HuffPost Gay Voices is dedicated to discussing issues surrounding bullying and the fight to end bullying.

In the last six weeks we've featured several Voice to Voice conversations between experts, authors, authorities and teens on the topic and today we bring you a new discussion between Rhodes Perry, who serves as the Director of Policy at PFLAG National, the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and Shawn Gaylord, the Director of Public Policy for GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Before joining PFLAG, Perry worked for the White House Office of Management and Budget focusing on federal benefit programs and policies that provide assistance to low-income communities. He has also worked for the Ali Forney Center, a New York City LGBT homeless shelter, where he designed and managed a street outreach for LGBTQ youth. Currently, Perry serves on the board of SMYAL, Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, the only Washington, D.C. based organization dedicated to promoting and supporting self-confident, healthy, productive lives for LGBTQ youth ages 13-21.

Shawn Gaylord is the Director of Public Policy for GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and has been with the organization for seven years. GLSEN’s policy work is focused on legislative and policy change at the federal, state and local level to make schools safer for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gaylord has a law degree from Georgetown University and prior to coming to GLSEN, he worked for several years at Amnesty International USA and as an associate at Harmon, Curran, Spielberg and Eisenberg, LLP.

Below Perry and Gaylord discuss federal safe schools policies, the role anti-bullying summits have had in fighting bullying,
and more.

Rhodes Perry: The topic of this conversation is federal safe schools policies. We’re going to focus in on what’s taking place in Congress, as well as what the Administration and the federal agencies are doing to address bullying and harassment as it impacts LGBT students or students who are perceived to be LGBT. I think we’ll start off first by talking a bit about the leadership of both the President and members of Congress around the issue.

We’ve seen some really significant leadership, probably most importantly, earlier in the year. The President had expressed his support for two bills that are really important to both GLSEN and PFLAG, which are the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which has been really incredible, and, for those bills themselves, the lead sponsors of the legislation, Jared Polis and Al Franken on the Student Non-Discrimination Act and then Linda Sánchez and Senator Casey on the Safe Schools Improvement Act, have been really fantastic. I wanted to pass it over to you, Shawn, to talk about the leadership, or some of the work, especially on SSIA, that you all have been doing within the Congress.

Shawn Gaylord: Sure. The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) has been around for about four Congresses now and we are really at record levels of support for the legislation, which is exciting news. We have had a Senate version only in the last Congress and this Congress, but in this Congress we’re up to forty-one Senate co-sponsors, and on the House side, we’re at 160 co-sponsors, and it’s bipartisan, both chambers, so it’s important to note that this is record levels of support for these bills. The addition of the President’s endorsement is something that we’ve been hoping to get for a long time and I think will play an influential role in continuing to move the bills forward. On the Student Nondiscrimination Act as well, record-levels of support for that legislation. This is the Second Congress that that bill has been introduced in and we’re up to thirty-seven co-sponsors in the Senate and 157 in the House. Similarly, the President’s endorsement should provide a lot of good momentum for that legislation, as well.

Rhodes Perry: And it’s great to see the growing numbers of Republicans joining to have the bills have such strong bipartisan support. When you look at some of the other LGBT bills that are working to get to those levels, it really underscores the importance of addressing the problems of bullying and harassment for all students, especially for LGBT students from our organization’s perspective. [It's also important] to really show members of Congress, as well as educators all across the country, we want schools to perform and be strong and we know from our experiences within our organizations that that just can’t happen if the school environment isn’t safe for all students. Especially from the anecdotes that we hear from our parents and GLSEN students, in terms of the safety of schools and the real challenges that do exist, because a student is -- or perceived to be -- LGBT. So, it’s such a good sign to see this type of leadership from members of Congress, and then all the way up to the President, really taking a strong stance on bullying.

And it’s also great that a lot of these anti-bullying summits that have been hosted by the White House, along with the Federal LGBT Youth Summit that took place last year, are signs that not only are there words but there are actions behind the words. Experts are invited to share more about the problems of bullying and harassment as it impacts LGBT students and then it's about getting the decision makers from different agencies, as well members of Congress, to learn more about how to effect change from their positions of power. It’s great -- PFLAG was able to have a session at the Federal LGBT Youth Summit on how to address problems of bullying and harassment in rural communities, smaller communities and I know that at GLSEN you all had some roles at both that and at some of the White House Summit on anti-bullying.

Shawn Gaylord: That’s right. GLSEN has been doing research on the experiences of LGBT youth for ten years now. Every two years we do our National School Climate Survey that measures the experiences of LGBT youth. So, having done that over time, I think it provides a lot of good, relevant data on a population that doesn’t always get studied as much as it ought to be. I think that’s one of the things that we’re able to bring forward and we’re really pleased that the Federal Government and all these different agencies are really interested in learning about what our research shows and our research not only shows the problems that exist but also points to solutions. So it’s really exciting to see that through guidance and other things that are coming out from the Federal Government, in terms of the website that they’ve created, etcetera etcetera, that a lot of the recommendations that we think can make schools safer are embodied in the more official forms of guidance, but also just in terms of how the government is messaging work around bullying.

Rhodes Perry: Right. And I think that that summit was especially helpful to talk about some of the really key agency changes that have taken place since at least 2008 and with the work, with our partnership, with PFLAG and GLSEN, we worked with the Department of Education, specifically the Office of Civil Rights, trying to get guidance or clarification around Title IX and how that impacts LGBT students. I think it was in October of 2010, the [Office of Civil Rights] Assistant Secretary Russland Ali came out with a "Dear Colleague" letter that absolutely clarified that Title IX does offer some protections as it relates to sex-based or sex-stereotyping under the sex discrimination protections.

Obviously that has some coverage for LGBT students who fail to conform to gender “norms” and that’s been such a significant development for our members, especially in areas of the country that do not have explicit state or school district anti-bullying policies for LGBT students. They know that there is a safety net there through Title IX, that in the absence of some kind of grievance not being addressed by an educator, a school counselor, that they can file a claim with the Department of Education to have a Title IX officer come into the school and learn more about what that climate is like and work directly with the school administrators to try to make that environment better by coming up with a mutually beneficial agreement.

It’s such great work, and so, for PFLAGers, for GLSEN members, to get that message about an agency change like this is really important and valuable and there have been other changes as well that we really want to get out to communities all across the country and fortunately with our chapter networks we can do that. But you’re seeing within the agencies themselves that they’re taking the issue very seriously and they want to understand it more and one of the things that we know is that there’s a lack of data collection on LGBT young people, on LGBT people in general, but of what is available, you have the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issue a report on peer to peer violence and bullying in September of 2011, and there was a significant section in there on LGBT bullying, which was great. More recently, the Government Accountability Office came out with a study on school bullying and I believe that was actually [in June] and it’s for legal protections for vulnerable use and they included recommendations on adding federal protections for LGBT students. That was also a great sign of progress and the StopBullyingNow.gov web site is also a sign of good collaboration between agencies.

Shawn, did you want to talk about the interagency task force on bullying?

Shawn Gaylord: Yeah, I think one of the things that the Administration has done that’s been really helpful is to try and streamline a lot of existing efforts, all of which were very good, but I think are only strengthened when they’re brought together in a more coordinated fashion. So, several years back when I first started working on these issues for GLSEN, there was some bullying work at HHS (Health Human Services), as well as education and Department of Justice, and those were all great efforts, but I really think it’s worthwhile to spend the time bringing them together in this interagency task force that I think can help make things more coordinated and I think that’s been really helpful in moving things forward. The summits and meetings that are being held at the White House are largely people speaking with one voice in a way that wasn’t always the case before. So I think it’s been instrumental in helping move this issue forward.

Rhodes Perry: I think something that actually got us to this point that we should absolutely spend some time talking about is just the pressure that groups like GLSEN and like PFLAG have applied through our members and our members sharing their stories out in the field about what the school climate is like in their community. At PFLAG we had our lobby day, which happens bi-annually, November 3rd of last year and we really talked a lot about the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act primarily because we thought that the Senate was going to take action on a broader reform bill for public education which, sadly, has not panned out. But, we were able to have some really fantastic conversations. We had 300 PFLAGers come onto the Hill and talk about their children and their stories and what school was like for their kids, or is like for their kids, and it really was able to move a number of members and just to get them more exposed to what the issues are like. It was very powerful and, Shawn, I know that GLSEN does an event similar to that every year. Did you want to talk a little about SSAS?

Shawn Gaylord: Sure, we do our Safe School Advocacy Summit in the spring of each year and there is really nothing like bringing constituents in to meet with offices to help move the conversation forward. We’ve had a number of successes this year and last year and probably every year that I know are directly a result of those meetings. It’s not only good for members of Congress to hear how these issues are playing out in the areas they represent but I think it’s also great for both adults -- and even moreso for young people -- to understand the important role that they play in moving these issues forward. A lot of our activists who come to this event go home and continue pursuing the support of their delegation for the Safe School Improvement Act, and in addition, get involved in other campaigns, maybe at the state or local level.

I think it’s a really empowering experience and I think the results tend to speak for themselves because we always see additional support come in after the event happens. Some of our folks that come in are involved in our chapters. We also have a chapter network around the country and those are also great sources of pressure for their delegations to support this legislation.

Rhodes Perry: Absolutely. In terms of the work moving forward, that, the constituent, our members, those are the folks who will continue to make the case for these protections, whether it’s at the federal, state, or local level, but even after those protections are passed into law -- I think we’ll both agree that eventually we will get there -- but once they’re on the books, it’s the role of our members to really do that education with the educators, with school administrators, in terms of what that actually means and how to execute in a way that really will ensure that the spirit of the law is enforced as it should be. Which, ultimately, what we’re asking for is a safe learning environment for all students so that they can perform and thrive into adulthood and we want to set LGBT young people up for success and we know that there are some real significant challenges right now in the absence of these protections.

Shawn Gaylord: That’s right. The other thing I would love to throw in is just how much work both of our organizations do in coalitions with other organizations. Specifically, PFLAG is of course a member of the National Safe Schools Partnership, which is a coalition that GLSEN has developed and grown to almost a hundred national advocacy organizations, all of whom support the Safe Schools Improvement Act, and of course one of the most compelling things about the Safe School Improvement Act is that it provides protections for LGBT youth, but all youth, and even names other categories of youth who may face bullying if they’re bullied based on their disability or their religion. The National Safe Schools Partnership is, again, about a hundred organizations that focus on different types of students, some that focus on all students and that has also been a big key on moving this forward. It's about being able to go into a congressional office and say, "Here we are, five members from different organizations, that all support this bill and there’s another ninety organizational members who are also behind this legislation,” and I think that’s also been a key to getting us where were are in terms of current levels of support.

Rhodes Perry: Absolutely. Coalition-building is the key and some of the other coalitions that we belong to, both organizations are part of a more internal coalition, which is the New Beginnings coalition that helps us really maximize the resources of each organization to hone-in on different agencies. Both PFLAG and GLSEN are really focused on youth issues, as they interact with a number of different agencies and so obviously the Department of Education and HHS, are two among many other agencies that we focus in on, and try to find opportunities, where any absence of laws that can be passed by the Congress.

We can work on making some changes to existing laws through rules to help ensure that there is inclusion of LGBT young people and one of the great things that this coalition is working on is just improving data collection. We had talked earlier that federal agencies, the Congress, they all want to do the right thing and one of the first questions they ask is "What’s the prevalence? Can you point to numbers?" and we have awesome research through GLSEN’s school climate survey, but there are very few Federal surveys right now that are collecting on sexual orientation, let alone gender identity. We’re working really, really closely with a number of agencies and Human Health Services, through the Center for Disease Control. We have made some progress on the use-risk behavior survey, so we’re hopeful that surveys like that will do a better job of capturing demographics that include sexual orientation and gender identity, so that we understand the risks that might be different, that LGBT young people are facing on a national level. That’s such a huge change and it’s great that the agencies that we’re working with are receptive to making those changes. Not to say that that doesn’t require a lot of work but it’s good progress and so it’s through that particular coalition that that kind of progress can happen. So, we’re hopeful, we continue to move forward. We’ll have more numbers from a variety of different surveys that are collecting for different things. So, any other final thoughts, Shawn, before we wrap up?

Shawn Gaylord: There’s been a lot of stories over the past several years about bullying, some pretty high-profile incidents, and I think that has been helpful in leading to a sense of urgency that we all have about the issue. But I just want more and more people to understand that there are proposals out there, they do have a lot of support, they are gaining support by the day, and there are things that we know will make a difference in reducing bullying schools. So, I’m hopeful that anyone who is paying attention to these stories is also looking to GLSEN and PFLAG and other organizations for what the solutions are and for ways they can help make that a reality.

Rhodes Perry: Absolutely. I think the collective experiences of our organizations working really closely with school districts all across the country have some practices and best practices that have come out of that work. [It's good to remind] folks of the resources that are available through these organization and the broader experiences of the LGBT movement and what’s known about bullying.