As this year’s Pride Month comes to a close, LGBTQ+ rights activists in Bellmore-Merrick are reflecting on the community’s progress and shortcomings in creating a safer, more welcoming Long Island for people of all identities.
“Pride Month has always been about taking a moment to hit pause,” said Aiden Kaplan, a services manager at PFY, a Bellmore-based LGBTQ+ organization.
Formally known as Pride For Youth, the nonprofit has been helping to transform the region into a more inclusive and accessible environment for those with non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender identities. It provides free HIV and STI testing, counseling, support groups and programs for members of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as educational workshops at local middle and high schools.
“It’s a safe place,” said Christian Milan, a 23-year-old client and peer navigator at PFY. Milan gained the confidence to start his drag career at the center’s bimonthly drag competition, Drag Factor.
“There are so many youths who view PFY as the only space where they can go to feel affirmed and accepted,” Kaplan said. “Our goal is to create an all-encompassing space where you can access lifesaving services, [a] community and culture and feel celebrated for those things.”
LGBTQ+ acceptance in the schools
Administrators at the Long Island Crisis Center founded PFY in 1993, at a time when LGBTQ+ services were virtually nonexistent on Long Island. In the late '80s, the center’s hotline experienced an uptick in calls from people who identified as LGBTQ+, but there were no resources to be shared.
During this time, incidences of homophobia went unchecked in Bellmore-Merrick schools. Records from Uncovering the Past, a program at John F. Kennedy High School, showed an incident from the '70s at Shore Road Elementary in which a third-grader, Richie Jackson, was harassed for choosing choir as an elective. The gym teacher told the kids in his class to “jump on the faggot,” and stood by while a group of boys piled on Jackson and made him cry. The incident was never addressed.
In 2007, Kaplan began his female-to-male gender transition while attending Grand Avenue Middle School; the process continued into his time at Mepham High School. As the schools’ first openly transgender student, Kaplan said the faculty worked to ensure he was respected; given the time period, though, he was still unable to use his bathroom of choice.
Now, as a PFY facilitator for the Central High School District, Kaplan has seen firsthand the progress the schools have made over the last decade. “They have actively been trying to recognize that this isn’t just one student anymore,” he said. “This is possibly hundreds of students who are coming out, who need support, and schools need to make sure that they’re affirmed.”
Graduating Calhoun High School senior Noah Marchuck, who is gay, is the former president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance. “Bellmore-Merrick has come a long way with LGBTQ+ acceptance, but I think a stigma does still exist,” he said. “At Calhoun, the atmosphere is very accepting, and every faculty member embodies that; however, I’ve [had] a good deal of people call me hurtful things regarding my sexuality, both to my face and behind my back.”
Christina Dimitriou, the faculty adviser for Mepham’s GSA, said her students occasionally hear offensive language targeted at the LGBTQ+ community, such as when the club handed out rainbow-colored ribbons for national Coming Out Day.
“GSA is not just about getting together and having a safe space, but about us going out into the Mepham community and normalizing these things so that these derogatory terms trickle away,” she said.
Unity with the Black Lives Matter movement
In the wake of George Floyd’s death — which sparked thousands to turn out for Black Lives Matter protests in Merrick and Bellmore — LGBTQ+ rights activists are also thinking about race-related problems on Long Island. Among 291 communities, the majority of Long Island’s black residents live in just 11 neighborhoods, making the region one of the most segregated places in the nation.
“I think Pride this year is unique. It’s a time for us to remember our roots and look at other communities that are having their fight right now, and relate their experiences to where we were 50 years ago,” Kaplan said. “It’s an opportunity for [our] community to stand in line with another movement and say we know what it’s like to face injustice.”
Recognizing that Mepham is in a community made up of 85.7 percent white residents and only 1.45 percent black residents — with similar demographics in Merrick — Dimitriou agreed that change is needed, and that starts with education.
“We don’t have members in the club that are people of color, but we absolutely address these things, whether I send out an article or share a book,” Dimitriou said.
Marchuck urged residents to use their platforms to educate one another about the susceptibility of Black LGBTQ+ individuals, and “donate to organizations that focus on Black LGBTQ+ people,” such as “The Trevor Project” or “The Center for Black Equality.”
“We have a long way to go.” Milan said. “Long Island has been so systematically separated for so long now, but I think that now, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, people are starting to understand."