The Kids Are All Right

SMYAL's Andrew Barnett leads the way for local GLBT youth

It’s been about six months since Andrew Barnett was appointed executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League — though he’s been filling the spot as acting director since May 2008. Even with his months of experience helming the area’s primary nonprofit organization supporting GLBT youth, the 26-year-old Barnett doesn’t look that much different than the kids he’s supporting.

But dump any patronizing attitude for this Alexandria native, senior class president of his Episcopal high school and member of its Gay-Straight Alliance. Barnett’s dedication is unquestionable. Four years ago, Barnett returned home from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and began volunteering with SMYAL with barely a pause. He’s been there ever since, working to make the D.C. area a better place for sexual-minority youth.

Andrew Barnett of SMYAL

“In the course of a year, we directly serve about 350 young people,” says Barnett, who houses his charm and professionalism in a lanky and boyish frame, a seeming hybrid of Opie Taylor gone Mad Men mod. “That includes youth who come to our program nights every single night, and those we see at the big holiday party. We indirectly serve thousands more by going out into our community doing LGBT-youth-awareness training with groups of youth and youth workers.”

Then there are the more mundane task of running a nonprofit, such as overseeing the current renovation of the group’s row-house facility on Capitol Hill or touting SMYAL’s inclusion as “one of the best small charities in the greater Washington region” in the 2008-2009 Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Of course there’s also all the preparation that comes with an annual fundraiser. In SMYAL’s case, it’s their 25th Anniversary Fall Brunch, Sunday, Sept. 20, at the Mandarin Oriental.

“We were at the Mayflower for several years. It was a beautiful space, but we simply outgrew it. The Mandarin can hold…up to a very tight 750. So I can’t imagine outgrowing it. If we do, it will be a great problem to have.”

If you go, keep your bacon and eggs away from vegan Barnett. Checks made out to SMYAL, however, are always in good taste.

METRO WEEKLY: How would you label your parents, politically?

ANDREW BARNETT: Probably middle right.

MW: Then did your coming out rock the boat at home?

BARNETT: I didn’t come out until I was 20. When I did, my coming-out story was almost as good as it could have been.  My parents are both accepting. When I told my mother she said, ”I thought this was going to happen for a long time and I’m really glad that you’re finally comfortable telling me. I know that this is going to make your life more challenging in some ways and I’m sorry for that.”

MW: And your father and siblings?

BARNETT: My siblings are both very accepting. My father also. A little less so than my mother may have been, but I don’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t accepting. My mother was as warm and welcoming as you could be, and my father was probably a little less comfortable with it at first. 
The background is that I had been in a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) when I was in high school. I was a senior. This was two years before I came out. I sort of became an LGBT activist before I identified as LGBT.

MW: Was your Episcopal high school fairly liberal?

BARNETT: I don’t think many people who know it would describe it as a liberal school. Most of the parents of the students who go there are conservative.

Like a lot of students who are involved in GSAs, we had to bring the administration along. I don’t think that they had anything against LGBT folks, it was just something new for them. They weren’t sure what impact it would have in our school community. One administrator said that one concern was, ”What if there became a list of known gay students?” I said, ”Mr. Carpenter, there already is a list,” among those who torment them.

Since then, my school has done a lot of great things for its LGBT students. I actually went back and served on a panel last December as a gay alumnus. 

MW: When you came out at 20, were you at Evergreen?

BARNETT: I took a semester off and transferred to Evergreen after that. I sort of came out during my semester off.

MW: Were you glad to follow coming out with moving to the other side of the country?

BARNETT: Yeah, I was. It was exciting. I’d been to Evergreen before. My best friend from high school went to school there, so I’d go visit him and I met some of his friends.

I was very excited to start over with mostly a new group of people who had never known me as anything other than being gay. It’s a place that’s very accepting of many different types of diversity. I didn’t have a lot of challenges in terms of being gay.

MW: After graduation, you came back almost immediately. Was there any temptation to stay in the Northwest?

BARNETT: By the time I graduated, I had decided that I really wanted to dedicate my professional career to serving the LGBT community. I really like that part of the country, but I realized that a lot of the big national organizations are here in D.C. I also like D.C. a lot. 

Andrew Barnett
Andrew Barnett

MW: Back in D.C., how soon till you were involved with SMYAL?

BARNETT: Almost immediately. The plan was to come back to D.C. and get involved in the LGBT community.

I’ll never forget it: I was doing informational interviews, e-mailing people and saying, ”Hey, can I meet you and talk about your job and find out how you got to be doing that?” I sat down at my computer and I told myself, ”I’ll e-mail five people today.” SMYAL was the fifth one. I was Googling “LGBT” and “D.C.” and I found SMYAL. I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t said to myself, ”There need to be five today.” So I e-mailed [then Executive Director] Bruce Weiss.

I closed my e-mail program and went downstairs to make lunch and my cell phone rang. It was Bruce. He called me immediately and said, ”Sure you can come down to SMYAL and we’ll be happy to tell you more about what we do.” I went down and at that meeting I started volunteering there.

MW: What were your first impressions of SMYAL?

BARNETT: It was incredibly cool. It seemed cozy, like a really neat place to spend time. I remember thinking, ”These people are so lucky they get to do this for a living.”

MW: How long did you volunteer before you were hired?

BARNETT: About two months. My first actual job at SMYAL was as an administrative assistant, a part-time job that I did for about two months. Professional growth is really important to me, so Bruce and I talked about what I was interested in and he created a full-time position for me: operations and communications coordinator.

MW: Some recent and horrible news made me think of SMYAL. It was the shootings at the Tel Aviv gay-youth center.

BARNETT: It really shook me up to hear about that. SMYAL is a safe space. For our young people it’s really the only place they can be themselves. We do a lot to make it a safe space in every sense, so the idea of bringing violence into that space to me was so horrific. I also thought about our security and whether or not it could happen at SMYAL. We do have some pretty good procedures in place, like keeping the front door locked. If you’re going to volunteer at SMYAL, you need to go through our volunteer orientation, including a background check. At the same time, the Tel Aviv shootings showed that there is still a lot of hatred out there.

MW: Has SMYAL gotten threats?

BARNETT: We have never received what I would deem any serious or credible threats, but there’s one person who once a year sends this loony e-mail to everyone on staff about how SMYAL shouldn’t exist.

But violence is something that our youth experience on a day-to-day basis. It happens at school, on the way to and from school. It’s not uncommon to hear youths talking about how they might ditch their last class because they don’t want to be walking home when everyone else is because they get jumped on their way home. We also hear about youths who get put out by their parents for the night on a semi-regular basis.

The idea of personal safety and stability is so important for building a foundation to grow into a happy, healthy, productive adult. There’s still a lot of work for us to do in this community to make it a safe space for all GLBT youth.

MW: You don’t get parents pounding on SMYAL’s door demanding you return their children?

BARNETT: No. Those incidents don’t happen. As part of our intake procedure we talk to our youth about whether their parents know they come to SMYAL. Fortunately, one change we’ve seen is that parents are more open to working with SMYAL. One of our most dedicated volunteers, in almost every Friday, is the parent of a SMYAL youth. After her son came out she went on the Internet and found SMYAL. She drove him to SMYAL and said, ”You have to go in at least once. If you don’t like it we don’t ever have to come back.” Of course, he went in and when she picked him up he asked, ”Can I come every day?”

We have parents like that. We also have parents who are probably more ambivalent about their child being LGBT.  We have one young person whose parent might say, ”I love you even though you’re gay.” The important thing is that she still loves him.

The kids are coming out younger and younger and so that makes it more important for us to be working with the parents.

MW: When kids come to you with stories of bullying, do you intervene with the school systems? Have you gotten any face time with Michelle Rhee?

BARNETT: She came to SMYAL in early 2008 and actually met with our staff and a group of our youth. Lindy [Garnette], the executive director of [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays-Washington, D.C.] and I met with her and some of the staff earlier this summer.

The chancellor has been incredibly supportive of LGBT students in D.C. public schools. One of the pilot programs that they began last year and are expanding this year is a line where students can report incidents of bullying. It’s tremendous because a lot of times both students and teachers in D.C. public schools aren’t aware of the fairly robust protections that actually exist on paper for LGBT students.

For SMYAL, we’re often playing a role where we’re encouraging you to take that step. If there were ever something egregious that happened where we had to step in as a mandatory reporter, we would certainly do that too.

Chancellor Rhee and her staff have been great allies to SMYAL, helping move the ball down the court to make D.C. public schools a safer place for LGBT students, but it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

MW: Where do SMYAL youths live?

BARNETT: Most are from within D.C., probably 60 percent. About 30 percent are coming from Maryland, about 10 percent from Virginia.

MW: How do you outreach to schools?

BARNETT: It depends on the school, and it’s changed a lot in 25 years.

At the beginning of every school year, we go out and do meetings at schools. We’ll meet with GSAs or a student diversity club. Usually we’re working with the guidance counselor or a faculty advisor. We also do blanket mailings and give them brochures and whatnot. A lot of our youth find out about SMYAL through a teacher or a guidance counselor at their school.

MW: Do you meet much resistance?

BARNETT: It’s certainly easier to get into some schools than others. One thing that makes it easier for us to get into schools is if we have a young person who is already participating in SMYAL’s programs who goes to that school. 

MW: Is outreach double-edged? I mean, you want to reach youth, but you have finite resources.

BARNETT: I would not want to say that we would turn any youth away from our programs. If you think about our after-school programs, there’s always room for one more youth. If we ever get to feel like we’re bursting at the seams, I think that’s a tremendous opportunity for us to approach new funding sources.

Our public funding comes from two sources: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from a multi-year grant to provide HIV-prevention services; and support through Children’s National Medical Center through the Youth Connections Program, specifically to work with youth who are HIV positive.

Those together cover about half our budget, which is just under $1 million annually. About 25 percent comes from individual support. The last 25 percent is foundation and corporate support.

Fundraising has been quite challenging in this economic climate. We’re aware of that. We’re lucky in that — well, it’s not luck — we have for several years been in the black with a surplus through careful budgeting. We have been very conservative in our revenue projections because we want to make sure that not only does SMYAL end this year in the black, but that we are able to be sustainable for a long period of time.

One of the challenges that SMYAL faces in securing funding is that there’s a big push in the funding world to have measurable outcomes. It makes sense: You want to see the return on your investments. We provide a space to socialize and build self-esteem and we know that being a support group has a positive benefit on our young people in terms of decreasing substance abuse and suicide, all those types of things, but it’s a difficult thing to measure. So we’ve been looking at ways that we can measure the impact we have on our young people. That’s what we’re looking to continue.

MW: At SMYAL’s upcoming brunch fundraiser, Judy Shepard will be your keynote speaker. Have you met her?

BARNETT: I met her very briefly in June at the LGBT Pride Month reception at the White House.

MW: You were in your early teens, not out yet, when Matthew was murdered. Do you remember what you felt at the time? 
BARNETT:
I remember being shocked and horrified by it. I may not have had [a declared] sexual orientation back then, but I had already started to realize that I might be gay. As such, it was incredibly scary what happened. It was one moment that reinforced all the different messages that LGBT young people hear every day from our culture that say it’s not okay to be LGBT.

MW: You mentioned the White House event June 29. How exciting was that? Who went from SMYAL? 

BARNETT: It was so amazing to be in this historic moment, the president celebrating LGBT Pride Month.

It was me and one other staff person and two of our youth advocates, young people who recently completed our LGBT Youth Advocacy Internship. One of our youths was updating his Twitter profile on his Blackberry while we were there because his friends wanted to know what was going on. The other young person was so excited to meet Jennifer Beals, and obviously excited to hear the president speak. They both got to meet the first lady.

I was saying, “Look around this room. How many young people do you see? Not very many. Think about all the other LGBT young people in D.C. and across the country. You’re their eyes and ears right now. You’re getting to live this moment. And you have the opportunity to tell them what it’s like.” One of the two youth who accompanied us wrote a piece for our Web site afterward.

MW: You’re there for the kids, but what’s the quid pro quo? What do you get back?

SMYAL's smiley
SMYAL’s smiley

BARNETT: First and foremost, to be able to meet a young person, 14 or 15, who is out, wearing rainbow colors. That in and of itself is tremendous. I never cease to be impressed by their bravery. There are days where I wake up and want to pinch myself because I can’t believe how lucky I am to have the job that I do. It’s incredibly important work to be doing. I really enjoy it and I certainly see myself at SMYAL for a long time.

MW: When SMYAL began 25 years ago, do you think anyone imagined the need would be as great today?

BARNETT: In many ways a lot hasn’t changed. LGBT youth continue to be at greater risk for all sorts of negative health factors.

If you’re an adult and you have a certain access to wealth, you can move to a city, to the “gayborhood” and sort of insulate yourself. But if you’re 15, your hometown is your hometown and your family is your family. Those are your systems of support.

One thing that really has changed is youth are coming out so much earlier than they were in 1984. They’re not becoming aware of being LGBT any earlier. Most studies indicate that youth become aware of their sexual orientation about age 10. Which is true for heterosexual youth, too, but for them it’s just a reinforcement of everything they’ve ever been told about themselves as far as sexual orientation goes. For LGBT young people, they first start to think about “Am I LGBT?” Second, it’s “How is my family going to react? How are my friends going to react? What kind of life am I going to have because of this?”

The LGBT community sends a strong message to come out. That is important, but the result is young people coming out younger and younger when they don’t necessarily have the support systems they need to deal with it, for their family to deal with it, for their school to deal with it.

I would love to see a world in which LGBT youth are able to come out with no problems at all, where every school, every community organization, every family, is a safe and affirming space for LGBT youth. We have a lot more work to do to get to that point. It’s not going to happen in the next 25 years. Even if it did, I think that SMYAL will still serve a very important role as a community space for LGBT youth to meet other youth like them. Although advocacy priorities would certainly change if the community were to achieve true equality, there’s still a benefit for youth to be around other young people who really have had the same experiences. There will always be opportunities for them to be leaders of their community, of our community. SMYAL will continue to serve as a space to give them the opportunities to do that.

For more information about SMYAL, visit www.smyal.org, e-mail , or call 202-546-5940. SMYAL’s 25th Anniversary Fall Brunch will be held Sunday, Sept. 20, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, beginning with a silent auction at 11 a.m. Tickets, by donation, begin at $125 and are available at www.smyal.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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