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Sexual health group partners with PG County police on transgender issues

Largo-based Heart to Hand works with department’s LGBTQ Outreach Team



Heart to Hand, gay news, Washington Blade
Kaniya Walker is a transgender woman who works for the Largo-based Heart to Hand, a sexual health organization. (Photo courtesy of Kaniya Walker)

An organization that promotes sexual health is working with the Prince George’s County Police Department to help it rebuild trust with the county’s transgender community.

Representatives from Heart to Hand and the newly formed Prince George’s County Police Department LGBTQ Outreach Team spoke about the killings of two trans women earlier this year in Fairmount Heights during a Transgender Day of Remembrance event in Seat Pleasant.

Ashanti Carmon, 27, and Zoe Spears, 23, were killed near the firehouse where the Transgender Day of Remembrance event took place. Bailey Reeves, 17, was a trans teenager killed in September in Baltimore.

The presence of Heart to Hand, the police LGBTQ Outreach Team and Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5), among others, underscored the continuing impact that Carmon and Spears’ murders have had in the area.

“There was mention of the murders,” recalled Capt. James Mitchell, one of seven outreach team officers who all also identify as LGBTQ. “And one of the most important issues to the trans community is their safety and for young women not to end up dead.”

Mitchell explained the LGBTQ Outreach Team had been in development for a while, but the two murders pushed the urgency of its formation.

“It was eye opening for me,” said Capt. Cindy A. Thompson, another out member of the LGBTQ Outreach Team. “One of the first events that I attended was a Fairmount Heights town hall meeting over the summer and that was mainly for the trans community to come out and talk about their safety and their fears.”

“Their fears are real,” added Mitchell, stating the LGBTQ Outreach Team has attended other trans community events that include a Prince George’s County Human Relations Committee panel discussion in October and a November event at Casa Ruby in D.C. “They want to be heard and they want to be taken seriously when they report things.”

Mitchell and his colleagues said they realize trust and safety are still two serious concerns for the county’s LGBTQ residents, so they work with Heart to Hand and other local organizations as much as possible.

Kaniya Walker, a Heart to Hand employee, is a trans woman who helped set up the Transgender Day of Remembrance event that honored Spears, Carmon and others like them. Walker also facilitates the organization’s trans support group and is working with D.C.’s HIPS to provide additional services to vulnerable trans sex workers in the area.

“One of our main focuses is working with the trans community more,” said Walker.

Walker told the Washington Blade that two “black cisgender women, best friends, started” Heart to Hand because of rising HIV/AIDS rates, particularly among black women. statistics indicate 1 in 7 Americans currently living with HIV are unaware of their status.

Heart to Hand, which is based in Largo, provides free HIV testing, education and contraceptives at college campuses and various locations on both sides of the D.C.-Maryland border. Walker said she wants to do more outreach to the cisgender, heterosexual population to help reduce the spread of HIV.

“Black cisgender women are important to us because they don’t have the education and knowledge about getting tested,” she said. “They think being married or in a long-term relationship will protect them from this disease, but we have heterosexual men who are willing and open about getting tested.”

Walker said she found that strange because growing up in an African-American household her mother was more willing to go see the doctor while her “daddy would have to be down and out to go.” She added this reluctance to get tested among cisgender black women is due to a mistaken perception of HIV/AIDS as a “gay man’s disease,” and as a consequence more black cis women will become unknowingly infected and spread the disease.

College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn says stigma also keeps trans people vulnerable as well in terms of health, housing and other issues.

“Police stings on transgender sex workers in Prince George’s County have shown a lack of understanding and sensitivity toward transgender people and an inadequate response to violence against transgender people,” said Wojahn.

Mitchell agreed, stating one of the missions of the LGBTQ Outreach Team is to be an internal liaison and source of information and training for police officers as well.

“We’ve asked groups that provide services to LGBTQ people to provide us with that information so we can push that out to our officers,” he said. “So, as they encounter people at 3 a.m. who may be in crisis, instead of saying they can’t help, they can say, ‘here is Casa Ruby’s information,’ or ‘here is Whitman Walker’s information’ or, ‘here is a local clinic in the county.’”

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Va. students warn against ‘don’t say gay’ policies

New law requires parental notification of ‘sexually explicit content’ in classroom



(Bigstock photo)

More than 600 students from across Virginia signed a letter from the Pride Liberation Project that calls for the Virginia Department of Education to clarify that teaching students about LGBTQ people and events is not “sexually explicit.”

Senate Bill 656, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed earlier this year, requires parents be notified when instructional materials contain “sexually explicit content” — without any input from students.

Current Virginia law defines “sexual conduct” as “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification.”

Because SB 656 does not itself specify what constitutes “sexually explicit content,” LGBTQ students and activists are concerned that the bill will rest on Virginia’s pre-existing definition of sexual conduct.

In their full letter, signees argued that “In effect, SB 656 can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual.”

“Consequently, all references to LGBTQIA+ people in K-12 schools, including Supreme Court cases, historical events impacting LGBTQIA+ people, and discussions about queer authors, may be deemed as sexually explicit content under SB 656, effectively erasing LGBTQIA+ representation in our school curriculum,” reads the Pride Liberation Project’s press release.

Representation has been shown to positively increase academic performance, and LGBTQ youth already face exacerbated risks of suicide and mental health crisis. In Virginia specifically, the vast majority of LGBTQ students reported hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks at school, and 26 percent of LGBTQ students reported being “disciplined for public displays of affection (PDA) that did not result in similar action for non-LGBTQ students.” 

 “Most of my LGBTQIA+ friends are already struggling with their mental health,” said one Loudoun County student in the Pride Liberation Project press release. “I’m scared about the message these guidelines could send and losing the already limited affirming representation in my class.” 

Another student from Richmond said that they “didn’t want to see their friends who are from homes that aren’t accepting not see themselves reflected at school.” 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL announces new executive director

Erin Whelan to start Sept. 1



Erin Whelan (Photo courtesy of SMYAL)

SMYAL on Thursday announced Erin Whelan will become the organization’s new executive director on Sept. 1.

SMYAL’s mission is to support and empower LGBTQ youth ages 6-24.

A press release that announces Whelan’s appointment notes the organization over the last five years has grown “exponentially.” Its services include affirming programs, housing support, leadership training and mental health services, designed to help LGBTQ youth develop advocacy skills and an educated, welcoming community.   

Whelan most recently served as the director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, an Austin, Texas,-based nonprofit that provides youth with housing and services. She has worked in nonprofit management for almost 20 years, and SMYAL’s press release highlighted her commitment to antiracism, equity and the LGBTQ community. 

“Erin Whelan is a compassionate and strong leader who I am confident is the right person to lead SMYAL,” board chair Rob Cogorno said. “I could not be more proud of the tremendous growth in services for our LGBTQ youth and of the SMYAL staff’s hard work that made that growth possible. Erin’s extensive experience in service to youth in need and her passion for that work will help guide SMYAL in continuing its excellent work in this challenging time for LGBTQ youth in our region and across the country.” 

Whelan in the press release shared her enthusiasm for stepping into leadership with this driving purpose. 

“I am beyond excited and honored to join SMYAL as the new executive director. My work has been committed to understanding and seeing the world through the lens of the most marginalized youth and young adults and being a fierce advocate for LGBTQ youth,” Whelan said. “I believe all LGBTQ youth deserve an opportunity to build a life they love and a chance to feel celebrated and affirmed for exactly who they are and strive to be. From the moment I stepped into the SMYAL community, it felt like exactly where I wanted to be. SMYAL creates a community for queer and trans youth where they can feel radically accepted and safe to step into their true selves.” 

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Judge: West Virginia Medicaid must cover transgender care

Fain v. Crouch is litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans



A U.S. District Court judge ruled Tuesday that West Virginia’s Medicaid program could no longer discriminate by excluding coverage for gender-confirming surgical care for transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. 

U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers also certified the lawsuit as a class action, covering all transgender West Virginians who participate in Medicaid.  In the lawsuit brought in November of 2020 by Lambda Legal, Nichols Kaster, and The Employment Law Center, the plantiffs challenged the state’s ban on gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s Medicaid and state employee health plans.

“We applaud Judge Chamber’s decision to remove the discriminatory barrier to accessing medically necessary, gender-confirming surgical care for all transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. Protecting and advancing health care for transgender people is vital, sound, and just. Transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants deserve to have equal access to the same coverage for medically necessary healthcare that cisgender Medicaid participants receive as a matter of course,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal. 

Fain v. Crouch is a class action litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans. The blanket exclusions of coverage for care are stated expressly in the health plans offered to Medicaid participants and to state employees. West Virginia’s state health plans serve approximately 564,000 Medicaid participants and15,000 state employees.

“I am excited to finally have access to the healthcare I deserve. The exclusion negatively affects my health and wellbeing as well as the health and wellbeing of other transgender Medicaid participants in our community. Gender-confirming care is healthcare, and it is lifesaving,” said plaintiff Shauntae Anderson, West Virginia Medicaid participant.  

“This is a victory not only for me but for other transgender Medicaid participants across West Virginia. This decision is validating, confirming that after years of fighting to prove that gender-confirming care is medically necessary, we should have access to the same services that West Virginia Medicaid already provides to cisgender participants. Transgender West Virginians should never feel as if our lives are worth less than others,” said plaintiff Christopher Fain, West Virginia Medicaid participant. 

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