At last night’s Human Rights Campaign National Dinner in Washington D.C., Ricky Martin was the crowd’s first surprise, welcoming them to the black tie affair. (The gays were agog, trust.) But it was all eyes on White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, introduced by Joe Solmonese, to see where she would take the dialogue between the Obama administration and Gay Inc. She kept it about the kids.
“There is no greater loss – and we have lost too many in just the past few months,” Jarrett told the crowd. “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.”
Aside from a few passing remarks about DADT and DOMA — which she’s previously shirked responsibility for — and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, Jarrett kept the focus on America’s youth, saying in part:
[T]he 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.
It was a poignant and appropriate message coming from the top. (The entire speech was posted by Brian Bond, the White House’s de facto gay liaison, on WhiteHouse.gov under the headline “It Gets Better.”) But it will remain to be seen whether it’s a token gesture from the White House to recognize these LGBT youth deaths without actually moving to prevent them. Jarrett insisted in her speech that isn’t the case:
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.
Surely we’ll soon have more to hear from the all but silent Kevin Jennings.