University of Texas at Arlington to host LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities

FORT WORTH -- Thomas Anable thought the first gay pride parade through downtown would be a time to celebrate.

It came after the controversial Rainbow Lounge inspection more than two years ago, which exposed the divide between police and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The incident eventually led to a new spirit of inclusion among city leaders, police and their community.

Since that inspection and subsequent accusations of excessive force, a police community advisory council was formed with three LGBT members, and the city now works to bring in events of interest to the LGBT community, such as the International Gay Rodeo Association world finals.

Yet Anable knew more work was needed when during the parade a heckler yelled that the 13-year-old daughter of a same-sex couple would probably grow up gay and, as a result, should kill herself.

"Words will hurt," said Anable, an accountant, member of the community advisory board and president of Fairness Fort Worth, a nonprofit formed to address equality issues. "They will hurt you more than sticks and stones."

Spotlighting that kind of bullying is at the center of much national attention in the LGBT and law enforcement communities. What happened in Fort Worth might also be why the national discussion moves to North Texas on March 20 with the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The event, part of a series of conferences to be held nationwide with a focus on LGBT Americans, will feature remarks from Attorney General Eric Holder and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

'Dedicated to equality'

"It is important to have a recognition that all individuals under the law should be treated the same regardless of their race, skin color, religious affiliation or sexual orientation," said Alejandro del Carmen, chairman of UTA's department of criminology and criminal justice.

The LGTB conferences are being held between February and June to offer grassroots leaders, community organizers, advocates and students a chance to hear about the government's efforts on subjects of concern to the LGBT community. The White House LGBT Conference on Health was held in Philadelphia on Feb. 16. A conference on housing and homelessness was held March 9.

UTA's criminal justice department is partnering with the White House and Justice Department to help conference participants learn about government resources available to help ensure that schools and communities are safe for LGBT people.

Del Carmen said the conference will highlight the importance of being treated equally under the law. It will focus on bullying, which has been a pervasive theme. Young people bullied for their sexual orientation have committed suicide in recent years.

In response, the federal government, states, cities and school districts have been working to establish anti-bullying measures. In November, a conference hosted at UTA focused on the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Zak Murphy, former vice president of UTA's chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, said working to build safer communities is important.

"UT Arlington celebrates diversity and is dedicated to equality and security for all students," Murphy said. "We're a beacon for social justice throughout the Metroplex, so naturally our campus is an ideal location for the conference."

'Incredible strides'

Last summer the Fort Worth school district expanded its anti-bullying policy to protect students who express themselves -- including their sexuality -- in nontraditional ways. The move earned praise from the LGBT community.

The policy change came months after Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns gained national attention for an anti-bullying speech in council chambers and after Education Secretary Arne Duncan said schools that fail to address the bullying of gay students could lose federal dollars.

On March 5, the Education Department announced a proposed consent decree in a harassment case in Minnesota. In November 2010, the Justice Department received a complaint that Minnesota students in the Anoka-Hennepin school district were being harassed by other students because they didn't dress or act in ways that conform to gender stereotypes.

"All children have to have their rights protected," said Anable, chairman of the local steering committee for the conference.

Anable said the results of the federal inquiry are historic and a sign to the LGBT community that the federal government takes these complaints seriously. Under the decree, the school district must, for example, have an expert review district policies and create procedures concerning harassment. The district must also work to prevent student-on-student harassment at middle and high schools.

Locally, the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission and Fairness Fort Worth were recognized in September for working with the city to improve civil rights and quality of life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"The city of Fort Worth along with many city leaders, not only in the LGBT community but in many communities across the area, has made incredible strides in the past three years in making our city employees and others aware of the LGBT population in Fort Worth," said officer Kellie Whitehead, a police liaison to the gay community.

Whitehead said the attorney general's visit is historic and shows a commitment to improving communication and acceptance of LGBT residents.

"Having someone of that stature speaking in our area shows everyone how important this issue is and that change is inevitable," Whitehead said. "We have and will continue to incorporate programs and communication in schools and communities for the safety of our youth and residents alike.

"All people deserve a safe day-to-day life environment as well as educational environment."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane Smith, 817-90-7675

Twitter: @dianestar