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D.C. LGBT youth group rebrands itself

Regional GSA network part of SMYAL’s new strategic plan

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

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Maryland

Judge rules trans teacher’s lawsuit against P.G. County can go to trial

Gay man files separate case charging discrimination

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Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

A federal judge in Maryland issued a ruling on Tuesday, Jan. 18, clearing the way for a lawsuit filed by transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in 2018 charging the Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools with discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity to proceed to a trial.

In the ruling, Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied key parts of several motions filed by attorneys representing the P.G. County Public Schools that in effect called for the dismissal of the lawsuit. The motions, among other things, claimed the lawsuit failed to provide sufficient evidence that Eller was subjected to discrimination and harassment, which forced her to resign due to a hostile work environment.

Chuang also ruled against a separate motion introduced by Eller’s attorneys calling for him to issue a summary judgement decision affirming all the lawsuit’s allegations that would have ended the litigation in Eller’s favor without the need to go to trial.

Eller’s lawsuit charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers, and supervisors and retaliation by school administrators.

The lawsuit alleges that the school system and its administrators in its actions against Eller violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Prince George’s County Code.

“We think the judge did as best he could,” said Omar Gonzales-Pagan, an attorney with the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, are representing Eller in her lawsuit.

“The takeaway is that the case is now in a posture to proceed to trial,” Gonzales-Pagan told the Washington Blade. “The court found that the alleged facts and the information as discovered throughout the case in the discovery process is sufficient to allow a jury to find whether Jennifer Eller was subjected to a hostile work environment and constructive discharge and retaliation unlawfully by the defendants,” he said.

By the term constructive discharge, Gonzales-Pagan was referring to the lawsuit’s charge that Eller was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

P.G. County Public Schools officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit on grounds that the school system has a longstanding policy of not discussing pending litigation. However, in its response to the lawsuit in court filings, school system officials have denied Eller’s allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by her attorneys.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said in her statement. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” she said. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

The lawsuit says the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. It says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

In a separate action, gay former Spanish teacher Jared Hester filed on his own without an attorney a lawsuit in the Maryland federal court charging the P.G. County Public Schools with failing to take action to prevent him from being subjected to discrimination and harassment similar to some of the allegations made in Eller’s lawsuit.

Hester told the Blade that he was subjected to harassment by students who repeatedly called him “faggot,” but school officials, including the principal of the middle school where he taught, refused to take action to stop the harassment.

He provided the Blade with copies of earlier complaints he filed against school system officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, and the P.G County Public Schools’ internal Office of Equity Assurance. Each of the three agencies issued rulings against Hester’s complaints, with two of them saying sufficient evidence could not be found to support his allegations.

The EEOC, in a Nov. 3, 2021 “dismissal” notice, told Hester the EEOC “will not proceed further with its investigation, and makes no determination about whether further investigation would establish violations of the statute.” The notice added, “This does not mean the claims have no merit” or that the respondent, meaning the P.G. County Public Schools, “is in compliance with the statutes.”

The notice did not give a reason for why it chose to end its investigation into Hester’s complaint, but it said his filing with the EEOC cleared the way for him to file a lawsuit to further his case against the school system. 

Hester told the Blade he reached out to Lambda Legal to represent him in his lawsuit, but the LGBTQ litigation group declined to take on his case without giving a reason. Gonzalez-Pagan, the Lambda attorney working on the Eller case, said he was unfamiliar with Hester’s request for representation. Another Lambda official couldn’t immediately be reached to determine the reason for its decision not to represent Hester.

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FreeState Justice outlines 2022 legislative priorities

Bills introduced to repeal ‘unnatural or perverted sexual practice’ law

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FreeState Justice has outlined its legislative priorities for the Maryland General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session that began on Jan. 12.

State Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore and Harford Counties) has introduced Senate Bill 22, which would repeal a provision of Maryland law that bans “unnatural or perverted sexual practice.” State Dels. David Moon (D-Montgomery County), Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery County) and Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Montgomery County) have introduced an identical bill in the House of Delegates.

A bill that repealed Maryland’s sodomy law took effect in 2020 without Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, but the “unnatural or perverted sexual practice” provision that criminalizes oral sex and bestiality remains in place.

FreeState Justice Policy Director C.P. Hoffman on Jan. 12 noted during a virtual briefing that prosecutors rarely bring charges under the law. Hoffman nevertheless pointed out four men who were arrested at a video store in Harford County in May 2021 were indicted under it.

“Its really just offensive that this is being used against queer people in 2021,” said Hoffman. “So we want to see it repealed.”

Hoffman and their FreeState Justice colleagues also noted the ability for transgender Marylanders to more easily obtain official documents that correspond with their gender identity is another legislative priority.

Maryland since 2019 has allowed trans and non-binary people to receive a driver’s license with an “X” gender marker.

Hoffman said FreeState Justice will support bills that would allow Marylanders to change their name on their marriage certificate without a court order or getting divorced and remarry. FreeState Justice will also back a measure that would allow trans parents to amend their child’s birth certificate to accurately reflect their gender identity.

“We’re trying to clean that up to make one consistent policy that allows for trans folks to do this,” said Hoffman.

FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster during the briefing noted another legislative priority is the Inclusive Schools Act, which would require Maryland public schools to implement a uniform non-discrimination policy through the state’s Department of Education. FreeState Justice Policy Coordinator Jamie Grace Alexander highlighted the organization will also urge lawmakers to expand access to PrEP and PEP in Maryland and to support legislation that would, among other things, prohibit housing incarcerated trans women with men.

“The conditions for transgender people — especially transgender women — while they’re incarcerated are extremely grim and dark,” said Alexander.

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Virginia

Mother says teen boy charged with assault in girl’s bathroom at Va. school is straight

Earlier reports that Loudoun County student was gender fluid triggered backlash

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Two sexual assaults by the same teen in Loudoun County schools attracted widespread media attention. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a little-noticed interview last November with the British online newspaper, DailyMail.com, the mother of a 15-year-old boy charged with sexually assaulting a girl last May in the girl’s bathroom at a Loudoun County, Va., high school that the two students attended said her son identifies as heterosexual.

The May 28, 2021, sexual assault first surfaced in the news media in October at the same time law enforcement authorities disclosed that the boy allegedly sexually assaulted a girl on Oct. 6 in a vacant classroom at another high school to which he was transferred.

The disclosure of the two assaults triggered a furious backlash by some parents and conservative political activists against a Virginia school policy allowing transgender and gender fluid students to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity.

“First of all, he is not transgender,” the boy’s mother told DailyMail.com in a Nov. 2 interview. “And I think this is all doing an extreme disservice to those students who actually identify as transgender,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

The mother, who agreed to the interview on grounds that she was not identified to protect the identity of her son, said her son identifies as heterosexual and absolutely does not identify as female.

LGBTQ activists have said the backlash against both the Virginia state and Loudoun County transgender non-discrimination policies — which spread to school districts across the country that have similar policies — was fueled by what they have said all along was unsubstantiated claims that the boy was transgender or gender fluid.

Conservative activists who strongly oppose the school systems’ trans supportive bathroom policies have said it was those policies that enabled the 15-year-old boy, who police say was wearing a skirt at the time of the May 28 sexual assault incident, to enter the girl’s bathroom to target the girl.

Since that time, testimony in a Loudoun County Juvenile Court where the boy was being prosecuted revealed that the 14-year-old girl who brought the charges against him said she and the boy had two consenting sexual encounters in a girl’s bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., prior to the incident in which the boy allegedly assaulted her. 

According to the Washington Post, whose reporter attended one of the juvenile court hearings, the girl testified that she agreed to meet the boy in the girl’s bathroom after he requested a third sexual encounter there, but she told him she did not want to have sex at that time.

“The girl previously testified in court that the defendant threw her to the ground in the bathroom and forced her to perform two sexual acts on him after she told him that she was not interested in sex on that occasion,” the Post reported in a story last week about the final outcome of the case.

At a Jan. 12 sentencing hearing, Loudoun County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Pamela Brooks placed the boy on the Virginia sex offender registry for life, the Post reported. After ruling in an earlier hearing in November that the evidence confirmed that the boy was responsible for sexually assaulting the two girls, Brooks sentenced the boy to a residential treatment facility rather than a juvenile detention facility and required that he remain on probation until he turns 18, the Post reported.

“He’s a 15-year-old boy that wanted to have sex in the bathroom, with somebody that was willing,” the boy’s mother told DailyMaiI.com. “And they’re twisting this just enough to make it a political hot button issue,” she said.

In her interview with the newspaper, the mother said her son wasn’t gender fluid despite the reports, which she confirms, that he wore a skirt at the time of the first of the two sexual assaults.

“He would wear a skirt one day and then the next day, he would wear jeans and a T-shirt, a Polo or hoodie,” she told the newspaper. “He was trying to find himself and that involved all kinds of styles. I believe he was doing it because it gave him attention he desperately needed and sought,” she said.

The mother acknowledged in the interview that her son was deeply troubled, saying he had a long history of misbehavior, including sending nude photos of himself to a girl when he was in the fifth grade.

On Jan. 12, the same day as the boy’s sentencing hearing, Virginia House of Delegates member John Avoli (R-Stanton) introduced a bill calling for restricting the ability of transgender students from using bathrooms and other facilities in public schools that are consistent with their gender identity.

A separate bill introduced last month by Virginia State Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County) calls for eliminating the requirement that Virginia school districts adopt the state Department of Education’s nondiscrimination policies for trans and non-binary students.

Although Virginia’s newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates could move to advance the two bills, LGBTQ activists note that the state Senate remains in Democratic control and would block the two bills from being approved by the General Assembly.

Cris Candice Tuck, president of the LGBTQ group Equality Loudoun, told the Blade she expects opponents of LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies in the Loudoun County Public Schools and other school systems in Virginia to continue to use the sexual assault case of the Loudoun boy as a pretext to repeal LGBTQ and trans supportive policies. 

“We firmly believe it should have absolutely no bearing as the perpetrator was not transgender, non-binary, or gender fluid, and so that doesn’t apply to this policy at all,” Tuck said. “A single conviction of an individual who is not even part of the group in question is no reason to invalidate the rights and expose to potential violence the hundreds of students who identify as transgender or non-binary,” Tuck said in an email message.

“Currently, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and hundreds of cisgender teachers, clergy, and coaches are embroiled in legal battles nationwide involving sexual molestation, rape, and abuse of children across the country that has been ongoing for decades,” Tuck said. “Yet no one is proposing restroom restrictions for any of those groups. A double standard cannot exist for the LGBTQ+ based on fear mongering, misinformation, and discrimination.”

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