Youth Movement

SMYAL's fall brunch raises funds and highlights dangers of ''ex-gay'' movement

”Not Gay is also OK.”

”Change is possible!”

”You don’t have to be gay.”

Those are just a few slogans that so-called ”ex-gay” groups are targeting at GLBT youth to help ”cure” them of homosexuality.

It’s a message that disturbed Wayne Besen, a longtime activist who has been exposing the myth of the ”ex-gay” movement for the past several years. And it became even more disturbing when Besen saw Alan Chambers, executive director of Exodus International, a Christian organization that promotes ”freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” standing alongside President George W. Bush in the White House on national television.

”That was a step too far,” Besen says. ”I knew something had to be done.”

So, in June, Besen moved to Miami Beach, Fla., to launch Truth Wins Out (TWO), a not-for-profit think tank and educational organization that ”counters right wing disinformation campaigns, debunks the ‘ex-gay’ myth, and provides accurate information about the lives of GLBT people.”

This weekend, the former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign is returning to Washington, where he lived for eight years, to speak at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League’s (SMYAL) 9th Annual Fall Brunch. Other speakers at the Sunday, Nov. 19, event include Darlene Nipper, director of the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs.

”Darlene actually used to be a volunteer [at SMYAL],” says Todd Peterson, chair of SMYAL’s board of directors. ”She’s connected to the organization and she has a high position at the mayor’s office, so the combination of the two makes her a very good speaker for our event.”

Chuck Bell, an NBC4 meteorologist whom Peterson describes as a ”friend to the gay community,” has been called upon to serve as the master of ceremonies during the brunch.

Peterson says 384 people attended last year’s fall brunch, which raised approximately $60,000. This year, organizers are hoping to raise $75,000 for SMYAL’s many youth-orientated programs and services.

To help reach that goal, organizers plan to kick off the brunch with a silent auction that includes vacation packages, tickets and gift certificates to local theaters and restaurants, autographed books and artwork, among other items.

”The need for the brunch is to supply SMYAL with unrestricted funding to support our grants and to do community outreach,” Peterson says. ”It’s a major fund-raiser and a major source of unrestricted funding, which is essential in running a [not-for-profit organization] and diversifying our funds.”

The group’s largest grant, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is used for ”Project O.V.A.H,” which stands for ”Our Voices Against HIV/AIDS,” and was created to reduce the risk of HIV infection among young men of color who have sex with men and young transgender women of color in the district, between the ages of 13-24.

Organizers hope to use the funds collected at the fall brunch for SMYAL’s other programs, including those for young women, such as the support group ”Ladies Lounge.”

”SMYAL is a life raft for so many youth,” Besen says. ”[It] gives [them] the self-respect and self-esteem they need to become happy, functioning, successful adults that don’t get sucked into the ‘ex-gay’ trap, which thrives on low self-esteem.”

Peterson says organizers asked Besen to speak at the fund-raiser because of his experience with gay youth.

”He’s a very prominent national figure who has done a lot of research on the ‘ex-gay’ movement and the effect it has on our community and our youth,” he says. ”If a youth falls prey to these organizations at a young age it could be detrimental to the rest of their lives.”

Besen echoed Peterson’s sentiments.

”[GLBT youth] know they’re gay, but they’re trying to figure out how to come out and be loved and accepted and not rejected by their parents and friends in this difficult time, [while being] subject to the exploitation of political groups who are targeting them when they’re most vulnerable. They are literally pumping millions of dollars in trying to trick people that change is possible.

”What we’re really dealing with is a hoax,” he says. ”And we can tangibly prove that you can’t pray away the gay.”

According to Peterson, SMYAL is still searching for a new executive director to follow Bruce Weiss, who resigned in the summer and is now working as the executive director of Whitman-Walker Clinic’s Northern Virginia branch.

SMYAL’s 9th Annual Fall Brunch is scheduled for 11 a.m., on Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW. Tickets are $85 each, and are available online at www.smyal.org. For more information, call 202-546-5940.

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