kit helps concerned adults make a difference.
As I shared in my words last week, adults cannot look aside as young people struggle. The issue of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment is personal for me and must end. Click below to watch a PSA I have filmed for GLSEN to help get the message out.
The good news is that there are things we can do to help. Please visit GLSEN's website to learn more. Thank you to all of those who are doing their best every day, and for taking action now.
Councilman Joel Burns
Fort Worth, Texas
P.S. Join me in taking action; visit GLSEN's Safe Space Campaign website and send a Safe Space Kit to your local school today. I also would love for you to keep in touch with me; please visit joelburns.com.
This week, we sadly lost two young men who took their own lives for one unacceptable reason: they were being bullied and harassed because they were openly gay or believed to be gay. These unnecessary tragedies come on the heels of at least three other young people taking their own lives because the trauma of being bullied and harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation was too much to bear.
This is a moment where every one of us — parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience — needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms. Whether it’s students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the President of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop.
>With back-to-school season is in full swing, we thought this would be a good time to introduce our 2010-11 GLSEN Student Ambassadors, a diverse group of 18 LGBT and non-LGBT students who will serve as GLSEN spokesyouth throughout the school year in traditional and social media.
You'll see the students in GLSEN videos; on our blog, on Facebook and Twitter talking about safe schools and respect; telling their story in the news and at GLSEN events; and simply being all-around amazing young people.
We got a chance to get to know the Ambassadors in July at GLSEN's Media and Safe Schools Summit, a four-day summit to empower students to learn how they can use media to help raise awareness about the need to make schools safe and respectful for everyone. You can see a bit of the highlights in the fancy photo sideshow below.
The Ambassadors got a chance to attend a Sheryl Crow concert as part of the Good Morning America Summer Concert Series, visit with out TruTV executive Marc Juris and spend several hours over two days with out country music singer and all-around fantastic person Chely Wright. Entertainment Tonight covered Chely's visit.
We'll be telling you more about each of the Ambassadors over the coming weeks.
Alyssa M. from Illinois
Annmarie O. from New York
Brandon H. from Maryland
Dominique W. from Massachusetts
Jason G. from California
Jesse E. from Pennsylvania
Jesse T. from New York
Joey K. from Pennsylvania
Lily G. from New York
Loan T. from North Carolina
Margot P. from Washington
Moriah R. from Ohio
Nowmee S. from Georgia
Red O. from California
Richard W. from Ohio
Ryan T. from Colorado
Saad D. from Texas
Zac T. from California
GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, who has a PhD in United States History from Columbia University, gave her initial reaction yesterday to Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to overturn California's Proposition 8. Today, Dr. Byard takes a deeper look at the decision and what it means beyond ruling that same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry. Check back Monday for Dr. Byard's look at how schools factored into Judge Walker's decision and the Prop 8 proponents' flawed arguments.
Proponents of California's Proposition 8 argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry would lead to public schools teaching that same-sex marriages are equal to heterosexual marriages – an outcome that they saw as disastrous. By failing to offer a single scrap of credible evidence at trial in support of Proposition 8, they have ensured that generations of students will learn just that, in studying Judge Vaughn Walker's landmark decision in Perry v. Schwartzenegger. Above and beyond the decision’s clarity on the equal status of same-sex and heterosexual relationships, however, Judge Walker has made another crucial contribution to a vision of a better America with his opinion in this case. Hopefully this additional lesson will make its way into our schools as well.
At an event in New York City in June, David Boies was quite clear about his goal for the initial trial in this case: establish a factual record of great clarity on the central issues for the rounds of appeal to come. A trial attorney of unparalleled skill and experience, Boies spoke movingly of his love for the American system of justice, and particularly for the practice of cross-examination, which requires the witness on the stand to respond substantively to direct questions posed by their opponents. By taking the key questions on head on, and confronting opponents in the courtroom, far from the media echo chamber, Boies felt that our court system would allow the discussion to cut through the noise to the facts. David Blankenhorn, you're not on Hannity anymore.
Boies was right. Brietbart beware. Tea Partiers take note. Propagandists of all stripes, you are on notice. Amidst Judge Walker's many bold statements and findings of fact is a simple citation of Federal Rule of Evidence 702 that is in its own right no less bold an assertion. Rule 702 holds that in order to be considered an “expert” by the federal courts, and to have your opinions and statements be given legal weight, you must be qualified by “knowledge, skill, experience, training or education,” and your testimony may only be admitted if it “is based upon sufficient facts or data” and “is the product of reliable principles and methods.” In simpler terms, you have to know what you’re talking about. In a society inundated with undifferentiated "content" and opinions often bolstered by nothing more than sheer volume, Judge Walker has reminded us of the standard by which information should be evaluated and categorized.
Whatever the impact of this ruling on the content of the curriculum vis-a-vis same-sex marriage, one can only hope that it will contribute to a fundamental renaissance of knowledge, expertise and respectful debate. If there is one thing that students in this diverse society should learn about in public schools, it is how to articulate and defend their points of view in a respectful, relevant and cogent way in the public square. Should Judge Walker's opinion prevail through many rounds of appeal, he will have left a truly monumental legacy. One element of that legacy will be his reassertion of the difference in standing between opinion and fact in a Constitutional system, and the grounding in reality required to give either credence and meaning in public discourse.
>We're still reading through the Prop 8 decision and hope to have deeper analysis tomorrow, but here's a quick take from GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, who has a PhD in United States History from Columbia University.
This historic decision will one day be part of every student's curriculum. It represents a remarkably clear and unequivocal statement about the reach and meaning of constitutional protections heretofore not applied to the issue of marriage or to the standing of lesbian and gay people before the courts.