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Exceptional kids, real change, the GenderCool Champions

Youth articulate, poised, intelligent, talented and ambitious

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GenderCool Parents and their kids (Photo courtesy of GenderCool)

NORTHBROOK, Il. – Imagine being a ‘Mom’ running a frenetic household of four kids juggling all of the tasks one associates with parenting in the modern age. Then add a twist when the youngest begins to emerge from the chrysalis of what appeared as an early traditional childhood gender path transforming over time into a butterfly of the opposite gender.

That sort of metamorphosis presents a myriad of challenges for parents least of which is the emotional acceptance of a reality apart from that envisioned as their child is born. Then comes the added burdens of fear created by a societal and cultural non-acceptance and oft time discriminatory bullying treatment of trans and non-binary identifying youth and the overwhelming need to protect their child from that level of cruelty.

Jen Grosshandler and her husband John faced these challenges as their youngest child, their daughter Chazzie, unfurled her butterfly’s wings for the first time as a proud and out trans youth.

Searching for positive stories and reaching out to their immediate community in suburban Chicago, the Grosshandlers were introduced to Gearah Goldstein. Goldstein is nationally recognized LGBTQ+ Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, a speaker, educator, and trainer on LGBTQ+ issues. But for the Grosshandlers, the key factor was that Goldstein identifies as a fully empowered trans female and best of all- a parent herself.

At about the time the three met and started conversing about offering a path to cast a spotlight on just how amazing transgender and non-binary kids are, the Trump Administration commenced a series of attacks on the Trans community. These attacks included trying to eliminate trans healthcare, the ban on military service by trans Americans, and backing efforts by certain school districts to prevent trans youth from being able to use bathrooms according to their chosen gender.

For the Grosshandlers and Goldstein, greater impetus was placed on the critical need to accentuate the positive of trans and non-binary youth against the backdrop of the attacks by the Trump administration and the unkind attacks by a plethora of rightwing extremist anti-LGBTQ groups. The genesis of what became the GenderCool project was born and the stated goal was to take and redirect the negative into a positive by creating systemic change that will improve the lives of transgender and non-binary young people.

GenderCool co-founders Gearah Goldstein & Jen Grosshandler
(Not pictured; John Grosshandler. Photo courtesy of GenderCool)

“The strategy we employ is to evolve opinions of decision makers and the general public by showing them that transgender and non-binary young people are remarkable. The GenderCool Champions —  youth ages 12-17 — are leaders in their community. They are articulate, poised, intelligent, talented and ambitious young people. 

Most importantly, they are thriving, and their ability to connect with the public and key influencers in an exclusively positive way is translating into support and change at every level,” a mission statement from GenderCool reads.

In a phone interview this past weekend with the Blade, Jen Grosshandler chuckled, recalling that “We didn’t have a business plan- no revenue stream, but we did have the motivation and more importantly we had these amazing kids.”

She pointed out that the GenderCool adults felt that there wasn’t enough focus or even concentration on Gender Queer spaces. “It just seemed to me that with of all the negative stories and things said about these kids, one thing stood out and that was 70 to 80% of those being negative had never met a non-binary or Trans kid,” Grosshandler said. “There was fear, awful opinions, but mostly there was just inaccurate information,” she added.

After being handed the phone, Goldstein continued telling the Blade that the fortuitous email exchange between neighbors about kids and transitions, “It was a five page long emailed response to Jen’s neighborhood inquiry,” Goldstein remembered, had led to a dynamic partnership that was breaking through many barriers, particularly for youth in understanding Gender Identity versus sexual identify and orientation.

“There’s a need to not conflate those two and we need to help these young people out by creating awareness of that,” she said and added, “Mostly we are focused on telling their stories, letting people see how amazing they are- they are inspiring and are filled with hope and strength.”

In three and a half years, a “kitchen-table project” has turned GenderCool into a worldwide movement, the idea evolved into concrete actions utilizing data from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP).  According to an internal memorandum shared with the Blade by GenderCool, MAP’s data revealed that one of the best ways to build support among the large majority of people in the U.S. for the LGBTQ+ community is to communicate shared values and beliefs.  In essence, to show them that transgender and non-binary people and their families are normal and just like theirs.

The best focal point? The positive stories of the amazing youth and their families.

Incorporating a well thought-out and designed website coupled with multi-media and social media campaigns the momentum propelled GenderCool and the Champions into a formidable group with national exposure which included a 23 minute live launch on TODAY with veteran NBC weatherman and anchor Al Roker; NYT, Rolling Stone, ABC News, USA Today, CNN, Forbes, NBC News, Washington Post, MSNBC and other media outlets.

The GenderCool founders managed to create an environment that fostered advocacy and support from corporate America: GenderCool partners include Nike, Dell Technologies, General Mills, NBCUniversal, Intuit, Intel, Indeed, and Bank of America.

All that hard work parlayed into a special invitation from President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for the GenderCool Project to attend the first White House celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month since the Obama administration.

Although scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, the highlight of the event held in the East Room of the White House was the GenderCool Project’s own Champion Ashton Mota, who was asked to speak about his life and work with GenderCool and then personally introduce the President.

Enriching that moment was Mota himself being introduced by the first openly gay member of a presidential cabinet confirmed by the United States Senate, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg introduces Ashton Mota as President Joe Biden looks on during the White House Pride event 2021. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

The focus now is embracing the future and expanding the foundations of the Project while placing the organization on a firm financial footing and a strategic plan for expansion and continuing the mission. GenderCool now has a seat at the table, collaborating with the nation’s leading advocacy organizations including Out & Equal, HRC, NCTE, PFLAG, GLAAD, Lambda Legal and others associated with advancing LGBTQ Equality rights.

Recently though came a boost that will immeasurably assist the GenderCool Project.

The Denver, Colorado based Gill Foundation, one of the largest funders of efforts to secure full equality for LGBTQ people, which has thus far invested more than $390 million in programs and nonprofits across the country working to advance equal rights for LGBTQ people, has bestowed a $500,000 contribution to the GenderCool Project.

“We’re honored to receive this grant from the Gill Foundation. It is a game-changing vote of confidence in our mission to help people understand how talented, driven, and kind transgender and nonbinary youth are, showcasing who they are as remarkable young people,” said the Grosshandlers, and Goldstein. “We’re thrilled that these resources will help us do just that so GenderCool — led by the incredible young people we call Champions — can continue to make an impact changing hearts and minds.”

The stories, the exceptional kids, real change, these are the GenderCool Champions, and now a future for them that looks brighter and more inclusive.

GenderCool Champion, college student, musician, artist, & Texas-based LGBTQ activist Landon Richie.
(Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)
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Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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