What started as the effort of a group of college students and local teens to create a more welcoming environment for gay and lesbian youth has grown into an expanding Long Island network of community resources and services that marked its first 20 years on Friday.
More than 400 people joined the anniversary celebration of the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth group in Old Bethpage, among them local politicians and four members of Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a supporter of causes affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
For members of LIGALY, as the advocacy group with centers in Bay Shore and Garden City is also known, the celebration was an opportunity to look back the progress made since the days when its officers needed security guards to visit some public venues to today when same-sex marriage is legal in New York and a growing number of other states.
"I remember 20 years ago people did not believe an organization like LIGALY could exist in suburban and conservative Long Island," said David Kilmnick, the group"s chief executive. "And 20 years later, I am here to tell you that, after organizing America's first prom for GLBT youth in the suburbs and starting the nation's first and only . . . gay parent-teachers association, it is possible."
Pelosi said it was the work of local organizations like LIGALY that has made it possible for the issue of equality to catch fire and lead to statewide reforms favoring equality and a national push that is building momentum beyond repealing a the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"They led the way, they were pioneers and now everybody is sort of catching up, but we still have important work to do," Pelosi said.
The work of local advocates, Pelosi said, "has an impact beyond the region because it has an impact on leaders" and "it intensifies the support within the community," leading to legislative reforms nationwide.
She said the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, may soon be declared unconstitutional. Still there's much legislative reform ahead needed to end discrimination in the workplace for everyone, including the transgender community, and to protect LGBT children from being bullied in schools.
Despite the air of celebration inside, one lone protester stood outside the Carlyle on the Green site at Bethpage State Park, holding a cardboard sign that read "Gay marriage is sinful."
"I just go by what the Bible said," said Jim Quinn, the 59-year-old protester from Levittown. "There God said that marriage is between a man and a woman, nothing more."
Partygoers ignored him as they passed by, though Asher Butler, a 21-year-old Westbury resident who goes to the LIGALY centers, said it was a reminder of the bias that LGBT people still face.
"When I go to the center, it's a place where I don't have to answer 'what gender are you and why?' I just have to say 'I'm Asher and I'm happy to meet you.' " said Butler, who is transgender and bisexual. "But there are people like that person outside who will not be OK with that . . . It's going to be hard still."
The need for support, particularly for vulnerable young people who are targets of bullies and often think of suicide, is why Kilmnick announced LIGALY's work will expand from its two centers in Bay Shore and Garden City to a new location on the East End.
He announced to claps and shouts that the group will open The GLBT Center of the Hamptons at Old Whaler's Church in July in Sag Harbor, as it seeks to reach teens who may not be able to travel to current locations.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, among those at the event, credited the advocates' persistence over the years with giving young people a refuge and a place to grow as a community.
"This organization is a trailblazer," DiNapoli said, "and a model for what other communities across the country should be doing."