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‘Walk to End HIV’ set for Saturday

7,000 expected for renamed event

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AIDS Walk, gay news, Washington Blade
AIDS Walk 2013, Whitman-Walker Health, gay news, Washington Blade

AIDS Walk is now Walk to End HIV. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

As many as 7,000 people, including D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, were expected to descend on Freedom Plaza in downtown D.C. early Saturday morning, Oct. 25, for the 28th Annual Walk to End HIV.

The event, formerly known as AIDS Walk Washington, is produced by and serves as a benefit for Whitman-Walker Health and several of its community partners. Since the 1980s Whitman-Walker has provided HIV-related care and prevention programs along with other health services for the LGBT community and the broader D.C. community.

“Whitman-Walker Health announced in June that AIDS Walk Washington would become the first AIDS walk in the country to take the word ‘AIDS’ out of its name,” according to a statement issued by Whitman-Walker. “This was done to reflect the dramatic shift that’s been seen in the HIV epidemic over the past three decades – from a disease that led to rapid decline and almost certain death to a chronic, manageable condition.”

This year’s event includes both a walk and a run, with each traveling the same 5 kilometer route along sections of Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. and around part of the National Mall along Independence Avenue, S.W. The walk and run were to begin and end at Freedom Plaza.

Same-day registration and other activities, including an “uplifting program of music, speakers and warm-up exercises,” were set to begin at 7 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, which is located at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., the Whitman-Walker statement says.

The 5k “timed” run was scheduled to begin at 9:15 a.m. The walk was scheduled to kick off at 9:20 a.m. A post-walk celebration, including performances and awards, was scheduled to begin in Freedom Plaza at 10 a.m.

Entertainment was to include performances by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, Shi-Queeta Lee and Drag City, and Kaution Dance Kru. Mayor Gray was scheduled to speak at the gathering, which was to be hosted by NBC4 TV anchors Aaron Gilchrist and Eun Yang.

Further details of the event can be found at walktoendhiv.org.

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Maryland

Former FreeState Justice executive director denies allegations against them

Jeremy LaMaster denies they launched ‘coordinated attack’

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Jeremy LaMaster (Photo courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

The former executive director of FreeState Justice on Tuesday denied they have launched a “coordinated attack” against their former organization.

Jeremy LaMaster on Sept. 19 announced their resignation after they said FreeState Justice”s board of directors declined their request to step down. 

FreeState Justice two days later in a federal court filing against LaMaster said they “immediately began a coordinated attack on FreeState’s operations; in particular, its IT assets” after they left a Sept. 16 meeting in which the board informed them they “were relieved of their duties, and the final two weeks of their employment were to be spent cooperating in the transition of FreeState’s operations.”

“When FreeState discovered LaMaster’s improper interference, it terminated their employment effective immediately, ordered them to cease and desist and to rectify their actions,” reads the court filing. “LaMaster did not abide and continued to hijack and misappropriate FreeState’s IT infrastructure and documents.” 

“What would hacking into someone’s email and deleting an email do,” LaMaster told the Washington Blade during a FaceTime interview. 

LaMaster, who uses they/them pronouns, told the Blade they started “working on this transition stuff” once they returned home from the Sept. 16 meeting and “I started getting error messages for our intake system.”

“After the Sept 16 meeting, someone else, not me, began deactivating email accounts, including mine, breaking workflows for our client intake and other processes, causing a lot of problems for our IT infrastructure,” said LaMaster on Wednesday in a follow-up text message.

LaMaster said they began to receive text messages on Sept. 18 about “criminal charges” and “allegations.” 

LaMaster told the Blade they tried to call now FreeState Justice Executive Director Phillip Westry on Sept. 18, but he did not accept his call.

“I sent an email to the team about this is what happened, this is what I was doing,'” said LaMaster. “Some of our things are down. Please let me know.”

LaMaster said they sent a Slack message to Westry and now Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on the morning of Sept. 20 in order to “help transition IT.” LaMaster told the Blade they “learned about the restraining order and a number of IT issues and allegations when everyone else did.”

LaMaster, who is representing themself, attended a court hearing in Baltimore on Monday. 

LaMaster told the Blade that they said they could provide passwords to their FreeState Justice email account. LaMaster said they provided the passwords to all other software systems the organization uses.

LaMaster sent the Blade a screenshot of a text message thread between them and Jones.

“Please provide the the (sic) appropriate login credentials and administrator access to all FreeState Justice systems,” Jones told LaMaster. “Please do not attempt to access any systems or the office.”

“As I mentioned yesterday — I do not know the passwords off the top of my head and will need to either 1) test them or 2) reset them. This required accessing the systems,” responded LaMaster. “I’m not being obtuse — but you’ve all made a large number of false (and impossible) accusation based on the very limited understanding of our tech, or tech in general (not being rude, but y’all know it’s true.)

“Like I said, I think a phone call or Zoom, we can even record it so that I cam (sic) do/show exactly what I am doing,” added LaMaster. “I’m here for the lawyer robot responses and the desire for retaliation to continue to block FreeState legal services delivery, and then turn around and blame you (sic) lack of cooperation and knowledge on me.”

Text messages between former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and FreeState Justice Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on Sept. 27, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)
Text messages between former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and FreeState Justice Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on Sept. 27, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

LaMaster told the Blade they were “supposed to return items and keys and such” to FreeState Justice’s offices at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, but “no one was there.” The text thread shows LaMaster texted Jones at 4:43 p.m. to let her know that they’re “here to drop off keys and pick up my stuff, but no one is answering the door.”

“They’re still holding my personal belongings and not accepting my keys and FSJ (FreeState Justice) checks,” LaMaster told the Blade.

Board has ‘white supremacist culture’

LaMaster in June 2020 succeeded Mark Procopio as executive director.

LaMaster in their resignation letter said they stepped down after board members refused their request to immediately step down “due to persistent violations of our board handbook, consistent failures in their fiduciary responsibilities, and using positions of power to engage in partisan lobbying within FreeState Justice and their repeated refusal to add new members and leadership to the board.”

LaMaster in his email noted they “exhausted every avenue over the past two years to get our board fully staffed and running, and I made good faith efforts to work with the board to ensure that our clients and low-income LGBTQ Marylanders remained at our center.” 

“Instead, the board has refused to accept any new board members since 2021 and refused to staff and run core board activities as per our handbook,” wrote LaMaster. “Instead, they have worked to consolidate power and amend the board handbook in secret to lower the minimum number of board members required and ensure that our policy positions prioritize relationships with legislators, not the best interests of our clients and community. I have provided clear warnings and consistent concerns over these issues that were repeatedly ignored.”

LaMaster reiterated his criticism of the board when they spoke with the Blade.

“As with most nonprofits, I’m sure if you talk to any executive director, they will tell you the large number of challenges that comes to board and nonprofit boards and cultivating and building them and supporting them. There have been chronic issues for two years now,” they said.

“I think everyone gets a pass with the (COVID-19) pandemic, but at some point, stop getting passes,” LaMaster added. “There was just a lot of really poor decision making that was costing the organization money, and really not fulfilling core responsibilities laid out in our board handbook.”

LaMaster specifically noted the board’s abrupt decision in May 2022 to stop offering COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness after FreeState Justice’s landlord “did a full Karen” and “went to the board and was complaining about a whole lot of things, the majority of which were not true.”

“It basically screwed six or seven of our homeless clients out of getting their second dose,” they said.

LaMaster also said board members did not take their calls for more advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ students in Maryland seriously. LaMaster further accused board members of threatening FreeState Justice’s 501(c)(3) status because of their ties to politicians they didn’t specifically identify.

“We don’t exist to help politicians get easy wins and in the General Assembly,” said LaMaster. “We exist to provide widespread advocacy work and transparent information to the community.”

LaMaster also accused board members of engaging in unethical behavior. 

They said Brianna January, the board’s vice president, repeatedly asked FreeState Justice staff to secure funding that would allow her to be hired as the organization’s policy director. LaMaster provided the Blade with a text message in which January asked them to hire her.

A text message between now former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and Brianna January, vice president of the FreeState Justice board of directors. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

LaMaster further reiterated their previous claim the board engages in white supremacism.

“When I say white supremacist culture within the board, this response is case and point of that culture, of that type of culture,” they said.

Westry on Wednesday declined to comment on LaMaster’s allegations.

“FreeState Justice has provided comments on this issue to several publications about the ongoing litigation with Jeremy LaMaster,” Westry told the Blade in an email. “We are in active litigation with LaMaster and will offer no further comment.”

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Virginia

Va. students stage mass walkout over anti-LGBTQ policies

Activists from more than 90 schools across state hold rallies

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Youth activists in schools across Virginia walked out of class to rally against proposed changes to school policy for LGBTQ students. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Thousands of students in schools across Virginia participated in walkouts and rallies on Tuesday to oppose the revised “model policies” on transgender students released by the Virginia Department of Education.

VDOE policy revisions were released on Sept. 16 and differ substantially from the policies passed into law in 2020.

The original policies on the treatment of trans students were intended to protect LGBTQ students; but the revised “model policies” have been criticized by activists, educators and legislators for mandating students use school facilities for the sex they were assigned at birth and bars students from changing their names and pronouns without parental permission. Further, the policies direct teachers and staff not to conceal a student’s gender identity from parents, even when a student asks to keep that information private.

The student-led Virginia-based Pride Liberation Project responded to these policy changes by organizing mass walkouts and rallies in more than 90 schools from Alexandria to Williamsburg.

“These proposed guidelines are essentially taking that cornerstone and using it to undermine our rights. If these guidelines are implemented, it will be the single biggest loss for queer rights in Virginia in years,” Natasha Sanghvi, a student organizer with the Pride Liberation Project, said in a statement.

Openly gay Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) in a statement said “these new model policies, which are in flagrant violation of Virginia law, will do serious harm to transgender students. They are not based in science or compassion and will lead to students being outed before they are ready, increased bullying and harassment of marginalized youth, and will require students to jump through legal hoops just to be referred to with their proper name.”

Ebbin joined several hundred students at West Potomac High School in Alexandria in a rally opposing the model policies proposed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The new policy drafts are only going to do more harm to trans students who are already at risk for being outed, harassed and harmed,” Jules Lombardi, a Fairfax County high school senior, told the Washington Blade. “These drafts will take schools, which are supposed to be safe environments for students, and make them spaces where students have to hide themselves for fear of their parents finding out about their identities.”

“This isn’t a matter of ‘parental rights,’ it’s a matter of human rights and we deserve to be treated with the same respect as cis students,” Lombardi added.

Students in more than 90 schools across Virginia participated in walkouts on Tuesday, Sept. 27. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Andrea-Grace Mukuna, a senior at John R. Lewis High School in Springfield, told the Blade that “gender affirmation matters. Something so easily given to cisgender people is a right that our trans and gender non conforming youth deserve. I am walking out because schools will no longer be a safe place for queer students to be in if these policies get passed.”

“Requirements for teachers to refer to students by their birth name and pronouns aligning with their sex, rather than trusting our students to know themselves and who they are best, reinforces the idea that we as students have no power, no control and no knowledge over anything in our lives. Gender queer youth exist, and no policy can change that,” Mukuna said.

Mukuna continued, “making an attempt at denying them their ability to be who they are is a malicious attack on vulnerable students that could cause deathly harm.”

“I walk out for my queer community — there is no erasing us,” Mukuna said.

Several hundred students walked out of McLean High School. The walkout was lead by members of the school’s GSA and organizers from the Pride Liberation Project including McLean High School senior Casey Calabia.

Calibia asked the crowd, “Do we want Gov. Youngkin to understand that this is not what Virginia looks like?”

The crowd roared, “yes!”

“Virginia stands for trans kids. Trans and queer people are a fact of humanity. We will be accepted one way or another and to see everybody here today is another step toward that change,” said Calibia through a bull horn.

Calibia told the Blade in a pre-walkout statement said “to call these policies in favor of respecting trans students’ rights and privacy is to call an apple an orange. The 2022 Transgender Model policies, even as a draft, have begun to actively hurt my community’s mental health.”

“Instead of focusing on academics and our future, we have to sit in class and wonder if we will be safe in school,” Calibia concluded. “To not only take away the 2021 policies, a cornerstone in LGBTQIA+ rights for Virginia, but to mock them with these replacements, is a devastating blow to myself, trans students, queer students, and the whole of Virginia’s public school student body. How can we be safe, if we can be taken out of school-provided counseling, maliciously misgendered, and denied opportunities given to other students simply because of our gender? Accepting queer students in class does not indoctrinate or brainwash kids. It tells queer students like me that it is okay and safe to be ourselves in school.”

Students walk out of McLean High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, to protest the Youngkin administration’s school policies. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The student protests in Virginia have made national news.

“This is a president who supports the LGBTQI+ community and has been supporting that community for some time now as a vice president, as senator, and certainly as president now,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in response to a question about the protests during her daily press briefing. “And he . . . always is proud to speak out against the mistreatment of that community … We believe and he believes transgender youth should be allowed to be able to go to school freely, to be able to express themselves freely, to be able to have the protections that they need to be who they are.”

“When it comes to this community, he is a partner, and he is a strong ally, as well as the vice president,” Jean-Pierre stated.

Walkouts and rallies were held at middle and high schools in Arlington, Bedford, Buchanan, Chesterfield, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Frederick, Henrico, James City, Loudoun, Louisa, Montgomery, Powhatan, Prince George’s, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, Warren and York Counties as well as in the cities of Alexandria, Chesapeake, Newport News, Portsmouth, Richmond, Williamsburg and Winchester.

“Every parent wants Virginia’s laws to ensure children’s safety, freedom, and to encourage a vibrant and engaging learning experience. But the Virginia Department of Education is rejecting those shared values by advancing policies that will target LGBTQ kids for harassment and mistreatment simply because of who they are,” said Ebbin.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker wins $280,000 grant to support LGBTQ immigrants

Providing legal resources for migrants facing persecution

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‘Having a lawyer can make the difference between having legal status and living in the shadows,’ said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Whitman-Walker Health, which provides medical as well as legal services for the D.C.-area LGBTQ community, was among 25 community-based organizations to receive a grant from the D.C. government earlier this month to provide legal support for immigrants.

Amy Nelson, director of Whitman-Walker’s legal department, said the $280,000 grant it received from the city for 2023 marked the fifth year in a row that the city has supported its work in providing legal support for LGBTQ immigrants arriving in D.C. from countries in Latin America as well as Asia, Africa, and Europe.

“We help people file for U.S. asylum on grounds of HIV, sexual orientation, and gender identity,” Nelson said. “Most of our cases now are trans women from Central America,” Nelson told the Blade. “But we also have people from Cameroon, Russia, and Jamaica.”

She said Whitman-Walker currently has about 150 open cases, including cases handled by outside attorneys working on a pro bono basis.

Nelson said Whitman-Walker’s legal team has provided legal advice to some of the migrants arriving by bus to D.C. that the governors of Texas and Arizona have sent in recent months. But she said most of those arriving by bus from the two states plan to leave D.C. for other parts of the country.

A Sept. 16 statement released by the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says the mayor’s fiscal year 2023 budget allocated a total of $3.5 million for grants from the city’s Immigrant Justice Legal Service (IJLS) grant program to 25 local organizations, including Whitman-Walker.

“Over the years, the IJLS program has not only benefited DC’s immigrant residents, it has also helped us advance our DC values and strengthened the capacity of legal services providers and pro bono attorneys,” Bowser said in the statement.

“Having a lawyer can make the difference between having legal status and living in the shadows, and I am incredibly grateful for the community organizations who have worked with us to make the IJLS program a success,” she said.

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