Not many people get rewarded for their actions with an introduction to the president -- even fewer would use that opportunity to ask the leader of the free world for a job. But that's what 16-year-old Caleb Laieski did when he met Barack Obama at the White House LGBT Pride reception June 29.
"I told him, 'Mr. President, it would be very critical to have an LGBT youth adviser on your administration,' " Laieski recalls. "After, I handed Mr. Brian Bond, the deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, more on the idea, and he said he'll get it to the president."
Gutsy moves like that are typical for Laieski, who came out when he was 12 years old. Before he dropped out January 7, Laieski pushed back against regular bullying at his high school in Surprise, Ariz. His school's environment was so toxic that a friend of his, constantly ridiculed for her unconventional attire, hanged herself. The final straw for Laieski's public education came when a classmate threatened to stab him, and police and school officials did nothing, he says. Laieski got to work -- not only cramming for his GED but also crafting a letter that spelled out the legal obligations schools have to protect their students. The letter, eventually sent to every district in Arizona, added that school officials must investigate all accusations of bullying, and if they didn't, Laieski would work with the aggrieved students to file lawsuits.
"I had superintendents and staff asking if they were in trouble," Laieski says. "I scared the entire state of Arizona."
Laieski's next move was to Washington, D.C. With the consent of his parents, he put together a DIY lobbying trip, emailing senators and representatives and attempting to arrange meetings to discuss a national safe schools bill. In June he headed east, staying on the couches of friends and barnstorming 200 congressional offices in 22 days. Laieski told his own story to the legislators and also produced national statistics on dropout rates and the number of weapons in schools. He says he found 24 politicians who agreed to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which was reintroduced in the Senate in March. If passed, the bill would require schools to adopt codes of conduct prohibiting harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and would also call for districts to report bullying data to the Department of Education.
In the course of his meetings, Laieski met House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services. Laieski calls both women "nice and adorable," and Sebelius was so impressed with the activist that she included him in her speech at the first Federal LGBT Youth Summit. That honor likely helped secure Laieski's invitation to the White House.
His Washington trip "put a face to the issue of bullying," Laieski says. "Even if the politicians weren't going to support [the Safe Schools Improvement Act], I wanted them to know they met someone who was gay and bullied."