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To my younger self: LGBTQ Long Islanders share wisdom learned over time

Chris Tanaka, who grew up in Coram and

Chris Tanaka, who grew up in Coram and Miller Place, says they came out at age 16 to understanding parents. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Don’t come out until you feel safe. Build the family you’ve always wanted. You’re perfect as you are, just don’t get caught up in labels. Love yourself!

Such is the advice LGBTQ+ Long Islanders would offer if they could look up their 18-year-old selves — say with a time-warp app — and share the collected wisdom that comes with age.

With parades and other Pride Month festivities scaled back or virtualized by the pandemic, next Sunday’s 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising offers opportunities to reflect on the way LGBTQ+ Long Islanders were, and what might have been. Adding a celebratory note to the moment is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that gay and transgender people are protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

S.M. Rodriguez, director of the LGBTQ+ Studies Program and assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, sees reflecting on what you might tell your inner 18-year-old as a way of “inviting kindness to yourself.”

“We LGBTQ+ people are oftentimes some of the most critical people in the world, and that is a really fantastic quality, but it means that oftentimes we don’t treat ourselves with the kind of compassion that we should,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who came out as a lesbian at age 14 while growing up in the rural South and now prefers the nonbinary pronouns “they and them,” would tell their own 18-year-old self: “Don’t hide from or minimize what feels good in terms of your gender expression.” Rodriguez would add: “It’s not easy to come out when you are 50. The best time to do it is when you are young.”

Nowadays, many LGBTQ+ youth are heeding that advice. Last year a national survey found that nearly 9 in 10 LGBT youth ages 17 to 24 share their sexual orientation, and 6 in 10 share their gender identity, with straight friends. Almost 7 in 10 share their sexual orientation and half share their gender identity with their parents, according to a Trevor Project survey.

Walt Whitman, the 19th century LGBTQ+ bard from West Hills, wrote in the poem "Youth, Day, Old Age and Night" in "Leaves of Grass” of “Youth, large, lusty, loving — Youth, full of grace, force, fascination. Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?"

Here’s how eight LGBT Long Islanders would “come after” their younger selves with words of advice, encouragement, spiritual guidance and caution.

'You’ll have five fantastic kids.'

Jon Cooper, 65, of Lloyd Harbor, says he’s “always been out, whether I was in politics or running my business.”

Before becoming president and owner of Spectronics Corp., a Westbury manufacturer of ultraviolet lighting equipment, Cooper served as the first openly gay Suffolk County legislator, from 2000 to 2012, and as the legislature’s Democratic majority leader from 2006 to 2012. His campaigns featured appearances by his husband, Robert, and their five adopted children.

Cooper’s teen years in the 1970s weren’t as open. At that time, he said, he struggled with “the stereotypical image of a gay man as a leather-clad biker or an effeminate person … having one-night stands and never settling down.” He wanted “to fall in love and build a family.”

When Cooper came out to his parents at age 30 in 1985, he and Robert, whom he had met at a Glen Cove disco, had already bought a house and were adopting their first child.

“I sat down with my father,” Cooper recalled, “and said, ‘Dad, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you are going to be a grandfather, the bad news is I’m gay.’ ” Happily, he said, “My folks were totally accepting, however, and my younger sister said she had known for years.”

His message to his 18-year-old self would be: “The loving, committed relationship that you wanted? You’ll have that. The family you’ve always dreamed of? You’ll be able to have that, too. And by the way, you’ll have five fantastic kids.”

'Don’t get caught up in labels.'

Chris Tanaka, 36, of Miller Place, who grew up in Coram and Miller Place, came out at age 16 to understanding parents. “I guess I identified as gay,” said Tanaka, assistant director of LGBTQ* Services at Stony Brook University.

Tanaka said that when speaking with LGBTQ students, it’s “important for folks in other generations to be mindful that a lot of their experience and advice are based on things that happened in a different time, and they might not apply in the same way.”

Nowadays, Tanaka identifies as “queer” and “gender queer,” and prefers to be referred to by the pronouns they, them and their.

Tanaka would tell their 18-year-old self, “Don’t get caught up in figuring out what to call yourself. Don’t get caught up in labels. It boxes you into things that people try to define that aren’t really definable.”

'It might be a bumpy ride.'

Coming out was painful for Ernesto Hernandez, 46, of Central Islip. Hernandez, assistant program manager of HIV Services at the LGBT Network in Hauppauge, was born and raised in Mexico City in “a very conservative, Pentecostal family.” At home, he said, talking about “anything related to sex” was taboo.

At age 16, Hernandez’s questions about his sexuality were answered by a trip with a friend to a gay bar. But he remained, reluctantly, in the closet, dating women to conceal his true nature from his family. “By the time I was 24, I was so depressed, I tried to commit suicide by cutting my wrists,” he said. “I didn’t want to die, I just wanted the pain to stop.”

Hernandez came out to his family when he was 27 and shortly after left for the United States, settling in the Bronx. In 2012, at a Labor Day weekend boat party, he met Ricardo Campos, a math teacher at Central Islip Senior High School. They married in 2015 and moved to Long Island that fall. The couple enjoy world travels although their itinerary has been limited recently by the pandemic.

To his 18-year-old self, Hernandez would say, “I’m not going to lie to you: It might at times be a bumpy ride. But you are going to meet a lot of great people, including a man who is going to be your husband, who’s going to teach you to love yourself even more.”

'You can be yourself, freely and openly.'

Veteran community activist Greg Noone, 58, of Ronkonkoma, regrets never having fully shared his life with his parents, who are now deceased.

“I came from a very staunch Irish-Catholic family,” explained Noone, the program manager at Thursday’s Child, a nonprofit organization that provides services to people living with HIV and AIDS on Long Island. “At one point I wanted to be a priest.”

Noone came out as gay after graduating in 1980 from Chaminade High School, a private Roman Catholic institution in Mineola. In his 20s he socialized in Long Island’s then-vibrant gay club scene.

But life took a serious turn in 1989 when Noone began his first long-term committed relationship with Lou Fiero, a hairstylist from Williston Park. The couple were among the original members of Long Island ACT-UP, a grassroots AIDS activist organization. In April 1991, Fiero died from complications of AIDS.

“I was holding his hand when he died,” Noone said.

Noone eventually found love again, marrying James Gale, a bank manager, in 2006 in Toronto. Noone and Gale have lived together in Ronkonkoma since 1999.

Noone would tell his 18-year-old self, “You should have confided in your mother about being gay. I’m sure that if my Mom were still with us, she would be very happy that I found and married the love of my life, and that we can be ourselves freely and openly.”

'He made us perfect, babe.'

Growing up in conservative-leaning Central City, Nebraska, the Rev. John Jeffrey Purchal, 56, of Smithtown, never felt he could safely reveal his sexual orientation.

“You can’t get much more middle America than that,” Purchal said of his hometown. “I only came out as a gay man after moving to Long Island 10 years ago,” Purchal said.

Nowadays, Purchal is the rector at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Smithtown. He’s also a member of the Episcopal diocese's LGBT+ Working Group and counsels LGBTQ+ youth online as an openly gay Episcopal priest.

“I’ve had young adults reach out to me through Facebook and Instagram who have lived in places similar to where I grew up,” Purchal said. “One of the things I always tell them is that you have plenty of time to come out when you are ready, and that you can wait until you are at a place in your life when you feel safe to do so.”

Purchal would tell his own 18-year-old self: “Realize that you are made perfectly in God’s image. That, as Lady Gaga puts it: ‘He made us perfect, babe.’ That there are people out there, whether they be LGBT+, or allies, who will love and support you, and encourage you and allow you to be who you truly are, even if the people close to you do not.”

'Labels won’t always be necessary.'

Lisa Merrill’s women’s and LGBTQ+ history research has led her to believe that “meanings and understandings of sexuality have changed over time and will continue to change.”

Merrill, a professor of Performance Studies and Rhetoric at Hofstra University, has explored same-sex desire in published works such as “When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators” (University of Michigan Press), a 1999 biography of an American actress who played male characters as well as strong, androgynous female characters on stage in Victorian England.

Asked to tell her own coming-out story, Merrill said, “From the time I was in high school in Brooklyn in the 1970s, I was aware of being attracted to both men and women.” Merrill continued, “And I have had very long-term monogamous relationships with both women and men.”

“My identity and my attachments to the caring partners I have chosen can take many forms,” Merrill added.

Merrill would tell her 18-year-old self “that labels — particularly binary labels of gay, straight or even bisexual won’t always be necessary. Instead, a more fluid, nonlabeled self is possible.”

'Let go of what you thought of your future.'

Filmmakers Beatrice Alda and J Brooke of Sag Harbor are among Long Island’s best-known LGBTQ couples. They have been married 14 years and have five children.

Co-founders of Forever Films, they produced, wrote and directed “Out Late,” a 2009 documentary about five people who came out as lesbian, gay or transgender after age 55. (Their 2016 documentary, “Legs: a big issue in a small town,” dealt with the controversy around a Sag Harbor public sculpture.)

Alda, 58, is also a former actress who has appeared in such Hollywood classics as “The Four Seasons” (1981). She is the youngest daughter of actor Alan Alda.

Brooke, 56, is a published poet and essayist whose writings “include our evolution as queer parents of a large blended family and ... exploring our navigating one of our adult kids’ transition process, as well as my own acknowledgment and embrace of being nonbinary.”

Alda’s advice to her 18-year-old self would be, "Let go of what you thought of your future — and don’t prescribe anything. Be an open book. Feel free to live outside the lines of who you — or your friends or your family — think you are. There are no norms … there’s just authenticity.”

Brooke’s advice: “If you don’t feel accepted and celebrated for who you intrinsically are, take the exhaustive energy you are putting into self-morphing and instead immediately seek out people and places of embrace.”

CREATING COMMUNITY

In addition to groups at high schools and universities, a number organizations advocate for LGBTQ+ people on Long Island, helping them to meet other LGBTQ+ people or deal with issues ranging from living with HIV to aging.

The LGBT Network offers information, education and services for LGBT people of all ages, from youth to senior citizens, including people living with HIV. Bilingual English/Spanish. lgbtnetwork.org, 631-665-2300.

Pride For Youth/Long Island Crisis Center provides services and advocacy for LGBT people up to age 30 including a 24/7 crisis and suicide hotline, 516-679-1111. Nassau office: 516-679-9000; Suffolk office, 631-940-1964, longislandcrisiscenter.org.

PFLAG Long Island is the Long Island chapter of the national organization of parents, families, friends and other allies of LGBTQ people. It proves support, education and hosts meetings. pflagli.org.

Nassau and Suffolk Law Services specializes in legal services for people living with HIV and their families, who have legal issues affecting housing, health care or public benefits. Nassau: 516-292-8100; Suffolk: 631-232-2400, nslawservices.org.

— Jim Merritt

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