The promise of “opportunity” is embedded in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But the opportunity to enjoy life freely, to pursue happiness, to better one’s self and one’s circumstances is not self-evident to people for whom certain forms of discrimination are an unassailable tradition.
Such is the case, for instance, when a school administrator or teacher is so vested in maintaining their inherent superiority, power and control that inculcated bias against certain students is rendered invisible in the name of “discipline.” Nor is it self-evident that such discipline sourced in conscious or unconscious racism, sexism or homophobia can further exacerbate existing socio-economic difficulty in a student gaining access to opportunity, thus unwittingly eviscerating that student’s chance – and fundamental right - to the pursuit of happiness.
This is no intellectual conceit. It is real. And the very assumption of “self-evident” truth is belied by the practice of benign neglect. Consider the April 19 report released by State School Superintendent Tom Torlakson—the first detailing student suspensions and expulsion rates. The report suggests that “willful defiance” has been excessively used as a reason to suspend or expel students—something California Assemblymember Roger Dickinson is trying to address in his bill, AB 420, Reducing Grounds for Harsh Discipline.
“The California suspension data released today regrettably affirms what experts have suspected – our students are being suspended in startlingly high numbers and students of color are continually disproportionately suspended and expelled. Sadly, these students will have worse educational outcomes than other student groups. California must bring fairness and balance to our school disciplinary practices without risking school and teacher safety,” said Dickinson, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development, in a press release on his website.
But while Torlakson is a staunch LGBT ally, his report did not include data on sexual orientation or gender identity, nor did it mention the impact on LGBT students – even though “willful defiance” can also be used by a culturally incompetent or biased school official to include such behavior as a lesbian student holding hands with her girlfriend or a gender nonconforming student breaking the school's dress code, according to the Gay Straight Alliance Network.
It therefore becomes incumbent on LGBT students and their allies to fight on the frontlines of ignorance—creating their own opportunities by challenging and educating those who can cite the Declaration of Independence by heart but have no clue as to its meaning. That was the call answered by about 70 high school students on Monday, April 29 as they ventured to Sacramento for three days of leadership training—highlighted by the 8th annual Queer Youth Advocacy Day. GSA Network, the ACLU/SoCal, Equality California, the Transgender Law Center, the Trevor Project, and California NOW sponsored the educational event.
The LGBT and allied high school students also rallied in support of Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266). This bill “would ensure that schools understand their responsibility to allow transgender students to fully participate in school activities, programs, and facilities in a way that is consistent with their gender identity,” according to a GSA Network press release.
"All students should have the opportunity to succeed in school no matter who they are, but that's not the reality in California," said Carolyn Laub, Executive Director of GSA Network. "These brave youth leaders came to Sacramento to demand an end to unreasonable discipline policies and exclusionary school practices that punish LGBT students and push them out of school."
"The ACLU of California is thrilled to be a part of this affirmative, potentially life-changing event," said Hector Villagra, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California. "The ACLU has fought for nine decades for LGBT rights, and specifically seeks to end unlawful bullying and harassment in California schools. We all should want our school communities to promote safety and respect for all."
"Equality California is proud to sponsor Queer Youth Advocacy Day, an extraordinary program that engages young people in our democratic process," said John O'Connor, Executive Director of Equality California. "Teaching LGBT youth that they do have a voice and the power to shape policy is so important."
At the State Capitol rally, the students were joined by a number of State Senators and Assemblymembers, including Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park), and Susan Eggman (D-Stockton).
Perhaps one thing the students learned is that what might be “self-evident” to some is not evident at all to others—which is why activism, education and lobbying are so important, as openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez said in his remarks at the rally:
I'm so pleased to welcome you to Sacramento! And I cannot thank each of you enough for taking the time to come to our state's capitol and fight for dignity, respect and inclusion. Your presence here today is a powerful reminder of how much progress we have made as a community.
The first time I ever visited the Capitol, I was about your age. And even though the California I grew up in looked similar to the California of today, it was vastly different. I was here as part of the American Legion Boys State Program. At that point, only a handful of Latinos had ever served in state office. The thought of a gay man or lesbian serving in the Assembly was unfathomable, as was the idea of a Queer Youth Advocacy Day.
I never imagined that I would return to this building to take a seat on the Assembly Floor—let alone serve as the Assembly Speaker. But I have the honor of doing so because over the years, members of our community have fought to ensure that every LGBT person has the dignity, respect and opportunities to succeed and make the most of their potential in life-not in the closet, but out in the open, as a proud member of our community.
That is a profound statement on the progress we have made as a community. But each of you know that, for all the progress we have made, we still have a long way to go. Many of you come from communities that aren't as accepting of the LGBT community. Many of you have peers who cannot be here today—whether it's because they had other commitments like school or work, or whether it's because they haven't found the confidence and security they need to embrace their identities the way each of you have.
We must keep fighting for them. In far too many communities in our state, members of our community feel isolated, vulnerable and alone. And your presence at the People's House is a powerful statement of solidarity and support. That they don't have to listen to the bullies. That they have an entire community waiting to embrace them and love them for who they are. That it does, in fact, get better.
That is the message you are sending by coming to Sacramento, looking your representatives in the eyes, and making clear that we must keep fighting for progress. And we know you are clearly having an effect.
Your presence here today is a powerful reminder of the progress we have made on every front-including this morning's news that Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards has now become the first player on a major sports team to come out as a member of our community. Like each of you, Mr. Collins grew up in California. Like each of you, he struggled with questions about his identity. And like each of you, he made the choice to stand up and come out because he knew that by doing so he can help change hearts and minds.
This was another clear signal of the progress we have made, and another important milestone for our community—and it was made possible by the tireless dedication of so many LGBT Activists like yourselves.
That is why I am so grateful to each of you for being here, and so honored to welcome you to our state Capitol.