Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
Thank you Rabbi and thank you Jody for that warm introduction – and thank you all for that wonderful reception. It’s great to be here with you today.
As an English teacher, I like to share some of my favorite quotations – and so I would like to start today with some inspiring words from Margaret Mead who famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Doesn’t this quote embody the spirit of PFLAG — which started nearly 40 years ago with one voice – a mother’s voice -who spoke out courageously in support of her gay son?
That simple act ignited a movement …and today, because of the work that you do, there are hundreds of thousands of voices across this country raised in support of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
I recently read an open letter written from a PFLAG father to America’s youth. He wrote, “My wife and I have two sons. We think that they are the best kids in the whole world. They’re very different, with very diverse personalities, talents, and interests. One of the other things that makes them different is that one is straight and one is gay. But the important thing is this: we love them equally.”
At its core – it’s such a simple message – “we love our sons” – both of them. But that acceptance and support can make all the difference.
And as you all know well – acceptance by those you love is the greatest acceptance of all.
As a teacher and a mom, I know what Jeanne Manford knew- that there is a direct connection between acceptance and positive, healthy outcomes in every important area of life, including education, mental health, and physical health. So I’m particularly happy to join you all today not only as Second Lady, but as a mother and also as an educator.
As was mentioned, I’ve been a teacher for longer than I care to admit…I’ve taught as a reading specialist in public high schools and I’ve tutored at-risk teens at a psychiatric hospital in Delaware. I believe the greatest accomplishment of any teacher is not instructing students how to read or how to understand biology, but giving them the confidence to do the work. Instilling that belief in themselves is the key – not only for learning in the classroom, but for succeeding in life.
We all know that self-confidence can be a challenge for youth and adolescents – even under the best of circumstances. These are the years when all kids are trying to figure out who they are and who they hope to be. For children who are struggling with understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity, the teen years can be particularly challenging. And, of course, kids are not always kind to each other during these times, especially when one of them is different.
As an English teacher, I have my students write about themselves in their journals. Through those journal entries and my conversations with them, I have heard first-hand about this kind of pain and anxiety. And I have seen how this situation makes it almost impossible for students to concentrate on their school work. How can we expect kids who are taunted by their classmates to flourish in an academic environment?
We have all heard painful stories of bullying and harassment. And we have read too many accounts of heartbreaking incidents where kids are driven to take their own lives rather than endure the taunting of their peers. No child should be subjected to that. And no parent should suffer that horrific loss.
We know the devastating price of the failure to confront a hostile school climate where bullying and harassment can be daily occurrences. Together, we all need to stand up and do our part to keep all of our kids safe, and give them the love, support and acceptance they need to learn and grow and fulfill their dreams.
I’m proud of the progress the Obama Administration has made in the last two years for the LGBT community – including the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The White House also held a Conference on Bullying Prevention, and the Department of Education has held summits on this issue as well, and issued guidance to help combat bullying in schools and support Gay Straight Alliances.
This progress is important, but there is still more to do. At this critical time for education in our country, we need to ensure that our schools are producing the next generation of American leaders and heroes. We must insure that our classrooms are safer for all students to learn, grow, and thrive.
I want to say to each of you here today: thank you for raising your voice and working together to open minds, shift attitudes and support all of our sons and daughters, students and neighbors.
Some of you come from places where yours is the only voice of support and acceptance – but when you speak, people listen. And we need you to keep speaking out, to keep shining a light on this important issue.
When I told friends that I would be speaking at this Conference today, one of them explained how important PFLAG was in his own personal journey. He grew up in a traditional family in a small town in rural America. As a young adult, he attended a PFLAG meeting when he was struggling with his identity – he came home and left the PFLAG materials in a drawer. The materials conveyed what he could not. His parents eventually understood and embraced him for who he was – thanks in no small part to the power of this organization’s work. He – like the loved ones of everyone in this room – is one of the lucky ones.
As parents, friends, and families, you have the power to change hearts and minds with your stories of success and failure, tragedy and triumph. I commend you and hope you will all keep up this important work.
On behalf of the President, Vice President, and all of us at the White House, thank you for your courage and commitment — and for promoting the dignity of your sons and daughters.