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
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Information 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
By Jennifer Leba
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.
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.”