It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning and I’m sitting in yet another anonymous hotel “grand ballroom” at yet another conference. This time it’s Expanding Our Experience and Expertise: Implementing Effective Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Programs, a federally sponsored conference in Baltimore for Teenage Pregnancy Prevention grantees. I’ve been in public health for 19 years—I’ve attend a lot of conferences. Human service providers and public health folks like me seem to spend tons of time talking to one another about what we do, how we could do it better, who we serve, who we are missing, and on and on.
This conference is for folks directly funded by the federal government through grants from the Administration for Youth and Families with names like the State Personal Responsibility Education Programs, the Personal Responsibility Education Innovative Strategies Grants, Abstinence Education Grants, and Tribal Personal Responsibility Education Program Grants. There are also more bluntly named “teen pregnancy prevention” grantees funded from the Office of Adolescent Health. It’s a diverse crowd of people who work in communities across the country all with one central mission—reducing too-early teen sexual activity resulting in teen pregnancy and births. The conference is strictly required attendance for all funded programs and the room is packed.
I’m actually here by choice—I have worked in the field of teen pregnancy prevention and adolescent health for most of my career, and I’m here to present some of my work. The opening plenary begins. I’m thinking about the session I’m presenting in the afternoon (a workshop on the built environment and teen sexual health—it’s a bit of mouthful as workshop titles go and I’m wondering if I’ve travelled all this way from my home north of Boston to speak to three people). I’m thinking about how stingy the feds are not even to provide coffee. I’m thinking about how much work I have to do when I get back to Boston. You know, usual conference mode—pay attention to everything but the deadly dry and boring people speaking up in the front of the room.
The plenary speakers drone a bit—not a lot of enthusiasm, and as always there is the sense that these people forget who they are actually speaking with. Yes, we all know youth are at risk of too early pregnancy. Yup, we know it’s worse for youth of color (don’t you fund us to know this?!). Uh huh, we know your role as the feds, the partnerships you have with one another (as if we should be impressed with this revolutionary act in government), and the hard work you have been engaged in to help us solve our problems back home.
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It feels like I have heard everything before. It feels like I could be anywhere, at any time, listening to the same folks say the same thing. Honestly, now I’m thinking about lunch and whether or not the nail polish color choice was a mistake (La Moss by Butter, London. A fabulous color, but unforgiving in the chipping-while-traveling-department).
Then the Commissioner for Youth and Families, Bryan Samuelson takes the podium. He’s lovingly introduced by his staff: no shocker here. Many of these conferences are just self congratulation fests. He begins speaking—talking about the work happening in communities, the commitment his office has to foster care youth, his team and their work.
And then, suddenly, seriously, out of nowhere, he is speaking about queer youth. I mean, he is REALLY speaking about queer youth. He’s identifying them as particularly at risk in the area of teen pregnancy, he’s naming them as desperately underserved, and he’s NAMING them. He’s talking about the L, the G, the B, and most amazingly the T. He doesn’t stumble over the alphabet soup of letters. He names them clearly and without fanfare. He doesn’t stammer, pause, or stop.
I am no longer doodling, I am no longer fussing with my bag and my stuff and my life—I am riveted. A federal government employee who is responsible for billions of dollars in budget allocations is talking about queer youth in our communities and he is telling the truth. He tells us they need our support, our understanding, our time, and our effort. He talks about how there may be resistance in our communities from people who don’t want us to work with these children. He says that even some of us providers may be uncomfortable with this population. But then he talks about their struggles—he tells a beautiful and sad story about youth in Chicago trying to start a charter school during his tenure there that would have focused on social justice and GLBT youth. He talks about the ugliness that ensued—the homophobia and the bigotry. He decries it. He insists we can do better.
There has been data and research identifying the seemingly upside down truth that our gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are at between two and seven times the risk of their heterosexual peers to either become pregnant or cause a pregnancy during adolescence. After all, when faced with rejection, stigma and homophobia, what better way is there to prove you are straight? Despite the research they have been ignored in teen pregnancy prevention for years. Until now.
And I am pinching myself. I am looking around—do people hear what he is saying?! Do they know what this means?! Commissioner Samuels goes on—he talks about naming GLBT youth in all their funding announcements. He describes the technical assistance that will be specifically required for federally funded programs around ensuring access and competencies in working with GLBT youth. Again and again, he is using words like “must” and “have to” and “critical” in describing this work.
I have chills. I have goose bumps. I can’t believe it. This is a call to action. This is real. This is happening. Serve this population. Overcome your discomfort. They need you. Be there. We—the federal government—insist that you do this work. When he finishes speaking there is loud applause and several of us stand up. Because for once, our youth, our queer youth, have been placed front and center and no one has apologized or pathologized them. He has simply stated the truth—this is a population who needs us, and we have an obligation to serve them.
I remember once during a conference not unlike this one, I overheard a federally-funded abstinence-only until marriage provider get asked about what she would do if a gay or lesbian youth came to seek services. She blithely replied, “But that’s what is so wonderful about abstinence-only-until marriage! You don’t have to address those issues!”
And now, in 2012, a presidential appointee is making a specific and unequivocal pledge to serving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. I have never been prouder of President Obama than I was in that moment. We on the far left of liberal have often criticized the President for his lack of leadership on GLBT issues. We’ve whined, we’ve complained, we’ve cajoled. But honestly, in this one moment at this conference I believe in the power of leadership—real true courageous leadership. We know all too well that the far right in this country continues to enjoy using issues of sexual health to distort reality, to misinform, and to mislead and manipulate the public. For President Obama to appoint a leader in his administration who issues directives at a public meeting about serving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth is courageous, and necessary, and amazing.
Of course, in and of itself, it’s not enough. We still need to eliminate the abstinence-only funding that was restored by the Republicans in Congress during the health care reform debates of 2010. We need performance measures that specifically articulate and how GLBT youth will be served and how the quality of their lives will improve. We need to articulate and advocate sexual health goals for young people that include all young people—and that go beyond “not pregnant” and “not diseased.”
Yes, we have a right to insist on more. But to have come this far is indescribable. Thank you, Commissioner Samuels, and thank you, President Obama.