June 21, 2012
Student Recounts this Month’s White House LGBT Reception
This guest post was written by Alex Sennello, a rising senior at Lake Forest High School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Alex works with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, is a GSA leader and is currently working to form a nonprofit that advocates for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
I was very surprised, when I got a Facebook message from GLSEN back in April which read something a little like “Call me as soon as you can, I have something to ask you.” Most of me automatically assumed it would be something good, but when I snuck away during my lunch period to dial the individual who had messaged me, I certainly did not expect to be offered an invite to President Obama’s Pride Month reception at the White House.
As a longtime community journalist and activist in the Chicago area working with my school’s QSA, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, the GoPride news network, and a number of other organizations both locally and nationally, I had been offered the chance to attend GLSEN’s 2012 Safe Schools Advocacy Summit in DC, where I provided news coverage and learned basic lobbying skills in order to better advocate for safe schools legislation like the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act.
Perhaps the word “invite” isn’t quite the correct way for me to to describe the opportunity I had been offered, because it isn’t the type of thing I would dare to reject — I struggled to hold back my excitement as I attempted to sound cool and learn of the details. I finely agreed. The hardest part of everything was having to stay quiet, something that doesn’t come naturally to me, about the offer for almost a month while everything was being finalized.
Fast forward to mid June — my outfit has been planned, plane tickets have been acquired, the White House has received every piece of identifying information on file with the State Department and the Office of Social Security, I have received a very formal invitation in the mail, and I am more than ready to go.
The events started early on Friday, the 15th of March. Accompanied by my mother and Nathan Smith of GLSEN, I had quick, and remarkably positive, visit to the office of my district’s representative, Robert Dold (R-IL), who recently joined the anti-bullying caucus started by Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), but has yet to officially sign onto the Safe Schools Improvement Act which would create federal standards for protecting all students from bullying and harassment in school.
As an added bonus, those invited to the reception had the opportunity to attend any or all of three briefings; the Obama Administration Efforts on HIV/AIDS, the Presidential Appointment Process, and Safety & Health for LGBTQ Youth. Due to the congressional visit, I was unable to attend the briefing on HIV/AIDS, but I eagerly attended the two preceding briefings on the appointment process and queer youth issues.
The briefing on the appointment process was nowhere near pertinent to the seventeen-year-old me, but hearing about the administration’s efforts to find individuals with backgrounds and experiences that reflect the diversity of our nation and how I may one day be able to serve my community and country through a position in government was an empowering experience.
After trailing my mom around the Eisenhower Executive building in her frenzy to find the White House Gift shop, and meeting up with fellow GLSEN White House invitee Nia Farmer who had taken part in the 2012 Students of Color Organizing Summit, I worked my way upstairs to an ornate room for the briefing LGBT health and safety. The panel giving the briefing where members of various government organizations ranging from the Department of Education to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
We were alerted to all of the newest plans to combat issues of queer youth substance and alcohol abuse, homelessness, bullying, and suicide. Afterwards there was a very active question and answer session which my mother and I contributed to enthusiastically. Once questions closed the panel took an opportunity to thank everyone for their work with queer youth issues, specifically pausing to thank my peers and I for our work and courage that earned us our spots in the conversation.
Soon after grabbing a bite to eat it was time to work our way towards the White House for the reception. The lines were long, security was tight, and the place was packed, but the individuals present were unlike any crowd I have ever been around- everyone you spoke with had done something amazing to share. Among many others, I met politicians who had become the first out elected officials in their states, filmmakers and writers who create thought provoking media, and individuals who have pushed our fight for equality further than we ever thought possible.
Although we have done remarkable things, the fight is far from over, but as president Obama told the crowd in attendance , “We will get there. We’ll get there because of all of you. We’ll get there because of all of the ordinary Americans who every day show extraordinary courage. We’ll get there because of every man and woman and activist and ally who is moving us forward by the force of their moral arguments, but more importantly, by the force of their example.”
Here are some photos that Alex took from the reception.