(Ascending from the left) Allison Charde, Molly Reynolds, Rose Feliciano, Julia Tyson, (descending from the right) LIGALY CEO David Kilmnick, Joel Johnson and Hunter Reynolds on the staircase leading to the GLBT Center of the Hamptons at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor.
By Kathryn G. Menu
As the East End’s first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) center prepares to launch its opening at the end of August in the upstairs of the Sag Harbor Presbyterian “Old Whalers’” Church, last week a youth committee – primarily comprised of students from East Hampton High School – gathered in what will soon be a lounge created solely for East End GLBT youth and their friends. A safe haven, but also simply a place where youth can hang out, talk, create and get to know each other, the committee was brought together to design the lounge, but also talk about what other services are necessary at the Long Island GLBT Center of the Hamptons.
“We are finally here,” said David Kilmnick, the chief executive officer of the Long Island GLBT Services Network (LIGALY), last Thursday walking the second floor hallway of the church. “It’s actually real now.”
And for many, the opening of the center has been a long time coming. For some, it’s an opening that will come too late.
In October, East Hampton resident David Hernandez, 16, committed suicide. Following his death, it was revealed he was gay and was bullied. LIGALY quickly organized a meeting attended by about 150 people at East Hampton High School. The need for a center, said Kilmnick, gained urgency.
While LIGALY hopes to eventually raise $1 million to open its own center, the immediate need felt for a center after Hernandez’s death led LIGALY to accept an offer by pastor Mark Phillips to take over the second floor in the church as an interim space. As of July, LIGALY became a two-year lease holder for the rooms formerly occupied by the Sag Harbor Youth Center and in the evening will also have access to the basement meeting room and kitchen facilities.
When the GLBT Center of the Hamptons has its formal opening on Saturday, August 10 from 4 to 6 p.m., Hernandez’s mother will be on hand to help open the center that may have impacted her son’s life.
In addition to the youth lounge, Kilmnick said the center will also have a room set aside for mental health counseling, as well as health services offering free testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, but also health care professionals who can offer general advice and information. Conference space is also available, as is a playroom should LIGALY host a meeting for parents with young children. Kilmnick said LIGALY is currently fundraising to provide a full time, East End resident to staff the center.
Last Thursday, in addition to talking about the décor and amenities the youth committee felt would make teens feel comfortable coming to the center, they also discussed what is needed.
“This isn’t a suicide prevention center,” said Joel Johnson, the president of East Hampton’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). “It means there will be a place where we can go, GLBT youth, and not only hang out with kids that have the same interests and ideals, but where we can also get information from people like health care providers.”
Johnson has been driving 60 miles to LIGALY’s Bay Shore center (LIGALY also has a Garden City center) for well over a year now after a friend told him about the center.
“Being involved with LIGALY gave me the courage to come out to my family and friends,” said Johnson in a separate interview last Friday. “It was the last piece I needed. It has changed my life in literally every way possible.”
LIGALY, noted Johnson at last Thursday’s meeting, offers more than just services for teens. At its Bay Shore and Garden City centers, LIGALY offers parent support groups, something Johnson said was critical for the Sag Harbor center.
“From what my mom has told me about attending some parent groups in Bay Shore, there are really some parents that need this kind of support,” said Johnson. “It is not that they are not ready to accept their child, but sometimes they need to know how to get there. I think we have people here that need that kind of service.”
OUTlet, a regular Friday night youth social program, was something else Johnson and the group advocated for at the Sag Harbor center. Kilmnick said while LIGALY is fundraising for a small bus to provide students transportation to the center throughout the East End, he added in the interim the organization would look to partner with school districts and other groups to get students to programming like OUTlet.
Leadership programming like LIGALY’s Safe Schools Initiative and its advisory board will give students the opportunity, said Jenilee Dowling, to get involved in a larger way in school and in the community working on projects like organizing National Coming Out Day.
“You get to talk about issues that are happening in our community, in our school,” said Dowling.
Student Julia Tyson said she would like to see programming dedicated to education on issues like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), recently overturned by the Supreme Court.
“It was struck down and I think a lot of people were wondering what does that mean,” she said. “It would be nice if there is this big event in government that there is a place where we can learn about these issues.”
“I like that,” said Johnson. “I know I watch a YouTube news channel that is like seven minutes of news for the whole week. To have someone talk to me about DOMA or what Prop 8 means would be amazing.”
LIGALY held a celebration at its Garden City center after DOMA was struck down featuring three attorneys who spoke about what the impact of the decision would be for gay couples.
East Hampton resident Allison Charde, who just completed her freshman year of college, said she believes sex education is lacking on the East End and is something the center should offer.
“We have health, but it is not sex education,” agreed Johnson.
Matthew Cotty, the director of health promotion and education at LIGALY, said the center could feature the organization’s Pride Empowerment Project (PEP), a positive sexual health program and pregnancy prevention program for GLBT and all youth ages 13 to 21.
But otherwise, the conversation Thursday revolved around bean bag chairs, television size and fun get-togethers the center could host. While health care, support groups and leadership are all important programs that will be born out of the center in Sag Harbor, for Johnson it was finding a place of true and utter acceptance that was the ultimate gift LIGALY was able to offer him.
“East Hampton has been an amazing environment for the LGBT community,” said Johnson. “But there is no place where kids can go and talk about coming out or the issues that they have. This will be a place not only for the LGBT community, but a place for everyone where we can feel open to be ourselves. I think the center can be a place for everyone to connect and learn about each other.”