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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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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Phyllis Nowacki

    May 16, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    good for her

  2. Muriel Bowser

    May 17, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I wonder why the Blade doesn't tweet out your columns? Well done.

  3. Lateefah Williams

    May 19, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Thanks for the positive feedback!

  4. Rebecca Renard-Wilson

    May 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    YAY! I was her supervisor last summer at CYITC. She's AWESOME! I'd love to learn more about the coding project. There are so many ways the city/nation could use this! Great job, Casidy–and great article, Lateefah!

  5. Alex Carter

    May 27, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Hi Lateefah – wow, what a great idea! Safe Spaces Project is working on a national inventory of LGBTQ youth organizations. Would it be possible for you to put me in touch with Casidy, or vice versa? Thanks much.

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Opinion | Lovitz for Pennsylvania state representative

Accomplished gay candidate is longtime equality advocate

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Jonathan Lovitz, gay news, Washington Blade
Jonathan Lovitz (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It’s an embarrassment of riches for residents of center city Philadelphia, which includes the “gayborhood,” as they prepare to vote for their next state representative. 

The post has been held by Rep. Brian Sims, who’s gay, since 2013. Sims is giving up the seat to run for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. More on that later.

Two out LGBTQ candidates are among those competing in the 182nd District’s Democratic primary to replace Sims — Jonathan Lovitz and Deja Alvarez. Lovitz, who’s gay, has served as senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce for five years. If elected, it would be the first time a seat held by an LGBTQ state representative transitioned to another LGBTQ official and he would be the first LGBTQ Jewish elected official in Pennsylvania.

Alvarez, who’s transgender, is director of community engagement at World Healthcare Infrastructures and serves as chair of the Philadelphia Police LGBT Liaison Committee. She would become the first out trans person to serve in the Pennsylvania Legislature if elected.

Both are excellent candidates who would make their own bit of history if elected, but Lovitz stands out as the strongest choice to replace Sims in the legislature, a change that local residents desperately need.

To paraphrase Oprah in her famous endorsement of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton: Just because I am for Lovitz, doesn’t mean I am against Alvarez. I am acquainted with Lovitz and know him to be an ethical, smart, hard-working professional who is deeply dedicated to his work and to the residents of Philadelphia. He would make a fearless and tireless advocate for Philly and for equality issues in Harrisburg.

At NGLCC, Lovitz has helped write and pass more than 25 state and local laws, including in Pennsylvania, extending economic opportunity to LGBTQ-owned businesses around the country. As the country struggles to emerge from pandemic restrictions, we need more legislators at all levels of government who understand the importance of small business. Lovitz has the experience in business and in his work on equality issues to deliver tangible results for Philadelphia. 

Contrast his record with that of Sims and it’s a no-brainer that the people of the 182nd District have nowhere to go but up. Sims has sponsored or introduced scores of bills in the past year, but only one has been enacted, according to BillTrack50. Sims has been criticized in the district for his endless media tour and social media self-promotion. He is more interested in thirst-trap selfies than in constituent service. He lacks the professionalism and temperament for elected office, favoring profane outbursts and juvenile insults over diplomatic compromise and legislative achievement. As Christopher Pinto wrote in the Philadelphia Gay News, “Almost a decade in the State House, and he has no legislative victories that he can claim as his own. He spent more time out of the district than inside it, flying from one speaking engagement to the next, while abusing his state issued travel budget and being shrouded in a lengthy ethics investigation.”

Lovitz will not succumb to such vanities. He is a grounded professional who understands how to craft legislation and, more importantly, how to get it passed. He won’t alienate colleagues as Sims has done. 

On equality issues, Lovitz has worked on behalf of marginalized communities at NGLCC and last year he organized PhillyVoting.org, which works to boost turnout among Black and LGBTQ voters. 

“The ongoing violence against our communities, especially against our trans siblings, is a stunning reminder that our work together continues,” Lovitz wrote in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Gay News. “Once again the movement for long-overdue social change in America is being led by communities of color, especially right here in Philly,” he wrote. “And the LGBTQ community must continue to stand in solidarity with them.”

Lovitz understands the moment. He has a passion for business and for helping entrepreneurs to succeed, something cities desperately need after more than 200,000 small businesses have shuttered due to COVID, according to the Wall Street Journal; more than 1,000 Philly businesses closed in just the first five months of the pandemic, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Voters, donors, and our national advocacy organizations should support his bold campaign and help retain an out LGBTQ voice in Harrisburg while improving constituent service for residents of the district. 

Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected].

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Opinion | LGBTQ Virginians advocate D.C. statehood

The right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society

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My hometown will always be Washington, D.C. It’s the place where I was born and spent all of the first seven days of my life. As a lifelong Virginian however, where I live and attended schools, I straddle two communities important to me. 

As a business owner of 30 years in Washington, D.C., I pay many of my taxes and payroll taxes to the Nation’s Capital while I also pay income tax to Virginia where I’m a citizen.

Most important of all, as a gay Virginia voter, I can think of few lifelong political goals more important to me than achieving statehood for Washington, D.C. One of the compelling reasons I still make my home in Virginia and cross the Potomac River every day of my life, is because of my right as a Virginian to vote for two U.S. senators and for a member of the House of Representatives with the power to vote in Congress.

(It is still shocking to know that, with Washington, D.C. statehood still beyond grasp, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never yet had the authority to vote on the floor of the House.)

At an early age, I was dumbfounded to know that D.C. then did not even have a local government. We lacked an elected mayor and city council, with almost all decisions for the District of Columbia made by the federal government. Yet today, even with a mayor and local government in place, it is breathtaking to know that my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have zero voice in the Capitol and no one to vote for them – and for us – in Congress.

Consider that one of the world’s most diverse and educated cities has so often been bullied by extreme conservative leaders on Capitol Hill who – whenever possible – turn back the clock for D.C. citizens on voting rights, abortion rights, gun measures and our civil rights including LGBTQ equality. Not a single voter in D.C. has much, if any, say over any of those decisions.

The absence of statehood and the lack of real voting rights means that the unforgivable strains of racism and homophobia often held sway not just for Washington D.C., but in denying the United States a true progressive majority on Capitol Hill too. 

Virginians get it. In the past decade, we’ve worked very hard in every county and city in the commonwealth to turn our regressive political past into a bright blue political majority. We have elected LGBTQ candidates to state and local offices in unprecedented numbers. Our vote is our power.

More significantly, through the work of Equality Virginia and its many allies, we are repealing scores of anti-LGBTQ measures and reforming our statutes and constitution to secure equal rights as LGBTQ voters, adoptive parents, married couples, students, and citizens. Doesn’t Washington, D.C. deserve that future?

Virginia needs more states – like D.C. – to join forces and represent all Americans. To achieve this, and to defeat or neuter the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, we need our friends, allies and neighbors, the citizens of Washington, D.C. to share in our democratic ambitions.

Long ago, Washington, D.C. resident, abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass declared that “the District is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Washington, D.C. residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California or any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every American war just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. The District deserves statehood and Congress should act to grant it.” 

Speaking for LGBTQ Virginians, we agree. Conferring statehood is not a gift nor a blessing from the rest of us, but instead, it is the absolute right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society. As LGBTQ Americans, if we are to pass the Equality Act and other fundamental civil rights measures, we need the State of Washington, D.C. and its voters by our side.

Bob Witeck is a longtime LGBTQ civil rights advocate, entrepreneur, and Virginian, with long roots and longstanding ties to D.C.

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years

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OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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