October 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
SMYAL honors Katie O’Malley at Fall Brunch
Katie O'Malley, Maryland First Lady

Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley (Washington Blade photo by Jonathan Ellis)

The Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) on Sunday honored Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley for her efforts to combat bullying.

“It just breaks my heart when I hear the Tyler Clementi stories or young kids being [picked on] and called horrible things just because of who they are and what they choose to do,” said O’Malley during SMYAL’s annual Fall Brunch at the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest Washington. “It’s very, very troubling, so in Maryland we have been able to pass some pretty strong anti-bullying laws. But as I always tell kids when I go to schools you know you can have laws on the book, but it’s really about our culture.”

O’Malley, who is a judge on the Baltimore City Circuit Court, has appeared in an “It Gets Better” video for the Trevor Project. She has worked with Facebook and Time Warner to promote National Bullying Prevention Month. O’Malley also spoke at the U.S. Department of Education’s third annual Bullying Prevention Summit that took place in D.C. in August.

“You don’t have to be everybody’s friend, but you can look out for each other and you can be kind and we can try to promote that in our culture as best as we can,” she said. “I think it really goes a long way.”

O’Malley also expressed optimism that Marylanders will vote for the state’s same-sex marriage law in next month’s referendum.

“We’re so hopeful that in just 40-some days we’re going to be able to pass the marriage equality referendum,” she said.

SMYAL has worked with thousands of LGBT and questioning youth in the metropolitan area since a group of local activists founded the organization in 1984 in response to reports that young male D.C. public school students who acted “too effeminate” were incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital.

Staffers and clients earlier this year testified in support of the city’s anti-bullying bill that Mayor Vincent Gray signed into law in June. SMYAL members in May joined Cyndi Lauper on Capitol Hill to raise awareness of homelessness among LGBT youth.

Andrew Barnett, the group’s executive director, noted that the new strategic plan that SMYAL adopted in March allows it to identify what he described as key issues facing LGBT youth and how the organization can most effectively respond to them.

“A really big piece of our strategic plan is knowing that there are hundreds, if not thousands of LGBTQ youth across this region, many of whom right now have no safe space. They have no support,” he said. “So a big piece of our strategic plan as we look to SMYAL’s future is to find ways for us to bring our programming to them. Finding ways for us to bring what we do at our youth center on Capitol Hill out into suburban Maryland and into Virginia, where we know there’s a huge, huge unmet need.”

Wendy Rieger, NBC4, news anchor, Washington Blade, gay news, SMYAL

NBC4 news anchor Wendy Rieger (Washington Blade photo by Jonathan Ellis)

NBC4 news anchor Wendy Rieger, who emceed the brunch that raised $122,000 for SMYAL, discussed how her 16-year-old niece recently texted a lesbian friend struggling to come out to her parents information about the organization.

“She said, ‘thank you so much, this is exactly what I’m looking for,’” recalled Rieger. “When you are in need of something, whether you find wildlife on the road and you don’t want this poor creature to suffer or whether a relative tells you this story and you’re thinking there’s someone whose confused out there, you want to be able to call someone. You want to be able to call someone. And that’s what SMYAL does. They’re there.”

SMYAL intern Tatiana Newman, who began attending the Women’s Leadership Institute’s meetings in February, agreed.

“When I found SMYAL I found safety, community and inspiration,” she said. “Being a lesbian in 2012 doesn’t mean I have a particularly easy live, but it’s one of change — change that SMYAL allows me to be a very proactive part of.”

SMYAL board member Cheryl S. Clarke discussed how the organization helped her after her oldest son Michael came out to her at the start of his senior year of college.

“I knew I needed to learn more about his community. I knew I wanted to be supportive of my son. I knew I wanted to educate myself to be in touch with resources that I needed to expand my repertoire,” she said, noting she reached out to current SMYAL Board Vice Chair Mike Schwartz for help. “’I said, Mike I need some help. I want to continue to be the best mother I can, but I want to now understand how to be an African American mother of an African American gay man.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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