Danielle Smith meets President Obama at special White House reception
For four years, Danielle Smith, 17, has steadily and tirelessly worked for safe schools and equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens, never imagining her efforts would attract attention beyond her home in Bowdoin, Maine. But as she prepares to graduate from high school, the accolades have begun to pour in.
At a gala event in New York City on May 24, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), named Smith its Student Advocate of the Year. And on June 22, she attended a special reception in honor of LGBT Pride Month at the White House, where she met President Barack Obama.*
“A lot of the work I’ve done is really underground and unrecognized and a slow process,” said Smith, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, Maine. “This is a huge honor. I feel very fortunate I could be recognized.”
Smith has spent her high school career working as an advocate for GLBT rights, training students, lobbying politicians, speaking with newspapers and TV, and organizing a protest at a local store that sold homophobic products.
“Danielle is an exceptional student whose leadership within her school community and state has led to safer and more welcoming schools for all Maine students,” said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “Danielle’s commitment to safe schools is an inspiration.”
Since she was a freshman at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine, Smith has been active in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), becoming president in her sophomore year. After her first year as president, she was invited to become a member of the GLSEN national student leadership team, called Jump-Start. Through the Jump-Start program, Smith organized trainings across southern Maine for youth leaders, which she held in the UU church in Brunswick. The group began to lobby U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe’s office to become a co-sponsor of the Student Nondiscrimination Act.
Smith also served as a media spokesperson for GLSEN and GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) about the implementation of the Maine Human Rights Act as it related to regulations that would affect schools. Conservative Christian groups had raised objections to regulations that would allow transgender students to choose which bathrooms they used or which gender sports teams they could join. Smith spoke on behalf of transgender students and their need for safe schools. She told the press that as a straight woman, she did not feel threatened by allowing transgender students to use the facilities where they felt safe.
She also led a campaign that persuaded a Hallmark store in Brunswick to stop selling a product called “Gay Away,” a joke pill that was supposed to make gay people turn straight. The GSA first wrote the store owners a letter asking them to stop selling the product. When the owners didn’t respond, they began a postcard campaign with the store’s address and portions of the letter on it. Smith distributed the postcards at GLSEN meetings and GSA nights all around the state for people to mail in. The store no longer carries the product.
Three people nominated Smith for the Advocate of the Year award: the two chairs of GLSEN Southern Maine and the faculty mentor of the Mt. Ararat High School GSA, Frannie Welch. “When I heard GLSEN was seeking nominations, it just jumped out at me that this was Dani,” said Welch. “She thinks of herself as a small town girl from Maine who’s just doing what’s right, but she has very quietly changed the world a little bit up here.”
Smith traveled to New York City in late May for the GLSEN awards gala. She described the experience as surreal, staying in an elegant hotel and attending the fancy gala at Gotham Hall. Accepting the award, she gave a speech to the more than 700 people in attendance. To great applause, she told them: “As a straight person standing up for the rights of gay people, I actively disprove the stereotype that this is a gay movement. This is not a gay movement. This is a civil rights movement.”
She also talked about the importance of students leading each other and inspiring one another to take on leadership roles. She recalled the student who inspired her, Ariel Grosvenor. She encouraged Smith to get involved four years ago, and from the podium, Smith thanked her for it.
When Smith returned to Maine, more accolades awaited her. UUA President Peter Morales sent her a personal letter of congratulations, writing, in part: “Real, lasting change only comes about through efforts such as yours. In addition to creating a safer, more inclusive environment for all students in your community, you have modeled effective action through public commitment, community-building, and speaking truth to power. On behalf of all Unitarian Universalists, I thank you for your hard work and for living the values of our faith.”
And then she got a call from the White House. She and her parents attended a reception hosted by President Barack Obama on June 22 in honor of LGBT Pride Month.
In her community, she’s been heartened by the recognition she’s received after coverage of the award in the local papers. “You never know who supports this kind of cause until you’re in the newspaper,” she said. “People you never even know were supportive of the cause will congratulate me.” She even received a gift card to a bike shop in Brunswick as a thank you for her work.
On Sunday, June 13, the UU Church in Brunswick recognized Smith. The Rev. Sylvia Stocker, the congregation’s minister, read the letter from Peter Morales aloud to the congregation at the Sunday worship service and honored Smith in her home church.
“Dani has no end of talent, and we adore her,” Stocker said in a telephone interview.
Smith began attending the UU church when she was a freshman in high school. She was raised Roman Catholic. But the same friend who encouraged her to become active in the GSA also invited her to attend the Brunswick UU church. “She took one look at me freshman year and said, ‘You’re a UU and you’re going to church with me,’” said Smith.
Smith began to attend the church and joined the youth group. “I felt totally at home and began to take it as a personal faith,” she said.
After graduation from Mt. Ararat, Smith plans to spend a year in Germany as an exchange student. The following fall, she will enroll as a freshman at Dartmouth College.
Correction 07.08.10: In an earlier version of this article, we mistakenly said that Danielle Smith was invited to a special dinner at the White House. She was invited to a reception at the White House in honor of LGBT Pride Month. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).