“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well,” President Obama said yesterday in his second inaugural address.
This week, the LGBT community witnessed a profound moment when President Obama said the word gay. It sounds simple. However, if you have never been on the outside looking in or always felt that you belonged to a larger, more accepted group, you may not fully understand the impact of the moment. Some of you may not even care. According to Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post, “President Obama on Monday became the first president to use the word “gay” as a reference to sexual orientation in an inaugural address, declaring the movement for equality to be part of the pantheon of America’s great civil rights struggles.”
It was a profound moment because all too often the word gay is used in a very different context. It can be used in a derogatory way to put people down or to bully others. It is often used to make fun of someone and may be followed with a physical assault. Even young children use the word “gay” pejoratively and although they may not always it’s explicit meaning, they understand it as an insult.
On Monday, though, the word gay was used in a very positive way to address the fact that the LGBT community does not have equality across the country. In fact, in the New York Times, Kim Severson wrote that in Georgia, “public money is being spent by private educational institutions that “punish, denounce and even demonize students in the name of religion solely because they are gay, state that they are homosexual, happen to have same-sex parents or guardians, or express support or tolerance for gay students at school, away from school or at home.”
Given stories like that, there is little wonder why the LGBT community had such a proud moment when they heard the President speak so passionately about equality. The President’s use of the word gay is so much more than just the words use. It’s the fact that there is a President trying to fight for the rights of a group that have long been marginalized. The LGBT population now has high hopes that the tide of discrimination is changing.
Some LGBT youth may not yet understand the full impact of the President’s words. They enter a school that is inclusive and go home to a supportive family that loves them. Other LGBT youth understand how historic President Obama’s words were and hope that it changes their present situation because they attend schools that are un-supportive and have peers who are hostile. They may even live in houses with a family that will disown them for who they are.
A 2011 Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study found that, “Despite signs of progress, the survey found that the majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns” (Kosciw).
We have heard too many stories in the past few years involving LGBT youth who have taken their lives because they were bullied and harassed at school or at home. A few states have taken the steps of creating laws to help end the senseless bullying. New York State created the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), requiring all schools to safeguard and protect students from bullying based on sexual orientation and gender expression. The president’s speech only helps further the cause of protecting this marginalized group. Hopefully it will provide some hope to the LGBT youth who feel very alone.
In Arthur Lipkin’s book, “The Case for a Gay and Lesbian Curriculum,” Lipkin writes,“No one should underestimate the value of teachers’ including gay people when they talk with students about cultural diversity. Just hearing the words “homosexuality” or “gay/lesbian/bisexual” in an accepting context sends a powerful message to young people, and creates the potential for a tolerant environment.”
It no longer just involves teachers and administrators. President Obama’s inaugural address sent an outstanding message to the entire LGBT community. The President, however, was not always so passionate about gay rights. Early in his presidency he did not support gay marriage. Over the course of his first term, he changed his mind and announced that his view on the subject was always evolving.
His evolution somewhat mirrors that of others in our society. With exposure to a group and open dialogue about equality comes change.
Although pockets of society have been more accepting over the years, the President’s 2013 inaugural address added more hope and even more acceptance. His speech will be something the LGBT community will remember for a very long time.
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is a principal in upstate, N.Y. and writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week. He is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press. 2012). Connect with Peter on Twitter at @PMDeWitt or at www.petermdewitt.com.