Friday, February 15 marked the impressive opening reception for the fourth annual Supporting Students, Saving Lives National Educator Conference focused on LGBT, questioning, interest, and allied youth, hosted by San Diego State University's Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership.
With more than 600 educators, counselors, and administrators representing 44 states gathered in the ballroom of San Diego's DoubleTree Hotel, the conference kicked off with a lively opening plenary, where CESCaL handed out awards to celebrities and elected officials for their outstanding advocacy, and concluded with a performance from the only out contestant on last season of The Voice, De'Borah Gardner. Keep reading for exclusive video of De'Borah's original song, "Ambition."
Fort Worth, Texas, city council member Joel Burns, whose heartfelt testimony before the city council about bullied LGBT youth went viral in 2010, accepted the award for Excellence in Political Heroism.
Burns was was followed by out MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, who accepted the award for Excellence in Media and Journalism. The Advocate caught up with Roberts to get the anchor's take on the increasing media coverage surrounding issues of bullying and LGBT youth suicide.
"The fact that we have to cover these stories is very unfortunate," Roberts said. "Is it important to cover these stories? Yes. When we think about the fact that all of us as adults are just grown-up kids, we have a lot of big issues that are facing us… But of course, that's got to trickle down to our youth. And so while all of the adults are trying to figure out how to play in this country together, and what equality really means, we're forgetting that we have our futures in our children that are watching all of this discourse go on."
The evening's keynote speaker was Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services for the federal Department of Education. Yudin issued an impassioned address highlighting the urgent need for safer schools to help slow the staggering drop-out rate, which he cited at approximately 7,000 students leaving school each day. As an out gay father, Yudin also spoke nobly of President Obama and the entire administration's commitment to including LGBT Americans in its efforts to move the nation forward, including government-sponsored resource sites StopBullying.gov and FindYouthInfo.gov.
"If there's anything we can do as a partner to educators, we want to be there," Yudin told The Advocate. "One of the reasons I'm here is to show our support. We are here to support your efforts to make kids safe and thrive. Because we know that kids have to be safe in order to thrive."
The opening reception had a healthy dose of humor, too, initiated by PFLAG mom Betty DeGeneres, who accepted the award for Excellence in Advocacy for Safe, Welcoming and Inclusive Schools. DeGeneres commended the educators in the room, noting that they demonstrate admirable self-restraint when mediating conflicts, saying she would have "wanted to call the bullies the little jackasses that they are." The room erupted in laughter and applause.
The night's final honoree was out actor and king of the internet meme, George Takei, who accepted the award for Excellence in Advocacy for LGBTQIA Youth for his outspoken opposition to antigay legislation like Tennesee's so-called Don't Say Gay Bill. In response to the proposed law that would criminalize any mention of homosexuality in schools, Takei launched his "It's OK to be Takei" campaign, encouraging LGBT youth to simply substitute the word "gay" with his well-known last name.
"I come from a generation when we did not have the kind of program and the kind of counselors and the kind of social climate that we have today," Takei told The Advocate. "And I am green with envy, and deeply appreciative to the work that CESCaL is doing… We're going to have proud, confident, young people who — whatever their background, whatever their orientation — they'll be confident of their place in society and developing fully their talents and contributing to our society."
De'Borah closed the opening ceremonies with two original songs, "IDK" and "Ambition," both of which called on fellow LGBT youth who might be experiencing isolation, familial rejection, and bullying, to persevere and accomplish their dreams.
Watch "Ambition" below, and click through to the next page for more details on the conference.