April 25, 2013 at 6:01 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
D.C. LGBT youth group rebrands itself
SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, gay news, Washington Blade

(Image courtesy of SMYAL)

SMYAL on Thursday unveiled a new logo and acronym as part of its ongoing rebranding efforts.

The organization retired the blue, spiky-haired logo affectionately dubbed “Shannon” and replaced it with one that contains SMYAL in magenta print above a rainbow-colored banner and a slogan that reads “empowering LGBTQ youth.”

SMYAL, which had previously stood for Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, is now Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders.

SMYAL Executive Director Andrew Barnett told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview on Tuesday that young people whom the organization serves and local groups with which it works increasingly found the term “sexual minority” out of touch.

“We want a name that when people see it they say ‘oh, this is something that I see myself in,” Barnett said. “The actual spelling out of the acronym was not something that people identify with anymore.”

SMYAL has worked with 7,500 young LGBT people since 1984

Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, SMYAL, Andrew Barnett, LGBT youth, anti-bullying, gay news, Washington Blade

Andrew Barnett, executive director of SMYAL (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A group of advocates and those who work with young people founded SMYAL in 1984 after they organized a conference on LGBT youth issues after they learned cross-dressing students had been admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. The organization has subsequently provided direct services to more than 7,500 young LGBT people from the nation’s capital, Prince George’s County in Maryland and other parts of the Washington metropolitan area.

SMYAL in March 2012 adopted a new strategic plan that Barnett said during his organization’s annual Fall Brunch last October would allow it to identify key issues facing LGBT youth and how the organization can most effectively respond to them.

Barnett told the Blade the process of speaking with board members, staffers, clients, funding partners and donors about the new strategic plan began in July 2011. He said SMYAL also sought feedback and suggestions from other community organizations and agencies with which it partners.

“We really wanted to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of SMYAL and LGBTQ youth in the region and what makes sense for us as the next step for our organization,” Barnett said.

Barnett said it quickly became clear SMYAL’s after school programs were providing “really great support for youth.” He added his organization has heard from a lot of young people who said they were interested in attending them.

“At SMYAL we’re providing really great opportunities for youth to engage in social activities with their peers and engage in positive youth development,” Barnett said. “They feel like they’re part of the community [and] ultimately they can grow into happy, healthy and productive adults.”

The average age an LGBT person comes out is 13; but many of them cannot attend SMYAL programs that take place at the organization’s youth center on 7th Street, S.E., near Eastern Market because they are involved with other after-school programs, cannot get to a Metro station or are not ready to come out to their parents.

“We also want to expand our ability to provide programming outside of the four walls of SMYAL,” Barnett said. “We want to bring those safe spaces and opportunities for youth leadership development to other places in our community.”

Barnett further pointed LGBT young people continue to experience disproportionate rates of bullying and harassment in school.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2011 National School Climate Survey reported 81.9 percent of students said their classmates verbally harassed them because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a fifth of them said they were physically assaulted on campus because they are gay.

The GLSEN report also found roughly two-thirds of LGBT students had experienced verbal harassment because of their gender identity and expression — 12.4 percent of them said their classmates physically attacked them at school. Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students said they skipped class at least once because they did not feel safe at school.

GLSEN and other advocates also note LGBT students are more likely to face suspension or other disciplinary actions in school than their straight classmates.

SMYAL launches regional gay-straight alliance network

SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, gay news, Washington Blade

SMYAL youth (Photo courtesy of SMYAL)

One of the ways SMYAL hopes to expand beyond the organization’s drop-in center near Eastern Market is through its D.C. Regional GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) Network it launched last month.

Working in collaboration with the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network that coordinates more than 900 GSAs throughout California, the SMYAL initiative seeks to support and strengthen the 77 groups in the D.C. metropolitan area. The organization hopes to achieve this goal through an activist camp in August, its annual GSA conference that takes place each fall and trainings with individual clubs and their members at their schools.

SMYAL in 2011 hosted a GSA Network gathering that drew more than 75 young LGBT advocates and GSA sponsors from 20 states. The organization last November also hosted 78 student leaders from across the region at its first GSA conference.

Barnett is also a member of D.C. Public Schools’ LGBTQ Steering Committee.

“We know that GSAs or gay-straight alliances are really effective ways for us to make schools safer for LGBTQ students,” Barnett said.

He added the D.C. Regional GSA Network takes into account the goal set forth in its new strategic plan to expand its programming beyond its youth center.

“We also saw that there was a huge unmet need throughout our region for youth who weren’t able to access programming at SMYAL,” Barnett said. “They didn’t have access to any other programming.”

Barnett said he feels SMYAL’s rebranding efforts will better position it to expand its reach in the D.C. metropolitan area in the years to come.

“It’s a chance for us to take a big step forward in better meeting the needs of LGBT youth throughout the region, which is at the heart of our mission,” he said.

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

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