Initially, I hesitated to get deeply involved with adolescents because that wasn’t where my strengths and interests were. But I came to see that I had to do something to bring the system’s craziness to an end.
You have to remember how it was in the mid-1980s. Youth were being locked up in Saint Elizabeth’s for cross dressing. AIDS was a mysterious killer and gays were stigmatized. The horrible high school taunt was “You’re gay and you’re gonna die of AIDS.” The president refused to utter the A-word even once, so you know teenagers were not getting any support or useful information at school. LGBT adults were battling for their own physical and psychological survival and most dared not risk being accused of “recruiting” teenagers.
But in 1984 a small group of youth advocates created the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) to provide information, training, and safe referrals to youth services providers. Stefan Wade joined that group, developed a training program, and led a needs assessment effort that found that what sexual minority youth most needed was a safe place to meet and socialize with others like themselves. Within three years, SMYAL established a well-respected program of youth socialization and education sessions as well as a training program for adult professionals, with outreach into schools, runaway shelters, and juvenile correctional facilities. Many individuals contributed to the SMYAL program, but it was Stefan Wade’s expertise and leadership that turned a plan into reality.
First, as chair of SMYAL’s Education and Training Program, Stefan pulled together a volunteer staff of clinical social workers, psychologists, attorneys, and professional trainers to present training and educational seminars for youth-serving professionals. In the training, Stefan helped providers understand who LGBT youth were, what the struggles of their families were, and how they could help. He also built confidence that if those providing the service did so professionally and with integrity they had nothing to fear. By the spring of 1986, Stefan and his colleagues had provided training to the Fairfax County Juvenile Court, National Network of Runaway Youth Services, Family and Children Services of Washington DC, and Planned Parenthood of Maryland, among other community organizations.
I tell every youth, “You are accountable to yourself.”
But Stefan’s greatest accomplishment was the establishment of youth socialization and education sessions run by a corps of volunteers. Saturday at SMYAL became the place for LGBT to be themselves, with 50 to 100 youth participating each week. With help from Robert Hartman, John Hannay, Bob Pine, Emily Nalven, and others, Stefan created and implemented a ten-session curriculum, repeated every three months, that addressed coming out to family, to friends, at church and at school, and helped youth think well enough of themselves to make the right decisions. Recognizing that gay teenagers often must navigate challenging situations, from homelessness to pressures for unsafe sex, Stefan’s program focused on negotiating skills and living by the values with which one was raised. Stefan’s compassionate, but no-nonsense approach gained the respect of the youth. And thanks to the working relationships Stefan developed with PFLAG and school counseling programs, parents began bringing their children to SMYAL.
Stefan’s work extended beyond the DC area. Working with colleagues from the National Association of Social Workers, he founded a nationwide network of agencies concerned about LGBT youth whose work lives on today in several national organizations. Stefan’s curriculum became the model upon which many health education and HIV prevention interventions for youth (not jut LGBT teens) stand.
Although Stefan died of AIDS-related ailments in 1995, his work turned SMYAL into an organization that could – and has – endured for the long haul.