Elizabeth Taylor – Words To Live By

elizabeth taylor

“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” – Elizabeth Taylor

Daily Prompt: Charitable – It Gets Better

Daily Prompt: Charitable

Today’s Daily Prompt writing exercise is:

You’ve inherited $5 million, with instructions that you must give it all away — but you can choose any organizations you like to be the beneficiaries. Where does the money go?

it-gets-better

I would gladly donate every last cent of that five million to the It Gets Better Project and feel lucky to be able to help.  Even without the $5M, you can see me at the gym in a “It Gets Better” tshirt and the South Kitsap High School Library has received a “It Gets Better” book from me.  I hope they kept it.

Growing up isn’t easy. Many young people face daily tormenting and bullying, leading them to feel like they have nowhere to turn. This is especially true for LGBT kids and teens, who often hide their sexuality for fear of bullying. Without other openly gay adults and mentors in their lives, they can’t imagine what their future may hold. In many instances, gay and lesbian adolescents are taunted — even tortured — simply for being themselves.

While many of these teens couldn’t see a positive future for themselves, we can. The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.

I have written about my school bullies and my own It Gets Better story, you can read it HERE.

You can get involved with the project HERE.  Donate.  Share.  Anything.  The internet has connected everyone, no one needs to feel alone anymore.  Kids do not have the perspective of time and distance.  We need to tell them that what they are feeling right now will be just a blip on the timeline of their lives, their wonderful amazing lives.

2012 Year In Review

2012 is so over.  I have compiled a month-by-month list of the ‘Best of SPA/Waldina” and posted it below.  I love best/worst lists at the end of the year.  In fact, I included some that I found over the internet at the end of this post.  I hope 2013 is astonishingly kick ass for you.

Instagram. We love it. We hate it. I have chosen one photo of a moderately artsy nature (less faces and such) from each month of 2012. There is a link to my Instagram profile on the right-side navigation bar, I am parkeranderson.

Now let’s take a look at my favorite blog post from each month.  Amongst all the Style Icons and Not So Secret Obsessions, I have chosen the ones that I like the most.  Or the ones that I think are worth a second look.  I may be re-fry some of them for 2013, but for now these are my favorites of 2012:

JANUARY:  Screwball – If you have a chance, you should see “Holiday.”  It is probably one of my very favorite screwball comedies, although choosing one is impossible.  You could just add everything that George Cukor directed to your Netflix and that is a great start.

FEBRUARY “Mrs de Florian – Style Icon” – For 70 years the Parisian apartment had been left uninhabited, under lock and key, the rent faithfully paid but no hint of what was inside.

MARCH:  “Open Letter To Politicians.” – I want to cast my vote for who I believe in the most, not for who I disagree with the least.

APRIL:  “Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever” – Every day the world consumes 300 tones of caffeine – enough for one cup of coffee for every man, woman and child.

MAY:  “Tornado” – Tragedy blows through your life like a tornado, uprooting everything, creating chaos. You wait for the dust to settle, and then you choose. You can live in the wreckage and pretend it’s still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild. Because after disaster strikes, the important thing is that you move on. But if you’re like me, you just keep chasing the storm.

JUNE:  “Forgetting Does Not Mean Forgiving: A Father’s Day Message” – Be the parent you wanted, not the one you had.

JULY:  “But I’ d rather know a shover than a pusher ’cause a pusher’s a jerk.” – I came to a realization this weekend.  It’s not that I don’t like children as much as it is I really don’t like some of their parents.

AUGUST:  “What Was Saved” – Your house is burning. You have to get out fast. Suddenly you are forced to prioritize, editing down a lifetime of possessions to a mere handful. Now you must decide: Of all the things you own, what is most important to you?

SEPTEMBER:  “The Art of Coffee: A Mad Men Era Short Film” – How, then, do we make the perfect cup of coffee to our taste? Success lies in a single word: Care.

OCTOBER:  “Karl Lagerfeld – Humanity’s Antagonist” – “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?”

NOVEMBER“Daily Prompt: Last Words (of Advice)” – “Never tell anyone you collect frogs.”

DECEMBER:  “Stick Figure Model Confidential – Fire” – I like the end results of the shoot and think that my work here will save lives.  That’s what it is all about, isn’t it?

2012 LISTS

Best Books of 2012 by GoodReads (voted by readers)

Ten Greats We Lost In 2012 by EOnline

Top Wikipedial Searches for 2012  by The Washington Post

The Most Compelling LGBT People of 2012 by The Huffington Post

Anti-LGBT Villains of 2012 by The Huffington Post

But this is by far the best of 2012:

“One Town’s War on Gay Teens” – Rolling Stone

One Town’s War on Gay Teens | Politics News | Rolling Stone.

Every morning, Brittany Geldert stepped off the bus and bolted through the double doors of Fred Moore Middle School, her nerves already on high alert, bracing for the inevitable.

“Dyke.”

Pretending not to hear, Brittany would walk briskly to her locker, past the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who loitered in menacing packs.

“Whore.”

Like many 13-year-olds, Brittany knew seventh grade was a living hell. But what she didn’t know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area. When Christian activists who considered gays an abomination forced a measure through the school board forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in the district’s public schools, kids like Brittany were unknowingly thrust into the heart of a clash that was about to become intertwined with tragedy.

Brittany didn’t look like most girls in blue-collar Anoka, Minnesota, a former logging town on the Rum River, a conventional place that takes pride in its annual Halloween parade – it bills itself the “Halloween Capital of the World.” Brittany was a low-voiced, stocky girl who dressed in baggy jeans and her dad’s Marine Corps sweatshirts. By age 13, she’d been taunted as a “cunt” and “cock muncher” long before such words had made much sense. When she told administrators about the abuse, they were strangely unresponsive, even though bullying was a subject often discussed in school-board meetings. The district maintained a comprehensive five-page anti-bullying policy, and held diversity trainings on racial and gender sensitivity. Yet when it came to Brittany’s harassment, school officials usually told her to ignore it, always glossing over the sexually charged insults. Like the time Brittany had complained about being called a “fat dyke”: The school’s principal, looking pained, had suggested Brittany prepare herself for the next round of teasing with snappy comebacks – “I can lose the weight, but you’re stuck with your ugly face” – never acknowledging she had been called a “dyke.” As though that part was OK. As though the fact that Brittany was bisexual made her fair game.

So maybe she was a fat dyke, Brittany thought morosely; maybe she deserved the teasing. She would have been shocked to know the truth behind the adults’ inaction: No one would come to her aid for fear of violating the districtwide policy requiring school personnel to stay “neutral” on issues of homosexuality. All Brittany knew was that she was on her own, vulnerable and ashamed, and needed to find her best friend, Samantha, fast.

Like Brittany, eighth-grader Samantha Johnson was a husky tomboy too, outgoing with a big smile and a silly streak to match Brittany’s own. Sam was also bullied for her look – short hair, dark clothing, lack of girly affect – but she merrily shrugged off the abuse. When Sam’s volleyball teammates’ taunting got rough – barring her from the girls’ locker room, yelling, “You’re a guy!” – she simply stopped going to practice. After school, Sam would encourage Brittany to join her in privately mocking their tormentors, and the girls would parade around Brittany’s house speaking in Valley Girl squeals, wearing bras over their shirts, collapsing in laughter. They’d become as close as sisters in the year since Sam had moved from North Dakota following her parents’ divorce, and Sam had quickly become Brittany’s beacon. Sam was even helping to start a Gay Straight Alliance club, as a safe haven for misfits like them, although the club’s progress was stalled by the school district that, among other things, was queasy about the club’s flagrant use of the word “gay.” Religious conservatives have called GSAs “sex clubs,” and sure enough, the local religious right loudly objected to them. “This is an assault on moral standards,” read one recent letter to the community paper. “Let’s stop this dangerous nonsense before it’s too late and more young boys and girls are encouraged to ‘come out’ and practice their ‘gayness’ right in their own school’s homosexual club.”

Brittany admired Sam’s courage, and tried to mimic her insouciance and stoicism. So Brittany was bewildered when one day in November 2009, on the school bus home, a sixth-grade boy slid in next to her and asked quaveringly, “Did you hear Sam said she’s going to kill herself?”

Brittany considered the question. No way. How many times had she seen Sam roll her eyes and announce, “Ugh, I’m gonna kill myself” over some insignificant thing? “Don’t worry, you’ll see Sam tomorrow,” Brittany reassured her friend as they got off the bus. But as she trudged toward her house, she couldn’t stop turning it over in her mind. A boy in the district had already committed suicide just days into the school year – TJ Hayes, a 16-year-old at Blaine High School – so she knew such things were possible. But Sam Johnson? Brittany tried to keep the thought at bay. Finally, she confided in her mother.

“This isn’t something you kid about, Brittany,” her mom scolded, snatching the kitchen cordless and taking it down the hall to call the Johnsons. A minute later she returned, her face a mask of shock and terror. “Honey, I’m so sorry. We’re too late,” she said tonelessly as Brittany’s knees buckled; 13-year-old Sam had climbed into the bathtub after school and shot herself in the mouth with her own hunting rifle. No one at school had seen her suicide coming.

No one saw the rest of them coming, either.

Sam’s death lit the fuse of a suicide epidemic that would take the lives of nine local students in under two years, a rate so high that child psychologist Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, declared the Anoka-Hennepin school district the site of a “suicide cluster,” adding that the crisis might hold an element of contagion; suicidal thoughts had become catchy, like a lethal virus. “Here you had a large number of suicides that are really closely connected, all within one school district, in a small amount of time,” explains Reidenberg. “Kids started to feel that the normal response to stress was to take your life.”

There was another common thread: Four of the nine dead were either gay or perceived as such by other kids, and were reportedly bullied. The tragedies come at a national moment when bullying is on everyone’s lips, and a devastating number of gay teens across the country are in the news for killing themselves. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian kids are frighteningly high, with attempt rates four times that of their straight counterparts; studies show that one-third of all gay youth have attempted suicide at some point (versus 13 percent of hetero kids), and that internalized homophobia contributes to suicide risk.

Against this supercharged backdrop, the Anoka-Hennepin school district finds itself in the spotlight not only for the sheer number of suicides but because it is accused of having contributed to the death toll by cultivating an extreme anti-gay climate. “LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school,” says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. “They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied. And there’s no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of five students, alleging the school district’s policies on gays are not only discriminatory, but also foster an environment of unchecked anti-gay bullying. The Department of Justice has begun a civil rights investigation as well. The Anoka-Hennepin school district declined to comment on any specific incidences but denies any discrimination, maintaining that its broad anti-bullying policy is meant to protect all students. “We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating,” says superintendent Dennis Carlson, who blames right-wingers and gay activists for choosing the area as a battleground, describing the district as the victim in this fracas. “People are using kids as pawns in this political debate,” he says. “I find that abhorrent.”

Ironically, that’s exactly the charge that students, teachers and grieving parents are hurling at the school district. “Samantha got caught up in a political battle that I didn’t know about,” says Sam Johnson’s mother, Michele. “And you know whose fault it is? The people who make their living off of saying they’re going to take care of our kids.”

Located a half-hour north of Minneapolis, the 13 sprawling towns that make up the Anoka-Hennepin school district – Minnesota’s largest, with 39,000 kids – seems an unlikely place for such a battle. It’s a soothingly flat, 172-square-mile expanse sliced by the Mississippi River, where woodlands abruptly give way to strip malls and then fall back to ­placid woodlands again, and the landscape is dotted with churches. The district, which spans two counties, is so geographically huge as to be a sort of cross section of America itself, with its small minority population clustered at its southern tip, white suburban sprawl in its center and sparsely populated farmland in the north. It also offers a snapshot of America in economic crisis: In an area where just 20 percent of adults have college educations, the recession hit hard, and foreclosures and unemployment have become the norm.

For years, the area has also bred a deep strain of religious conservatism. At churches like First Baptist Church of Anoka, parishioners believe that homosexuality is a form of mental illness caused by family dysfunction, childhood trauma and exposure to pornography – a perversion curable through intensive therapy. It’s a point of view shared by their congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has called homosexuality a form of “sexual dysfunction” that amounts to “personal enslavement.” In 1993, Bachmann, a proponent of school prayer and creationism, co-founded the New Heights charter school in the town of Stillwater, only to flee the board amid an outcry that the school was promoting a religious curriculum. Bachmann also is affiliated with the ultraright Minnesota Family Council, headlining a fundraiser for them last spring alongside Newt Gingrich.

Though Bachmann doesn’t live within Anoka-Hennepin’s boundaries anymore, she has a dowdier doppelgänger there in the form of anti-gay crusader Barb Anderson. A bespectacled grandmother with lemony-blond hair she curls in severely toward her face, Anderson is a former district Spanish teacher and a longtime researcher for the MFC who’s been fighting gay influence in local schools for two decades, ever since she discovered that her nephew’s health class was teaching homosexuality as normal. “That really got me on a journey,” she said in a radio interview. When the Anoka-Hennepin district’s sex-ed curriculum came up for re-evaluation in 1994, Anderson and four like-minded parents managed to get on the review committee. They argued that any form of gay tolerance in school is actually an insidious means of promoting homosexuality – that openly discussing the matter would encourage kids to try it, turning straight kids gay.

“Open your eyes, people,” Anderson recently wrote to the local newspaper. “What if a 15-year-old is seduced into homosexual behavior and then contracts AIDS?” Her agenda mimics that of Focus on the Family, the national evangelical Christian organization founded by James Dobson; Family Councils, though technically independent of Focus on the Family, work on the state level to accomplish Focus’ core goals, including promoting prayer in public spaces, “defending marriage” by lobbying for anti-gay legislation, and fighting gay tolerance in public schools under the guise of preserving parental authority – reasoning that government-mandated acceptance of gays undermines the traditional values taught in Christian homes.

At the close of the seven-month-long sex-ed review, Anderson and her colleagues wrote a memo to the Anoka-Hennepin school board, concluding, “The majority of parents do not wish to have there [sic] children taught that the gay lifestyle is a normal acceptable alternative.” Surprisingly, the six-member board voted to adopt the measure by a four-to-two majority, even borrowing the memo’s language to fashion the resulting districtwide policy, which pronounced that within the health curriculum, “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.”

The policy became unofficially known as “No Homo Promo” and passed unannounced to parents and unpublished in the policy handbooks; most teachers were told about it by their principals. Teachers say it had a chilling effect and they became concerned about mentioning gays in any context. Discussion of homosexuality gradually disappeared from classes. “If you can’t talk about it in any context, which is how teachers interpret district policies, kids internalize that to mean that being gay must be so shameful and wrong,” says Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett. “And that has created a climate of fear and repression and harassment.”

Suicide is a complex phenomenon; there’s never any one pat reason to explain why anyone kills themselves. Michele Johnson acknowledges that her daughter, Sam, likely had many issues that combined to push her over the edge, but feels strongly that bullying was one of those factors. “I’m sure that Samantha’s decision to take her life had a lot to do with what was going on in school,” Johnson says tearfully. “I’m sure things weren’t perfect in other areas, but nothing was as bad as what was going on in that school.”

The summer before Justin Aaberg started at Anoka High School, his mother asked, “So, are you sure you’re gay?”

Justin, a slim, shy 14-year-old who carefully swept his blond bangs to the side like his namesake, Bieber, studied his mom’s face. “I’m pretty sure I’m gay,” he answered softly, then abruptly changed his mind. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait!” he shouted – out of character for the quiet boy – “I’m positive. I am gay,” Justin proclaimed.

“OK.” Tammy Aaberg nodded. “So. Just because you can’t get him pregnant doesn’t mean you don’t use protection.” She proceeded to lecture her son about safe sex while Justin turned bright red and beamed. Embarrassing as it was to get a sex talk from his mom, her easy affirmation of Justin’s orientation seemed like a promising sign as he stood on the brink of high school. Justin was more than ready to turn the corner on the horrors of middle school – especially on his just-finished eighth-grade year, when Justin had come out as gay to a few friends, yet word had instantly spread, making him a pariah. In the hall one day, a popular jock had grabbed Justin by the balls and squeezed, sneering, “You like that, don’t you?” That assault had so humiliated and frightened Justin that he’d burst out crying, but he never reported any of his harassment. The last thing he wanted to do was draw more attention to his sexuality. Plus, he didn’t want his parents worrying. Justin’s folks were already overwhelmed with stresses of their own: Swamped with debt, they’d declared bankruptcy and lost their home to foreclosure. So Justin had kept his problems to himself; he felt hopeful things would get better in high school, where kids were bound to be more mature.

“There’ll always be bullies,” he reasoned to a friend. “But we’ll be older, so maybe they’ll be better about it.”

But Justin’s start of ninth grade in 2009 began as a disappointment. In the halls of Anoka High School, he was bullied, called a “faggot” and shoved into lockers. Then, a couple of months into the school year, he was stunned to hear about Sam Johnson’s suicide. Though Justin hadn’t known her personally, he’d known of her, and of the way she’d been taunted for being butch. Justin tried to keep smiling. In his room at home, Justin made a brightly colored paper banner and taped it to his wall: “Love the life you live, live the life you love.”

Brittany couldn’t stop thinking about Sam, a reel that looped endlessly in her head. Sam dancing to one of their favorite metal bands, Drowning Pool. Sam dead in the tub with the back of her head blown off. Sam’s ashes in an urn, her coffin empty at her wake.

She couldn’t sleep. Her grades fell. Her daily harassment at school continued, but now without her best friend to help her cope. At home, Brittany played the good daughter, cleaning the house and performing her brother’s chores unasked, all in a valiant attempt to maintain some family peace after the bank took their house, and both parents lost their jobs in quick succession. Then Brittany started cutting herself.

Just 11 days after Sam’s death, on November 22nd, 2009, came yet another suicide: a Blaine High School student, 15-year-old Aaron Jurek – the district’s third suicide in just three months. After Christmas break, an Andover High School senior, Nick Lockwood, became the district’s fourth casualty: a boy who had never publicly identified as gay, but had nonetheless been teased as such. Suicide number five followed, that of recent Blaine High School grad Kevin Buchman, who had no apparent LGBT connection. Before the end of the school year there would be a sixth suicide, 15-year-old July Barrick of Champlin Park High School, who was also bullied for being perceived as gay, and who’d complained to her mother that classmates had started an “I Hate July Barrick” Facebook page. As mental-health counselors were hurriedly dispatched to each affected school, the district was blanketed by a sense of mourning and frightened shock.

“It has taken a collective toll,” says Northdale Middle School psychologist Colleen Cashen. “Everyone has just been reeling – students, teachers. There’s been just a profound sadness.”

In the wake of Sam’s suicide, Brittany couldn’t seem to stop crying. She’d disappear for hours with her cellphone turned off, taking long walks by Elk Creek or hiding in a nearby cemetery. “Promise me you won’t take your life,” her father begged. “Promise you’ll come to me before anything.” Brittany couldn’t promise. In March 2010, she was hospitalized for a week.

In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. “Mom,” he said tentatively, “a kid told me at school today I’m gonna go to hell because I’m gay.”

“That’s not true. God loves everybody,” his mom replied. “That kid needs to go home and read his Bible.”

Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.

Justin was trying not to care what anyone else thought and be true to himself. He surrounded himself with a bevy of girlfriends who cherished him for his sweet, sunny disposition. He played cello in the orchestra, practicing for hours up in his room, where he’d covered one wall with mementos of good times: taped-up movie-ticket stubs, gum wrappers, Christmas cards. Justin had even briefly dated a boy, a 17-year-old he’d met online who attended a nearby high school. The relationship didn’t end well: The boyfriend had cheated on him, and compounding Justin’s hurt, his coming out had earned Justin hateful Facebook messages from other teens – some from those he didn’t even know – telling him he was a fag who didn’t deserve to live. At least his freshman year of high school was nearly done. Only three more years to go. He wondered how he would ever make it.

Though some members of the Anoka-Hennepin school board had been appalled by “No Homo Promo” since its passage 14 years earlier, it wasn’t until 2009 that the board brought the policy up for review, after a student named Alex Merritt filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights claiming he’d been gay-bashed by two of his teachers during high school; according to the complaint, the teachers had announced in front of students that Merritt, who is straight, “swings both ways,” speculated that he wore women’s clothing, and compared him to a Wisconsin man who had sex with a dead deer. The teachers denied the charges, but the school district paid $25,000 to settle the complaint. Soon representatives from the gay-rights group Outfront Minnesota began making inquiries at board meetings. “No Homo Promo” was starting to look like a risky policy.

“The lawyers said, ‘You’d have a hard time defending it,’” remembers Scott Wenzel, a board member who for years had pushed colleagues to abolish the policy. “It was clear that it might risk a lawsuit.” But while board members agreed that such an overtly anti-gay policy needed to be scrapped, they also agreed that some guideline was needed to not only help teachers navigate a topic as inflammatory as homosexuality but to appease the area’s evangelical activists. So the legal department wrote a broad new course of action with language intended to give a respectful nod to the topic – but also an equal measure of respect to the anti-gay contingent. The new policy was circulated to staff without a word of introduction. (Parents were not alerted at all, unless they happened to be diligent online readers of board-meeting minutes.) And while “No Homo Promo” had at least been clear, the new Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy mostly just puzzled the teachers who’d be responsible for enforcing it. It read:

Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.

It quickly became known as the “neutrality” policy. No one could figure out what it meant. “What is ‘neutral’?” asks instructor Merrick-Lockett. “Teachers are constantly asking, ‘Do you think I could get in trouble for this? Could I get fired for that?’ So a lot of teachers sidestep it. They don’t want to deal with district backlash.”

English teachers worried they’d get in trouble for teaching books by gay authors, or books with gay characters. Social-studies teachers wondered what to do if a student wrote a term paper on gay rights, or how to address current events like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Health teachers were faced with the impossible task of teaching about AIDS awareness and safe sex without mentioning homosexuality. Many teachers decided once again to keep gay issues from the curriculum altogether, rather than chance saying something that could be interpreted as anything other than neutral.

“There has been widespread confusion,” says Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union president Julie Blaha. “You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers.” Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. “I was told by teachers, ‘You have to be careful, it’s really not safe for you to come out,’” says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. “I felt like I couldn’t have a picture of my family on my desk.” When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an “open homosexual,” he didn’t feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, “Are you gay?” he panicked. “I was terrified to answer that question,” Fietek says. “I thought, ‘If I violate the policy, what’s going to happen to me?’”

The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, “I would hear people calling people ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond.” In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a “faggot,” he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a “lesbo” and a “sinner” – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to “lay low”; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys’ bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, “It was probably water.” Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, “Get out of this town, fag”; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.

“You feel horrible about yourself,” remembers Dylon. “Like, why do these kids hate me so much? And why won’t anybody help me?” The following year, after Dylon was hit in the head with a binder and called “fag,” the associate principal told Dylon that since there was no proof of the incident she could take no action. By contrast, Dylon and others saw how the same teachers who ignored anti-gay insults were quick to reprimand kids who uttered racial slurs. It further reinforced the message resonating throughout the district: Gay kids simply didn’t deserve protection.

“Justin?” Tammy Aaberg rapped on her son’s locked bedroom door again. It was past noon, and not a peep from inside, unusual for Justin.

“Justin?” She could hear her own voice rising as she pounded harder, suddenly overtaken by a wild terror she couldn’t name. “Justin!” she yelled. Tammy grabbed a screwdriver and loosened the doorknob. She pushed open the door. He was wearing his Anoka High School sweatpants and an old soccer shirt. His feet were dangling off the ground. Justin was hanging from the frame of his futon, which he’d taken out from under his mattress and stood upright in the corner of his room. Screaming, Tammy ran to hold him and recoiled at his cold skin. His limp body was grotesquely bloated – her baby – eyes closed, head lolling to the right, a dried smear of saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth. His cheeks were strafed with scratch marks, as though in his final moments he’d tried to claw his noose loose. He’d cinched the woven belt so tight that the mortician would have a hard time masking the imprint it left in the flesh above Justin’s collar.

Still screaming, Tammy ran to call 911. She didn’t notice the cellphone on the floor below Justin’s feet, containing his last words, a text in the wee hours:

:-( he had typed to a girlfriend.

What’s wrong

Nothing

I can come over

No I’m fine

Are you sure you’ll be ok

No it’s ok I’ll be fine, I promise

Seeking relief from bullying, Brittany transferred to Jackson Middle School. Her very first day of eighth grade, eight boys crowded around her on the bus home. “Hey, Brittany, I heard your friend Sam shot herself,” one began.

“Did you see her blow her brains out?”

“Did you pull the trigger for her?”

“What did it look like?”

“Was there brain all over the wall?”

“You should do it too. You should go blow your head off.”

Sobbing, Brittany ran from the bus stop and into her mother’s arms. Her mom called Jackson’s guidance office to report the incident, but as before, nothing ever seemed to come of their complaints. Not after the Gelderts’ Halloween lawn decorations were destroyed, and the boys on the bus asked, “How was the mess last night?” Not after Brittany told the associate principal about the mob of kids who pushed her down the hall and nearly into a trash can. Her name became Dyke, Queer, Faggot, Guy, Freak, Transvestite, Bitch, Cunt, Slut, Whore, Skank, Prostitute, Hooker. Brittany felt worn to a nub, exhausted from scanning for threat, stripped of emotional armor. In her journal, she wrote, “Brittany is dead.”

As Brittany vainly cried out for help, the school board was busy trying to figure out how to continue tactfully ignoring the existence of LGBT kids like her. Justin Aaberg’s suicide, Anoka-Hennepin’s seventh, had sent the district into damage-control mode. “Everything changed after Justin,” remembers teacher Fietek. “The rage at his funeral, students were storming up to me saying, ‘Why the hell did the school let this happen? They let it happen to Sam and they let it happen to Justin!’” Individual teachers quietly began taking small risks, overstepping the bounds of neutrality to offer solace to gay students in crisis. “My job is just a job; these children are losing their lives,” says Fietek. “The story I hear repeatedly is ‘Nobody else is like me, nobody else is going through what I’m going through.’ That’s the lie they’ve been fed, but they’re buying into it based on the fear we have about open and honest conversations about sexual orientation.”

LGBT students were stunned to be told for the first time about the existence of the neutrality policy that had been responsible for their teachers’ behavior. But no one was more outraged to hear of it than Tammy Aaberg. Six weeks after her son’s death, Aaberg became the first to publicly confront the Anoka-Hennepin school board about the link between the policy, anti-gay bullying and suicide. She demanded the policy be revoked. “What about my parental rights to have my gay son go to school and learn without being bullied?” Aaberg asked, weeping, as the board stared back impassively from behind a raised dais.

Anti-gay backlash was instant. Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard blogged that Justin’s suicide could only be blamed upon one thing: his gayness. “Youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [of suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle,” Prichard wrote. Anoka-Hennepin conservatives formally organized into the Parents Action League, declaring opposition to the “radical homosexual” agenda in schools. Its stated goals, advertised on its website, included promoting Day of Truth, providing resources for students “seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle,” supporting the neutrality policy and targeting “pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies.”

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original “No Homo Promo,” held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such “child corruption” agencies allow “quote-unquote gay kids” to wrongly feel legitimized. “And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death,” Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren’t encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn’t be in a position to be bullied.

Yet while everyone in the district was buzzing about the neutrality policy, the board simply refused to discuss it, not even when students began appearing before them to detail their experiences with LGBT harassment. “The board stated quite clearly that they were standing behind that policy and were not willing to take another look,” recalls board member Wenzel. Further insulating itself from reality, the district launched an investigation into the suicides and unsurprisingly, absolved itself of any responsibility. “Based on all the information we’ve been able to gather,” read a statement from the superintendent’s office, “none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment.”

Just to be on the safe side, however, the district held PowerPoint presentations in a handful of schools to train teachers how to defend gay students from harassment while also remaining neutral on homosexuality. One slide instructed teachers that if they hear gay slurs – say, the word “fag” – the best response is a tepid “That language is unacceptable in this school.” (“If a more authoritative response is needed,” the slide added, the teacher could continue with the stilted, almost apologetic explanation, “In this school we are required to welcome all people and to make them feel safe.”) But teachers were, of course, reminded to never show “personal support for GLBT people” in the classroom.

Teachers left the training sessions more confused than ever about how to interpret the rules. And the board, it turned out, was equally confused. When a local advocacy group, Gay Equity Team, met with the school board, the vice-chair thought the policy applied only to health classes, while the chair asserted it applied to all curricula; and when the district legal counsel commented that some discussions about homosexuality were allowed, yet another board member expressed surprise, saying he thought any discussion on the topic was forbidden. “How can the district ever train on a policy they do not understand themselves?” GET officials asked in a follow-up letter. “Is there any doubt that teachers and staff are confused? The board is confused!”

With the adults thus distracted by endless policy discussions, the entire district became a place of dread for students. Every time a loudspeaker crackled in class, kids braced themselves for the feared preamble, “We’ve had a tragic loss.” Students spoke in hushed tones; some wept openly in the halls. “It had that feeling of a horror movie – everyone was talking about death,” says one 16-year-old student who broke down at Anoka High School one day and was carted off to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation. Over the course of the 2010-2011 school year, 700 students were evaluated for serious mental-health issues, including hospitalizations for depression and suicide attempts. Kids flooded school counselors’ offices, which reported an explosion of children engaging in dangerous behaviors like cutting or asphyxiating each other in the “choking game.”

Amid the pandemonium, the district’s eighth suicide landed like a bomb: Cole Wilson, an Anoka High School senior with no apparent LGBT connection. The news was frightening, but also horrifyingly familiar. “People were dying one after another,” remembers former district student Katie MacDonald, 16, who struggled with suicidal thoughts. “Every time you said goodbye to a friend, you felt like, ‘Is this the last time I’m going to see you?’”

As a late-afternoon storm beats against the windows, 15-year-old Brittany Geldert sits in her living room. Her layered auburn hair falls into her face. Her ears are lined with piercings; her nail polish is black. “They said I had anger, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, an eating disorder,” she recites, speaking of the month she spent at a psychiatric hospital last year, at the end of eighth grade. “Mentally being degraded like that, I translated that to ‘I don’t deserve to be happy,’” she says, barely holding back tears, as both parents look on with wet eyes. “Like I deserved the punishment – I’ve been earning the punishment I’ve been getting.”

She’s fighting hard to rebuild her decimated sense of self. It’s a far darker self than before, a guarded, distant teenager who bears little resemblance to the openhearted young girl she was not long ago. But Brittany is also finding a reserve of strength she never realized she had, having stepped up as one of five plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit against her school district. The road to the federal lawsuit was paved shortly after Justin Aaberg’s suicide, when a district teacher contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to report the anti-gay climate, and the startling proportion of LGBT-related suicide victims. After months of fact-finding, lawyers built a case based on the harrowing stories of anti-gay harassment in order to legally dispute Anoka-Hennepin’s neutrality policy. The lawsuit accuses the district of violating the kids’ constitutional rights to equal access to education. In addition to making financial demands, the lawsuit seeks to repeal the neutrality policy, implement LGBT-sensitivity training for students and staff, and provide guidance for teachers on how to respond to anti-gay bullying.

The school district hasn’t been anxious for a legal brawl, and the two parties have been in settlement talks practically since the papers were filed. Yet the district still stubbornly clung to the neutrality policy until, at a mid-December school-board meeting, it proposed finally eliminating the policy – claiming the move has nothing to do with the discrimination lawsuit – and, bizarrely, replacing it with the Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, which requires teachers to not reveal their personal opinions when discussing “controversial topics.” The proposal was loudly rejected both by conservatives, who blasted the board for retreating (“The gay activists now have it all,” proclaimed one Parents Action League member) and by LGBT advocates, who understood “controversial topics” to mean gays. Faced with such overwhelming disapproval, the board withdrew its proposed policy in January – and suggested a new policy in its place: the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, which the board is expected to swiftly approve.

The school district insists it has been portrayed unfairly. Superintendent Carlson points out it has been working hard to address the mental-health needs of its students by hiring more counselors and staff – everything, it seems, but admit that its policy has created problems for its LGBT community. “We understand that gay kids are bullied and harassed on a daily basis,” and that that can lead to suicide, Carlson says. “But that was not the case here. If you’re looking for a cause, look in the area of mental health.” In that sense, the district is in step with PAL. “How could not discussing homosexuality in the public-school classrooms cause a teen to take his or her own life?” PAL asked Rolling Stone in an e-mail, calling the idea “absurd,” going on to say, “Because homosexual activists have hijacked and exploited teen suicides for their moral and political utility, much of society seems not to be looking closely and openly at all the possible causes of the tragedies,” including mental illness. Arguably, however, it is members of PAL who have hijacked this entire discussion from the very start: Though they’ve claimed to represent the “majority” opinion on gay issues, and say they have 1,200 supporters, one PAL parent reported that they have less than two dozen members.

Teachers’ union president Blaha, who calls the district’s behavior throughout this ordeal “irrational,” speculates that the district’s stupefying denial is a reaction to the terrible notion that they might have played a part in children’s suffering, or even their deaths: “I think your mind just reels in the face of that stress and that horror. They just lost their way.”

That denial reaches right up to the pinnacle of the local political food chain: Michele Bachmann, who stayed silent on the suicide cluster in her congressional district for months – until Justin’s mom, Tammy Aaberg, forced her to comment. In September, while Bachmann was running for the GOP presidential nomination, Aaberg delivered a petition of 141,000 signatures to Bachmann’s office, asking her to address the Anoka-Hennepin suicides and publicly denounce anti-gay bullying. Bachmann has publicly stated her opposition to anti-bullying legislation, asking in a 2006 state Senate committee hearing, “What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression?… Will we be expecting boys to be girls?” Bachmann responded to the petition with a generic letter to constituents telling them that “bullying is wrong,” and “all human lives have undeniable value.” Tammy Aaberg found out about the letter secondhand. “I never got a letter,” says Tammy, seated in the finished basement of the Aabergs’ new home in Champlin; the family couldn’t bear to remain in the old house where Justin hanged himself. “My kid died in her district. And I’m the one that presented the dang petition!” In a closed room a few feet away are Justin’s remaining possessions: his cello, in a closet; his soccer equipment, still packed in his Adidas bag. Tammy’s suffering hasn’t ended. In mid-December, her nine-year-old son was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies; he’d tried to drown himself in the bathtub, wanting to see his big brother again.

Justin’s suicide has left Tammy on a mission, transforming her into an LGBT activist and a den mother for gay teens, intent upon turning her own tragedy into others’ salvation. She knows too well the price of indifference, or hostility, or denial. Because there’s one group of kids who can’t afford to live in denial, a group for whom the usual raw teenage struggles over identity, peer acceptance and controlling one’s own impulsivity are matters of extreme urgency – quite possibly matters of life or death.

Which brings us to Anoka Middle School for the Arts’ first Gay Straight Alliance meeting of the school year, where 19 kids seated on the linoleum floor try to explain to me what the GSA has meant to them. “It’s a place of freedom, where I can just be myself,” a preppy boy in basketball shorts says. This GSA, Sam Johnson’s legacy, held its first meeting shortly after her death under the tutelage of teacher Fietek, and has been a crucial place for LGBT kids and their friends to find support and learn coping skills. Though still a source of local controversy, there is now a student-initiated GSA in every Anoka-Hennepin middle and high school. As three advisers look on, the kids gush about how affirming the club is – and how necessary, in light of how unsafe they continue to feel at school. “I’ll still get bullied to the point where–” begins a skinny eighth-grade girl, then takes a breath. “I actually had to go to the hospital for suicide,” she continues, looking at the floor. “I just recently stopped cutting because of bullying.”

I ask for a show of hands: How many of you feel safe at school? Of the 19 kids assembled, two raise their hands. The feeling of insecurity continues to reverberate particularly through the Anoka-Hennepin middle schools these days, in the wake of the district’s ninth suicide. In May, Northdale Middle School’s Jordan Yenor, a 14-year-old with no evident LGBT connection, took his life. Psychologist Cashen says that at Northdale Middle alone this school year, several students have been hospitalized for mental-health issues, and at least 14 more assessed for suicidal ideation; for a quarter of them, she says, “Sexual orientation was in the mix.”

A slight boy with an asymmetrical haircut speaks in a soft voice. “What this GSA means to me, is: In sixth grade my, my only friend here, committed suicide.” The room goes still. He’s talking about Samantha. The boy starts to cry. “She was the one who reached out to me.” He doubles over in tears, and everyone collapses on top of him in a group hug. From somewhere in the pile, he continues to speak in a trembling voice: “I joined the GSA ’cause I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be nice and – loved.”

This story is from the February 16, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

 

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Be on the right side of history.

WATCH: The Speech You’ve Been Waiting For Hillary….

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s address before the United Nations in Geneva will be remembered by history, with the Secretary of State unabashedly arguing to the world that LGBT rights are human rights.

Read the Complete Transcript of the Speech, as Provided By the State Department:

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good evening, and let me express my deep honor and pleasure at being here. I want to thank Director General Tokayev and Ms. Wyden along with other ministers, ambassadors, excellencies, and UN partners. This weekend, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, the anniversary of one of the great accomplishments of the last century.

Beginning in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of World War II, many nations pressed for a statement of this kind to help ensure that we would prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, rewrote, for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.

At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.

In the 63 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in making human rights a human reality. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.

(RELATED: What This All Could Mean to LGBT Rights)

In most cases, this progress was not easily won. People fought and organized and campaigned in public squares and private spaces to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. And thanks to that work of generations, for millions of individuals whose lives were once narrowed by injustice, they are now able to live more freely and to participate more fully in the political, economic, and social lives of their communities.

Now, there is still, as you all know, much more to be done to secure that commitment, that reality, and progress for all people. Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.

I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

Now, raising this issue, I know, is sensitive for many people and that the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs. So I come here before you with respect, understanding, and humility. Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting. So in that spirit, I want to talk about the difficult and important issues we must address together to reach a global consensus that recognizes the human rights of LGBT citizens everywhere.

The first issue goes to the heart of the matter. Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.

This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

(RELATED: Read The Advocate’s Cover Story Interview With Secretary Clinton from Earlier This Year)

It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.

The second issue is a question of whether homosexuality arises from a particular part of the world. Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The Government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Now, some worry that protecting the human rights of the LGBT community is a luxury that only wealthy nations can afford. But in fact, in all countries, there are costs to not protecting these rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the other, whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Well, that holds true for other challenges as well.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.

Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.

The fourth issue is what history teaches us about how we make progress towards rights for all. Progress starts with honest discussion. Now, there are some who say and believe that all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay. Well, these notions are simply not true. They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.

Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all.

Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.

But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.

Many in my country thought that President Truman was making a grave error when he ordered the racial desegregation of our military. They argued that it would undermine unit cohesion. And it wasn’t until he went ahead and did it that we saw how it strengthened our social fabric in ways even the supporters of the policy could not foresee. Likewise, some worried in my country that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a negative effect on our armed forces. Now, the Marine Corps Commandant, who was one of the strongest voices against the repeal, says that his concerns were unfounded and that the Marines have embraced the change.

Finally, progress comes from being willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We need to ask ourselves, “How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?” This challenge applies to all of us as we reflect upon deeply held beliefs, as we work to embrace tolerance and respect for the dignity of all persons, and as we engage humbly with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding.

A fifth and final question is how we do our part to bring the world to embrace human rights for all people including LGBT people. Yes, LGBT people must help lead this effort, as so many of you are. Their knowledge and experiences are invaluable and their courage inspirational. We know the names of brave LGBT activists who have literally given their lives for this cause, and there are many more whose names we will never know. But often those who are denied rights are least empowered to bring about the changes they seek. Acting alone, minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change.

So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines. Every time a barrier to progress has fallen, it has taken a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men remains crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism is a task for people of all faiths. And the same is true with this struggle for equality.

Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message. Right here in Geneva, the international community acted this year to strengthen a global consensus around the human rights of LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, 85 countries from all regions supported a statement calling for an end to criminalization and violence against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the following session of the Council in June, South Africa took the lead on a resolution about violence against LGBT people. The delegation from South Africa spoke eloquently about their own experience and struggle for human equality and its indivisibility. When the measure passed, it became the first-ever UN resolution recognizing the human rights of gay people worldwide. In the Organization of American States this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created a unit on the rights of LGBT people, a step toward what we hope will be the creation of a special rapporteur.

Now, we must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community. To the leaders of those countries where people are jailed, beaten, or executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under your laws, because let me be clear – I am not saying that gay people can’t or don’t commit crimes. They can and they do, just like straight people. And when they do, they should be held accountable, but it should never be a crime to be gay.

And to people of all nations, I say supporting human rights is your responsibility too. The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.

And finally, to LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.

The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign policy. In our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people.

This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already underway at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.

I am also pleased to announce that we are launching a new Global Equality Fund that will support the work of civil society organizations working on these issues around the world. This fund will help them record facts so they can target their advocacy, learn how to use the law as a tool, manage their budgets, train their staffs, and forge partnerships with women’s organizations and other human rights groups. We have committed more than $3 million to start this fund, and we have hope that others will join us in supporting it.

The women and men who advocate for human rights for the LGBT community in hostile places, some of whom are here today with us, are brave and dedicated, and deserve all the help we can give them. We know the road ahead will not be easy. A great deal of work lies before us. But many of us have seen firsthand how quickly change can come. In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed. Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years, as we have devoted more thought to it, engaged in dialogues and debates, and established personal and professional relationships with people who are gay.

This evolution is evident in many places. To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, “If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.” There is little doubt in my mind that support for LGBT human rights will continue to climb. Because for many young people, this is simple: All people deserve to be treated with dignity and have their human rights respected, no matter who they are or whom they love.

There is a phrase that people in the United States invoke when urging others to support human rights: “Be on the right side of history.” The story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery. People from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, and on and on. And the march toward equality and justice has continued. Those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.

I know that the thoughts I’ve shared today involve questions on which opinions are still evolving. As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights. We are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the work we do today. I come before you with great hope and confidence that no matter how long the road ahead, we will travel it successfully together. Thank you very much.