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D.C. Rainbow History Project launches Trans History Initiative

$15,000 D.C. government grant funded project

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project announced it has launched a new project called the Trans History Initiative “to better integrate the often-under-represented histories of trans people into RHP’s existing programming.”

In a statement announcing the new initiative, the LGBTQ history group says it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to fund the project.

“The Trans History Initiative will help RHP deepen its connections with the Trans community through expanded efforts to preserve the history and cultural contributions of Washington-area trans communities,” the statement says. “The Initiative was developed with RHP’s trans members, trans community pioneers and trans board members,” it says.

The statement says the grant will enable Rainbow History Project to hire one or more coordinators to “build on four exiting RHP programs: collecting oral histories; preserving archival documents; tracking timelines and historic places; and hosting public education panels.”

According to the statement, the new trans initiative is in keeping with Rainbow History Project’s long-standing mission.

“Since its founding in 2000, RHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture of metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s diverse LGBTQ communities,” the statement says. “RHP strives to ensure that its collection, volunteer corps and programming reflect and represent the full diversity of those communities.”

The statement also points out that due to longstanding bias and discrimination faced by transgender people it has been difficult to obtain information about their lives and accomplishments.

“Unfortunately, many trans people often left behind little record of their lives — and personal histories that do exist are often scrubbed of an individual’s trans identity by society or even their own families,” said Jeffrey Donahoe, RHP’s director of oral history.

“This revisionism, both unintentional and intentional, makes it difficult for the broader community to understand and empathize with the struggles and successes of the Trans community,” Donahoe said in the statement.

“The Trans History Initiative will counter this revisionism by giving another platform for trans people to tell their stories to the broader public,” he said. “We need to ensure that trans narratives are not lost to the ravages of time but preserved as part of the historical record.”

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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District of Columbia

Trial for man charged with assaulting gay men in D.C. park postponed for third time

Indictment says attacker squirted victims with pepper spray

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Meridian Hill Park (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The trial for a 50-year-old man who was arrested July 14, 2022, on charges that he allegedly assaulted five men he believed to be gay at D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park between 2018 and 2021 was postponed for the third time last month and has now been rescheduled for Aug. 19 of this year.   

The arrest of Michael Thomas Pruden came two weeks after a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on June 29, 2022, charging him with five counts of assault on federal park land, one count of impersonating a federal officer and a hate crime designation alleging that he assaulted four of the men because of their perceived sexual orientation. 

Prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. filed a motion in court on Jan. 10 of this year opposing a request by Pruden’s defense attorney to postpone the most recent prior trial date set for Feb. 26. 

“Following indictment in June 2022, the defendant has delayed the trial in this case several times, including by firing two prior attorneys,” the prosecutors’ motion states. “While the government has not previously objected to any continuance, no further delay is warranted,” the motion says. “This is a straightforward case that should proceed to trial as currently scheduled.”

The indictment against Pruden by a U.S. District Court for D.C. grand jury provides some of the details surrounding the case.

“After nightfall, Meridian Hill Park was informally known in the Washington, D.C., community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in consensual sexual encounters with other men,” the indictment says. “This practice is colloquially known as ‘cruising,’” the indictment continues. 

“Michael Thomas Pruden frequented Meridian Hill Park after nightfall and on multiple occasions, including those described below, assaulted men in Meridian Hill Park by approaching them with a flashlight, giving them police-style commands and spraying them with a chemical irritant,” the indictment states. 

Virginia court records show that the D.C. indictment against Pruden was handed down 11 months after a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria, Va., found him not guilty of a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly pepper spraying and hitting in the head with a large tree branch a man in Daingerfield Island Park in Alexandria, which is also known as a gay cruising site. 

Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, who is representing Pruden in the D.C. case, said in his own motion calling for postponing Pruden’s Feb. 26 trial date that he has at least two other unrelated trials coming up soon and what he called voluminous documents recently provided to him by prosecutors made the latest postponement necessary. 

“Firstly, while Mr. Pruden prefers to go to trial as soon as possible, counsel cannot be ready by February 26, 2024,” his motion states. “Given that the case against Mr. Pruden is actually five cases spanning a three-year period, the discovery is extremely voluminous, in excess of 7,000 pages,” he states in his motion. “Due to this as well as counsel’s other pending matters in the coming weeks, counsel is unable to effectively prepare motions and prep for trial under the current timeline.”

By the 7,000 pages of “discovery” documents, Kramer was referring to the requirement that prosecutors turn over to the defense attorney in advance of a trial details of the evidence prosecutors plan to present at a trial. U.S. District Court Judge Jia M. Cobb approved Pruden’s request for the postponement in a Feb. 5 ruling. 

Court records also show that Pruden was released on personal recognizance following his arrest into the custody of his mother, who lives in Norfolk, Va., where he has been staying since his release. Among other things, conditions for his release prohibit him from having any contact with the individuals he is charged with assaulting and require that he always remain inside his mother’s residence from sunset to sunrise. 

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Young people organize D.C. transgender rights march

Queer Youth Assemble organized events across the country

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The March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy took place in D.C. on March 31, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Upwards of 1,000 people on Friday participated in a transgender rights march from Union Station to the U.S. Capitol.

SMYAL Executive Director Erin Whelan; Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson and Japer Bowles, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, are among those who participated in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy that Queer Youth Assemble organized to coincide with the Transgender Day of Visibility. 

Queer Youth Assemble advocates for young LGBTQ and intersex people. The group’s website notes it organized Transgender Day of Visibility marches across the country on Friday.

“This march has reached so many people around the country because of our strength as individuals and as a community,” said Queer Youth Assemble Co-president Alia Cusolito at the beginning of a rally that took place in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool after the march. “This is a heavy time. It’s a frightening time and a necessary time to speak up.” 

Samira Burnside, a 16-year-old trans woman from Tampa, Fla., spoke after Cusolito.

“These last few months have been hard; hard for all of us,” said Burnside. “As Republicans swept into more seats than they held last year and another election cycle begins, transgenderism has become the battleground through which the cultural war finds itself reborn, more violent, more angry, more terrible.”

Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth Executive Director Shaplaie Brooks noted “these attacks are strategic.”

“Grown adults are bullying LGBTQ youth,” said Brooks.

Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth Executive Director Shaplaie Brooks speaks at the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility took place against the backdrop of a proliferation of anti-transgender bills and laws in states across the country.

Kentucky lawmakers on Wednesday overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a bill that will, among other things, ban gender-affirming medical care for trans and nonbinary people who are under 18. Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem in February signed a similar measure into law. 

“Transgender Americans deserve to be safe and supported in every community — but today, across our country, MAGA extremists are advancing hundreds of hateful and extreme state laws that target transgender kids and their families. No one should have to be brave just to be themselves,” said President Joe Biden on Friday in his Transgender Day of Visibility statement.

“Let me be clear: These attacks are un-American and must end,” he added. “The bullying, discrimination, and political attacks that trans kids face have exacerbated our national mental health crisis. More than half of transgender youth say they have seriously considered suicide. Loving parents are terrified for their children’s futures.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on Friday became the state’s first governor to publicly commemorate Transgender Day of Visibility.

“People who have the courage to demand visibility, even after facing hardship — in some cases, after facing violence and poverty — they represent the very best of Maryland. We need to elevate their stories, embrace their courage, and celebrate their humanity,” he said before he signed a proclamation that proclaimed March 31, 2023, as International Transgender Day of Visibility in Maryland. “By signing this proclamation, we are taking a step forward. And I look forward to working with all of you to continue that march in the years to come.”

U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Thursday reintroduced the Transgender Bill of Rights, which a press release from Jayapal’s office notes would provide “a comprehensive policy framework to provide protections for transgender and nonbinary people, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their gender identity or expression.”

“As the very proud mother of an incredible trans daughter, I am deeply disturbed by the rise in anti-trans legislation at all levels of government and at the uptick of transphobic violence,” said Jayapal on Friday during a virtual Transgender Day of Visibility town hall.

Jacobs, who represents California’s 51st Congressional District, noted her brother is trans and another sibling is gender non-conforming.

The California Democrat said “one of the proudest moments of my life” was when she officiated her brother’s wedding late last year. Jacobs noted it took place the same week that Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act. 

“His existence deserves to be recognized and respected, his wedding deserves to be celebrated,” said Jacobs, referring to her brother. “His life deserves to be protected, just like every other person and every other trans person.”

Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride, Whitman-Walker Institute Kellan Baker, National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Rigo Heng-Lehtinen and Athlete Ally Ambassador Kaiya McCullough are among those who also participated in the town hall.

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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