Long Island Pride PTSA member Sheree Sibilly holds a plaque...

Long Island Pride PTSA member Sheree Sibilly holds a plaque in memory of her daughter, Bernice Lynasia Simmons, at her home in Brentwood on Friday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

For Sheree Sibilly, the struggles of her late daughter, Bernice Simmons, have left an indelible imprint.

There were the odd stares from classmates and the names they called Bernice, who was part of the LGBTQ+ community. The lack of a safe space to change for gym. And not recognizing all the signs before Bernice tried to take her life. 

“She just wasn't in a good space … being a victim of bullying and the backlash of how the world perceived her,” Sibilly said of her daughter, who died of a pulmonary embolism at age 16. 

In the nearly four years since her daughter’s death in 2020, Sibilly has transformed at least some of the pain of that loss into advocacy. She is one of about 45 people who are members of the Long Island Pride PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association), a nascent organization that seeks to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students who often face high levels of bullying, ostracization and discrimination within and outside the confines of school.

     WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Long Island Pride PTSA tries to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students in school and society.
  • The organization seeks to combat high levels of bullying and harassment of those students through community events and teaching members how to advocate for themselves. 
  • The PTSA's work comes amid a number of anti-LGBTQ efforts across the country. 

“I just watched how my daughter struggled, and I wished that [there] was a Long Island Pride PTSA when my daughter was alive,” the Brentwood resident said in a phone interview.

A place of solace for kids

In the face of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, bullying, rhetoric and legislation, the nonprofit hopes to be a place of solace and support for students and parents who are LGBTQ+. It aims to provide support, much like a special education PTA champions students with varying disabilities.

“The anti-LGBTQ rhetoric tends to stem from this idea that people from outside of a community are coming … into the community and changing it,” said Dani Barnhart, president of the organization. “Well, that's very much not the case.”

“The case is that LGBTQ families live here,” she said. “We are just like every other family.”

The organization, created in 2021, seeks to be an entry point to help people find better resources and let them know that their local PTA is beholden to inclusivity. It is a member of both the state and national PTAs, according to records.

Today, New York has several groups geared toward LGBTQ+ students. The Long Island Pride PTSA is one of the first in the state, Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, said. 

Yet bringing about an organization that links approximately 124 school districts in the region across terrain as large as Long Island is a challenge, said Christine Pellegrino, a former state assembly member who was the founding charter member and founding vice president of the Long Island Pride PTSA.

The former teacher noted that there was opposition from some about the need for an organization focused explicitly on LGBTQ+ youth.

But the goal, she said, remains the same: “We just want to make sure that our kids are alive, that they make it, you know, through, and that they have people who will … fight for them to” be safe.

The association hosts events such as a poetry night for people of all ages. Next up is a walk at the Caleb Smith State Park Preserve so that families can meet each other. For teachers, the organization is creating resources to be better equipped to treat “students with dignity and respect,” Barnhart said.

Bullying — and the methods to address it — remains a pressing concern for members, Barnhart said. The organization encourages members to file a complaint under the state's Dignity for All Students Act, which helps ensure schools are taking harassment concerns seriously. But that can only do so much in an environment in which debate on anti-LGBTQ+ legislation can leave a child questioning their place in the world, experts said.

Coping with a climate of anti-LGBTQ+ bills

Already this year, the American Civil Liberties Union has tracked more than 520 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the U.S., ranging from school facility bans to drag bans.

On Long Island, there is proposed legislation in Nassau that could bar transgender females from taking part in athletics at the county’s sporting facilities, Newsday has reported. Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman tried to enact a similar ban through an executive order, though it was struck down by a judge. Still, the effort received support from most Long Islanders, according to a poll from Newsday/Siena College. (The poll showed that 53% supported the order, while 33% opposed it.)

Whether a measure passes, “It still impacts LGBTQ [student’s] mental health to see their existence debated on a national stage,” said Sarah Mountz, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Albany. And that climate trickles into the classroom.

Nearly 83% of LGBTQ+ students who participated in some in-person school in the 2021-22 school year dealt with assault or harassment in their presence, according to a 2021 national survey from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network

For LGBTQ+ students who endured higher levels of in-person harassment, they missed school three times more in a month than peers who did not experience as much aggravation, said the survey, which included more than 20,000 students. 

But Mountz notes that key factors, like family acceptance or a Pride PTSA, can make a difference.

Terri Muuss, outreach coordinator with the LI Pride PTSA, reaches out to gender and sexuality alliances (GSAs), a type of student organization that supports LGBTQ+ youth. Muuss has reached out to GSAs in schools that included those in Copiague and East Islip.

Students, Muuss said, are often “thrilled” that there is this type of support, sometimes helping to fill a void at home. Muuss, a social worker, has had students who have said that their parents would rather them be “dead than gay.”

“How do you exist in a world where that is a possibility?” she inquired.

“You have to find your community,” Muuss said. “You have to find a community that accepts you so that you know that you're loved.”

A learning process for parents

When Sibilly thinks back on her time parenting her daughter, she was supportive but describes finding out about her child's sexuality as a learning process.

She said she tried to make her home a “safe haven,” free from judgment. But at the same time, she describes not knowing the signs when bullying led her daughter to try to commit suicide.

Sibilly saw her daughter struggle in school but felt conflicted as she tried to cut her hair. Yet she supported her daughter's decision to do transition surgery, a joyous occasion for her daughter about two weeks before her death.

Looking back, she said a group like the Long Island Pride PTSA could have been a guiding light.

“I wish I had a place where I could go and say, 'Listen, this journey is going to be hard, but you should do this, or you should do that, or we're all here, and we're all equal, no judgment, no nothing,' ” Sibilly said.

She added: “I wish I had that for her.”

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