David Kilmnick, chief executive of the LI GLBT Services Network...

David Kilmnick, chief executive of the LI GLBT Services Network (Oct. 14, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Growing up in Garden City, Kerrie O'Neill hid her true self. She knew too well how other gay and lesbian teens were teased and taunted.

O'Neill moved away, but she was "proud to be back" Friday as programs director of the advocacy group running a new Garden City-based center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual residents.

At the community center, they will be able to find support and "be themselves," said O'Neill, 35.

More than 50 people, including law enforcement, town, county and state officials, attended the opening of the Long Island GLBT Center -- a resource they said is long overdue for a county with a population of 1.3 million.

The 8,800-square-foot center houses five advocacy organizations that will reach out to people of all ages. It features a youth lounge and meeting rooms, including one equipped for video conferencing.

While 2011 has seen the legalization of same-sex marriages in New York and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, true equality remains elusive, said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network.

The new center, at 400 Garden City Plaza, will be the network's second -- a Bay Shore center opened nine years ago.

Staff there took 228 complaints alleging bias or bullying from young gays and lesbians across Long Island in 2010-11, a 25 percent increase over the previous school year, Kilmnick said. Of those, 106 complaints were reported in Nassau.

"While we have made significant gains legislatively, our young people are still facing bullying and tormenting," Kilmnick said. "There's a lot more work to do, and in some respects we are still at the beginning stages of dismantling homophobia."

Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter and District Attorney Kathleen Rice attended Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony in Garden City.

Rice pledged to support the center's efforts to put "a permanent end to the kind of homophobia and bias crimes that we see that affect far too many families, individuals and communities."

John L. Settles, a gay Hempstead resident, sat at the piano playing "Moon River" in one of the center's meeting rooms. He had stopped going to the Bay Shore center because of the long drive.

"We need a center around here so bad," said Settles, 67. "Our young people still have chains on them and are not hearing the message that they are entitled to live their lives as they want to."

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