By Anna Garbar, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Co-Chair
SMYAL is a DC-based local organization that works to support and empower LGBTQ youth. Through youth leadership, SMYAL creates opportunities for LGBTQ youth to build self-confidence, develop critical life skills, and engage their peers and community through service and advocacy. SMYAL’s programming is free of charge for participants. To learn more about SMYAL’s mission and how to get involved, click here.
Like many staff members in the organization, both Hancie and Sultan have a strong personal connection to the organization’s mission. They both believe in giving back to the community by showing young people that there is a place for them in this city.
Hancie’s passion for LGBTQ advocacy goes back to her personal story of coming out to her family and community. She felt supported and welcome, but knew that not every young queer person shared the same experience. She wanted to work towards a reality where her story is the norm and not the exception. Sultan’s interest in LGBTQ advocacy work was sparked by a not so positive interaction he had with the state legislature when he worked as a community organizer in a low income neighbourhood in Baltimore. He was trying to highlight the stories of individuals who had issues of securing housing. When he approached the state legislature he was told that it is the community’s responsibility to educate its members and not the state’s job to pass legislation. In other words, those in power refused to take action. At that moment it became painfully clear that there is a need for loud advocates everywhere in order to move things forward, because those in power are often not willing to do the work. SMYAL’s mission is to make the voices of the LGBTQ youth louder.
SMYAL’s work is deeply inspiring but can also be very challenging. While LGBTQ advocates have had incredible successes in recent history, like the passage of marriage equality, but it is also important to remember that there are still pressing needs that must be addressed including ending homelessness, fighting for racial equity, securing affirming mental health services, and preventing violence against queer and trans people. SMYAL’s work centers the concept of intersectionality: understanding that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and many experience multiple layers of descrimination due to gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. LGBTQ advocacy is about addressing all those issues, and not just focusing on a single issue at a time.
Sultan and Hancie shared two examples of the incredible impact SMYAL has had in the community. One is Little SMYALs - a group dedicated to 6-12 year olds and provides a safe(r) space to hang out and meet new people, access resources, and gain support. Little SMYALs is one of the only programs of its kind for this age group.
Another area SMYAL feels passionately about is empowering youth to advocate for LGBTQ causes in their own lives.. Each year, SMYAL hosts a leadership conference that equips queer and trans youth with tangible movement-building skills that they can take back to their schools and communities. One of the program participants, for example, has been invited to become a consultant for a major network and their role is to review scripts from a lens of a Black queer voice with the mission of making future shows more inclusive.
For those who are interested in getting involved with human rights advocacy and specifically LGBTQ+ advocacy, Hancie and Sultan recommend checking out local organizations. Very often there is a lot of work being done in your own community that you may not be aware of and the best way to support it is to join those working locally. Another suggestion is to follow local and national organizations on social media to learn more about their initiatives and get involved. Do not hesitate to let your personal connection to LGBTQ rights be the front and center of your work. Your personal connection is meaningful and is a powerful driver of your work!
Finally, Sultan and Hancie shared their appreciation of the work of the UN when it comes to protecting the rights of the LGBTQ communities globally. The UN has a unique place to advocate for intersectional issues across countries and communities. LGBTQ issues are never in a vaccuum, they exist in the context of safety and security, asylum and immigration, and many other issues. The UN’s commitment to have conversations where LGBTQ people are respected is critical to addressing the needs of the LGBTQ community globally.
The world is changing quickly. We are moving towards a reality where we can express ourselves freely and accept each other, but we have a long way to go. Local organizations like SMYAL work hard every day to create a safe and accessible space for LGBTQ youth, empowering them to give back by loudly advocating for LGBTQ rights. To learn more about SMYAL and see how you can help and get involved, check out all the amazing work that they do here.
November 2, 2021