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Cliff Witt, early D.C. gay rights strategist, dies at 77

Co-founder of GAA was manager at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets

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Cliff Witt, gay news, Washington Blade

Clifton R. Witt was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971. He died Sept. 9.

Clifton R. “Cliff” Witt, who was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971 and worked for more than 20 years as a director of film and video for a company that makes industrial training movies before becoming a manager at the D.C. gay nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, died Sept. 9 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 77.

Friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets said he lost consciousness at the club just after its 3 a.m. closing time on Saturday and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he died later that morning. His brother, Clyde Witt, said the D.C. Medical Examiner’s office informed him the cause of death was chronic pulmonary lung disease.

His friend and former roommate Glenn Berkheimer said Witt had been suffering from a lung ailment in recent years due to his long history as a heavy smoker.

Clyde Witt said Cliff Witt began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s in Latin America, where he served for at least two years in Columbia and became fluent in Spanish.

He entered the Peace Corps shortly after receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in film production and direction at Northwestern University in Illinois, according to Clyde Witt. Clyde Witt said his brother was born in Cleveland and raised in nearby Maple Heights, Ohio. He graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1958.

Clyde Witt and others who knew Cliff Witt said he devoted most of his working career as a filmmaker for the communications division of the Bureau of National Affairs, or BNA, a D.C.-based news organization that specializes in business-related news and produces educational and training movies.

A BNA official said Witt worked for the company as Director of Film & Video from January 1973 until December 1995.

Roberta Hantgun and Mark Daniels were hired by Witt in the late 1970s as freelance camera operators and worked on many of the film projects directed by Witt.

“We did safety training films,” Daniels told the Washington Blade. “Some showed industrial accidents. We did a sexual harassment training series about sexual harassment in the workplace,” he said. “They were very creative.”

Hantgun said Witt had a “great sense of humor” as he led his production crew on locations throughout the country, including industrial waste sites.

“Cliff was a good man and great to work with,” Daniels said. “He always pushed himself and his crew to do better in a very compassionate way.”

Longtime D.C. gay activist Paul Kuntzler said Witt played an active role in the groundbreaking 1971 election campaign of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who became a candidate for the newly created D.C. Congressional Delegate seat in Congress. It was the first time an openly gay person had run for a federal office.

Kuntzler, who served as manager of the Kameny campaign, said Witt served as assistant manager. Among other things, Witt used what Kuntzler said was his “remarkable” organizational skills to arrange for several busloads of volunteer campaign workers to travel from New York City to D.C. to help gather several thousand signatures needed to get Kameny’s name on the ballot.

Kameny finished in fourth place in a six-candidate race, receiving just under 1,900 votes, a few hundred more than a candidate who expressed anti-gay views during the campaign. Although Kuntzler, Witt and the others working on Kameny’s campaign didn’t expect Kameny to win, they considered the effort a success in achieving their goal of drawing attention to the gay issues that Kameny raised during the campaign.

Shortly after the campaign ended Witt joined Kuntzler and four others involved in the campaign in launching the D.C. Gay Activists Alliance, which they modeled after a group by the same name in New York City.

Witt has been credited with playing a key role in one of the group’s first major protest actions – a “zap” or “invasion” of the annual national conference of the American Psychiatric Association, which took place at D.C.’s then Shoreham Hotel.

Details of Witt’s role in the action appear in the 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” by New York Times writers Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

The book notes that GAA targeted the psychiatrists because of their refusal at that time to remove homosexuality from the APA’s official manual listing it as a mental disorder. Kameny, who held a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University and had been a practicing scientist, was among the first to speak out against the APA listing of gays as “sick,” saying it was based on “junk” science.

With advance planning and direction by Witt, a group of mostly GAA members along with members of the then-D.C. Gay Liberation Front stormed the stage in a large ballroom at the hotel where more than 1,000 of the psychiatrists were assembled, the book reports. Kameny, who was already on stage as a panelist, grabbed a microphone from one of the speakers and “lectured” the psychiatrists on their wrongful beliefs on homosexuality, according to Kameny’s own account in later writings.

In December 1973, about two years after the GAA zap, the APA announced that its board of trustees had voted to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. It was a development considered a stunning victory for the newly emerging modern gay rights movement.

Gay activist Richard Maulsby credits Witt with getting him involved in gay activism in D.C. shortly after the two became roommates. Maulsby, who went on to become one of the founders and the first president of the D.C. Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said Witt also became involved in the 1970s as an avid bird collector and breeder as a hobby.

“But in that early period of time, especially during the Kameny campaign, he was very instrumental in the gay movement,” Maulsby said. “He made substantial contributions early on in a very important period and that provided the foundation for everything that’s happened since then.”

Witt’s brother Clyde said he believes Witt retired from his filmmaking career at the BNA, which later became known as Bloomberg BNA, in the late 1990s. “And then after that he just sort of did whatever he wanted to do,” Clyde Witt said.

According to friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, it was around that time that Witt redirected his energy in “retirement” into a new career as a manager at Secrets, where, among other things, he supervised and arranged the scheduling of the club’s nude male dance performers. He also served as the graphic designer for the club’s promotional advertising.

His fluency in Spanish became especially helpful, friends said, in supervising and mentoring the club’s many immigrant Latino dancers whose English speaking abilities were limited before becoming themselves fluent in English.

“He made us feel like we were part of a team,” one of the Secrets dancers told the Blade on Sunday. “He treated us with respect.”

Those familiar with the club said Witt often performed his scheduling duties, with his laptop or iPad in his hands, while sitting on a stool reserved for him at Secrets’ front bar and while sipping black coffee from a beer mug.

“I’ll always remember him sitting on that stool talking to customers and fellow staff members,” said one of the club’s regular customers.

On Sunday night, just one day after Witt passed away, employees placed a beer mug filled with coffee on the bar in front of the empty stool where Witt used to sit. They placed a small vase with flowers next to the mug and a cookie on a napkin along with a note that said, “For Cliff: May you always have hot coffee.”

Clyde Witt said plans for a memorial service would be announced at a later date. Ziegfeld’s-Secrets co-owner Steven Delurba said the club plans to organize its own memorial gathering for Witt in the near future.

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District of Columbia

Judge orders D.C. high school to recognize anti-LGBTQ student group

Ruling overturns claim that Christian group’s policy violates Human Rights Act

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A U.S. District Court judge on July 11 issued a preliminary injunction ordering D.C.’s Jackson-Reed High School, the city’s largest public high school, to officially recognize a student group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which requires its leaders to support the group’s religious belief that homosexuality is immoral.

The 31-page ruling by Judge Dabney L. Friedrich came in response to a May 7, 2024, lawsuit filed by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ national office against D.C. Public Schools officials and the D.C. government. The lawsuit charges that Jackson-Reed High School violated the Christian student group’s religious rights under the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act by refusing its most recent application for recognition.

The lawsuit says the group applied for and received recognition in 2022, making it eligible for full school benefits, funding, and the right to hold meetings at school facilities. But according to the lawsuit, the school system reversed its decision of recognition in the fall of 2022 after a school athletic coach expressed opposition to the recognition on grounds that Fellowship of Christian Athletes discriminates against the LGBTQ community by its requirement that its leaders oppose homosexuality.

In its court filings in response to the lawsuit, the Office of the D.C. Attorney General says Jackson Reed, in consultation with D.C. Public Schools officials determined that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ requirement that its student leaders must adhere to its position on homosexuality violates the D.C. Human Rights Act and the D.C. school system’s longstanding policy of prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Plaintiffs’ religious rights are not violated by D.C. Public School’s Anti-Discrimination Policy because it is a generally applicable, religiously neutral policy that applies to every student and student organization at DCPS schools,” the AG’s court filing says. “As such, Plaintiffs’ religious freedoms, as guaranteed under the First Amendment, are not infringed,” it says.

The AG’s court filing says D.C. Public Schools made it clear that it would grant full recognition to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Jackson-Reed High School if it disassociates itself from the national group’s “discriminatory” policy on homosexuality. Students associated with the Jackson-Reed FCA group and the attorneys representing them declined that offer.

In addition to the District of Columbia, the lawsuit names as defendants Lewis D. Ferebee, Chancellor and CEO of D.C. Public Schools; and Cinthia L. Ruiz, the D.C. Public Schools’ Chief Integrity Officer.

It says the Jackson-Reed student group that signed onto the lawsuit is part of a national Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization that operates more than 7,000 student chapters called “huddles” that meet at middle school, high school, and college campuses across the country.

In what initially appears to be supportive of the D.C. Attorney General’s position, Judge Friedrich cites the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ statement of faith, which holds that marriage is limited to “a lifelong covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” In her ruling the judge further quotes  the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ position prohibiting “sexual relations outside of marriage (whether involving individuals of the same sex or opposite sex)” and “any sexually immoral act … including homosexuality.”

But in her ruling granting the Christian group’s request for a preliminary injunction while the lawsuit itself continues in litigation, Friedrich states that D.C. ‘s defense falls short. As stated in the lawsuit, the judge points out, among other things, D.C. Public Schools has recognized other secular student groups that have restrictions on who can be leaders or members.

The lawsuit argues that at Jackson-Reed High School several student groups are allowed to restrict who their leaders can be, such as the Disabled Student Alliance and the Asian Student Union as well as the Wise Club, which the lawsuit says offers “special space for young women.”

“These limits seem reasonable; they create focused, helpful spaces for involved students,” the lawsuit says. “But by reserving to itself the discretion to allow these clubs to choose their leaders based on beliefs or characteristics, D.C. Public Schools impermissibly singles out Fellowship of Christian Athletes for discriminatory treatment by stripping FCA of its recognized status for doing the same thing,” it says.

“Antidiscrimination laws ‘have done much to secure the civil rights of all Americans,’” Friedrich states in the conclusion section of her ruling. “But anti-discrimination laws, like all other laws, must be applied evenhandedly and not in violation of the Constitution,” she states. “Unfortunately, it appears that this command was not followed at Jackson-Reed High School.”

The judge notes again that Fellowship of Christian Athletes requires its student leaders, “but not its members,” to “affirm their commitment to the group’s beliefs.” She states that among those beliefs is the prohibition on sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

 “For this, FCA lost its official status at Jackson-Reed,” Friedrich wrote in her ruling. “As a condition for reinstatement, the District forced FCA to choose between official school recognition and its religious principles. Such treatment is at odds with that received by secular groups at Jackson-Reed that limit membership on the basis of other protected characteristics and/or ideological alignment,” the judge concludes.

In support of her ruling, Friedrich cited a decision by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco last September that overturned a similar school ban on a religious student group by San Jose, Calif., public schools. The ruling by the 9th Circuit, which has the reputation of being a liberal appeals court, declared the school system could not withhold recognition of some student affinity groups and not others based on their views or beliefs.

Based on “at least” the possibility that D.C.’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes will prevail in its lawsuit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, Friedrich said she granted FCA’s request for a preliminary injunction ordering the D.C. Public Schools to grant recognition of FCA at Jackson-Reed High School. The judge said she declined to approve the group’s request that the injunction be expanded to include  all D.C. public schools.

Under court rules, a preliminary injunction remains in effect until the time a lawsuit is resolved in court. The lawsuit filed by Fellowship for Christian Athletes requests a trial by jury. Court records show that no trial date had been scheduled as of July 12.

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General did not immediately respond to news media inquiries for comment on the judge’s ruling and whether it plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C.

Jackson-Reed High School, which had the name Woodrow Wilson High School from the time of its opening in 1935 until its name was changed in 2022, is located in the city’s Tenleytown neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

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District of Columbia

D.C. Public Schools’ LGBTQ+ program helps ensure students feel safe

More than half of queer students experience bullying, harassment

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According a study from Theirworld of LBGTQ+ Gen-Z youth, students feel unsafe in schools. D.C. Public Schools is trying to combat the problem in the District. 

“Research shows that the way schools and families respond to LGBTQ+ youth can affect their physical health, mental health outcomes, academic outcomes, and their decision-making later in life,” said DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Programming Specialist, Adalphie Johnson. 

DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Program started in 2011 after a 2009 survey from GLSEN revealed that 9 out of 10 queer students reported in-school harassment. 

In response, they have created extensive programming to ensure students feel safe at D.C. Public Schools. In 2015 they created a trans and non-binary policy that included guidance on LGBTQ+ terms, locker room accommodations, gender-neutral dress codes, and more. 

In addition, they host an annual conference for queer and trans DCPS students. 

“The “Leading With Pride” conference increases networking, and builds the leadership capacity of our students and faculty advisers to implement school-level LGBTQ programming,” Johnson said. 

In 2023, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures according to HRC. This year, Theirworld’s survey found that more than half of LGBTQ students experienced bullying and harassment at school.

Johnson said that students feeling safe in school requires creating an environment where all students can thrive. 

“We encourage students to report incidents without fear of retaliation and ensure that reports are taken seriously and investigated promptly,” she said. 

Johnson also pointed out that as a result of discrimination, students are more likely to miss school, which can lead to low grades, along with impairing cognitive responses. So, she said, it is best for schools to respond with action swiftly. 

However, Johnson and the LGBTQ+ programming team acknowledge that not all students come from supportive backgrounds. 

As a part of their trans and gender-nonconforming policy, staff are expected to work closely with students to determine how involved parents are with the transitioning student, before contacting parents. 

Johnson gave parents eight steps to ensure the safety of their child, if they are in the LGBTQ community.  

8 Steps For Parents

1. Educate Yourself. Learn about LGBTQ+ identities, issues, and terminology. Understanding the basics can help you provide better support and avoid misunderstandings.

2. Listen and Communicate. Create an open and non-judgmental space for your child to express themselves. Listen to their experiences and feelings without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice.

3. Advocate for Them. Stand up for your child in situations where they may face discrimination or misunderstanding. Become actively involved in the PTA and other parent groups within the school.

4. Seek Support. Lead or organize programming with/for other parents of LGBTQ+ children can provide  valuable insights and emotional support.

5. Respect Their Privacy. Allow your child to determine their own level of outness at school. Don’t share their identity without their permission.

6. Create a Safe Environment. Inform the school of any homophobic or transphobic remarks or behavior from others.

7. Inform school about their needs. Recognize that each LGBTQ+ person’s experience is unique. Ask your child what they need from you and how you can best support them. Communicate those needs to the school. This would be a great opportunity to develop and share a Safety Plan for the student while at school. 

8. Promote Inclusivity. Encourage, support and inform inclusive policies and practices in your child’s school community. 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL for Summer returns July 25

‘Their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated’

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A scene from last year's SMYAL for Summer. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

SMYAL for Summer is back at Franklin Hall on July 25, where the youth services organization will honor the next generation of change makers in the LGBTQ community. 

“In a tumultuous year for policy against LGBTQ+ youth, celebrating the achievements of our scholarship winners sends a powerful message that their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated,” said Caro Vordndran, SMYAL’s Development Coordinator. 

At the event, SMYAL, the D.C. queer and trans youth advocacy organization, will honor recipients of its Youth Leadership Award and the Sophie’s Live Out Loud Scholarship. Plus, the event will feature a drag performance from Mia Vanderbilt. 

One of the scholarship recipients, Lion Burney, said that in addition to the scholarship they were most excited for the community they will continue to seek in SMYAL’s safe space. 

“The SMYAL community means a lot to me. From found family to open expression to endless support — I am beyond grateful to be a part of this experience,” Burney said.

This is SMYAL’s 12th annual SMYAL for Summer event and the 40th year of creating community for D.C.’s youth. Given SMYAL’s history, alumni like Nathan Handberg often come back to keep traditions alive. 

Handberg was an awardee in 2019 and served on the selection committee this year. They said they felt great about their continued involvement with SMYAL.

“Being a previous winner really gave me insight that helped with the process of choosing the winners this year and I like that I have the ability to help shape future leaders in our community,” they said. 

Tickets for the event range from $10 for students and $20 for general admission, up to $500 for Platinum Supporters. Tickets for the event will contribute to funding for SMYAL’s year-round youth advocacy programming. The event will run from 6-8 p.m.

“They have housing programs for queer youth… they’ve done queer sex education classes filling in critical gaps that are left by our education curriculum,” Handberg said. “Honestly they do so much more, I could write multiple pages on my experiences with SMYAL and all they do.”

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