In 1984, local youth service professionals and community activists organized a conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth issues after learning that "cross-dressing" youth from the local school system had been hospitalized at St. Elizabeth's Public Psychiatric Hospital. From this conference, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) was founded to meet the needs of the LGBT youth living in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.
For the first year of its existence, SMYAL operated as a referral service, providing youth and their families with access to supportive professionals. It soon became clear that the primary need of the youth was a place to meet and socialize with other youth and thereby reduce their sense of isolation. To meet this need, several of the social work professionals involved with SMYAL developed an extensive training on youth work and LGBT youth issues and began training volunteers to facilitate youth socialization and support groups. These Saturday support groups were extremely popular and well-attended by the community's youth, many of whom would travel great distances using public transportation to get to them.
Over the years, SMYAL's services expanded to include a telephone hotline for youth and educational outreach programs and LGBT youth awareness trainings for youth service professionals in schools, runaway shelters, local government agencies, and hospitals. As SMYAL grew and expanded, the Board began hiring paid employees, beginning with an office manager and a licensed independent clinical social worker.
In the late 1980's, SMYAL became a designated Combined Federal Campaign agency. As the AIDS epidemic ravaged the local community, SMYAL began offering HIV awareness and prevention programs for its youth, and at that same time received its first state funding from Maryland and foundation funding from the Washington AIDS Partnership.
In June of 1997, SMYAL purchased two adjacent row houses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington and became the proud owner of the metro area's first and only Youth Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Moving into the center substantially expanded SMYAL's administrative and program space, allowed SMYAL to substantially expand its hours of operations to offer after school programs, provided greater Metro-accessibility, and created the kind of youth-friendly space critical to SMYAL's work. The Youth Center includes a lending library, a computer lab, a group room, a comfortable drop-in area, a resource area with information on topics ranging from safer sex and substance abuse to nutrition and civic action, a backyard with basketball court, and (perhaps the favorite of our youth) a kitchen area stocked with snacks and beverages.
In the early 2000s, SMYAL, in collaboration with three partner organizations, began to develop additional programs based in Virginia and also expanded programs to the Maryland suburbs by offering self-esteem, health, and wellness programs in Prince George's County schools.
SMYAL utilizes proven "youth development" strategies in its after-school programs. As has been the case from the start, SMYAL continues to advocate for policies that help LGBTQ youth with regard to safe schools, foster care, health services, and other important areas.
As a youth service agency serving the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland, SMYAL has become a well-respected community-based organization providing direct services to youth, training and education to youth service providers, and important information relating to sexuality and gender identity issues to the community at large.
From peer-to-peer programs to HIV prevention and education to after-school programs and counseling services, SMYAL assists LGBTQ youth in becoming productive citizens, and provides them with the necessary tools to become leaders.
SMYAL continued to experience success throughout the late 2000s, diversifying its revenue streams to ensure long-term stability for programs most needed by local youth and being named a beneficiary of many local charitable events, including the Capital Classic Tennis Tournament, Progressive Dinner events, Homo Hotel Happy Hour, the International Gay Bowling Organization's 30th Anniversary Mid-Year Tournament, and numerous other events at area businesses.
A new LGBTQ Youth Advocacy Internship program began in 2008 and has continued through present day, training our youth to be advocates for themselves and their peers. SMYAL also forged partnerships with the local Ganymede Arts Festival and the Reel Affirmations Film Festival to provide arts-based social activities for our youth, and many local theatres and theatre organizations continue to work with SMYAL to provide access to area performances outside of SMYAL's after-school programming.
SMYAL is working hard to make 2012 as successful as previous years, while also continuing our Youth Advocacy Internship, HIV prevention and education services, recurring after-school programs, conducting and analyzing a needs assessment, and working throughout the year to make our 2012 Fall Brunch a record-breaking event.