One may think the LGBT community in Suffolk County is a small minority, until there are more than 100 of them and their allies together in a room celebrating what makes them, them.
On Jan. 28, after close to half a year of planning, the Shoreham-Wading River High School Gay-Straight Alliance club hosted a Gender-Sexuality Alliance Leadership Conference, the first in all of Suffolk County. They were joined by over 100 students from 14 different schools as well as a score of adults, including teachers, parents and school administrators.
“Not only did it bring together a group of kids that were not only like-minded, but were also there to support each other,” said club co-advisor Brittany Davis. “It really felt like there was a sense of community that was just beautiful, that we did something that changed everyone’s outlook on this and really changed the whole dynamic of the comfortability in the school.”
Senior and club member Ray Colon said it was an event unlike any he has experienced at the school setting. Students who felt they were marginalized or pushed to the boundaries in their own schools could talk freely.
“It was awesome to hear them share their own stories and their own struggles back at home,” he said. “At school, they don’t have that space to be free always — it allows them to open up.”
Between the discussions and presentations, Davis said students flooded into the upstairs balcony in the library for an impromptu dance party.
“They might be that quiet kid in class, but when they’re with others they can finally feel comfortable,” Davis said. “It was really cool to see them be themselves — their energy went throughout the room and made everyone smile.”
High school senior Emily Mulcahy, the club president, said while they were initially unsure how successful an event it would be, upon reaching out and getting a score of immediate responses, their doubts were eased. In fact, they had so many responses they could simply not fit all into the small space of the library.
Nearly five months of planning led to an event that included discussions about themselves and their place in the LGBT community, but also the recognition of administrators, including high school Principal Frank Pugliese and Superintendent Gerard Poole.
“In our building and district, we celebrate diversity, we don’t look down on it,” Pugliese said. “The fact so many districts felt the same way, I think even strengthened that message even more.”
The principal added he hopes this event will become “a normal part of the calendar.”
Fellow club co-advisor Ed Storck has been at the head of getting the whole event started. The fact that two school administrators could show such open support, he said, means a lot considering where the LGBT community has come from, especially in schools.
“So many kids were saying, ‘I didn’t know how many people were in support,’” he said.
Storck said the idea for the conference originally came to light when the club invited Jeremy Thode, an assistant principal at Center Moriches High School and the president of the Smithtown board of education, down to the school to speak to the club. Thode has been advocating for and educating about LGBTQ for little less than a year now. His son, Noah, came out as transgendered last January, and Thode has taken his experiences with his family’s path toward transition and acceptance and used it to advocate and educate both districts and parents.
“This event clearly told us that these kids, when with people who understand them, they are authentically themselves,” Thode said.
The club is planning future events for this year, including a visit this month to the LGBT Network of Long Island, a nonprofit support network that connects services on Long Island and Queens, where club students speak about the importance of allies in the community and how they wish to be treated by them. Later this year the club is planning a positivity week, which the club started three years ago. That week ends with a day of remembrance, where any participating student remains silent throughout the day to honor the people who have lost their lives due to discrimination in the past. On June 5, the district is also hosting the third annual Unity Dance for the other GSA clubs in Suffolk.
But club members also understand they have started something that may become a “legacy,” as Mulcahy put it. With Thode at the helm, the Smithtown school district is planning a similar event May 5. With more space in Smithtown High School West, they are able to fit the districts that were unable to come to the original event due to space.
“Ultimately, what needs to happen is more awareness, education and acceptance, not only in GSA’s, but in the wider community.” Thode said.