Amidst celebrating the accomplishments of the LGBT community at this year's Equality Illinois "Justice for All" gala, we never expected to feel attacked or offended, but that's exactly what happenedand the insult came all the way from a representative of the president of the United States.
President Obama's senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, in her otherwise inspirational keynote speech, stood at the podium and, before a captivated crowd, blamed teachers for the suicide of a young gay boy. The boy had already come out to his supportive family but still took his life due to the bullying he experienced at his school. Jarrett said that the teachers at his school turned a blind eye to the bullying and were, therefore, partly culpable for his death. This allegation neatly wraps a complex issue without even calling into question the actions of the administrators at his school or the district leadership.
When you unwrap this nicely packaged suggestion, you find it is patently unfair and untrue. The teachers and other adults responsible for that boy at school may have known about the bullying but the sheer fact that a gay child, even with a supportive family, didn't feel comfortable reporting the abuse is testament not to the failure of his teachers, but rather our society as a whole. It is time to honestly deal with the culture of violence we foster and perpetuate and realize that bullying is a national disgrace that should get our full efforts to correct.
Bullying is an especially critical issue for members and advocates of the LGBT community because queer children are disproportionately impacted by this shameful phenomenon. Nine out of 10 LGBT kids are harassed or bullied at school. They are skipping school, dropping out and, tragically, committing suicide.
As teachers, we know there are other systemic issues at play, including administrators who do not provide anti-bullying training for teachers and other school employees. It disheartens us to see teachers become the scapegoat for a problem that is everyone's responsibility. Until school district officials nationwide recognize that bullying is a problem and provide the necessary tools for teachers and other school employees to combat bullying, the problem will persist.
The Chicago Teachers Union ( CTU ) LGBT Rights Committee ( of which we are members ) is working to garner support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act ( SNDA ) . This measure prohibits LGBT discrimination in schools. The beauty of this bill is that it will make it better for students who identify or who are perceived to be LGBT and is designed to support equal rights for all students.
The committee plans to lobby Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to become a co-sponsor of the Senate bill when his health has improved and he returns to office. The SNDA already has the support of 36 other senators, including Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The companion bill in the House of Representatives has 155 co-sponsors, including all but one member of the Chicago contingent ( Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill ) . In addition, there is a large and growing coalition of national and state organizations that support these bills.
For the first time ever, the CTU purchased a table at the gala. There was such a showing of support that our table of 10 actually held 11. We happily squeezed in to celebrate the advances we have been fighting so hard to achieve and benefit from. We were shocked and dismayed that at a place where we expected to feel safe and embraced, we were vilified, scapegoated and, in effect, bullied.
Mel Ferrand and Carrie Maxwell are members of the Chicago Teachers Union and freelance writers for Windy City Times.