A community center slated to open next month in Sag Harbor will become a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in the East End, bringing support and outreach to an underserved part of Long Island, advocates and residents said.
The remoteness that makes the area attractive to tourists, weekenders and many year-round residents has also meant the nearest gathering spot for GLBT youth is about 60 miles away in Bay Shore.
The GLBT Center of the Hamptons will be the third such Long Island venue, with the Bay Shore location and another in Garden City. The centers supplement regional outreach efforts, including gay-straight alliances in schools and an Islandwide parent-teacher-student association.
The East End center is "long overdue and people are really itching to see this finally happen, out in a community that tends to have a reputation for being progressive," said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network, an umbrella organization for a variety of advocacy groups. "In reality . . . there are great challenges that exist there."
The project had been discussed informally in the past year but gained momentum in the fall, after the suicide of David Hernandez, a gay 16-year-old immigrant high school student in East Hampton. His death shocked residents in the town of 22,000 people and convinced advocates that the need for a stronger support system was urgent.
The center is scheduled to open in mid-July at the Old Whaler's Church, a historic Presbyterian sanctuary a short distance from Sag Harbor's Main Street and accessible to South Fork and North Fork residents.
Offering supportInitially, the center will provide a lounge area for teens, informational programs and other events, organizers said, with hopes of offering more programs in the future.
The goal is to let GLBT teens know they're not alone -- as relatives and health professionals said Hernández felt in his last days.
Carmita Barros said her son David was an uncharacteristically serious teen, a devout Catholic who prayed the rosary, read the Bible and didn't miss Spanish-language Mass.
She said she had not grasped the depth of his solitude as a newly arrived immigrant from Ecuador who didn't fit in, didn't speak much English and felt rejected for being gay.
After David died, his mother learned from other students, school staff and medical professionals that he had been taunted by students in the bilingual program he attended at East Hampton High School. His mother said he confessed to being gay to a priest and was told to turn away from sin.
"He suffered because of bullying from other children . . . and he didn't say anything so I wouldn't worry," said Barros, 41, a cashier at a local deli. "I sometimes look into space and just ask, 'Why, David, why didn't you tell me? Why did you keep this to yourself?' I would have gone immediately to school to defend him."
Barros, who backs the idea of a resource center for gay teens, said, "There's a lot of ignorance . . . and this is something that needs to be dealt with."
School respondsThe school he attended reacted to David's death by holding meetings with members of the GLBT network and, later, hiring a Spanish-speaking community liaison. A school survey this year asked parents and faculty to identify issues where students need more support.
"The whole community was aghast and bewildered by what happened," East Hampton High School spokeswoman Bridget LeRoy said. "We felt helpless and hopeless after this and our administrators and the principal looked to implement a long-term plan, rather than putting a Band-Aid on it."
Principal Adam Fine said in a statement that a community center is "long overdue" and will provide "extra support" for kids and their parents.
Targets of bullyingVarious studies have shown that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are often the targets of bullying and are at higher risk of suicide attempts, said Laura McGinnis, of The Trevor Project, a GLBT suicide prevention group in Los Angeles and Manhattan. "As advocates, we are trying to have resources in the community that are more loving and affirming so teens know that when things are really hard they have a place to turn," she said.
Joel Johnson, LeRoy's child and an East Hampton High student, said he was lucky that a friend drove him to an event at the GLBT center in Bay Shore.
He met teenagers who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or "bi-gender," meaning they alternatively identify themselves as girls or as boys. Learning he was part of a community gave him the resolve to come out to his mother as a transgender person and start a transformation from Joelie to Joel. The center "gave me my entire life," said Joel, 17, of Springs. "It gave me the courage and the stability to come out . . . and that's when I could start living my life."