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PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG GAY HUDSON VALLEY
By Steve Fowler | Featuring Photography by Michael Polito

After making heartening progress over the last decade, the LGBTQ+ community now finds itself uneasy on a national level. We spoke with residents to see if our region offers an example or an exception to the union’s state of affairs.


 

Ten years ago, Michael Phelps broke Mark Spitz’s record in Beijing, the U.S. economy collapsed, Heath Ledger gave his iconic performance as The Joker, the first black U.S. president was elected, and Stephan Hengst and Patrick Decker founded Big Gay Hudson Valley.

After growing frustrated by poor coordination in the LGBTQ+ community, Hengst and Decker created a Facebook group to increase communication and reduce overlap in event planning. As their side project grew from a Facebook group into a blog into a website, the couple realized they had bridged a gap in local culture. Now, thousands of residents attend Big Gay Hudson Valley’s (BGHV) events each year.

Hengst, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in the 1990s, has witnessed a great deal of change in the Hudson Valley’s LGBTQ+ community. Some developments are universal, such as the advent of social networking sites, to which he attributes the disappearance of gay bars and gay bookstores in the region. Other changes, such as the diversification of the LGBTQ+ community, are unique and have even been fostered by Big Gay Hudson Valley.

As Big Gay Hudson Valley grew, so did its strategies for connecting the community. Last October they partnered with the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center for Out On The Farm, an evening where families can play with animals, eat, drink, listen to live music, socialize, and connect. Nearly 300 people came out for the event at Sprout Creek Farm.

“The region’s always had a very robust LGBTQ community,” says Hengst. However, he emphasizes that Out On The Farm is a black sheep in terms of social gatherings. “That event — there aren’t many like it in the gay and lesbian community anywhere.”

Hengst and Decker have worked to fill this void. “I think for too long people have gotten used to gay and lesbian events only being nightlife events that happen in a bar,” Hengst says, “and there’s a lot more community that exists outside the confines of a bar.”


 

Ali Ofca (left) and Arik Sansivero (right) are leading the Allies Club and working to increase the LGBTQ+ presence at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

Mount Saint Mary College may not be the first school you associate with LGBTQ+ rights, but the Allies Club on campus is working to change that. After struggling through gaps in leadership and periods of dormancy, the club returned during the 2016-2017 academic year. President Ali Ofca, a 21-year-old criminology major, and Treasurer Arik Sansivero, a 19-year-old psychology major with a focus in forensics, are leading the group in 2017-2018, after spending last year reinvigorating the club’s campus presence. 

“Our biggest event was the Day of Silence and the Night of Noise,” says Ofca. The event is part of a nationwide display of solidarity with LGBTQ+ individuals who are silenced by intolerance and discrimination. The group also collaborated with the Mount’s Nursing Student Union to organize a panel presentation on transgender healthcare for nursing students. At the event, panelists spoke about common problems transgender patients face and proper procedures when treating them. 

Sansivero says both events were well attended.


 

By all accounts, the LGBTQ+ community has made great strides in the last decade. Public opinion on the subject has done an about-face. While it’s hard to believe today, Hillary Clinton actually campaigned for the presidency with an anti-same-sex marriage stance as late as 2008. (She later changed her position in the years prior to her 2016 campaign.) Jeff Rindler (left), executive director of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston, says he’s witnessed this shift firsthand:

“We’ve had the New Paltz Police Department reach out to us in regard to writing [procedural] guidance on how to work with those of transgender experience,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, people were not reaching out to a community center for that, but they want to get it right. People want to get it right.”

If you’re trying to get it right, you might want to contact Danielle Barbour, founder of Safe Space America. Her organization’s mission is simple: to create a safer America. Barbour, who lives in Warwick with her wife and daughter, created the group in response to several reports of harassment of LGBTQ+ youth in the area. Simply by existing, the watchdog group saw the number of hate incidents decline to virtually zero over the course of a year.

In addition to fostering a socially welcoming environment, Safe Space America works with the Warwick community as a whole by hosting self-defense classes, “Slow Down” sign-making campaigns, and fire-suppression classes for homeowners, which has gained the organization the respect of the Warwick police department. 

This progress is a welcome change for Sansivero, who tried to create clubs for LGBTQ+ youth when he was a student at Poughkeepsie High School, only to be met with unending obstacles: bureaucracy, politics, disorganization, and uninformed faculty advisors. At Ofca’s high school in Lagrangeville, there was an Allies club already established, but she concedes it was more of a social gathering than an advocacy group. 

 


 


 

“There are a lot of people who are willing to listen and help, especially because our community’s pretty tight-knit.” -Ali Ofca

Despite encouraging progress, advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights is still necessary. According to the Associated Press, a new directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the treatment of religious freedom violations “would be enough to override concerns for the civil rights of LGBT people and anti-discrimination protections for women and others. The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty are calling them a legal powder-keg that could prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.” 

 In response to Sessions’ policy, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said, “The Trump-Pence administration launched an all-out assault on LGBTQ people, women, and other minority communities by unleashing a sweeping license to discriminate. This blatant attempt to further Donald Trump's cynical and hateful agenda will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families.” 

At the local level, selective acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights is an enormous problem; certain identities have entered the mainstream, whereas others remain misunderstood. On multiple occasions, Sansivero has found himself arguing with people over his own gender. He recalls a security guard at his high school who refused to address him using the correct pronouns. “She was very insistent on only calling me female pronouns and my legal name, even though by law they have to call me my name and my pronouns.” *

Danielle Barbour says her organization is now struggling due to the President’s perversion of the term “safe space.” Business owners who once displayed Safe Space America stickers in their storefronts have had to remove them. One shop owner discovered a broken window and found a note with a Safe Space America sticker attached. “This didn’t protect you from our brick, did it?” the note read.

The stigma against safe spaces is so powerful that only six people came to Safe Space America’s vigil for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. In the past, Barbour has had more than 100 attendees at a vigil.

The misconception is frustrating because in Barbour’s eyes, the idea is not controversial at all. “A safe space is a place that doesn’t allow bullying, violence, or discrimination of any kind to anyone at any time.

“I think the only people who don’t know how a safe space really does create a safe environment for everyone are the people who never needed it,” she adds.

Fortunately, Barbour says these problems haven’t extended into the Warwick schools that her daughter attends. Out in the community though, it’s harder to know when social ties are founded on convenience or conviction. “We have a Catholic church here that is adamantly against gay people, but half my friends attend it.” 

She acknowledges that many Catholic parishes preach acceptance, and obviously, her friends don’t agree with the hateful tenets of their church’s doctrine. However, some still enroll their children in catechism, which teaches that LGBTQ+ people are sinners.


 * Technically, Sansivero was correct at the time, as the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance in 2014 stating that Title IX protections should extend to transgender students in school settings. However, in February 2017 Education Secretary Betsy DeVos withdrew those protections, in essence passing the torch on the legality of gender identity discrimination to state governments.


 

Angelina V. Bouros, 56, was a stranger to discrimination until recently. Bouros, who identifies as transgender, says she has traveled throughout the country, mostly to conservative states  — including deep red states like North Carolina, home of the controversial transgender bathroom law — and people have been warm and welcoming. However, in July, a lifelong friend discovered a hate letter outside of Bouros’ home in Rosendale and called the police. 

“The person that wrote this hate mail to me said that I was the embarrassment in the neighborhood,” says Bouros. (They used much more hateful language — see above). But she refuses to be intimidated by the message. She says the letter has actually brought her community closer together. Unknown neighbors have since introduced themselves, and several have hung pride flags outside their homes in solidarity. The neighborhood even organized a potluck in August, where friends, neighbors, local police, the Ulster County Executive, and members of the press were in attendance. “Now...it’s coming out that they’re the embarrassment in the neighborhood.”

If the author of the hate letter is caught, Bouros doesn’t want to press charges. Instead, she wants the judge to mandate that the criminal spend one hour with her and get to know her as a person. 

Even before the regressions of the current administration, LGBTQ+ rights stood to be improved. For instance, under current New York State law, discrimination on the basis of gender identity is not illegal.* Residents of Ulster County championed an anti-discrimination bill for over a year, but in August 2017, the proposed bill was withdrawn from consideration after several legislators made changes that rendered it ineffective.

Bouros, who spoke at a public hearing on the bill, expressed frustration at the debate over discrimination. She distills her testimony down to a single sentiment: “The fact that I have to stand here and talk about discrimination is belittling and disrespectful. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation.” 

And yet legal equality is just one challenge our local LGBTQ+ community faces. According to a 2015 report published by the NY State LGBT Health and Human Services Needs Assessment, 26% of LGBT respondents in the Hudson Valley experienced 14+ days of poor mental health in the last month. Compounding on this, 33% of respondents said there were not enough psychological support groups for LGBT people, while 28% said that community fear or dislike of LGBT people prevented them from accessing healthcare. 

Of course, financial hardship also contributes to mental distress. The same report found that 27% of people who identify as LGBT earned incomes under 200% of the poverty line. That means about one quarter of respondents earned $23,540 or less annually, even though 66% of LGBT people worked full or part time, and 58% possessed a college degree or higher. 

The sheer size of the Hudson Valley makes an even distribution of LGBTQ+ resources difficult. Jeff Rindler says that many patrons of the Community Center in Kingston travel sizeable distances to benefit from its services. Despite broadening their programming to places like Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, the Center’s geographic location in Kingston still poses a problem, particularly for youth. “Their parents have to drive an hour, then the kids are here for two hours, and then an hour home,” Rindler explains. “So we’re looking to partner throughout other counties to bring our services out into the community.”

In spite of these challenges, the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center reaches more than 10,000 people annually. Last year alone, the Center tripled the number of programs for LGBTQ youth and older adults, while seeing a 20% increase in patrons of transgender experience. 

Regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation, residents who need support should know about the services available to them. 

Fortunately, Barbour says these problems haven’t extended into the Warwick schools that her daughter attends. Out in the community though, it’s harder to know when social ties are founded on convenience or conviction. “We have a Catholic church here that is adamantly against gay people, but half my friends attend it.” 

She acknowledges that many Catholic parishes preach acceptance, and obviously, her friends don’t agree with the hateful tenets of their church’s doctrine. However, some still enroll their children in catechism, which teaches that LGBTQ+ people are sinners.


 * Courts and other government agencies have interpreted current laws to include some protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, namely in workplace settings; however, these protections only function as extensions of anti-sex or -sexual orientation discrimination laws. Gender identity discrimination is not formally treated as a hate crime in New York.


 

Support and Services


PHOTO COURTESY OF HUDSON VALLEY LGBTQ COMMUNITY CENTER

Local LGBTQ Resources and Services:
 

Albany

Gay Albany Online

Pride Center of the Capital Region

In Our Own Voices

Planned Parenthood Albany Health Center
 

Columbia

OutHudson

Hudson Pride Foundation

Planned Parenthood Hudson Health Center
 

Dutchess

Planned Parenthood Poughkeepsie Health Center
 

Orange

Planned Parenthood Goshen Health Center

Orange County NY Pride

Planned Parenthood Newburgh Health Center

Safe Space America
 

Putnam

PFLAG Westchester
 

Rensselaer

HomoRadio, Sundays from 10am-2pm

Planned Parenthood Troy Health Center
 

Rockland

Rockland Pride Center

CANDLE

PFLAG Rockland County: (845) 268-2373

Planned Parenthood Spring Valley Center
 

Ulster

GLSEN Hudson Valley

Mid-Hudson Valley Transgender Association

Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center

PFLAG Kingston: (845) 853-5798

Planned Parenthood Kingston Health Center

Key of Q
 

Westchester

GLSEN Hudson Valley

Lambda Peer Support Services

The Loft

Mosaic of Westchester

PFLAG Westchester

Planned Parenthood White Plains Center

Center Lane (Westchester Jewish Community Services)
 

Other

The Bridge

Saratoga Pride

Rindler’s team consists of only three staff members and a crew of volunteers, but the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center offers dozens of events, services, and support groups. Numbering among their programs is a Cultural Diversity Training Program, Support and Empowerment Group, Bingo, Solidarity Thursday (a social gathering to discuss and learn about ways to enact social justice on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights), and of course, LGBTQ Pride Month.

Each year in June, Pride Month ushers in a slew of festivities to highlight LGBTQ+ rights and culture. The theme, “Taking a Stand,” was chosen in 2017 to empower LGBTQ+ people. Rindler and the Pride Committee kicked off the celebration with a blowout dance party at BSP in Kingston, but the most popular event of the month was in New Paltz, where an estimated 2,000 people attended the Pride March and Festival. More than 700 participants marched down Main Street to support equality and respect for LGBTQ+ people. 

Big Gay Hudson Valley also ramps up its programming for Pride Month, most notably with its Queen City Pride Community Picnic at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. At this annual BYO event, families enjoy activities, live music, a drag show, and a dance party. Hengst explains that BGHV isn’t designed to provide social services like the Community Center; rather, BGHV specializes in social functions — bringing people together, showcasing supportive businesses, and giving back to the community, all of which lend support in their own capacity.



PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG GAY HUDSON VALLEY
The Queen City Pride BYO community picnic is a family-friendly evening with live music, drag shows, and dancing.

Smaller but no less significant is the Mid-Hudson Valley Transgender Association, chaired by Bouros. The group provides an outlet that some members cannot find anywhere else in their lives. Some members have not yet come out, but they express their concerns and seek the counsel of openly transgender individuals. In addition to cultivating a peer support network, Bouros hopes to educate and provide resources to those who might feel like they have no other options. As chairwoman, she also conducts outreach in local schools and hosts seminars on the power of positive thinking. 

Those looking for support in the lower half of the Valley have more options. One standout is the Rockland County Pride Center in Nyack, which offers men’s support groups, women’s support groups, and a support group for parents of transgender children, among others. On October 14, they hosted their inaugural Pride Ball (described as “Narnia meets Studio 54 meets Grey Gardens”), which recognized local advocates for their distinguished work on behalf of the LBGTQ+ community. 

In White Plains, The LOFT LGBT Community Center offers a plethora of programs, including a peer support group for individuals 55 years and older, an LGBT people of color peer support group, a directory of LGBT friendly businesses and organizations, free HIV and AIDS testing, and a tech tutoring group. 

Farther north, residents can visit the Pride Center of the Capital Region, a fixture of the Albany area and the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ community center in the United States. Obviously, this legendary reputation means that the Pride Center of the Capital Region offers many of the same kinds of resources and support groups as the aforementioned centers; however, it also boasts several opportunities for LGBTQ artists and writers. 

Other notable resources include the Youth Pride division of CANDLE in New City, the Center Lane branches of Westchester Jewish Community Services, In Our Own Voices (Albany), Saratoga Pride, OUT! in Troy, and Hudson Valley Queer Outdoors.



PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGELINA V. BOUROS
​Bouros' neighborhood organized a potluck in order to get to know one another and to send a message: "Hate has no home here."

 

 

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG GAY HUDSON VALLEY
Big Gay Hudson Valley's events are designed to foster a community that is open and inclusive for everyone. 

Back at Mount Saint Mary College, the Allies club now has 10-15 regular members. Faculty have been incredibly supportive, and officers from other clubs have even reached out with advice to ensure Allies’ success. With a few exceptions, Ofca and Sansivero describe a welcoming environment at the Mount. “There are a lot of people who are willing to listen and help, especially because our community’s pretty tight-knit,” says Ofca.

For all of the conflict Safe Space America has endured, Danielle Barbour speaks about Warwick with similar fondness. “I’m an out lesbian who has an ‘I stand with Planned Parenthood’ sign in my front yard,” she says. “And the person who painted ‘Trump’ on their barn across the street from me still came and helped shovel my driveway in the winter.”

When reason or humanity can’t breach the walls of hate, Bouros maintains that positive thinking is the most important defense. “I never lost hope that my life was going to be better,” she says. 

Her journey to self-acceptance has been long, but she believes every setback was necessary for her to be as happy as she is today. “I’ve been living as a woman for three years now,” she says, “and not one time, not one fleeting second in these three years have I ever said, ‘What the ‘f’ did you do?’ And that tells me that I made the right decision.”

Hengst references Harvey Milk’s idea that coming out is a work of activism, since humans have a tendency to ignore discrimination until it affects someone they know. 

“Big Gay Hudson Valley gave a voice to a lot of people who didn’t quite know where to channel the positive change they wanted to make happen,” he explains. “For some people, they started smaller community groups; for other people, change was, frankly, coming out of the closet and coming to one of our events; for other people, it was coming to one of our events and learning about LGBT tourism and making their business more inclusive by changing the photography they use on their brochures or just the language they use — changing ‘bridal suites’ to ‘honeymoon suites.’ It’s all these little things that people can do to be more cognizant and inclusive and aware, and that’s what we pride ourselves on continuing to make happen.”