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S.C. gay advocates to marry in Md. on Jan. 1

South Carolina Equality Executive Director Ryan Wilson grew up outside Baltimore

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Gay Marriage, Maryland, South Carolina

Ryan Wilson and Shehan Welihindha (Photo courtesy of Ryan Wilson)

The head of South Carolina’s statewide LGBT advocacy group will marry his partner of nearly five years at Baltimore City Hall shortly after midnight on Jan. 1.

“It has been a long-time coming for us as a couple,” Ryan Wilson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “Having the legal recognition for us as a couple is really important to us.”

Wilson, who grew up in Fallston in Harford County, met Shehan Welihindha in Detroit in 2008 during the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference.

Welihindha, who is from Sri Lanka, is studying for a Ph.D. in public health at the University of South Carolina. He is the part-time coordinator for the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center’s program that seeks to prevent HIV among young gay and bisexual men in Columbia, S.C., and the surrounding area.

Wilson proposed to Welihindha in 2009 on-stage during the annual South Carolina Pride as former “American Idol” contestant Frenchie Davis and thousands of others watched.

South Carolina will not recognize the couple’s Maryland marriage because voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that bans nuptials between same-sex couples. The Defense of Marriage Act also prohibits Wilson from sponsoring Welihindha for his green card — he has been able to remain in the United States through a series of work and student visas.

“We feel now’s the time,” Welihindha told the Blade. “We’ve been together for five years and even though it’s not recognized in South Carolina, we feel [as] though getting married in a place that recognizes us as being equal as everyone else and coming back to South Carolina would be inspiring to the community there. It’s still something we feel is going to have a symbolic meaning to us because of that.”

Wilson and Welihindha are among the dozens of same-sex couples who are expected to marry across Maryland on the first day gays and lesbians can legally marry in the state.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will attend same-sex weddings that will begin at Baltimore City Hall at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 1. Several gay and lesbian couples are also expected to tie the knot in Cumberland just after midnight on New Year’s Day.

More than a dozen same-sex couples are expected to get married at the gay-owned Black Walnut Point Inn on Tilghman Island in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore on Jan. 1. Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi will host what it describes as a “wedding reception” on Jan. 6 that will celebrate the same-sex marriage law.

As for Wilson and Welihindha, they said they are both excited and nervous as their wedding day approaches.

The couple had considered tying the knot in D.C. after same-sex marriage became legal in the nation’s capital in 2010, but Welihindha noted “Ryan and I got really excited” about the prospect of nuptials for gays and lesbians in Maryland “because that’s Ryan’s home state.”

“For us, immigration equality is kind of an important issue because my partner is from Sri Lanka originally and came over here to study and has not been able to get a green card. And living in South Carolina our relationship isn’t recognized at all,” Wilson added. “So getting a marriage license from a place like Maryland where I grew up is the first step along a path towards really recognizing our relationship. Of course we want to sort of be ready in case the courts rule in favor of marriage equality. We’ve been looking for the place to do it [and] when Maryland finally decided in favor of equality we decided this was the right time and the right place.”

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District of Columbia

Nex Benedict honored at D.C. candlelight vigil

Upwards of 100 people paid tribute to nonbinary Okla. student at As You Are

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A candlelight vigil is held outside of the LGBTQ café and bar As You Are on Feb. 22, 2024, for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Nearly 100 people turned out on Feb. 22 for a candlelight vigil hosted by the D.C. LGBTQ café and bar As You Are to pay tribute to 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict.

Benedict died Feb. 8 at a hospital in Owasso, Okla., one day after family members say Benedict was beaten up by three older female students in an Owasso High School bathroom after a fight broke out. Owasso police have said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death but said preliminary autopsy findings do not show the death was caused by physical injuries.

Family members, including Benedict’s mother, told news media outlets that Benedict suffered severe bruises to their face and head and the family believes the injuries from an assault caused their child’s death. Family members have also said Benedict had been targeted for bullying at school because of their status as a nonbinary person.

People who spoke at the As You Are candlelight vigil said they considered the death an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

“Today we are brought together to mourn the loss of Nex Benedict,” As You Are co-owner Rachel “Coach” Pike told the gathering, which was held on the As You Are outdoor patio and surrounding sidewalk. “Nex Benedict, your life matters. It will always matter, and more than that your life was precious,” Pike said.

“You had the right to live as you were and all parts of your identity were beautiful and should have been celebrated, supported, and safe,” Pike added.

Pike and other speakers, some of whom identified as nonbinary and transgender, pointed out that Benedict’s family are members of the Choctaw Nation, a Native American community. A speaker at the vigil who identified himself as Bo and said he identified as a two-spirit individual called on the gathering to pay tribute to Benedict’s role as one of the Choctaw people.

“When I first heard the news of Nex Benedict’s murder I was shocked,” Bo said. “I thought of how young. I thought about how much life was taken from this child.”

Another speaker, native American advocate Shiala King, whose family are members of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, arranged for her father, Frank John King, a faith leader and medicine man, to speak to the gathering by phone hookup from his residence in South Dakota. After greeting the gathering and expressing his condolences over the death of Benedict, Frank King further honored Benedict by singing a spiritual song in the Lakota language as part of a tradition of uplifting the spirit of beloved people who pass away.

Jo McDaniel, the other co-owner of As You Are whose also Pike’s spouse, said they were pleased with the response to their announcement of the vigil on social media. 

“To see this child taken from us this way, it’s chilling and it’s horrible and it’s not right and it’s not fair,” McDaniel told the Washington Blade after the vigil ended. “And so, we knew that the only thing we could do to help our community heal was to gather. And we wanted to do that in as honorable and wonderful a way as possible as that kid deserves,” she said.

Sue Benedict, Nex Benedict’s mother, told the British newspaper The Independent that Nex was a “courageous, smart teenager who had simply been living their true identity.” The Independent reports that Sue Benedict said Nex had been subjected to taunts, insults and bullying due to their gender fluid identity for over a year. 

Owasso police officials have said detectives were interviewing school officials and students to obtain more details on how the fight started and whether charges will be brought against those who allegedly assaulted Benedict. A police spokesperson told The Independent police were awaiting the findings of toxicology and autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office to determine whether anyone will be charged with a criminal offense.

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District of Columbia

New gay bar on 14th Street to open in April

Owners say Crush to offer ‘cozy, inclusive space’

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Exterior of Crush. (Photo courtesy of Crush)

A new D.C. bar catering to the LGBTQ community called Crush is expected to open for business in April in a two-story building with a roof garden at 2007 14th St., N.W., in the center of one of the city’s bustling nightlife neighborhoods. 

A statement released by co-owners Mark Rutstein and Stephen Rutgers says the new bar will provide an atmosphere that blends “nostalgia with contemporary nightlife” in a building that once was home to a popular music store and radio supply shop.

“This new venue, catering especially to the LGBTQ+ community, offers a cozy, inclusive space that reminisces about the times of record stores and basement hangouts with friends,” the statement says. “In its past life as a music store and radio supply shop, Crush transforms its legacy into a modern-day haven,” the statement continues. “It features top-notch DJ booths, a dance floor and a summer garden, alongside a premium sound system to ensure every night is memorable.” 

Rutstein told the Washington Blade the new bar will have a capacity of accommodating 300 people on its two floors. He notes that the name ‘Crush” stems from the romantic crush that people often have for one another and his and Rutgers’ new bar is aimed at providing a friendly space for people to meet and socialize. 

“We’re looking to be inclusive to everyone,” Rutstein said. “It’s certainly going to be heavy on the LGBT community” because he and Rutgers have been part of that community for many years. But he added, “We want to be inclusive to gays and lesbians being able to bring their friends and allies in along with them and not feel weird about it.” 

Crush will be located across the street from the Reeves Center D.C. municipal building where government agencies and community groups, including the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, has its office. 

“Crush isn’t just our name,” the statement issued by Rutstein and Rutgers says. “It’s the essence of our space. We aim to create an atmosphere where everyone can celebrate life and love.”

Editor’s note: Stephen Rutgers is the Blade’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

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Maryland

Are Md. prisons out of bounds with federal requirements for trans prisoners?

Department of Correctional Services says transgender prisoners ‘housed according to physical genitalia’

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BY BEN CONARCK | Nearly a year after formerly incarcerated transgender people testified to Maryland lawmakers about the troubling conditions they faced in state prisons and Baltimore jails, the agency in charge of their care continues to violate federal standards in how it houses trans prisoners, according to a coalition of trans rights advocates.

The Trans Rights Advocacy Coalition, bolstered by policy experts and attorneys, contends that while the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has made some strides towards improving conditions, its policy of housing trans prisoners “according to physical genitalia” violates the federal standard that those individuals should be housed on a case-by-case basis determined by health and safety and any security problems, among other factors. The group laid out its argument in a 15-page memo presented to the department and lawmakers this week.

The rest of this article can be read on the Baltimore Banner’s website.

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