The 27th annual LGBT Network Youth Conference "unites LGBT youth and their allies to create safe spaces" and "ultimately change the world," LGBT Network CEO Robert Vitelli told the audience at Monday's event at Suffolk County Community College. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

There were workshops Monday on LGBT activism, “queer representation in the media” and “Trans Talk,” a dedicated space for trans youth.

The 27th annual LGBT Youth Conference, sponsored by the advocacy group LGBT Network and held Monday at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus in Selden, drew about 400 students from dozens of school districts stretching from Southampton to Freeport, many of them members of high school Gay Straight Alliance groups. The conference took place as Florida expands what critics call its “Don’t Say Gay” law, and a number of state governments contemplate or have already passed legislation restricting trans care. 

Even as those Long Island high school clubs have grown in number and gained the support of school administrators, conference attendees said that they have still sometimes heard fellow students casually using crude expletives for gay people in school halls, or experienced worse in their home communities. 

Charlyse LaMantia, 18, a senior at Lindenhurst High School and president of the school’s GSA, said the conference was an opportunity to network and exchange contact information with leaders from similar clubs across Long Island. LaMantia’s workshops included Trans Talk, about the “physical, emotional and social impacts that come along with being part of the community,” according to the conference program. “You’re not going to get this information from gen-ed education,” said LaMantia.  

For Rose Halliday, a GSA faculty adviser from Central Islip, the day was a chance to familiarize her students with LGBT Network resources that include counseling and healthcare. The conference workshops on LGBT social movements and queer representation in mainstream media could also help her and her students chart their club’s future, Halliday said.

“I want them to know who laid the groundwork,” said Halliday, 58, a math teacher at Central Islip High School who took over her advisory role mid-year. Halliday said she hoped to use club meetings to explore LGBT authors and musicians and take on projects like food and toy drives that would raise visibility while helping the community at large. 

Some of her students, including senior Harley Fontaine, 18, said they were thrilled simply to see the turnout at the conference.

 “It’s really good to see, knowing there are more queer people on Long Island,” Fontaine said.

Jairon Polillo, 18, an Islip junior originally from El Salvador, spent the morning in a workshop about different leadership styles. LGBT people in his native country and even in Long Island’s Salvadoran community sometimes face discrimination, Polillo said in Spanish, through a teacher who translated. 

“Some people don’t understand or don’t get to the point where they understand you have to give respect,” Polillo said. 

LGBT Network CEO Robert Vitelli said this year’s conference took place with a backdrop of anti-LGBT legislation moving through statehouses elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed a law that restricts the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Florida has expanded that prohibition, which critics have dubbed the “Don't Say Gay” law, to all grades.

“Even if it’s not local,” young people hear their families talking about it, Vitelli said of the ongoing national discussion over the rights of LGBT students. “They hear that who they are is up for debate, or that who they are is not OK. That is horrible and damaging.” 

So while the workshops were intended to teach organizing skills for the attendees to bring back to their schools, epiphanies like Fontaine’s were just as important, Vitelli said.

“We want them to know there’s a safe space for them, a community for them,” he said.

With AP

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