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At UT Arlington, Obama administration officials stress zero tolerance for bullying at LGBT conference

03/20/2012 11:35 PM

03/21/2012 10:03 AM

ARLINGTON -- Joshua Little was too young in middle school to understand much about his sexuality, and name-calling by some of his classmates only confused him more.

"People would call me 'gay,'" said Little, who didn't know what the word meant. "I was like, 'I don't know. Why are you calling me this?'"

Little, now 21 and a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington, has firsthand experience with the type of harassment, bullying and discrimination that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said the Obama administration is determined to stop.

Holder, speaking at UTA at the first White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities, restated the administration's commitment to aggressively using the law -- including a controversial interpretation of Title IX -- to protect students from discrimination and hate-fueled violence.

Title IX bans gender discrimination in schools; the Justice Department says this extends to students who don't conform to traditional gender roles.

The conference, which included panel discussions on resources that law enforcement agencies and schools can use to address mistreatment of people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, drew education leaders as well as students from area colleges and high schools. No protesters showed up.

But the administration's interpretation of Title IX has been criticized not only by conservative groups that say it is a ploy to advance a homosexual agenda in schools, but also by people who believe anti-bullying policy should originate at state and local levels.

Little, who is openly gay, is thankful that he has never been physically assaulted but said he is still taunted when he is perceived as not masculine enough.

Equality under law

Holder told the conference -- one in a series that the White House is conducting nationwide -- that over the last fiscal year the Justice Department has surpassed its previous numbers of hate-crimes case filings and convictions. In particular, federal prosecutors are focusing on the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in October 2009.

The law gives federal prosecutors tools to prosecute crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, Holder said.

"Today presents an important opportunity for each person in this room to rededicate ourselves to our common cause of insisting that this country lives up to its highest ideals of fairness and equal opportunity," he said.

Federal authorities are looking into the incident in northeast Dallas last week in which as many as five people attacked two gay men with baseball bats, he said. "When incidents like this occur, we want to hear about them," Holder said. "And we will do everything in our power to ensure that justice is served."

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said Holder is on relatively solid ground when he talks about treating everyone equally under the laws. In recent years, suicides by young bullying victims have raised awareness for the need for more prevention.

"Attorney General Holder is coming out against discrimination and violence," Jillson said. "It's hard to come out in favor of those things."

Welcome change

The conference expanded on themes discussed at UTA last fall during a North Texas law enforcement symposium on crimes against the LGBT community.

Thomas Anable, president of Fairness Fort Worth, an LGBT advocacy group formed in 2009 after the bar check at the Rainbow Lounge by Fort Worth police and state alcoholic beverage agents, said the conference was initially capped at 350 people, then was expanded to 400. Organizers received an additional 40 or so "walk-up" registrations, he said.

The open national dialogue is a welcome change, said Judy Shepard, who delivered the closing remarks. When her son was killed in the late 1990s, the LGBT community wasn't part of the national discussion, she said.

"The issue of the gay community -- it wasn't public discourse. We've come a long way in the last 15 years," Shepard told the Star-Telegram.

The Birdville school district might be a good example of that. Trustees recently approved the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter on campus. The approval process, which began at the start of the school year, took longer than usual and involved the school board because of the sensitive subject matter.

Although the club has not been widely publicized, lessening the chance for a backlash, those who know about it were glad to see it form, said Jennifer Villasansa, club president.

"I expected the worst because that's just easier," she said. "But the reaction has actually been pretty positive."

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar

Patrick M. Walker,

817-390-7423

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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