As New Yorkers, we like to think of our city as one of the most progressive, where people of all walks of life are not only tolerated, but accepted and celebrated. It’s mostly true — New York is a great city that generally values its impressive diversity — but, sadly, it is also true that LGBTQ youth, even here, experience higher rates of isolation, depression, and suicide, in some communities more than others.
That’s why The Child Center of NY hosted the first ever LGBTQ Conference and Forum at our Ocean Bay Community Cornerstone in Far Rockaway on April 25. The turnout and enthusiastic participation indicated it was an idea whose time had come.
The event was attended by about 35 residents of the Rockaways (and even two people from Brooklyn who read about the event in The Wave!). Panelists and audience members discussed many diverse issues that affect the LGBTQ community, though the conversation always seemed to come back to the absolute need for a safe space — in the Rockaways — where people who identify as LGBTQ can meet to support one another, have a voice, and gather with other like-minded and progressive people.
“The Rockaways is a great community,” says Deborah Hoyle, Ph.D., Director of the Ocean Bay Community Cornerstone. “It’s a vibrant, tight-knit place where families support each other, look out for each other, and have fun together. But one area that hasn’t always been as positive as it could be is regarding the acceptance of LGBTQ community members. We are working to change that.”
The event was part forum, part informal conversation, and altogether spirited, educating, and enlightening. At times, it was also extremely moving as panelists and audience members shared personal testimonies of their journeys.
“My favorite part of the night was when Shannon of Far Rockaway (Arvene), 16 years old and one of my best friends, went up to the mic and spoke about her coming out this year — she talked about the enormous support she received from her mom and family,” says Farmata Dia, Co-President of the Ocean Bay Youth Council-Youth C.O.R.E.3 (Youth Council of Rockaway for Educating, Equipping, and Empowering), and one of the event panelists.
While some attendees spoke of similar acceptance by family members, it was clear that not all attendees had been so lucky, and one of the panel topics was supporting LGBTQ youth who are in peril with family who do not accept their identification as LGBTQ, and how to support families that have members who identify as LGBTQ.
A couple of the many suggestions were to offer support through planned support groups for both adults and youth (much like those we have at our behavioral health clinics), working with the groups represented on the panel and others in area. These include a pride reception at the community center and commitments to hold events throughout the summer. Plans are also underway to march in the Queens pride parade, Manhattan parade and the Caribbean Carnival in the Rockaways in August.
Also discussed was raising awareness of ways the greater community can recognize the warning signs of isolation and depression, especially in LGBTQ youth who have been rejected by their families. This portion of the discussion was bolstered by having licensed social worker Amy Wilkerson, LCSW, Professor at York College and Director at Sheltering Arms Family and Youth Services, as a panelist. Wilkerson spoke knowledgably and movingly about the devastating effect a non-supportive environment can have on LGBTQ youth, such as depression and the correlation between LGBTQ youth and suicide.
Farmata spoke about how impressionable she and her peers feel in a world that does not necessarily accept them the way they are. Farmata’s viewpoint, and that of her youth co-panelist, Naija-li Rivers, was strikingly different in some ways from that of the senior members of the panel. The youth agreed on many points that involved how open LGBTQ youth are with members of their family versus friends. Their views were educational and enlightening, as Farmata stated that teenagers of her community have a more supportive network, comprised of both LGBTQ youth and non-LGBTQ youth. She and Naija-li stated that more often than not, their peers know who identifies as LGBTQ youth and who doesn’t. “It isn’t a secret, and that makes life better for my generation,” she said.
Several panelists and audience members expressed that one thing that transcends generations is that we all are learning to adapt and change our language from being stereotypical or offensive to being non-gender based, as many agreed that gender is a state of mind.
Mohamed Q. Amin, Executive Director and Founder of the Caribbean Equality Project spoke for just about everyone when he told the audience that the gathering was a long time coming. His declaration resounded in lots of applause from the audience and other similar commentary. Amin thanked The Child Center for hosting the event and emphasized that it was historic because it was the first panel of this type in the LGBTQ community anywhere in the Rockaways; he also felt it was important that it took place in a community center in the heart of Rockaway.
Almost every panelist echoed Amin’s sentiment, stating the event allowed residents and those who work within the boundaries of the peninsula to gather with fellow LGBTQ members of their community — many stating that they previously only have had a choice to attend such events in Manhattan, which is difficult for any resident of the Rockaways to do on a regular basis, but especially for young people.
“So many people expressed appreciation of future possibilities for convening in a space that is LGBTQ-friendly and in the Rockaways,” said Dr. Hoyle. “It is so important that we support those persons who feel, or are thought to be, isolated and believe there is no one who cares enough to create space for them.”
Farmata agreed. “I thought that the event was a great way to help Rockaway open its doors to its LGBTQ neighbors. I think most people who attended learned a lot throughout the sessions, including the concerns of the youth and the steps we believe need to be taken in order for us to be comfortable in our own skin and with our community.”
Dr. Hoyle made sure attendees knew that they could count on The Child Center of NY to be on the forefront of that vital endeavor, along with other local organizations. “So many organizations came out for this event. I’m especially grateful to David Kilmnick of the LGBT Network; Mohamed Amin and the Caribbean Equality Project; Jim Burke of Out Rockaways; and Amy Wilkerson of Sheltering Arms for serving as panelists, and for their unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ community here. And I owe a tremendous amount of thanks to my fellow Child Center staff, particularly Senior Program Manager Rob Closs and LGBTQ Facilitator Daniel Schaffer, who worked in collaboration with a small team including the youth council, myself, and community activist Olivia Harris to make this event the success that it was. It is so great working with other like-minded individuals and organizations, and for myself, to work at an organization that respects and supports diversity. Let’s keep strengthening families and building community!”