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Alston House, Code for Progress help trans woman thrive

A fresh start after being kicked out of home and school

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Casidy Henderson, gay news, Washington Blade, Wanda Alston House
Casidy Henderson, gay news, Washington Blade, Wanda Alston House

Casidy Henderson (Photo courtesy of Casidy Henderson)

While we, as a society, have made great progress toward equality for LGBT people, we still have a ways to go. This is particularly evident when engaging with young LGBT people who have been rejected by their families, peers or communities as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Casidy Henderson, 23, is a transgender District resident who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone when she was seven years old. She has been living as a woman for two and a half years and has been on hormones for 10 months. In her young life, she has been repeatedly ostracized and tormented as a result of her sexual orientation and gender identity.

Casidy is a promising young woman who could have easily fallen through the cracks, if not for the support from several nonprofit organizations that work tirelessly to improve lives and ensure that the individuals that they work with leave their programs with the skills to thrive.

The Wanda Alston Foundation, which operates the Wanda Alston House, is one of those programs. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the Wanda Alston Foundation.) The Wanda Alston House provides transitional housing to homeless LGBTQ youth.  Casidy became homeless after being put out of her Southwest Virginia Christian boarding school due to her sexual orientation. At the time, Casidy was still living as a young man.  Due to her mannerisms, she was perceived to be gay and was harassed by the other students.

“Kids would pee on my pillowcase. They would beat me up in the back of the school. People would put bleach in my drinks and call me derogatory names,” Cassidy said. “This happened every day because I ate, slept, went to school and went to church with them. I couldn’t reach out to staff at school because I was gay. They would turn a blind eye when the boys beat me up or dragged me down the staircase.” Cassidy says she was eventually asked to leave the school because her Facebook status said that she was gay.

“I had to explain the situation to my family of why I was kicked out and that I was gay. It was obvious because I was effeminate, but it was the first time I said it,” she said.  Her family had never been supportive of her sexual orientation and, throughout her childhood, some of her relatives were verbally and physically abusive. The boarding school gave Casidy a one-way bus ticket to D.C., where she stayed with her uncle for four months. After he put her out, she stayed with friends for a few more months. She found out about the Wanda Alston House from a Transgender Health Empowerment employee who was handing out fliers and condoms outside of the Safeway on Benning Road, N.E.

“I found out about the Wanda Alston House, filled out an application, and moved in three days later,” Casidy said. She stayed at the Wanda Alston House for 18 months. The house operates as a home with a curfew, rules and chores. “I was free to be myself. I had other peers who were trans. The whole LGBT community was in the house. It’s really not a shelter. It’s a three-story house with a deck. We had a therapist who came in once a week. We would discuss issues and problems. We were a team. That really helped me. It nurtured me spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. Being in the house was a place for me to heal myself. Being in that safe place was everything for me. I never before had issues that could be addressed and had a whole team work on it.”

While in the house, Cassidy received her GED and scored 200 points shy of a perfect score. After leaving the house, she found an apartment and, simultaneously, worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and as an intern with the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (CYITC) summer initiative.

Her work with CYITC gave her experience in advocacy and social justice, which is why she jumped at the opportunity to become a fellow with Code for Progress, whose goal is to “train and support new coders who can bring historically under-represented perspectives to the tech industry.”

In April, Casidy was one of 12 people who began the one-year program. According to program descriptions, the “curriculum will focus on contemporary coding techniques, human-centered database programming and application development” for 40 hours a week during the 16-week training residency. The program includes mentorship, a stipend, and post graduation career support.

“When I heard about Code for Progress, I was like, I know how to advocate for justice, but I was lacking the technical skills. Now I can program computers, develop apps, create websites, create databases and set them up. I’m empowered now and it’s only been a month that I’ve learned these things. We have an awesome professor. She simplifies things and brings so much to the table.”

As part of the fellowship, Casidy wants to create an app that will aggregate all available LGBT resources within a community. “I’m well informed about different issues and Code for Progress is giving me a vital piece of the puzzle to make me a resource for my community,” she said. “If all these agencies are speaking as one huge body and sharing info, change is going to happen. If this app is successful, I want to expand it to different cities.”

Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her @lateefahwms.

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Politicians should stop using children as political punching bags

Let us hold leaders accountable for their vicious self-centeredness

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Screen capture via YouTube)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent signing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was a body blow to the LGBTQ+ community — particularly for those of us who trust in our schools to provide a safe and welcoming space for our children.

But it was what the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted earlier in March that made my heart leap into my throat. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer.”

As the former executive director of GLSEN, I know a dog whistle when I hear it. And I also know that politicians who have ambitions of running for higher office, like DeSantis, choose their words extremely carefully.

DeSantis is deliberately activating a cultural fear tactic to scare schools and educators away from providing LGBTQ+ children and their families with potentially life-saving support. And unfortunately he is far from alone in going down this dangerous path of spouting hate for political leverage.

Throughout the historic Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson, we saw Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and others bring the specter of child indoctrination into the national discussion in the context of race. In doing so, they were following the lead of Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist-journalist known for creating an all-purpose header for all things controversial out of the label “critical race theory” (CRT).

This began to take shape last year with the intentional mischaracterization of schools implementing diversity, equity and inclusion programs as attempts to indoctrinate our kids with divisive leftist ideals. Starting with Hawley’s attacks on Judge Jackson, they upped the ante by accusing schools of “grooming” children to be anti-racist — this time drawing from the QAnon playbook.

Radical politicians push legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, or vile rhetoric like the insinuations about Judge Jackson, in order to further their agenda of dismantling our children’s access to a good, truly multicultural public education by sowing confusion and distrust, as was openly stated by Rufo at a speaking event at Hillsdale College earlier in April. All the while, they create a deeply dangerous environment for some of our most vulnerable children.

And their timing could not be more dire. This deluge of bad policymaking and shrill rhetoric is happening at the exact moment when we are experiencing a national mental health crisis among our youth. Nearly four out of 10 teens reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” according to CDC data — a 40 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

Black and LGBTQ+ students in particular are more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide, and when politicians use them as political chips to be played, it compounds those risks. Never mind the fact that schools’ efforts to undo racism and anti-LGBTQ+ bias and violence is itself an investment in these children’s survival. Black adolescents experience multiple instances of racial discrimination every day, one study found, with real consequences for their mental health. Schools need to play an active role in rectifying that.

In my 20 years at GLSEN, I wrote far too many condolence letters to parents who lost a child to suicide. Some politicians see no harm in shaming and stigmatizing vulnerable children.

We’ve seen lately this onrush of harmful, self-centered behavior from those in a position of public trust. But on the other end of the spectrum, is Spencer Cox: the Republican governor of Utah who recently issued a brilliant letter explaining his veto of an anti-trans sports bill passed by the state legislature.

Vetoing the bill, which would have banned trans girls from participating in women’s sports in public schools, was surely a politically unpopular move in a deep-red state. But after thoughtfully considering the issues, reviewing key research, and weighing the competing needs of stakeholders, Cox took a stand in defense of some of Utah’s most vulnerable children.

For all those who rise to the calling of public service, there’s a choice to be made. Gov. Cox made the choice to safeguard the most vulnerable youth in his state despite the political implications. I sincerely hope that in this critical moment, more of our country’s leaders will follow his example.

And should it take more than their own consciences to do so, let us all hold leaders accountable for the impact of their cynical/vicious/immoral self-centeredness on all of our children.

Eliza Byard is a senior adviser to the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a leading global expert on LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 education and youth development, and served as executive director of GLSEN from 2008-2021. 

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Where does wrongful detention of Brittney Griner go from here?

She will inevitably be labeled a hostage

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Brittney Griner

It seems like years rather than weeks ago that American political prisoner, Trevor Reed, was released from Russia in a prisoner swap. It also seems like years since an American citizen, basketball superstar Brittney Griner, was taken into custody in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for allegedly having hashish oil in her possession. 

We now know what many of us believed all along – that Brittney Griner was, in the far too late proclamation by the U.S. government, “wrongfully detained.” In diplomacy-speak, wrongfully detained is synonymous with politically detained, which is super close to what will soon enough inevitably happen – calling Brittney Griner a hostage. 

Since the beginning of Griner’s detention, I have done dozens of print, radio, TV, and related interviews, and I have a pretty clear view of how and why we got here. 

As I wrote around six weeks ago, if we read between the lines of what’s being said in traditional and social media, we can extract three key reasons why the Griner situation isn’t getting the attention that it should be and would be if it was a different athlete.

The first reason is that Brittney Griner is not a terribly high-profile athlete.

This is patently untrue. As I have been commenting from the minute we learned that she was taken into custody by the Russians, Griner was absolutely the highest-profile American athlete that Russia could have taken into custody as they were preparing for their brutal invasion of Ukraine. 

The only other high-profile athletes playing in Russia or transiting through at that time were the very few American players in Russia’s top hockey league, the KHL. None are superstars in their sport, as Griner is.

The second argument for why Griner isn’t getting the attention she should be is that she is LGBTQ.

I have argued that this is a reasonably good hypothesis. It just seems that a straight athlete would be getting a lot more attention and public sympathy than Griner has, in part, yet not in full, because of her sexual orientation. That’s a remarkably harsh position to have to take in 2022, yet it’s clear that Griner doesn’t fit the mold of what many Americans see as that all-American athlete. That one’s sexual or gender orientation should drive the American public’s level of sympathy for one of their own top athletes is a shame, but here we are.

The third and most commonly cited reason for Brittany Griner getting less attention than another athlete in a similar situation is that she’s Black. 

This argument holds little weight with me. Yes, it makes sense that in comparison to a high-profile white athlete, some people are simply going to care less about a Black athlete. Again, that’s a harsh analysis, yet not unaligned with many things going on in the nation today.

But I think this is a reductive argument that crumbles under the weight of the analogy that I usually use during TV and radio broadcasts about the Griner case – and that is, what if this was Kyrie Irving?

I like to use Kyrie Irving as an analogy because he is a highly controversial Black athlete. Obviously, NBA players don’t have to have second jobs in places like Russia, Turkey, and China, to make ends meet, as the WNBA women do. But just imagine that Kyrie Irving was traveling alone through Moscow airport. If Irving had been taken into custody by the Russians, I can guarantee that this would be front-page news not just in the sports section but on the front page of all significant papers practically every day. That simply hasn’t been the case with Brittney Griner.

Every day, I am asked where this goes from here. With Griner’s May 19 hearing delayed “one month” (though at the time of writing, no date has been set), I remained convinced of two things: that this goes to a worse place than we are now and that it progresses painfully slowly. 

As to the first point, to maximize leverage over the United States, it’s likely that Griner will end up somewhere like a Russian labor camp before she ever steps back into the United States. While Russia does not follow the Rule of Law, it would be neither legally nor politically expedient to just hold Griner in a Moscow jail or prison indefinitely. They need to make her situation worse to turn up the urgency of the case for the American government.

But this indeed won’t happen overnight. As I’ve also been saying all along, the next hearing date will also be delayed, OR we will learn through a TASS Russian media release that Griner was tried, found guilty of all charges, and sentenced (see labor camp, above).

As to what each of us can do, my advice remains the same: Keep talking about it. Make this Brittney as viral as Britney Spears was a year ago. Just as Britney Spears’ freedom from her conservatorship was turbo-charged by the #FreeBritney hashtag, let’s #FreeBrittney now.

This is significantly less trite than it sounds. There is no indication that the American government doesn’t want you to forget about Brittney Griner. As former hostage Jason Rezaian discussed on an excellent recent Washington Post podcast, he always “calls BS” on those parties, saying we should keep detentions such as Griner’s out of the public spotlight. He advocates being as loud as we can be on this, which is why I keep doing interviews on this issue as much as possible.

Ultimately, Brittney Griner will be a political prisoner until the United States and Russia can decide, in crass basketball terms, on a fair player trade. On Friday, we learned that the two sides might actually be in discussions now for a trade involving Griner for notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, aka the “Merchant of Death.”

Unless this can re-enter and remain in the public spotlight, along with any pressure on the government, Britney Griner will not get the treatment she deserves as one of the greatest basketball players of her generation. That the massive disparity between how NBA and WNBA players are compensated laid the foundation for her to be in this position is the harsh reality these leagues face today. Yet it pales compared to the uncertain reality Griner faces today in a Moscow jail.

A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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Opinions

Leave no one behind: Building an LGBTQ+ movement for all

A just society is only achievable by investing in dignity of the marginalized

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KhushDC, gay news, Washington Blade

Despite the expansion of LGBTQ+ civil rights and liberties in D.C., some of which we proudly attribute to GLAA’s stalwart activism for the past 51 years, the most vulnerable members of our community continue to suffer from poverty, homelessness, criminalization, discrimination, social isolation, and preventable death. A jaw-dropping 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+, LGBTQ+ people experience hunger at twice the rate of straight people, and right here in D.C., the Office of Human Rights reports that employers are more likely to interview a less-qualified cisgender job applicant than a more-qualified transgender applicant.

So for our 2022 candidate ratings, GLAA decided to emphasize that racial and economic justice are LGBTQ+ justice issues. While we recognize the importance of openly LGBTQ+ candidates, we know one’s identity does not indicate where they stand on critical issues. Something many of us have learned the hard way, and something GLAA leadership recognizes not championing sooner as a mistake. What matters most is a candidate’s demonstrated record and vision to support the LGBTQ+ community in its entirety.

It is not enough for candidates to respond only to the needs of those who historically have held the most power in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly white cisgender gay men, in order to tout support of the entire community. The LGBTQ+ community is so many different people, and it is time we push candidates to consider and address us in our entirety. For too long, many LGBTQ+ people have felt rejected and betrayed by our community’s movement priorities, narratives about what our community stands for, and decisions on who is valued and who is selected to represent or lead us. And, while GLAA understands no one politician or organization can erase these community divides, we aim to be intentional in our approach to dismantle that which stands in our entire community’s way toward liberation. That is why, in 2022 we decided to rate candidates on their responses and records of support on issues that impact the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community. None of us is free until all of us are free.

Throughout GLAA’s history we have focused on securing LGBTQ+ rights, which have mostly strengthened the legal protections of people privileged enough to take advantage of them. GLAA decided to focus the Leave No One Behind: 2022 Election Guide and questionnaire on racial and economic justice with an LGBTQ+ lens. We did this to build on our victories, such as successfully advocating for the defunding of the Metropolitan Police Department’s vice squad in the 1970s, and to learn from our mistakes.

It is our belief that a just, peaceful, and vibrant society is only achievable by actively investing in the security and dignity of the poor and marginalized members of all our communities. Our questionnaire intentionally acts in solidarity with D.C. anti-poverty, anti-stigma, and anti-overdose campaigns, which are largely led by trans and queer people of color.

Ratings are on a scale of +/-10 points: yes/no responses on questionnaire (+/-2); substance of response (+/-4); and candidate’s public record (+/-4). Candidates earned partial credit for the yes/no category if they partially agreed with the question. Four issues received more than 91% agreement: increasing the affordable housing stock for the poorest residents, housing people using government funded vouchers, fully funding the Office of Human Rights, and better oversight to improve conditions in the DC Jail.

Three issues received 70-79% candidates’ support, and over 90% when including candidates who issued partial support: Repealing the sub-minimum wage, decriminalization of drug use, and reducing the population of D.C. jail by 30%.

Finally, the least supported policies were decriminalization of consensual sex work and divesting from the Metropolitan Police Department and investing in violence prevention and recidivism prevention programs. Even still, there was remarkable consensus: over 2/3 or 66% of candidates who issued total or partial support.

We are encouraged by the remarkable level of consensus on all of our issues, signaling that D.C. is ready for transformative change that at its core addresses the District’s current poverty, unaffordable housing, community and police-based violence, and overdose crises.

GLAA is excited to see more LGBTQ+ people on ballots. More exciting, however, is the number of politicians with fully realized and integrated LGBTQ+ policies in their platforms. Policies that extend across race and class lines. GLAA firmly believes all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can be stewards of LGBTQ+ liberation. It is our hope that readers find these ratings not as endorsements, but as a starting point to imagine what is possible if local officials are guided by D.C. residents to use their elected power to create new possibilities that leave no one behind.

This opinion piece was signed by the 2022 Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance board of directors.

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