Seven isn't just a lucky number.
It's also a sign of how far things have come.
Once again taking place on the greens of P Street Park alongside Rock Creek, the Seventh Annual Youth Pride Day shows how much a simple, yet important, concept has grown to become an institution in the community. This year promises to be bigger than ever. In addition to the slate of youth-led entertainment scheduled to grace the stage, two keynote speakers will share their stories of activism with the crowd: Jonathan Perry, who launched a gay and lesbian student group at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college in North Carolina, and Jonathan Jaxson, who after appearances on Sally Jesse Raphael and Ricki Lake made himself into a cable Emmy winning television host in his own right.
Youth Pride Day this year is the capstone event to a week of activities, including the Youth Pride University, where GLBT youth participants met to hone their leadership abilities -- not to mention take time out for magazine photo shoots. Dances, open mikes, history panels: all have come together to promote the presence and vitality of the GLBT youth community in D.C.
Washington is fortunate to have many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth devoting their time and energy to making the community at large a better place for themselves, their peers and the young people yet to come. We talked with two who are making a difference.
Youth Pride Day 2003 takes place Saturday, April 12, from 12 noon to 5:30 p.m. at P Street Park, 23rd and P Streets NW. "Infatuation," the official Youth Pride Dance event, will be held afterward at Nation, 1015 Half St. SE, from 6 to 10 p.m. (must be under 25 to attend). For information on these and other events, visit www.youthpridedc.org, or call 202-387-4141.
One week ago Jay Williams turned 18. The highlight of his first day as a legal adult was the first injection of hormones that would begin his physical transformation from a female to male.
It's an exciting step for Williams, who was just 12 when he first began to realize he was different from his peers. Understanding didn't come easy -- even many gays and lesbians are unfamiliar with the idea of female to male transsexuals. Through his teens he came to understand himself and began working to help other GLBT youth, particularly through the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL).
Still smiling from the passage of a birthday, Williams talks openly and honestly about growing up transgender and bisexual in D.C., and making the biggest transition to being happy with himself.
MW: Can you tell me a little bit about the hormones you're taking?
JAY WILLIAMS: I just started taking hormones Thursday, and my voice is getting a little bit scratchy. That's the first thing that's supposed to change. In the course of a year, it's supposed to deepen my voice, stimulate my hair follicles so my facial hair grow, redistribute fat deposits in my face and make it more angular. It will just give me an overall male appearance.
MW: When did you first realize that you were male?
WILLIAMS: I didn't really realize that there was something different about how I thought about myself until my first year of junior high. I was attracted to both girls and guys -- I had a crush on a girl and a guy at the same time -- so I never had a really big problem with identifying with my sexuality. But whenever I thought about being with somebody, I didn't want to be with them the way I was. I was doing a lot of soul searching at 12 years old. I went online and met a [transsexual] girl from the other coast. At the time I thought that there were only male to female transsexuals. So she introduced the idea. I didn't accept it as who I am until I was about 15.
MW: You've started taking hormones. Do you have any plans for gender reassignment surgery?
WILLIAMS: Right now I am saving up for my first surgery, a mastectomy. My short term goals are just my chest and a hysterectomy. The whole package costs a whole lot -- sexual reassignment is like a hundred thousand dollars. Down the line I may get it, but right now I'm not really satisfied with the visual results of it. I'm probably going to wait until the technology gets better.
MW: How did you interact with your peers in junior high?
WILLIAMS: I always listened to rock and alternative, and in junior high all I hear is rap or r&b so everyone was like, "You're weird." I was pretty much the oddball. That kind of attracted people to me. But I was quite the introvert and I liked being to myself and quiet. I never really talked about attractions even though that was the [main] topic of conversations. I could talk about the boy I had a crush on all I wanted to, but I just didn't want to talk about the girl I liked. I guess people probably picked up on it a little bit. People used to tell me I looked so sad. I always brushed it off as, "Oh, this is just how my face is when it's relaxed."
MW: If you were getting more comfortable with yourself through your teens, how did the transition to high school go?
WILLIAMS: When I finished junior high school, I was like okay, this is what I'm going to do. So high school was pretty much about how I'm going to get there. That would seem to make me more comfortable with it, but it also made me more uncomfortable about it. High school is where everybody is finding out who they are -- I found out that there are a lot of homophobic people. Most of my friends were gay, and I would hear "faggot" and "dyke" going through the halls. And here I am identifying as trans -- not only do I like girls and guys, but I want to be a guy, so that makes me super queer or something. I became very depressed, because I thought that I wouldn't be able to tell anybody. I didn't want to go out, I didn't want to do anything. I had to find somebody to talk to, so I went looking for a psychologist. I made sure that the counselors I went to see were pretty knowledgeable on trans issues.
MW: Did you decide to leave high school?
WILLIAMS: I'm getting my GED, and then I'm going start in community college. I want to be either a mortician or a forensic pathologist, and that's a lot of schooling. But high school just wasn't working for me. I would always turn my work in and get A's and stuff, but the fact is I would still have my depression spells and I missed a lot of days. So it wasn't working for me. Plus, if I had stayed I would have been transitioning during school, and people would be like, okay what's going on.
MW: What was the best experience you had while you were in school?
WILLIAMS: It would have to be when I went to Eastern High School. I've been a band person since elementary school. I played clarinet for seven years, but I really was in love with the tuba. I talked to the band director, and he was like, "You play clarinet, I don't know if you can do this." I was like, I can do it, I love the tuba. And he let me do it. I was on top of the world. He let me play tuba even though I played clarinet. I really surprised him, because I got better than people who had played it for two years before me.
MW: What would be the worst thing about high school?
WILLIAMS: I remember walking through the halls and people would talk about me behind my back and think I didn't hear them. Or maybe they did it on purpose -- "I hate girls who dress like boys," or "Look at that dyke." I hate that word. So people would often say that even though they think I can't hear. I have really good hearing. One time I went to the girls' bathroom, and they were like, "I didn't know they let shims use the bathroom." That was pretty harsh. But I got over it.
MW: How did you first hook up with SMYAL?
WILLIAMS: During my soul searching days I was on line everyday after school. SMYAL had a web page and I was like, I have to go there. I tried to get my friend to go with me, but she didn't want to. So I went by myself. I was so nervous. I walked up and stared at the door for about five minutes before I went in. I just sat down, and became even more of an introvert than in school. This was my first exposure to the gay community. I didn't know where to start, so I just sat down and listened. That's the best thing to do when you're in a new environment. But then I met some friends.
MW: Do you still consider yourself an introvert?
WILLIAMS: I still have those moments, but I'm like, you can accept me or you can not accept me. That's how the world is, and I can't hide behind a wall anymore. My friends tell me, you've got to talk more, you've got to be more social. They're pretty much the ones who brought me out of my shell.
MW: What kind of activist work have you done with SMYAL?
WILLIAMS: I've done speakers bureau and outreach, and I was SMYAL Youth of the Year for 2002. [Right now] I have a proposal to create specifically targeted programs for transgender/transsexual youth. A lot of programs are for male to female, not for female to male. So I want to be more inclusive toward the trans youth, as well as educating the non-trans youth at SMYAL. Because every time I say I'm a he, they're like, "no you're not," and I have to explain the whole thing. They don't know about female to male transsexuals.
MW: What's the best thing that you've gotten out of being involved as a youth activist?
WILLIAMS: I have become a better person than what I once was. I really developed as a person in every way through SMYAL. I don't even think I would be here right now if it weren't for SMYAL -- I'd probably be in a mental institution, going crazy in a straight jacket. In some ways it's like a savior for me. It was a place for me to go and talk. That I could say I was trans openly was like a blessing for me.
MW: What would you say is the most important thing about Youth Pride?
WILLIAMS: The most important thing about Youth Pride is that there is a Youth Pride. That youth can go out there and just be who they are and not have to worry about the outside world too much. To have a controlled environment where you can just do whatever the hell you want. That's the best thing that there is at Youth Pride.
It's easy to get the feeling that Graham Murphy is somewhat of an overachiever. After going to his first gay support group as a nervous and conflicted senior in his Albany, N.Y., high school, it took just a few months until he was already organizing a pro-gay rally on the steps of the state capitol.
That level of energy followed him to D.C., the city he fell in love with as a high school visitor and that he now calls home as a junior at George Washington University. A board member with SMYAL, the twenty-year-old juggles a number of GLBT activities, including the Out Crowd, an educational group he helped found at school, and working to create a network of support for GLBT youth in Northern Virginia.
MW: Tell me about how the Out Crowd got started.
GRAHAM MURPHY: I started [it] with a few people on my [dorm] floor. I was living on the creative and performing arts floor, so it was kind of a breeding ground for gay culture. It started off as a support group -- some people weren't out back at home, so we kind of eased them into it. Then last year we held our alternative prom with Youth Pride Alliance, and that was kind of fun and we thought we'd hold more of them. Now we've become an educational organization on campus -- we hold panels on gays in politics and things like that.
MW: How did you end up working with SMYAL?
MURPHY: We were trying to get funding for the prom last year and I learned to ask anyone and everyone. I first came into contact with SMYAL asking for funding for our dance, and they gave it to me. Later I started working there as an intern. I get the word out about SMYAL in Northern Virginia. I'm still holding meetings out in Northern Virginia, but it's been the most frustrating project I've ever worked on. I've never worked in such a conservative area.
Unfortunately, only a few school counselors in the area will help you, because it's so conservative, especially Fairfax County. It's nothing like where I came from in Albany. So I started going on Planet Out and looking through personal ads, e-mailing youth, and letting them know that there's people out there that they can talk to. I got a pretty good response with that, and conducted phone interviews, and collected information from them, and put together the program.
MW: What did you find out about their experiences as gay youth in Virginia?
MURPHY: About half of them, especially from Arlington and Alexandria, were doing pretty well. They had the social support systems in their schools with the gay-straight alliances. But in Fairfax I found a lot of them had troubles at home or in their community. The day after I interviewed one of the kids, I happened to call one of his friends and found out he had gotten beat up that day because he was gay. So I called him up and asked if he was okay, and fortunately he was. Some people just talked about how their parents aren't very accepting. I got some of them to talk to the SMYAL counselor, which helped them. Sometimes I just felt pretty helpless, too.
MW: It's only about ten miles from D.C. to Fairfax -- it's funny how quickly things change in a small geographic area.
MURPHY: And it's a completely different world from where I come from. When the Fairfax school board was [considering] a policy that would not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation for students, faculty and staff, I went to the meeting where they were discussing it. It was the first time that I'd ever seen an actual anti-gay presence, and heard just how ignorant they were. I was really surprised, and really afraid at the same time. Then the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays [P-FOX] came up to me and assured me that I could change. I told them I didn't want to be as unhappy as they are. I guess they probably exist in Albany, but I just don't hear from them.
MW: How long have you known you were gay?
MURPHY: I would guess the summer before my senior year of high school. Looking back now I can totally see instances where I rationalized feelings that I had and denied them. I would look at magazines and think some guy's really hot, but he wasn't hot because I wanted him, he was hot because I wanted to look like him -- that's how I rationalized it. My senior year I was president of my student government, and I was also prom king. I did everything to be as masculine as I could. Geez, I was the biggest queen, I don't know what I was thinking. [Laughs.] But there was this freshman who was gayer than anything ever -- he was pretty out there. I met him and we started talking -- every time he would talk about his sexual experiences I would freak out and run away even though I wanted hear. [Eventually] he took me to a support group in Albany at the gay and lesbian community center. It was a youth support group, and my first time there I was the most homophobic guy. I was saying that gays shouldn't be married, gays shouldn't raise children, and why do they have to be so flamboyant? And then they invited me to speak at a high school, and I did. That was the first time I was ever put in the activist role. Ever since then I just kind of went with it. I would say that in a two month period, I went from hating being gay to being a voice for gay youth.
MW: How did the people in the group react to you during that first visit?
MURPHY: They were pretty calm about it and very polite. I don't know if I would have the same reaction if someone like me came through the door. I guess they knew where I was coming from, and the place I was at in my life. They were very understanding.
MW: How about your family? Did you come out to them at the time?
MURPHY: After going to the support group a few times, I told my mom, and she did the usual mom thing: "You have to go see a psychiatrist." It's good I went to the support group, because if I hadn't I might have followed her advice and gone to see the psychiatrist. She told me not to tell my father, and then about six months later, I was winning an award from the GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] chapter there, and I told her you might want to tell him now. He was just mad that we hadn't told him sooner, and that we thought that he would react badly. I think he's more accepting than my mother is. He enjoys meeting my boyfriends and talking to them.
MW: What would you say is the most important thing people need to understand about GLBT youth?
MURPHY: This may not be the most important, but it's one of the important things: They are everywhere, in every school, whether people like it or not. You only really notice that they're out if the school has a welcoming policy that allows them to be who they are. Unfortunately a lot of schools don't, and that's why the gay youth remain silent, that's why they begin to hate themselves, and that's why we have such high suicide rates among gay youth. People need to understand that there may not be someone like me in every school, but there's still a gay youth in every school.
MW: What do you think people most often misunderstand about GLBT youth?
MURPHY: Parents need to understand that it's not a problem -- if they're telling you they're gay, they're not telling you because they think it's a problem, they're telling you because they've already come to grips with it and understand who they are. What you need to do is support them at that point in their decision to come out.
MW: Why do you think Youth Pride is an important event for the community?
MURPHY: It provides visibility. When you see that many youth out there saying that they're gay or bi or whatever and they're proud of it, I think that's a great message to send to the adults who don't get it. And I think it shows how much smarter these youth are than the people at P-FOX.