Martin O'Malley photo

Remarks at the Iowa Safe Schools Spirit Awards in Des Moines, Iowa

October 30, 2015

Thank you for having me. It is a tremendous honor to join you in celebrating Iowa's LGBTQ students and educators—and the schools who are improving the lives of LGBTQ youth across the Hawkeye state.

On the heels of the 5th annual Spirit Day...and just a few months removed from that historic Supreme Court decision of marriage equality, and I happen to have had the good fortune on that day—it was a rare day because I was not in Iowa—I was in D.C. on the steps that day as people throughout our country came together and hugged each other. And what a tremendous day it was, so I'll never ever forget that.

I am proud to say that we are finally—and rightfully—in a spirit of dialogue and openness, actually having a real discussion about how to ensure equal protection under the law for all LGBTQ Americans, in every part of our public life.

I truly believe that the genius of our nation is that in every generation, we take actions, not words but actions to include more of our people more fully in the economic, the social, and the political life of our country. We did not come into being as a republic as a perfect union, but every year we can make ourselves more perfect by recognizing that there are certain powerful beliefs that unite us, whether we're Democrats or Republicans or Independents. And those beliefs are a belief in the dignity of every individual person, our belief in our own responsibility to advance the common good that we share as a people, and our understanding that we're all in this together. And that in fact we actually need each other, and that we have to help each other if we're going to be able to succeed.

It is upon those beliefs that I run for president of the United States. Not because our country is in an easy time, but because our country is facing difficult challenges and big problems. But I also know that we are the greatest problem-solving people on the planet, and that is because we recognize that our diversity is our strength, and we bring different perspectives to the table of our democracy in order to solve our problems. One of the big ones we face right now is this: we hear President Obama rightly saying that our country is doing better, and we are. We're now creating jobs again. When we elected President Obama eight years ago, we were this close to being plunged into a second Great Depression.

But we still have so much work to do on so many fronts. Without jobs there is no progress, but for the first time this side of World War II: we are earning the same today, 70% of us, as we were twelve years ago. So it's understandable that people extrapolate that out. And we all worry that maybe we're not all going to be able to give our kids the better future with more health, more security, more opportunity that we've enjoyed. That's an understandable fear, it's a very real anxiety, but fear and anxiousness and division never made our country great.

Our country is made great when we come together around the beliefs that unite us and restore in every generation that promise that is in essence the American Dream. That says wherever you start, you start, wherever your zip code, whatever your parents' incomes, but wherever you start you're able to work hard and get ahead because of your grit, your determination, and your talent. It's because of that formula we put into action—always, always, always—greater inclusion, not lesser inclusion.

So let me talk with you tonight, and perhaps—my staff said to me, Kristen who's here with us said, "I'm not sure that any presidential candidate's ever given an entire speech on LGBTQ issues before the Iowa caucuses, in Iowa." So maybe this is historic.

Over the past decade, there is no group of people in our country who have fought harder to be included, who have challenged us to live up to our ideals as a people—to be able to enjoy the same equal rights as any other Americans—than all of our Americans who are part of the LGBTQ community.

I consider myself very, very blessed and very, very fortunate to have been in public office at the time of such a movement, and such a change, and such a deepening of understanding that led to actions and led to a pace of progress that even the most optimistic of us would have thought was impossible fifteen, twenty years ago.

As Mayor of Baltimore, I signed our state's very first transgender anti-discrimination bill.

And actually prior to that, on the Baltimore City Council, I was one of ten votes—we had eighteen members, and nineteen with the council president, so ten was a magic number; if you had ten, that meant you were going to get something done. And I was one of ten co-sponsoring votes for this earth-shaking, earthquaking issue called domestic partnership benefits. How far we have come.

How far we have come.

As Governor of Maryland, I expanded our state's longstanding protections against discrimination, so that no one could be fired, denied housing, or denied public or private services in our state because they are gay or transgender.

And throughout my public service, the tours of duty the people of my city and my state have given to me, I've been very fortunate to work closely with advisors and senior staff and really committed activists who reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community: including young people, immigrants, people of color. And each of them a more effective, a more empathetic, and more connected leader.

But perhaps what I'll always remember is the effort in Maryland we waged in standing up for marriage equality, not as a state right but as a human right for all.

During the debate on marriage equality in our state, I joined supporters outside of the very old historic rotunda, that state house where George Washington resigned his commission, gave the power of our army back to the representatives of the people. And in that historical dome, I remember being in the chambers as we were awaiting the vote. And as you could hear the debate going on in packed chambers about marriage equality, I have to tell you that it was probably one of the most moving debates I ever listened to.

It was considered bad form in our state for the governor to sit in the gallery and glare at people who weren't voting for that thing.

That was considered bad form. But I listened to it on the squawk box, and many, many times got goose bumps and was moved to tears by the love and by the passion and by the courage that so many people were giving voice to in that public forum of ours.

There, I met two moms and their 4-year-old son Will. After standing for hours outside those halls, Will was very, very, very tired and all of us who have kids know that there reaches a point for any 4-year-old where ... He was tired, he seemed a little bit disinterested. I could only imagine what was going through his head.

But the next day I saw a photo of Will and his family taken right after the vote. And man, his little face was all lit up, he was reenergized. And whatever the nuances, the ins and outs, the process of history and the procedural failures and triumphs that led to that moment: what Will knew was that the entire state had acknowledged the dignity of his family, and the dignity of the love that is at the center of every family. He might not have understood the debates and all of the process, but he knew that.

After I signed marriage equality into law, we thought we were out of the woods. But our Republican brothers and sisters, not all of them because quite honestly—and let me say this, and this is true: I think we do our democracy a disservice if we say that all Republicans are our enemies. All Republicans are not our enemies. They are oftentimes our uncles, they are oftentimes our family members, they are our friends, they are teachers, they are the firefighters that come when we dial 9-1-1. And I can tell you this, because I counted every single vote and had to track down people late into the evening all over Annapolis, we would not have passed marriage equality in the state of Maryland were it not for a few Republican votes that voted for human dignity.

So let me correct myself in my remarks on the fly. Because of some who thought they could defeat marriage equality by petitioning it to referendum, they put it on the ballot, and then we had to defend it on the ballot.

But we took our message of human dignity to the people of our state. And there were a lot of people very sadly were saying, "I'm not sure you're going to be able to pull it off in Maryland given the demographic mix of your state, given traditional religions in your state, and you might not be able to pull it off." And you know what: we might not have been able to pull it off, but actually we did. And we became the first state in the Union, an hour ahead of Maine, to defend it and pass it at the ballot in the state of Maryland.

Let me talk with you a little bit about bullying. This is an issue very near and dear to me.

Now, thanks to the brave Americans who earned a victory before the Supreme Court marriage equality is the law of the land in every state.

And I'm also very proud of the fact that Jim Obergefell and his husband had traveled to Maryland to legally marry, so Maryland had a role in that historic Supreme Court case as well.

But look, the struggle is not over. Progress never ends. It sometimes zigs and zags, but there is always more to do, and the good Lord gives us plenty of work in our own life to make our state and our country a better place. This struggle is not over.

We must continue to improve our laws because it's all about making individuals more fully included in the economic, social, and political life of our country, to protect the rights of every individual.

Nowhere is this work more important than when it comes to preventing and addressing bullying. Today in America, no child should be excluded from getting a safe, quality education, and an environment that is open and welcoming.

But this problem with bullying is very real, and it's persistent. Because of the nature of our connectedness and communications, and all of our kids and the cell phone and the texting and all of that, it's not the sort of thing—I mean when I went to school, once you left the recess yard, or left school and you got home, you were in a safe place. But now with the texting and the other things, it's a pretty challenging and oftentimes a brutal environment for kids, sometimes lethal.

Too often, the most frequent victims of bullying are transgender kids. This leads to far more than hurt feelings—it leads to lower performance in school, diminished career aspirations, and shocking disparities in healthcare, and sometimes even worse.

Get this, more than half of LGBTQ students say in surveys that they feel unsafe in school. More than half. And three out of four have been harassed because of their sexual orientation.

In my own state, my wife Katie—who is a judge and cannot participate in politics, so I really hope she votes for me.

My wife, Katie, took this on as one of her major issues as first lady of Maryland. She was in court and on the bench eight hours a day, but her passion was this issue of bullying, to prevent and address bullying as a matter of principle and primary importance for our state.

As Governor, I signed legislation requiring our state to develop a model policy for prohibiting bullying, harassment, and intimidation in every school. And when I led on that with Katie's help, it was amazing how many other people came to the fore and how many great and courageous educators stepped up as well.

Bullying over social media pushed—true story—a Howard County teenager in our own state to take her own life. When I came home one night, I heard in the governor's residence conversations going on in the smaller dining room. And I walked in and I met the parents of this beautiful girl, and they were talking with Katie at great length about their story. And so in addition to making cyber-bullying a criminal offense, we established Maryland's first-ever bullying awareness week.

We also required schools to report incidents of harassment and intimidation. If we don't report these things, there's no way that we can be able to tell whether we're doing better this week than we were last week, or whether we're doing better this year than we were last year. But with openness and transparency and reporting, and leaders in every school and in the state and in the counties declaring that this is a problem and that we need to addressing this problem, it's amazing how much progress actually can be made. Armed with that information for the first time, we worked with school boards to target hotspots of bullying, and to protect our most vulnerable students.

And we used a better system than Survey Monkey, so if my former colleague in the National Governor's Association, Governor Branstad, would like to talk about sharing best practices, I'm here in Iowa.

I understand, and you all are more aware of events that are taking place, but just this week we've learned that some in the Iowa legislature are launching an investigation, I guess they would call it, or holding hearings against our host here tonight, Iowa Safe Schools for holding an anti-bullying conference. To those reactionary forces, to those fear-filled forces, I want to encourage you to just keep doing what you are doing. Affirm the dignity of every single student, of every person, because there is a lot of goodness in our country. And people are very, very smart and they're intuitive, and so I encourage you to just be strong and keep moving forward. The leaders of Iowa Safe Schools have come together to educate students and teachers, they join hands to promote diversity, equality, and social justice. Wow, what a radical idea.

In other movements in American history, in other chapters, just because you're promoting these sorts of things doesn't mean there won't be some that try to stop you, or try to fell trees or put up roadblocks in your way. But the longer arc of American history is that we always move to greater respect for all, greater equality for all, actions that uphold the dignity of every person. I've been very, very fortunate in my life to have been in public office at these times. I want to tell you that as president, I am going to embrace a comprehensive agenda to tackle bullying in every single school, all across the United States of America.

And as president, I intend to use every power at my disposal to require that all schools and districts implement anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that are crafted specifically to prevent and prohibit bullying of LGBTQ students.

And as we move to make debt-free college a reality again in the United States of America, the nation that built the greatest middle class in the world more of our people at higher and better levels without crushing them with debt, I also intend to mandate that public colleges and universities do the same and also implement anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.

I plan to clearly prohibit discrimination in public schools on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation under our laws. I plan to launch a new federal grant program to help schools and colleges put anti-bullying policies in place, learn from one another. One of the things I learned as a big city mayor is that the most important people that can show police officers how to do things that are actually effective are other police officers. And the same is true with educators and school administrators. Let's lift up best practices. Let's do the things that work, that actually make a difference in the classroom and in our schools.

I also intend to create real and meaningful penalties when schools fail to create safe learning environments, when they look the other way-

When they look the other way and pretend that "that's not a problem in our school." I'm sure that all of us as parents have probably had that experience of making the official complaint and then having people pat us on the head and say, "That's not a problem here." And as parents we ask, "Well, how do you know?" "Well we know because we don't have the problem here." But they don't have policies that actually encourage the reporting and the stepping up. Schools that allow for unlawful discrimination should risk losing federal funding. Students who experience harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence should actually have some recourse to due process, to get the situation changed, some action under the law.

We know that bullying is not the only challenge that our children face, though. Even though we've made progress, a lot of LGBTQ youth still face a lifetime of uncertainty.

Too many of our young people are still asking: "Will I be able to get my dream job?" "Will I be discriminated against—or attacked—for the way I look?" "Will I be able to live in the open, free of fear, with the person I love?"

I believe that the answers to these questions are answers that we have to provide not only with our compassion but with the actions that we're willing to take as a people, all across our country, at every level. This isn't something any one leader can do. There's a campaign that's going on right now to end the sort of predatory behavior and sexual abuse and rapes that happen on college campuses. The ... say it's on us. So too is this on us. This is a crowd-sourced deal. We all need to work on this.

While President Obama and Vice-President Biden have been powerful advocates for the LGBTQ community, too many Americans are still waiting for life to get better.

There's a lot of pain in the world. There's a lot of xenophobia. There's a lot of homophobia. There's a lot of racism. We wish that it weren't so, but it is. People are evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs.

LGBTQ immigrants are abused and assaulted when they are detained behind chain link fences and razor wire.

Trans women of color are attacked and murdered.

Runaway gay and trans youth don't know where to turn for help without experiencing hatred and violence.

To truly achieve the sort of equality to which we aspire as a nation, we must win all of these struggles. And as president, I will stand with you. And I will lead not with words, but with actions.

So, first and foremost, one of those actions we would have to embrace is the passage of the EQUALITY Act.

I was proud to be the first presidential candidate to endorse this critical legislation—because I saw how important comprehensive non-discrimination legislation has been in our state.

It is time to end discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and more as a nation!

We must come together, to ensure that all of our children—especially our most vulnerable children—are able to live in a loving, caring, and stable home that is equally protected under the law.

That also means ending discrimination in adoption and foster care.

Reauthorizing and strengthening the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act—so that we can locate, treat, and support homeless LGBTQ youth and their families.

Making greater strides, also, against human trafficking, something that is a scourge in our nation and that we can only address by coming together, acknowledging and realizing that many of the people that law enforcement in the past were trained to see as perpetrators are actually victims. We need to train law enforcement and other social service interveners to be able to identify.

We must fight to strengthen access to accessible, affordable, and quality care for all of the LGBTQ community.

One, by making it very clear to health providers, that when they receive federal assistance they have an obligation not to discriminate against people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Secondly, by repealing ineffective abstinence-only education programs and providing comprehensive sex-ed for young people—including LGBTQ youth.

And three, by continuing and fully funding the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program—which provides vital medical care and support services to young people.

And we must stop doing things that actually hurt our young people...

Banning deceptive and harmful "conversion therapies," so-called.

Ending the practice of immigrant detention, especially for LGBTQ people;

And pushing states to repeal laws that criminalize people with HIV—because these laws are inconsistent with science, and they are harmful to public safety and they also impede the improvement of public health.

These are actions. These actions are not just common-sense solutions—they are also extensions of the principles of who we are as human beings.

These are what I believe the next horizons are that we need to move to. These are the next challenges that we have in order to become a more inclusive people, a more compassionate and vibrant nation.

Other candidates in our race for president may want to spend a lot of time talking about what side of the debate they were on way back in the day when DOMA was being debated. But I want to talk with you in the course of this campaign about where we must move today, and tomorrow.

Unlike the other candidates, I can point to a long record not of following polls, but of always being ahead of the curve and being an effective leader by leading with our principles, speaking to the goodness within, by forging a new consensus to get important things done. That's what leadership is all about. Our country, I absolutely believe, is searching for new leadership, and we are searching for a leader who's not afraid to call forth the goodness within us.

I leave you with the words of a great man who said that "there is an absolute direction to growth, and life moves in that direction. Life is never mistaken either about its road or its destination. It tells us towards what point on the horizon we must steer if we are to see the dawn's light grow more intense."

Keep up your good work. Thank you.

NOTE: Remarks as delivered.

Martin O'Malley, Remarks at the Iowa Safe Schools Spirit Awards in Des Moines, Iowa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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