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LI volunteers work to share vision of National Coming Out Day

On  National Coming Out Day, David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network in Hauppauge, spoke about the importance of the day and how the network has created a safe place for those coming out by sending rainbow pins and LGBT literature around the world to be handed out in offices and schools, among many other places. Credit: Johnny Milano

Since April more than 200 Long Island volunteers have been cutting lengths of ribbon into rainbow pins for National Coming Out Day on Friday.

If they were laid end-to-end, the ribbons would stretch for 250 football fields, said organizers at the LGBT Network in Hauppauge.

In a similar way, the LGBT Network has extended its vision for the day to many faraway places. The group has sent out more than a million of these rainbow pins — in kits with LGBT posters, stickers and brochures.

They've gone to thousands of schools, businesses and institutions across the nation and to seven countries including India, the UK and China, said David Kilmnick, head of the LGBT Network.

"We took the day and made it a campaign," he said Friday. "We have painted a rainbow across the world from Long Island."

The Hauppauge group did not invent this day dedicated to people openly declaring their sexuality. That occurred nationally in 1988. But since Kilmnick started the Island group in 1993, he has pushed to expand the message of the day to include all people "coming out" to support LGBT people where, he said, they live, learn, work, play and pray.

So Friday was not a day about big rallies and fancy parades; it was something more personal. It was about tables at workplaces offering ribbons and literature about LGBT causes. It was about posters put up in schools.

"Everyone can come out today," Kilmnick said. "It's for our families. It's for our co-workers. It's for our teachers."

Rebecca Panarello, 25, of Northport, knows the importance of such sentiments. Three years ago, emboldened by the day's message, she said she publicly declared that she was bisexual on Facebook.

She recalled she had lost a relationship a few years earlier when her girlfriend declared that either Panarello come out or the relationship was over. She couldn't muster the courage back then, she said.

When she did come out, Panarello received wonderful support, she said, and some painful condemnation. Some family members objected. A close friend went even further.

"The second I told her, she said we could no longer be friends," said Panarello.

When Kilmnick formed the LGBT Network 26 years ago, he said he never expected its efforts to spread so far. He had expected this year's requests for packets would match last year's. But it doubled.

He had to pull in more volunteers and set up more tables. Panarello was among those who spent hours with scissors and rolls of rainbow ribbon. To speed things up, they stopped attaching safety pins to the ribbons and just included them in the packets. Packages were mailed to places in each of the 50 states, including 200 schools and 70 businesses on Long Island. New requests came in from India and South Africa, he said. 

"I'll tell you, international shipping is expensive," he said.

The original intent remains in National Coming Out Day, to urge people to feel the freedom of living their personal truth, Kilmnick said.

"They're afraid they'll be fired at work, be thrown out of their home," he said. "There are many places in the world where it's illegal to be gay … and where people are beaten to death for being LGBT."

He envisions a young person, still keeping their big secret, finding support in a school gay-straight alliance group. Or a worker who feels encouraged after seeing his or her employer put out rainbow pins and LGBT brochures every Oct. 11.

Friday morning, a young person came into the LGBT center in Hauppauge, Kilmnick said. He brought his dog, and he said he picked this day to declare that he was transgender.

"He said he wanted to live his true authentic self," Kilmnick said. "He said, 'This is who I am.' "

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