Pride in the Valley: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning in the Hudson Valley, NY

Our region has proven to be a welcoming place for members of the gay and lesbian community. This series of articles includes profiles of local gay couples raising families, a look at the LGBTQ Center in Kingston, and how a Poughkeepsie student helped to form a gay-straight alliance at his school



It’s been eight long years since the Ulster County village of New Paltz became an overnight media sensation when Mayor Jason West decided he would marry same-sex couples in front of Village Hall. The following year, the first Pride Parade marched down Main Street. “I remember walking down Main Street, holding my girlfriend’s hand and hearing all these people cheering,” says Vanessa Shelmandine of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center in Kingston. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Of course, the social landscape for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning) individuals changed forever when same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State last year. But there has long been a vibrant gay life in the Valley, and it is finally coming out from under the “gaydar.” Here, we present snapshots of some of the region’s diverse LGBTQ members, take a look at various aspects of gay life (from socializing to school), and delve into some of the most pressing issues — including bullying — facing this growing community.

 

 

meg stewart and jill schneidermanA family affair Meg Stewart (left) and Jill Schneiderman hang out with their kids, Tillie, 11, and Caleb, 14

Photograph by Teresa Horgan

Same-sex Parenting: One Woman’s Perspective

It’s normal for a child to ask his or her parents, “Where do babies come from?” But does the answer become more difficult to explain for same-sex parents?

It doesn’t have to be complicated, according to Jill Schneiderman, who has two children with her partner Meg Stewart. “We’ve always spoken to our children about what makes our family different from others,” Schneiderman says. “There was no big drum roll and conversation; it’s always been ‘She’s mommy and I’m mama.’ ”

Schneiderman, 53, is a professor of earth science at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, the same town in which she and former geologist Stewart, 50, reside. They met as presenters at a Geological Society of America convention 19 years ago and have been together ever since. They had a civil union when it became legal in 2000, then married in Massachusetts in 2005, and today are proud parents.

“When our relationship grew, Meg and I established that we both wanted to become parents one day,” Schneiderman says. “We have two beautiful children — Caleb is 14, and Tillie’s 11.” They’re often asked about how their children came to be, as same-sex couples have a variety of options for starting a family, but the pair has decided that it’s not their story to tell. “We feel that it’s our children’s own precious stories,” Schneiderman explains. “We believe it’s beside the point anyway; the focus on ‘origin’ takes away from the real truth: that your family is made of the people who love and take care of you and who will always be there for you, no matter how you came into being.”

Of course, since the kids are still young, their friends are naturally curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions. “While driving a few of Caleb’s friends to a class trip, one asked how did Caleb ‘get born.’ Caleb asked me to explain, and with his blessing I did. The friend’s response was just, ‘Oh.’ Then he began asking why we were driving that particular road when he knew another way to get to the destination. There wasn’t a negative reaction, he just accepted it and moved on,” Schneiderman explains. She says she considers herself lucky because she can’t recall a time when her family’s been targeted or discriminated against because of its structure. But for parents who have a more difficult time explaining these stories to children, or answering questions from other adults, Schneiderman says there is a proliferation of books that describe different family types.

As much as she says she loves parenting — “it’s beautiful, it’s fun, and we love having family adventures” — Schneiderman admits there have been challenges along the way. At one time, there was a fear associated with the public school system — they didn’t want their children to be subjected to bullying or prejudice based on their family structure. “We originally enrolled them in a little private school where a premium was placed on tolerance of diversity,” Schneiderman says, “but now they go to a public school and we couldn’t be happier with how everyone’s been received and accepted.” She says the couple tries to be as active and supportive within the school as possible. (“There was a Veteran’s Day event and the room was full of all these older veterans — plus a lesbian couple,” she laughs.) The overall diversity within the school helps to show her children that each family has its own unique circumstances.

The most vexing problem for her family, according Schneiderman, is with school administrative forms and other legal documents that ask the name of the child’s mother and father. “We usually have to cross it out and write ‘parent and parent,’ ” she says. “When we were traveling out of the country, we had to fill out two forms for each child to get through customs. It’s a problem for many family types, not just gay couples, because some children are raised by their grandparents, by multiple parents, and so on.” Groups such as the Family Equality Council in Boston are working to amend these issues.

Otherwise, Schneiderman says she and Stewart go through the same trials as other parents she knows, both heterosexual and same-sex. “As a parent of a teen and a ’tween, I know my children are at the age when it’s important to help them develop a sense of independence and begin to let them stretch their wings — anyone who’s a parent knows that feeling, and it’s not always easy. But it’s an experience all families can grow from.”

 

 

dan, benjamin, scottA group of guys: (From left) Dan, six-year-old Benjamin, and Scott. “We don’t consider our family unusual,” says Scott

Photograph by Teresa Horgan

All in the Family: My Two Dads

If Dan or Scott ever becomes a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, they should definitely use the phone-a-friend lifeline. After all, phoning a friend was all it took to bring these two Cornwall-on-Hudson residents together in their own happily ever after.

Twelve years ago, during an innocent Friday evening phone call Dan placed to a friend, Scott answered instead. “When I asked, ‘Who are you?’ he made me laugh when he responded, ’Who are you? You called me,’ ” says Dan. (The pair asked to remain anonymous for this interview.) This quip became a running joke when Dan called each Friday to talk to Scott. Anxious to meet the man on the other end of the phone, Dan hopped in his car and drove from Newburgh to Cornwall-on-Hudson. “He told me that he thought he’d stop by and see me, but nobody goes to Cornwall by accident,” says Scott.

Dan, who is 42 and works for the state Supreme Court system, was about 19 when he finally admitted to himself that he was gay, and then he came out to his parents. “It didn’t go over well. We stopped talking for awhile, but after a couple of months, my mom said, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’ and we got back on track as a family.”

Scott, 47, grew up in Cornwall and works for Proctor & Gamble. He didn’t come out until after he met Dan. “I knew who I was and who I wanted to be with, and the other stuff didn’t matter anymore,” Scott says. “My mother was shocked at first, but warmed up to it quickly.”

Seven months after they started dating, the pair moved in together and began talking about having a family. Dan, the middle of three children, loved being an uncle to his two nephews and wanted a child of his own. Scott came from a smaller family. His father died in 1995, leaving behind his mother and older sister, who had Down syndrome. He said he always knew that one day he’d adopt.

After an initial attempt at an international adoption, Scott found an attorney who handled private adoptions in the United States. “I had a really positive feeling about this,” he says. It would prove prophetic. Their quest to extend their family began in August 2005; just five months later, they received a phone call from an Arizona birth mother. She conducted a phone interview, and chose Dan and Scott as the couple for her child. The baby was due in only six weeks. “She liked where we lived and how we portrayed our family and daily life, the people we had around us, and I think the stability that we offered. She never specifically said anything about us being a gay couple,” says Scott.

“It all happened so fast — we’re jumping from an interview to being told that the baby was coming in six weeks,” says Dan. “We didn’t have nine months to prepare!”

“We were never scared or worried though,” says Scott. “It felt right to us from the beginning.”

Today the pair (who married in 2011) are the proud parents of six-year-old Benjamin, who they take to swimming lessons, Little League, Sunday school (“St. John’s Episcopal Church has about six same-sex couples with kids,” says Scott), and birthday parties. “Nobody treats us like anything special. We’ve not had very many comments about being gay dads to our faces,” says Scott. Adds Dan: “We’re just like everybody else. We’re so tired and wonder why we had a child so late. We sit with other moms and ask if their kid does this or that.”

Scott says the best part of parenthood is also what other parents feel. “It’s the love you feel for the child. You don’t understand it until you actually have it.”

What’s the biggest obstacle in their relationship? “Date night,” says Dan. “We need to focus on us and have a date night, even if it’s just getting a sitter. We need to sit and talk. That’s been the challenge.”

 

 

ted hayesVoice of experience: Ted Hayes at the LGBTQ Center in Kingston

Photograph by Teresa Horgan

The Elder Statesman: From Minister to Activist

Ted Hayes knew he was different, but he says he was so deeply closeted as a youth that “some say I awoke each morning choking on mothballs.”

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Hayes was a chemist and then a Southern Baptist minister for 12 years prior to coming out to “what fundamentalists call ‘unnatural behavior,’ ” says the Kingston resident. “Since I was celibate until I was 47, I consider that more appropriately described as unnatural behavior.”

After leaving the ministry and moving to New Mexico at the urging of friends, Hayes was ready for another move — this time to New York and a better job market. He was also open to a relationship. “I was out for about five years and hadn’t had a relationship with anyone,” he says.

Meanwhile, John David (Jack) Waite was a 69-year-old IBM retiree living in Ossining who had lost his previous partner to cancer and wanted to date again; he placed a personal ad in the March 1983 edition of The Advocate. On the other side of the country, Waite’s ad caught Hayes’ eye.

It also caught the attention of 200 other possible suitors. In a 1980s version of The Bachelor, Waite picked out four ads that interested him, including Hayes’s.

“For six months, we wrote daily and telephoned weekly,” he says. “We knew before we ever met face-to-face that we loved each other.”

When Hayes finally arrived in New York, he visited Waite for the first time. “When I entered his home, it was the first time in 52 years I was hugged and kissed by someone who loved me and whom I loved in return,” says Ted. “It was an earth-shattering moment for me.” Six months later the pair moved in together, and moved to Kingston in 1995. Their relationship lasted for 26 years until Jack’s death from cancer in 2009.

“He was the kindest man you could hope to meet,” Hayes says. “Being in a loving relationship with Jack was the best thing that ever happened to me. I still love him and miss him and still have his breakfast place setting at the table.”

Now 81, Hayes says that being gay in 2012 is much different than it was in the ’70s. When Hayes came out, singer Anita Bryant was a vocal opponent of homosexuality. “She kept ranting and screaming and I knew she wasn’t telling the truth,” he says. “She was the deciding factor for me to come out.”
On Christmas Day, 1977, Ted came out to his parents. His mother’s guarded reaction was short-lived; Hayes says that his parents were two of his major supporters, and they welcomed Jack into their home. “They loved him as much as I did,” says Hayes, who notes that the attitude of the country towards gays is increasingly more favorable. “However, I still don’t understand how someone can vote on whether I can be an equal citizen or not,” he says. “I even served in the military, but I am still relegated to second- or third-class citizenship.”

Hayes is one of the 28 founding members of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston. When the couple moved to Kingston after Waite’s retirement, Hayes joined the group Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). “That was my introduction to activism,” he says.

I still don’t understand how someone can vote on whether I can be an equal citizen or not. I even served in the military, but I am still relegated to second- or third-class citizenship

“In 2005, a lesbian couple who had moved to the area initiated plans for a gay pride march and festival,” he says. “I threw myself into working with that group, and 2,500 people came to the festival.”

The idea for a community center soon took hold. After several months of planning, an initial public meeting was held in front of a standing-room-only crowd. But starting the center was not without its challenges. “On our first weekend at our new office on Hurley Avenue in Kingston, someone stuck a hose in the window and flooded the place,” Hayes says. “They did that just because gay people were making plans.”

The group persevered and today has 1,600 members. In 2009, Hayes — along with hundreds of others — made the trip to Albany to lobby for gay marriage. “Jack couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get married,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave him, but he said ‘I’ll be okay, you need to be there to voice our needs.’ ”

Four days later, Waite died. “I missed one of his last days to go visit with a senator who didn’t have the courtesy to sit and talk with us,” Hayes says.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right,’ ” says Hayes. “We did something good by establishing the center. It not only helps gay people but also the community at large, by helping them to understand what’s going on and building community relations.”

Hayes was the recipient of the center’s initial Founders Award in 2012 and served as Grand Marshal of the third annual Pride March and Festival in New Paltz in 2007. He and Waite were honored for their work in 2008 when a room at the center was named after them.

 

 

patrick decker and stephan hengstSpreading the word: Patrick Decker (left) and husband Stephan Hengst are the brains behind the Web site Big Gay Hudson Valley. “What we see now is a lot of queries coming in about gay tourism,” says Decker. “We get many, many inquiries from people who want to come up for the weekend”

Photograph courtesy of Big Gay Hudson Valley

Social Scene: One Web site Brings the Community Together

Spreading the word Patrick Decker (left) and husband Stephan Hengst are the brains behind the Web site Big Gay Hudson Valley. “What we see now is a lot of queries coming in about gay tourism,” says Decker. “We get many, many inquiries from people who want to come up for the weekend”

Patrick Decker, now 28, left his small, upstate farming community 10 years ago to study at the CIA in Hyde Park. He’s never left the region, partly because — as a gay man — he’s found the Hudson Valley to be very welcoming. “I don’t feel that where I grew up I could have lived as out and as openly as I do here,” he says. “We’re in a really unique position where we get such a great infusion of education and arts and culture from places like New York City, but also from the Berkshires and Boston and Philadelphia. They’ve helped give this area a refined urban progressiveness.”

Decker had long wanted to share his love of this region with others from the LGBTQ community. So, four years ago, he and his husband Stephan Hengst (the duo wed in Amsterdam in 2009) launched the Big Gay Hudson Valley (BGHV) Web site. “We had a lot of overlapping friends’ networks, and we’d find out about a lot of things that were happening here and there. So we thought we should get all the information out there in one place. At first it was a free blog and very grassroots. But it grew into something that people really responded to. This was coming at a time when a lot of businesses around here were trying to appeal to the LGBT market and they were calling it ‘alternative.’ But we said, ‘No, let’s call it what it is — this is gay.’ ”

Decker admits that before launching their business they were concerned about negative backlash, “but I can count on two fingers how many pieces of hate mail we’ve gotten in four years,” he says. Decker attributes this to a general cultural “evolution” toward embracing the LGBTQ community at all levels of society, from businesses up to government officials. Decker singles out Ulster County Executive Mike Hein as being particularly supportive. He also gives a nod to Republican State Senator Steven Saland, who ultimately switched his position to become the deciding vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage last June. 

Whether organizing large events or offering recommendations of gay-friendly businesses, connecting people and helping the community are the ultimate goals of Big Gay Hudson Valley

Today, Big Gay Hudson Valley is a growing community resource. The Web site provides an extensive list of gay-friendly things to do, places to eat and stay, and other local services. Last September the company also held the region’s first wedding expo for same-sex couples at Terrapin in Rhinebeck. The expo brought together approximately 40 local vendors — from jewelers and deejays to ministers — that can help couples plan a memorable wedding. “We’re moving very much in the tourism direction right now,” says Decker, noting that they’ve recently launched a partnership with Hudson Valley Tourism and will be holding a gay-centered tourism conference in November. “We get many inquiries from people who want to come up for the weekend and want to know where they can take their husbands for dinner or where to shop for a wedding ring. They’re looking for a trusted recommendation; that’s what we provide — a Big Gay Hudson Valley seal of approval.” 

Decker points out that many establishments — not just gay-owned businesses — are courting the LGBTQ community. “Businesses are being opened by younger people who don’t come with minds that exclude,” he says. “Look at the Stockade Tavern in Kingston and Brasserie 292 and Bull & Buddha in Poughkeepsie — none of them are gay-owned, but they are embracing of everyone. We’ve worked with them on events and they appreciate having a different mix of people in their space.”

The social scene has gotten a boost from the recent opening of the Out Bar on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street. “It’s a big deal because there hasn’t been a gay bar here for a long time,” says Decker. Prior to the opening of the Out Bar (“more of a lounge, less of a dance place,” says Decker), the only other gay bars were “up in Albany, down in Westchester, and of course in New York City. There is also one in Danbury. You had to drive at least an hour to go somewhere, so this is very exciting.”

The center of the summer social season remains BGHV’s annual “pride kickoff party,” which is held on Memorial Day weekend at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. “It’s been a great way to get people to engage with each other and to participate in the community,” says Decker. “People bring dogs and kids and picnics and blankets and just hang out on the lawn or play drag bingo,” says Decker. “Then when the sun goes down it evolves into more of an adult dance party.”

This year the celebration has expanded to an entire weekend. The kickoff is a sports-themed fete at the Out Bar on Friday night (May 25), followed by a sunset cruise on the Empire Line’s Mystére on Saturday (May 26) and wrapped up with the Locust Grove shindig on Sunday (May 27). This year, Beacon’s Crumb Bakery & Café will be on-site selling sandwiches, salads, and desserts. The $10 entrance fee collected at the Locust Grove party is donated to other community organizations. “For instance,” says Decker, “when AIDS-Related Community Services (ARCS) does their AIDS walk over the Hudson, we help underwrite the cost. We do a lot of fund-raisers.”

Whether organizing large events or offering recommendations of gay-friendly businesses, connecting people and helping the community are the ultimate goals of Big Gay Hudson Valley. “One of the reasons we decided to go digital is that with the Internet you’re really able to have that one-on-one conversation with someone, no matter where they may be,” says Decker. “We can help provide a network for kids who may feel they are alone or isolated. Or send someone to a B&B where they won’t be made to feel awkward asking for one bed. It’s all about connections.”  Visit www.biggayhudsonvalley.com for more information.

 

 

tyler salamoneTaking a stand: Tyler Salamone, a student at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, works to stop LGBTQ bullying in district schools

Photograph by Michael Polito

Lesson Learned: Amazing Efforts to Combat Bullying

Taking a stand Tyler Salamone, a student at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, works to stop LGBTQ bullying in district schools
Tyler Salamone didn’t mean to come out in the eighth grade. “But my best friend outed me. I told him and he didn’t take it well. He said, ‘Okay, we can’t be friends.’ I thought we had a clean break, but then I found out that he told everybody in the school that I was gay.”

The months that followed at Spackenkill’s Orville A. Todd Middle School in Poughkeepsie were “completely scary,” says Tyler. “I had barely known that I was gay myself when I told my friend and I felt like I could trust him. At first he seemed open about it, and then he became more and more mean towards me. I had people coming up to me all the time asking me questions; the boys in the locker room were very uncomfortable with me changing there, so I would change in the bathroom. It was terrible. I felt very alone, a lot of people weren’t talking to me, and a lot of my friends weren’t my friends anymore.”

The age-old problem of bullying has received a lot of media attention in recent years, thanks, in part, to cyber-bullying and all the newfangled, high-tech ways that young people can taunt each other via the Internet. “Culturally, we’ve talked a lot about race and African Americans and even cyber-bullying in our culture, but we’ve never talked about LGBTQ students. It seems that harassing gay and lesbian students is the last okay thing to do,” says Rob Conlon, a cochair of GLSEN Hudson Valley (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network).

Several recent high-profile deaths — including the suicide of a Rutgers University student who was secretly taped by his roommate while having a sexual encounter with another male — have helped to shine a national spotlight on the problem. According to a recent survey by GLSEN, nine out of 10 gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are bullied in school, and they are four times more likely than heterosexuals to attempt suicide. “These events have created an awareness that GLSEN has been working toward for 20 years,” says Conlon. It seems the tide may be starting to turn. Next month, New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act — which seeks to protect all public school students from harassment regardless of gender identity — goes into effect. And the supportive environment that GLSEN helped foster by training staff in the Spackenkill School District may have helped lead to a success story for Tyler, who helped create one of the region’s first Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) at the middle-school level. Currently a freshman in high school, Tyler now attends GSA meetings at both schools because “the teachers think I have a good perspective on this. I still get bullied in high school. People will call me fag. But it’s getting better and every little step counts.” 

“I can tell you that it has been a long path,” says Conlon. “But over the years there has been a shifting.” According to Conlon, 20 years ago most people didn’t come out until after college. These days, students “are coming out earlier and earlier. The average age of coming out is now about 13. That’s not the case across the country, but it is in the Hudson Valley. That’s partly because school districts are more welcoming places than they used to be, but it’s partly because students are getting the message culturally: ‘You were born this way. You don’t have to hide it, it’s not a bad thing.’ ”

GSAs started popping up in local high schools in the mid-’90s, according to Conlon. “Pretty much every school district in Ulster County had one by 2005. Dutchess has been a little bit slower, and Orange even slower. But right now, a majority of school districts in the three counties have GSAs in their high schools,” he says, adding that Arlington also has one in its middle school and Highland and Kingston are “thinking about it.”

I still get bullied in high school. People will call me fag. But it’s getting better and every little step counts

“I know that many people think, ‘Oh, it’s too young to do something like that at the middle-school level.’ But they’re really beginning to identify themselves at that age, and they really need the support and a safe place,” says Steven Malkischer, the principal at Todd Middle School, who helped launch the school’s GSA last year. He says that at each weekly meeting there are probably about 10 students — “a mixture of gay and straight, and some who are just wondering where they belong.” Malkischer is particularly proud of one recent initiative. “While the adults had proposed the idea of putting up boxes in different places throughout the building where kids could report bullying, one brilliant young man pointed out that kids don’t want other kids seeing them ratting people out. This kid came up with the idea of reporting it on the Internet. Now on our Web page, there is an icon. Kids, parents, and guardians can click on it and fill out a form about what is going on and it comes directly to me. It works beautifully. Since its inception about two months ago, I’ve gotten maybe 15 or 20 reports. It’s been a very effective tool.”

GSA activities vary from school to school, according to Conlon, who says that students do everything from hosting events to raise awareness to working with staff to create a safe place in the school for students to hang out. “The more savvy schools, the ones that have had GSAs for 10 or 15 years, they’ve kind of moved into the community service world. They’re joining the ARCS AIDS Walk and getting out into the world as physical leaders in the community.”

Many local GSAs work in conjunction with GLSEN programs. For instance, “No Name Calling Week” occurs every January; each April there is a “Day of Silence,” during which students take a pledge of silence to represent the traditional silencing of LGBTQ students in the schools. Students also work to get out GLSEN’s “safe space kits,” which the organization is trying to distribute to every school across the nation. “Here in the Hudson Valley we’ve pretty much gotten the kits into the hands of all the school districts at this point,” says Conlon. “But we do everything, including training staff: What is gender identity? How are you going to work with this particular student? Are you going to assign them an ally who will walk the halls with them? How are you handling gym class? It’s really step-by-step-by-step.”

And what kind of bullying is happening these days? “We’ve heard everything,” says Conlon. “A student in the class was called a stupid faggot and the teacher turned around and said, ‘We don’t use words like “stupid” in this classroom.’ Some of it is subtle, some of it is out there. Kids still get pushed into lockers, all the same stuff still exists. We’ve had students report that teachers will intervene in almost any other name calling on earth, including the N word or a religious slur, but they’ll let a LGBTQ slur slide.”

Conlon says that currently schools are particularly challenged knowing how to work with transgender students. “Almost all transgender students report being harassed — everything from physical assault to verbal harassment,” he says. “The emerging concern in the Hudson Valley is how to protect students physically and emotionally. If you go to a hotel or a restaurant now, there are gender-neutral bathrooms, but that doesn’t exist in a school. So now they have to think about these things and in some ways they have to reorganize their buildings. It takes looking at your school as both a facility and as a culture.”

GLSEN is even starting to work with elementary schools to shift some very ingrained concepts of gender identity. “If you think about it, the boys line up here and the girls line up there,” says Conlon. “It’s very gender-segregated in activities. So we work with them to change that. We say, hey, instead of lining up boys and girls, why don’t you line up those born January to June and those born July and on. It shifts the focus off gender separation.”

Still, Conlon recognizes that change is a long, slow process and that it really does take a village. That’s why GLSEN, which partners with many other community organizations, holds an “Ally Week” at the beginning of the school year, where they identify allies who will stand up and take a pledge against LGBTQ bullying. “We realized there were a lot of allies in our community who were unsung, so we started an awards program where we honor them. This past year we honored two teachers from Arlington Middle School who started a GSA,” says Conlon. “We recognize that the message has to be reinforced not only in the classroom but when they go home at night or to their after-school program or to church on Sunday. It’s a community-wide effort.”

 

 

vanessa shelmandineInformation clearinghouse: Vanessa Shelmandine (above) and Genna Suraci (below, right) credit the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center with helping fuel change. “This is a safe, welcoming place,” says Suraci

Photographs by Teresa Horgan

The Center of it All

Genna Suraci can’t say enough good things about the life-changing work done by the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center in Kingston, which opened in 2007. “Things have gotten so much better thanks to the center and places like this across the country,” says Suraci, the current president of the center’s board of directors.

Suraci has a unique perspective: For more than 50 years, she was Gary Suraci. In 2007, the longtime principal of Ulster BOCES (who is divorced with three children) attracted a flurry of national media attention when the former Gary returned to school in September as Genna. Suraci was lucky: The school district stood behind her. But still, says the transgendered educator, “It’s very eye-opening coming from the majority to the minority. Coming from someone who had a lot of rights as a straight person, I saw those rights diminished as a transgendered person.”

That’s why the center’s advocacy work is so important. “We’ve done lobbying for gay marriage and now we are trying to lobby for the Gender Act,” says Suraci. But that’s only part of what the center does. Vanessa Shelmandine, the director of programs and services, credits the organization’s rapid growth to “some very dedicated volunteers and an interesting array of regularly occurring programs.” Of particular note, according to Shelmandine, are the Men’s Group, OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change), and a very active PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter. “In a given year, they’ve probably engaged with 200 different families. Sometimes the whole family comes to these monthly meetings — parents, grandparents, siblings; maybe a brother or sister is transitioning,” she says.

genna suraci

Shelmandine says that the center’s education initiatives are also particularly unique. The Safe Schools Roundtable brings together a variety of community groups to help make schools safe for all youth. The “Working it Out” program is a 14-week student development program that was initiated at Columbia University. “Each week students get together with youth actors portraying stressful life situations and they get a chance to talk about it, or what is happening in their own lives,” says Shelmandine. “We’ve already led programs at Kingston, Wallkill, and Newburgh high schools.”

Another programming highlight is the extensive cultural competency training. In the past two years, the center has trained more than 700 health and human services providers in Ulster, Dutchess, and Orange counties about the unique needs of LGBTQ people. “In the past I did not feel comfortable going to some doctors because of my history,” says Suraci. “So personally, I’m happy to use the health care providers list.”

Recently, Shelmandine, who came out at age 31 and says she enjoyed “more support from family members than I would have imagined,” has been working on initiatives to help ensure rights for aging LGBTQ adults. “These folks are twice as likely to age alone and four times as likely not to have children. So when they think about nursing homes or assisted living there is a lot of fear that being out will create a second class status for them. They’re saying, ‘I don’t want to have to go back in the closet.’ ”

Shelmandine says that one of the center’s strengths is its open-door policy — “people can just stop by all day long” — and the fact that “part of our mission is to be an information hub. While we may not be providing a service, any member of the community who needs information can get it here.”

 

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