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Butts out in the cold as Va. gay bar goes smoke free

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There was fresh air, fresh faces and perhaps not quite so many raspy-voiced karaoke songs at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant last week as Virginia went smoke free.

Business hasn’t declined since the Dec. 1 changeover, and some patrons even said they were enticed back or came for the first time as a result of the smoking ban.

“It’s much more pleasant inside,” said Tom, a Crystal City man who declined to give his last name. A smoker, he has a non-smoking partner. The pair shuffled back and forth between the warmer entrance patio and the cold of winter’s first snow outside.

“I support the ban,” he said. “I’ve only lived in Virginia for three years. Before that I lived in New York City. They had the ban. Before that, Boston. They had the ban. It’s an incentive to smoke less.”

D.C. and Maryland banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Freddie’s was the last remaining gay bar in the metro area to allow smoking.

Not everyone at Freddie’s supports the ban. Ophelia Bottoms, Freddie’s Saturday night DJ and drag host reserved her anger for the Virginian government.

“It was forced on us,” she said. “I think it’s funny that we’re the tobacco state and you can’t smoke inside. I perform in the city and Maryland, this was the only place left to perform where you could still smoke.”

“Now it’s cold outside — really cold. When I’m not in drag it’s fine, but when it’s raining or snowing, it is not the best thing to go outside.”

On the first night of the ban, it rained, Bottoms said, so five people were forced to huddle in the doorway while people were trying to get into the venue.

Vince, a former Freddie’s employee who declined to provide his last name, said he enjoyed being able to smoke while he worked.

“I understand that non-smokers want to go somewhere that is smoke free, but as a smoker, we want somewhere that has a balcony or a patio with a roof,” he said. “I love Freddie’s, but I want to go somewhere that has a smoking area.”

Freddie Lutz, the establishment’s eponymous owner, said he’d have to check with the Health Department on what changes could be made to accommodate the displaced smokers.

“I have a lot of smoking clientele, and I’ve grown very fond of them over the years,” he said. “They’re not bad people, they just smoke. I really appreciate all of them and they’ve been loyal to me, faithful loyal customers.”

Returning that loyalty was “a work in progress” he said, beginning with small changes like moving ashtrays outside.

“There was a lot of that sort of talk [about a smoking deck] and the smokers were trying to think of ways we could get around it, we do the patio or something like that, but we really wanted to try this cold turkey.”

Virginia law would not permit Freddie’s former non-smoking patio to be converted to a smoking area as it is currently fitted, because of the flaps.

“If we do that, the flaps would have to be open. It could get cold. We could have heaters on, too, but that would be pretty costly,” Lutz said. It would also lose functionality as additional seating, he noted, due to the exposure.

Despite the complications, Lutz said he expected to see many new customers as a result of the changeover.

“I had a lot of people come to me and say, ‘We would go to your place or we’d go to your place more often but we just can’t stand the smoke.’ I think we’re going to get a lot of those people coming now, which is a great thing.”

Lutz said the smokers he talked to had accepted the change.

“Anyone would admit that it was an inevitability, it was going to happen. I don’t think we’re going to lose the smokers because where can they go? They can’t go to D.C.; they can’t go to Maryland.

“I’m an ex-smoker myself. I swore to myself I wouldn’t turn into one of those bitchy ex-smokers. I can relate and feel for the smokers and it’s unfortunate that it’s in the dead of winter. I know it’s difficult for them.”

Freddie’s manager Ray Martin confirmed that bar receipts were unchanged this week.

“For every customer that is maybe staying home and smoking now, more customers are coming out,” he said.

“Personally, I’m very pleased. My smoking has been cut down to a third of what it used to be. Every smoker out there really wishes they could quit.”

Customers who can’t stand to abandon either Freddie’s or their cigarettes could find hope in the bar owner’s plans to open another Freddie’s in another city, particularly in Florida.

“I’m down in Fort Lauderdale looking for a bar,” he said. “It is still smoking down here, interestingly enough. Freddie’s has been a smoking bar all this time so it wouldn’t bother me.

“I was actually surprised — pleasantly surprised — that Virginia did this. I thought they’d be the absolute last because they’re such a tobacco state, so now if we could just get them to legalize gay marriage, we’d be set.”

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Virginia

Va. students warn against ‘don’t say gay’ policies

New law requires parental notification of ‘sexually explicit content’ in classroom

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(Bigstock photo)

More than 600 students from across Virginia signed a letter from the Pride Liberation Project that calls for the Virginia Department of Education to clarify that teaching students about LGBTQ people and events is not “sexually explicit.”

Senate Bill 656, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed earlier this year, requires parents be notified when instructional materials contain “sexually explicit content” — without any input from students.

Current Virginia law defines “sexual conduct” as “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification.”

Because SB 656 does not itself specify what constitutes “sexually explicit content,” LGBTQ students and activists are concerned that the bill will rest on Virginia’s pre-existing definition of sexual conduct.

In their full letter, signees argued that “In effect, SB 656 can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual.”

“Consequently, all references to LGBTQIA+ people in K-12 schools, including Supreme Court cases, historical events impacting LGBTQIA+ people, and discussions about queer authors, may be deemed as sexually explicit content under SB 656, effectively erasing LGBTQIA+ representation in our school curriculum,” reads the Pride Liberation Project’s press release.

Representation has been shown to positively increase academic performance, and LGBTQ youth already face exacerbated risks of suicide and mental health crisis. In Virginia specifically, the vast majority of LGBTQ students reported hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks at school, and 26 percent of LGBTQ students reported being “disciplined for public displays of affection (PDA) that did not result in similar action for non-LGBTQ students.” 

 “Most of my LGBTQIA+ friends are already struggling with their mental health,” said one Loudoun County student in the Pride Liberation Project press release. “I’m scared about the message these guidelines could send and losing the already limited affirming representation in my class.” 

Another student from Richmond said that they “didn’t want to see their friends who are from homes that aren’t accepting not see themselves reflected at school.” 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL announces new executive director

Erin Whelan to start Sept. 1

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Erin Whelan (Photo courtesy of SMYAL)

SMYAL on Thursday announced Erin Whelan will become the organization’s new executive director on Sept. 1.

SMYAL’s mission is to support and empower LGBTQ youth ages 6-24.

A press release that announces Whelan’s appointment notes the organization over the last five years has grown “exponentially.” Its services include affirming programs, housing support, leadership training and mental health services, designed to help LGBTQ youth develop advocacy skills and an educated, welcoming community.   

Whelan most recently served as the director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, an Austin, Texas,-based nonprofit that provides youth with housing and services. She has worked in nonprofit management for almost 20 years, and SMYAL’s press release highlighted her commitment to antiracism, equity and the LGBTQ community. 

“Erin Whelan is a compassionate and strong leader who I am confident is the right person to lead SMYAL,” board chair Rob Cogorno said. “I could not be more proud of the tremendous growth in services for our LGBTQ youth and of the SMYAL staff’s hard work that made that growth possible. Erin’s extensive experience in service to youth in need and her passion for that work will help guide SMYAL in continuing its excellent work in this challenging time for LGBTQ youth in our region and across the country.” 

Whelan in the press release shared her enthusiasm for stepping into leadership with this driving purpose. 

“I am beyond excited and honored to join SMYAL as the new executive director. My work has been committed to understanding and seeing the world through the lens of the most marginalized youth and young adults and being a fierce advocate for LGBTQ youth,” Whelan said. “I believe all LGBTQ youth deserve an opportunity to build a life they love and a chance to feel celebrated and affirmed for exactly who they are and strive to be. From the moment I stepped into the SMYAL community, it felt like exactly where I wanted to be. SMYAL creates a community for queer and trans youth where they can feel radically accepted and safe to step into their true selves.” 

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Judge: West Virginia Medicaid must cover transgender care

Fain v. Crouch is litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans

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A U.S. District Court judge ruled Tuesday that West Virginia’s Medicaid program could no longer discriminate by excluding coverage for gender-confirming surgical care for transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. 

U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers also certified the lawsuit as a class action, covering all transgender West Virginians who participate in Medicaid.  In the lawsuit brought in November of 2020 by Lambda Legal, Nichols Kaster, and The Employment Law Center, the plantiffs challenged the state’s ban on gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s Medicaid and state employee health plans.

“We applaud Judge Chamber’s decision to remove the discriminatory barrier to accessing medically necessary, gender-confirming surgical care for all transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. Protecting and advancing health care for transgender people is vital, sound, and just. Transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants deserve to have equal access to the same coverage for medically necessary healthcare that cisgender Medicaid participants receive as a matter of course,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal. 

Fain v. Crouch is a class action litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans. The blanket exclusions of coverage for care are stated expressly in the health plans offered to Medicaid participants and to state employees. West Virginia’s state health plans serve approximately 564,000 Medicaid participants and15,000 state employees.

“I am excited to finally have access to the healthcare I deserve. The exclusion negatively affects my health and wellbeing as well as the health and wellbeing of other transgender Medicaid participants in our community. Gender-confirming care is healthcare, and it is lifesaving,” said plaintiff Shauntae Anderson, West Virginia Medicaid participant.  

“This is a victory not only for me but for other transgender Medicaid participants across West Virginia. This decision is validating, confirming that after years of fighting to prove that gender-confirming care is medically necessary, we should have access to the same services that West Virginia Medicaid already provides to cisgender participants. Transgender West Virginians should never feel as if our lives are worth less than others,” said plaintiff Christopher Fain, West Virginia Medicaid participant. 

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