Responding to a Need
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, DC 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.
Expanding Youth Services
Over the years, SMYAL's services expanded to include a telephone hotline for youth, 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 1980s, 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 it received its first state funding from Maryland and foundation funding from the Washington AIDS Partnership.
Founding the Youth Center
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 (LGBTQ) 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 patio, and (perhaps the favorite of our youth) a kitchen area stocked with snacks and beverages.
Expanding Our Reach
The following year, 1998, saw the birth of the Fall Brunch - an annual institution and SMYAL's signature event. Our largest single fundraising event of the year, the Fall Brunch is a place for SMYAL's family and friends to gather and celebrate the achievements of the organization, while enjoying each other's company, the Silent Auction, a keynote address from a notable community ally, youth speakers, and - of course - a delicious meal.
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.
Ensuring Our Future
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, the Miss Adams Morgan Pageant, and numerous other events at area businesses.
Expanding Our Programs
A new Youth Advocates Program began in 2008 and continued through to 2013, training our youth to be advocates for themselves and their peers while learning to design and implement a campaign on a community issue important to them. During this time, 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.
The Women's Leadership Institute (WLI) program was founded in 2010. Developed in order to provide an intentional space for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young women, the WLI shortly took on a life of its own as a discussion forum and service-oriented community within SMYAL. With frequent summits and biannual retreats, the WLI is an opportunity for SMYAL's LBTQ (and ally!) women to bond, discover, and create - shown most notably in their 2013 'zine exploring issues of womanhood and identity.
Participating in Capital Pride each summer has long been one of the most significant events of the SMYAL year, with a Pride Parade presence dating back to the 1990s or earlier. SMYAL was fortunate to win the parade's Lady Gaga Award for Spirit and Energy in 2011 and the Elizabeth Taylor Award for Best Nonprofit in 2012. The organization is also a regular fixture at the Capital Pride Festival and, since the late 2000s, a proud leading sponsor of Youth Pride Day each April with its famed photo booth. After noting a lack of activities during Capital Pride weekend which were age-appropriate or youth-focused, SMYAL began hosting an annual youth dance at Pride with 2012's "We Are Young" event and the "Superdance" the following year.
Evolving Our Mission
SMYAL's Board of Directors approved a sweeping 5-year Strategic Plan in 2011, leading SMYAL further from a service-oriented provider-client relationship with its youth attendees and moving the organization toward a youth-driven model focused on leadership development. Throughout 2012, staff members worked to ensure the new model was visible in all aspects of programming - from HIV Counseling, Testing, and Referral to Recreational Nights. Programming was expanded to include Saturdays, allowing program access to a greater and more diverse section of youth, as well as a new "Q&A Youth" program in Virginia designed specifically for youth who identify as both Asian American/Pacific Islander and LGBTQ. Late in 2012, SMYAL won a grant from the DC Department of Health to create a Peer Education curriculum and began training a core group of youth about HIV and STI prevention, as well as healthy relationship tips, who were then equipped to go out into the community to educate and be role models for their peers.
By 2013, SMYAL was ready for a fresh new look, bidding Shannon (our blue, spiky-haired logo) goodbye and welcoming a modern magenta brand identity designed by Greenfield-Belser LTD as an in-kind donation. That summer, the organization also launched the DC Regional GSA Network (DRGN) in partnership with the national GSA Network (Gay-Straight Alliance Network) organization. Through this initiative, SMYAL hopes to connect youth throughout DC and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs together to advocate for change within their schools and convert more community environments into safe spaces. As its inaugural event, the DRGN brought 28 youth applicants to the 1st annual GSA Activist Camp in August 2013, designed as an interactive boot camp to give student leaders the skills they will need to raise their voices against injustice and empower their peers to join in their efforts.
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, DC, 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.