By Kathryn G. Menu
In the wake of the tragic death of 16-year-old David Hernandez Barros two weeks ago, on Monday night 134 teachers, parents, students, administrators and community members joined the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) organization at East Hampton High School to talk about bullying. Also discussed was the possibility of opening an East End gay, lesbian and transgender community center as a resource for students.
On September 29, the East Hampton High School junior reportedly committed suicide in his East Hampton home. Following Barros’ death, in an interview with The East Hampton Star, his mother revealed her son had been bullied at school and was gay.
Monday night’s forum was organized by LIGALY with Chief Executive Officer David Kilmnick opening the discussion with a moment of silence for Barros. He went on to talk about the challenges LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth specifically face when bullied and advocated for the foundation of an East End center for LIGALY, which has a Suffolk County center in Bay Shore — 60 miles away — as well as a Nassau County-based center in Garden City.
Kilmnick said funding for the center was already being raised. Sag Harbor residents Jennifer Brooke and Bea Alda have offered a $20,000 matching grant towards the effort. Towards the end of the evening, audience members Beverly Dash and Debra Lobel pledged $2,500 as well.
Kilmnick noted that LGBT youth bullied at school and not out to their families have no place where they feel they are in a safe and supportive environment.
“Many LGBT kids are left alone,” he said.
“We know bullying is at epidemic proportions right now for LGBT youth,” Kilmnick said, citing statistics that such youth are twice as likely to say they have been physically assaulted at school, and 85 percent reported hearing homophobic language on a regular basis.
Sixty percent of LGBT youth, said Kilmnick, report feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation, with 80 percent reporting being verbally harassed. Cyber-bullying only elongates the experience and the advent of social media makes it harder to escape.
“Our experience here on Long Island shows that Hispanic and Latino kids experience higher levels of physical harassment and physical assault,” he said, noting sometimes they experience that at higher levels from their own community.
He added that in September alone, LIGALY had three kids come to them because they had been thrown out of their homes for coming out as gay. One of those was outed through a social media website.
Kilmnick said many LGBT youth are resilient and have resources, but many more feel they do not have a place to turn.
“That is something where David or other folks could leave school, come in and sit with other kids, just relax and be themselves,” he said. “It sounds so simple, but it saves lives.”
Kilmnick said LIGALY is also able to be a stronger advocate for communities through a center that develops programming for families and schools. LIGALY currently works with 120 schools and started the first gay parent teacher association in the U.S.
East Hampton School District, said Kilmnick, “is a role model for other school districts” in terms of the resources it provides its LBGT youth. The district has a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in the high school and another one in its middle school — the only middle school GSA in Suffolk County.
“We have been working together since 1995,” said Kilmnick.
But more can be done, said Kilmnick who believes an East End center is what LGBT youth really needs.
Starting to fundraise with the help of Alda and Brooke’s matching grant, Kilmnick said he would like to see a center opened as soon as possible, likely as a rental with the idea of building a permanent center down the road.
People interested in donating, he said, should call LIGALY at 665-2300.
Suffolk County, he said, is looking at properties it owns, said Kilmnick as is the Town of Southampton — an ideal location for a center, he said because of its central location for youth travelling from throughout the Twin Forks.
Kilmnick said the first step was setting up an East End GLBT Advisory Committee. After Monday night’s meeting, he noted 37 people had signed on to join that committee.
Harriet Hellman, a pediatrics specialist who worked with Barros, said with a growing Central and South American population, the center would require programming tailored to their needs.
“And I would personally like to see it named the David Hernandez [Barros] Center,” she said.
Reverend Dr. Katrina Foster of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett said she preached last weekend about Barros, and how critical it was to “celebrate all of God’s children.”
While some faith communities are open and welcoming, Rev. Foster said not all of them are. The ones that are welcoming, she said, are ready to work with LIGALY with some already in the process of developing educational programming for their congregations.
East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine said the school was having an expert in school climate and culture, Jonathan Cohen, facilitate an assessment of East Hampton’s climate and culture.
“Because on the surface, everything looked good,” said Fine.
School administrators are working to develop a comprehensive, baseline understanding of where the school is, said Fine, so that it can chart an educated path moving forward.
“I am not sitting here and saying everything is perfect, but we are starting a process,” said Fine.
Joel Johnson, president of the high school GSA and in transition as a transgendered youth, said the school gave him the protection he needed to come out to his friends.
“It’s very important to get a center out here,” said Johnson. “It gave me the courage to come out to my family.”