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Homeless gay teen survives streets, eyes college

Youth lived in D.C. abandoned buildings while on honor roll

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Kadeem Swenson says his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay two years ago. He spent a year living in abandoned buildings in D.C. while attending Ballou STAY school. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kadeem Swenson looks forward to graduating from D.C.’s Ballou STAY High School in June and is applying for admission to college. He gets good grades and his principal considers him a promising student with a good future.

But the strapping, six-foot-tall 18-year-old, who came out as gay at age 16, says he spent most of the past year hiding a part of his life that became far more difficult to deal with than his sexual orientation.

Forced by his parents to leave his home in Waldorf, Md., two years ago after he told them he’s gay, Swenson stayed with friends and relatives in D.C. and North Carolina for several months. He and his grandmother then prevailed upon his mother to enroll him in Ballou STAY, one of the D.C. public school system’s vocational and academic high schools that offer classes at night.

He stayed at the D.C. home of a student friend and her mother until the family moved to Chicago last year, leaving Swenson without a place to live. Believing a return to his mother and stepfather’s home in Waldorf wasn’t an option, Swenson said he set up residence in abandoned apartment buildings in the city’s Congress Heights section near Ballou.

With some financial support from his grandmother, he managed to get through his junior and part of his senior year at Ballou while hiding the fact that he lived a secret life as a homeless person. He stayed most of the time in a debris-strewn abandoned apartment building a few blocks from his school with no electricity or running water.

“I never really told anybody because I didn’t want anybody to have pity on me,” he said.

In what school officials and LGBT homeless youth advocate Earline Budd call an extraordinary story, Swenson told the Blade how he maintained a positive outlook and an overarching desire to succeed at school under the most trying circumstances.

“I want to go to college and study business,” he said. “And I don’t want to just run a business I want to own it.”

Through the help of one of Ballou’s guidance counselors and its principal, Swenson hooked up last month with Budd and Transgender Health Empowerment, a private, non-profit group that operates the Wanda Alston House for LGBT youth.

Last week, T.H.E. placed Swenson in the Alston House, ending a chapter in his life that he says has made him a stronger person but which also has created “considerable stress.”

“His story is specifically why we opened up the Alston House, because kids are still being put out of their house because they’re gay,” said Brian Watson, T.H.E.’s director of programs.

“And he’s a really good kid. He was going to school despite the fact that he was homeless,” Watson said. “That says a lot about him.”

With the help of one of his Ballou teachers, Swenson says he has applied for admission to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, which offers the type of business program he says he’d like to enter. Earlier this year he had an interview with one of the college’s recruiters who came to the D.C. area to talk to local high school seniors.

He showed a Blade reporter and photographer the abandoned building that became his home, leading his guests up a debris-covered stairway to a third-floor, one bedroom apartment with carpeted floors that were well preserved, suggesting the building had only recently been abandoned.

He pointed to the area where he placed a small mat that became his bed. The kitchen and bathroom plumbing fixtures had been ripped out and lay on the floor in the small apartment. The unlocked apartment door was still in place, enabling Swenson to secure a small degree of privacy while staying there.

“I thought a lot about going to college in Colorado and getting away from D.C.,” he said later, recounting his thoughts while huddling at night in the abandoned flat.

Swenson said he followed a routine to get by in his unusual living arrangement. He washed at his school and used the bathrooms at nearby fast food restaurants. He cleaned his clothes at a neighborhood laundry.

He tried to sneak in and out of the abandoned building located on the 100 block of Wayne Place, S.E., through an unlocked outer door out of fear that someone might follow him inside and attack him if he were to be seen entering and leaving.

He occasionally stayed at the homes of men he met at gay bars or clubs, he said, enabling him to take a short leave from the abandoned building. But his visits to the homes of his newfound acquaintances were usually short. And a few older men he met at the clubs made it clear they wanted sexual favors.

“I didn’t want to do that,” Swenson said.

He managed to maintain a cell phone through money he earned in a part-time job as a busboy in a restaurant. But an on-the-job injury from a fall prevented him from continuing to work, he said.

In early October, running low on money and realizing he had reached a point where he might not be able to continue without a safe and more stable place to live, he approached a Ballou administrator and asked for help.

“I just walked to her office and didn’t tell her I’m homeless,” Swenson said. “I told her that my parents kicked me out and I just need somewhere to stay for a little while. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”

In what turned out to be a lucky break, the administrator, Sharon Edwards, knew Earline Budd, the longtime transgender activist who has met with Ballou faculty and administrators on transgender and homeless youth issues.

Budd serves as an outreach official with Transgender Health Empowerment., a D.C. transgender advocacy group that, among other things, provides services to homeless youth who are gay, lesbian and bisexual as well as transgendered.

With the consent of Ballou STAY School principal Wilbert Miller and school guidance counselor Helene Miller, Edwards sent Swenson to T.H.E.’s North Capitol Street offices to meet Budd.

“Miss Edwards gave me a brochure and said I want you to call these people. She said I don’t want you to be offended by the name, Transgender Empowerment, because you don’t have to be transgendered to get services,” Swenson said.

“So I was like, O.K., I’ll go there, and I just went. And when I got there I spoke to somebody else and they introduced me to Miss Budd,” he said. “They said she’ll help you with anything you need help with, and she has.”

Budd, upon meeting Swenson, immediately sprung into action on his behalf, calling city agencies and members of the City Council to help find an emergency youth facility to provide Swenson a place to stay.

“I have a youth in crisis and is age 18, currently homeless to the streets and is sleeping in abandoned buildings,” Budd said in an Oct. 7 e-mail to Council members, city officials and members of the news media.

“I have been working with this youth since Oct. 5, 2010 and he is a very bright young man who deserves more than just talk,” she said in the e-mail. “He is currently enrolled at Ballou Stay, where he is on the honor roll and is said to be in school every day. When asked about his living conditions, he states, ‘Well, I have got to get an education and sleeping in abandoned buildings is not going to kill me.’”

Through Budd’s calls and e-mails, the Sasha Bruce House, a youth shelter in Northeast D.C. near Capitol Hill, arranged to provide Swenson with a room on a temporary basis.

Budd and Watson arranged a short time later for Swenson to be admitted to T.H.E.’s Alston House, which is located in a renovated, multi-bedroom house in Northeast D.C.  Swenson moved into the Alston House last week.

Swenson said he hopes to remain in the Alston House until he completes his course work at Ballou in January and enters college in September 2011. He will participate in Ballou’s graduation commencement ceremony in June.

At a reporter’s request, Swenson said he made an attempt to reach his mother through a family friend so the Blade could offer her an opportunity to comment on her son’s plight over the past two years.

“I just talked to my godmother and my godmother got in touch with my mom,” Swenson said. “And she said she doesn’t want any part of this,” he said.

Asked if it was his understanding that his mother did not want to talk to a reporter, Swenson said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

Miller, the Ballou STAY School principal, said he had no idea Swenson was homeless during most of his two-year tenure at the school until Swenson told Edwards about his situation in early October.

“He’s one of our most cordial and interactive students,” Miller said. “He has a great rapport with the staff and the students, and he’s always been interested in college.”

Miller said Ballou STAY High School’s teachers and staff are familiar with LGBT-related issues as they relate to the school system and would have taken immediate steps to help Swenson find a place to live had they known about his homeless status.

“He always looked well groomed,” said Miller. “He said, ‘I took care of my hygiene things before I came to school.’ He said ‘I couldn’t go around looking like I was homeless.’”

Ballou STAY High School shares the same campus but is a separate entity from Ballou Senior High School. Miller said the school system created STAY schools as an alternative educational environment to meet the special needs of a wide range of students at any age who wish to complete high school. The school offers both vocational and academic, college preparatory courses.

He said about half of the students, like Swenson, are between 16 and 18, with many in their 20s and early 30s and others as old as 60. The college-like class system allows students to take as few or as many classes each semester to accommodate their need to work or, in many cases, to raise children, he said.

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District of Columbia

Dignity Washington holds Catholic mass in honor of woman priest

LGBTQ group celebrates its support for ordination of women priests

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Rev. Ann Penick, center, performs mass on Sunday, Sept. 24 for members and friends of the DC LGBTQ Catholic group Dignity Washington. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The D.C. LGBTQ Catholic group Dignity Washington says it dedicated its weekly Catholic mass on Sunday, Sept. 24, to honor a woman priest who has served as one of its priests since 2017 in a gesture of support for the women’s priest movement.

“This Mass commemorates the ordination of Ann Penick as a Roman Catholic Woman Priest and celebrates the invaluable contributions of women who have served the church in various capacities,” the group said in a statement.

“Rev. Ann Penick’s ordination as a Catholic priest, and the ordination of female priests like her, represents a step forward in the Catholic Church’s ongoing journey towards greater inclusivity and recognition of diverse vocations within its ranks,” the statement says. “Dignity Washington is deeply honored to support her ministry and those of other women priests,” it says.

The fact that the Dignity mass in honor of Rev. Penick, who presided over the mass, and all of its weekly Sunday masses are held at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church near Dupont Circle highlights the fact that the official Catholic church recognizes neither Dignity nor women priests.

Dignity, a nationwide LGBTQ Catholic group with chapters across the country, is banned from holding any of its masses in Catholic Churches.

Penick told the Washington Blade in an interview the week prior to her saying the Dignity Mass on Sept. 24 that she was ordained as a priest in June 2011 by a woman bishop associated with a breakaway Catholic organization, the Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The organization was formed shortly after three male Roman Catholic Bishops ordained the first known women priests on a ship sailing along the Danube River in Europe in June 2002.

Two of the bishops who publicly disclosed their decision to ordain the women were excommunicated by Catholic Church officials at the Vatican in Rome. The third bishop acted anonymously and is believed to be continuing to serve as a bishop.

One of these bishops subsequently ordained female bishops who, in turn, began ordaining other women Catholic priests in Europe and in the U.S.

Information posted on the Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests website says it and others associated with the women priest movement believe the ordination of women bishops and priests is valid under the biblical concept of ‘apostolic succession.”

Under that concept, the spiritual authority that Jesus bestowed on his original apostles has been handed down to subsequent generations of clergy, and the ordained women bishops and priests can pass that spiritual authority on to other female clergy.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees Catholic churches in D.C. and parts of Maryland, did not respond to a request by the Blade for comment on the women’ priest movement.

Penick, who is married and has two stepchildren with her husband, points out that the women’s priest movement has also broken with the official church over the longstanding church requirement that priests practice celibacy and cannot marry.

“The Roman Catholic women’s priest movement sees celibacy as a personal calling,” Penick told the Blade. “If a woman is personally called to celibacy, she follows that call,” Penick said. “But a woman can also be married and have children, and that’s always been a vision of the Roman Catholic Women’s priest movement.”

Penick notes that it was not until the early 1100s that the church put in place a celibacy requirement for its priests.

She has been active in the Catholic Church for most of her life in several states where she has lived and worked. She received a certification in lay ministry from the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala. in 1993, a master’s in counseling degree from the University of Birmingham in 1995, and a master’s in Pastoral Ministry from Boston College in 2008.

She and her family currently live in Alexandria, Va., and she currently works as a mental health counselor at the Counseling and Psychological Services department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Penick said while living in Maryland she served as a priest for Living Water Inclusive Catholic Community in Catonsville, and currently serves as a priest for the D.C. Living Family Mass Community in D.C. as well as serving as one of Dignity Washington’s rotating priests.

“We are so lucky to have her,” said Dignity Washington former president Daniel Barutta, who noted that Penick and her husband are Dignity members. “She’s just a shining star for women,” he said. “And we really hope that Dignity Washington is leading the church, showing the church which direction to go in terms of empowering women and having them as our spiritual leaders.”

Barutta said Penick has joined the Dignity Washington contingent in D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride parade and the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and has led Dignity prayer services on various occasions.

Peter Edwards, Dignity Washington’s vice president, said following its Sunday mass that the organization “certainly does affirm that women can serve as priests in our community.” Edwards added, “We had a wonderful congregation tonight for a mass in celebration of Rev. Ann.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of the Mount Rainier, Md., based LGBTQ Catholic advocacy organization New Ways Ministry, said she believes the fully approved ordination of women priests in the Catholic Church will someday happen.

“There is no theological reason, only cultural ones, why women have not been ordained priests,” she said in referring to the official church. “I believe that a Catholic organization that ordains women priests is living out their sincere and deep-seated beliefs and preparing the wider community for what will eventually come to pass,’ she said.

“Not all arrive at the destination at the same time, and I admire those with the courage of their convictions who lead the way,” she added.

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District of Columbia

Activists, policy makers mark Celebrate Bisexual Day in D.C.

BiPlus Organizing US hosted event at HRC

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Adrian Shanker, senior advisor for LGBTQI+ health equity in the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, speaks at a Bisexual Awareness Day event at the Human Rights Campaign on Sept. 23, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Cal Benn)

BiPlus Organizing US on Saturday hosted a Celebrate Bisexual Day event at the Human Rights Campaign.

Fiona Dawson, co-founder of BiPlus Organizing US, and Mélanie Snail, committee member of the organization, emceed the event. HRC Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Rebecca Hershey welcomed attendees. 

Heyshey discussed her journey as a bisexual, mixed race, Jewish woman. Hershey paraphrased Adrienne Maree Brown, stating “change is coming, we are creating change.” 

PFLAG Learning and Inclusion Manager Mackenzie Harte gave a presentation on the history of bisexual identities, defined terms surrounding gender and sexuality and went over statistics of discrimination and health disparities that bisexual individuals face.

Harte’s presentation noted 48 percent of bisexual individuals reported an annual income of less than $30,000, compared to 30 percent of gay men, 39 percent of lesbians and 28 percent of all adults in the U.S. 

Harte went on to say 28 percent of bisexual students report having attempted suicide; and bisexual people have a higher risk of mood disorders, substance abuse and mental illness than their lesbian, gay, or straight cohorts. Bisexual people of all genders face higher rates of sexual assault than those same peers. One reason for these statistics is isolation: 39 percent of bisexual men and 33 percent of bisexual women report not being out to any health care provider, and only 44 percent of bisexual youth report having an adult they could turn to if they were sad. 

Harte also spoke about the Bisexual Manifesto, which the Bay Area Bisexual Network wrote in 1990. 

“The bisexual manifesto very intentionally was not binary,” Harte said.

They said the text works against the stigma and stereotypes that claim bisexuality is confined to “male, female.” 

Tania Israel, a bisexual advocate and psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared some of her bisexual haikus, which she calls, “bikus.”

Dawson moderated the next panel.

Panelists included Nicole Holmes, a bisexual advocate and public health professional, National Center for Transgender Equality Communications Director Leroy Thomas and NCTE Policy Counsel Kris Tassone. 

The panel talked about how shame and stigma drive the statistics that negatively impact the bisexual community. Another word that came up as a driving force was “intersectionality.” 

Holmes said that when it comes to intersectionality, it’s important to not just “list identities,” but to look deep into “the purpose behind why we are talking about intersectional identities” in the first place.

Adrian Shanker, senior advisor on LGBTQ+ Health Equity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about health equity for the bisexual community. 

“Striving for health equity remains a core priority. It also remains an unmet dream,” said Shanker. “Queer people have always had to be our own health advocates.” While health equity may not be here yet, Shanker says there is much in the works for the LGBTQ community, bisexuals specifically. 

Shanker cited a National Cancer Institute funding opportunity that invites research proposals to cancer care for sexual and gender minorities, stating bisexual specific proposals are welcome. The impending potential government shutdown may postpone it. 

The Biden-Harris administration is also working to ban so-called conversion therapy at the federal level. Additionally, 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, began a program to offer specialized support for LGBTQ youth and young adults last year. 

Shanker said bisexual people should prioritize preventative screenings for skin cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer, regular cervical and anal pap tests, mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies. 

“If you have a body part, get it screened,” said Shanker. 

Megan Townsend, senior director of entertainment research and analysis for the GLAAD Media Institute, did a presentation on bisexual representation in the media and opportunities for advancement. 

 “I want to see bi+/pan colors displayed on the White House,” said Dawson. “I want every national LGBTQIA+ organization to be talking about us, to put our concerns front and center.”

The data presented can be found here.

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Delaware

Flight attendants union endorses Sarah McBride

Del. lawmaker would be first transgender member of Congress

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Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride speaks at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in D.C. on April 10, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Delaware congressional candidate Sarah McBride has earned the support of the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s most prominent flight attendant union.

It’s the second big labor endorsement for McBride after the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27’s endorsement. The Association of Flight Attendants praised her for spearheading efforts to bring paid family and medical leave to Delaware, which will take effect in 2026. 

“Sarah’s record in the Delaware Senate shows that she understands how to work collaboratively, build power and make big things happen,” the union’s president, Sara Nelson, wrote in a press release shared exclusively with the Washington Blade. “That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy.”

McBride also announced her support for creating a list of abusive passengers and banning them from flying. Each airline has a list of passengers banned from flying, but airlines don’t share the lists with each other, though Delta Air Lines has asked them, because of “legal and operational challenges,” as a representative for the airline industry trade group Airlines of America told a House committee in September 2021.

“Right now, someone can be violent towards a flight attendant or another passenger and walk directly off of that flight and onto one with a different airline to endanger more people,” an Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson wrote in a statement. 

The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would put the Transportation Security Administration in charge of building the database of passengers fined or convicted of abuse and has bipartisan support but has sat idly in committee since March. It failed to pass last year, and civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have charged that the list would disproportionately target people of color and strip and a better step to reducing hostility would be making flights more comfortable. Reports of defiant and unruly passengers have more than doubled between 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022.

“I thank the Association of Flight Attendants for endorsing our campaign,” McBride wrote in the press release. “It’s important that we recognize and celebrate the symbiotic relationship between strong, unionized workforces and the continued growth of employers here in our state.”

The union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 19 airlines is putting pressure on airlines to grant union demands in contract negotiations. At American Airlines, unionized flight attendants voted to authorize a strike — putting pressure on the airline to accede to its demands. Flight attendants at Alaska Airlines say they are ready to strike but have not voted to authorize one yet. United Airlines flight attendants picketed at 19 airports around the country in August, ratcheting up the pressure. 

The union’s endorsement adds to a growing list of McBride endorsements, including 21 Delaware legislators, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Human Rights Campaign, EMILY’s List, and Delaware Stonewall PAC. McBride, who would be the first openly transgender politician in Congress, has powerful connections in Washington — including with the White House — and is favored to win Delaware’s lone House seat. 

A poll commissioned by HRC shows her leading the pack of three candidates vying for the seat — 44 percent of “likely Democratic voters” told pollster company Change Research, which works with liberal organizations. The poll of 531 likely Delaware Democratic primary voters, though, was conducted only online — meaning those with less familiarity or access to the internet may not have been counted — and Change Research’s methodology for screening likely voters is unclear. The company also did not provide a breakdown of respondents by age, gender, and race, but says it uses an algorithm to make the results representative.  

Nelson said McBride’s time in Delaware’s state Senate shows her prowess in building power and working collaboratively.  

“That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy,” she wrote.

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