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Federal LGBT Youth Summit

June 6, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Hello, and thank you all for being here today.

I want to thank Pam Hyde our Administrator at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for that introduction and for the amazing work she does protecting and improving the mental health of millions of Americans.

I also want to recognize Bryan Samuels and David Hansell from the Administration on Children and Families for their inspiring work with LGBT youth.

It’s my honor to welcome you to the first ever Federal LGBT Youth Summit. It’s great to see such a big crowd for this important event. It’s also great to see so many students and young people awake before 9AM during the summer!

The goal of this summit is to bring together youth along with leaders from non-profits, advocates and the federal government to take on the issues facing LGBT youth in our country.

As the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, I lead a department that touches millions of Americans every day and our responsibilities are wide ranging.

We provide health care to seniors, we fund research to find new cures and medical breakthroughs and we give young children a place to start their educations.

We also have a responsibility to Americans of all ages to provide the health care and safe, nurturing communities they need to thrive.

And since President Obama took office he has led a commitment, shared by all of us in the Administration, to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have a chance to reach their full potential.

But unfortunately, we know that too often the needs of LGBT people, particularly young people – are not met. At least not as well as they should be.

On Wednesday I met with a young man named Caleb Laieski. Caleb shared with me the story of his being bullied in school. He experienced many of the same things that boys and girls of every age and sexuality experience in school. Taunting, name-calling, being pushed and shoved, and just being ignored. All because of his perceived sexuality. When he was a freshman in high school, an older boy threatened to stab Caleb. He complained to his school and they did nothing. A few months later, the same bully drove his car onto the sidewalk where Caleb and his friends were standing.

That was the last straw for Caleb, shortly after that he dropped out of high school and got his GED. Still for others, the outcome can be much worse. While meeting with Caleb, he told me about a close friend who committed suicide after being tormented at school just because of who she was or who people thought she was.

No young person should feel like the only way to stop being bullied is to take their own life. And no teen should feel like they have to leave school and compromise their whole future because of the cruel actions of others. As a mother, it breaks my heart. And it stiffens my spine.

But what makes Caleb’s story special is what he did next. Caleb first worked with his own school district to change its policies around bullying and harassment by including clear protections for LGBT students in the student handbook. Then he sent a letter to every school district in Arizona asking them to do the same thing. Since then he’s gone to his state Legislature in support of a bill to stop bullying of all kinds in Arizona schools.

And now Caleb has decided to come here to Washington and spend a month advocating and educating Members of Congress and the Administration to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Caleb told me he’s here to speak for LGBT youth who can’t speak for themselves. Caleb is actually with us here today. Caleb would you stand and be recognized…

Caleb, and young people like him, should not have to stand alone. That’s why this President and his administration have continued finding ways to help LGBT youth live free of violence and thrive in every stage of their lives. This is especially true at HHS where this kind of work is vital to our mission.

It led us to partner with the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Defense, Interior, and Justice to form a Federal Interagency Task Force on Bullying to create ways to decrease bullying and to establish programs and ideas to aid victims.

And last summer we brought together 150 top state, local, civic and corporate leaders and youth for the first-ever National Bullying Summit.

Some of us also did our small part individually by joining the “It Gets Better” campaign and sending supportive video messages to LGBT youth. I made one, and so did President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And in March, President Obama held the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. I was so proud to be at the White House that day as we launched a new website called StopBullying.gov, a one-stop shop where kids, teens, parents and educators can go online to learn about preventing or stopping bullying.

We know that as strong as a child or young adult might be, they are still dependent on the adults around them to accept them and show them that there is nothing wrong with who they are. Their parents. Their teachers. Their neighbors. Their mayors, governors, Senators, Congressmen, and, yes, their President.

A study our department is releasing today found heightened levels of “unhealthy risk behaviors” like tobacco use, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior in LGBT youth. But we know that these behaviors are not a result of who these young people are, they are a result of the discrimination, bullying, violence and poor relationships at home they can experience in their day to day lives. That’s a tragedy. And that’s why we need to continue to build support for LGBT youth and create the protective environments needed to reduce these behaviors.

We want to get our programs and services to a place where we are no longer just reacting to problems facing LGBT youth. Taking the example of people like Caleb, we know that we can do better to address the many needs of LGBT youth.

That means access to a health care system that understands the unique needs of LGBT adults and youth.

The health reform law, the Affordable Care Act, is a historic step towards creating that system. It prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children just because they have a condition like asthma or diabetes and it extends that protection to everyone in 2014. It also allows those of you who have recently graduated from high school to stay on your parent’s health plan until age 26. And beginning in 2014, the law will bring health care coverage to 32 million Americans who are currently without insurance.

But the Affordable Care Act is just the start.

In March of this year, on the order of the President, our department completed a report on recommendations to improve the lives of LGBT Americans. It included suggestions to improve the ability of doctors and nurses to relate to LGBT patients, to enhance the ability of local agencies to support LGBT populations, and to make sure that domestic violence and anti-bullying resources are accessible to LGBT communities.

At the same time many of our agencies continue to work every day to improve the lives of LGBT youth.

For example, we’re working within our child welfare system to place LGBT foster children in loving homes.

And just recently, we released a report with recommendations for providing the best possible care in shelters for homeless LGBT youth.

And along with our department’s LGBT Coordinating Committee, we’ve also created a new workgroup within our department to address the behavioral health needs of LGBT youth and their families.

So we’ve been working hard at this.

But as all of you know, ensuring a bright future for LGBT youth doesn’t just happen here in Washington. All around the country we see bright spots. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center is creating a model to protect and care for LGBT youth in the foster care system. Their hope is that the model could be spread nationally. GLSEN shows us a model for Gay, Lesbian and Straight collaboration to make schools a better place for all students, gay and straight.

These successes show us that there is a lot more we can do.

I want to close by talking directly to the students and young adults here today. First, I want to thank you for making the extraordinary choice to become advocates and leaders at such a young age. I sincerely hope you continue on this path. A path that may take some of you back here to Washington. Every day that I go to work, I benefit from the talents of a remarkable group of leaders who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I see the next crop of those leaders with us today.

I know that by working together we can create a safe and nurturing environment for LGBT youth. And we can build communities where every child – gay, lesbian bisexual, transgendered or straight, has the opportunity to succeed in any way they can imagine. That way, it truly can get better.

Thank you for letting me join you today.