Over 100 people gathered at the East Hampton High School auditorium Monday night to discuss whether a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community center should be established on the South Fork.
David Kilmnick, the chief executive of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, who organized and led the forum, said many residents have reached out to him to “get the ball rolling,” and one couple has even offered a $20,000 matching pledge to start a center.
At the start of his presentation, Mr. Kilmnick projected a photograph of David Hernandez, a 16-year-old junior at East Hampton High School who took his own life on Sept. 29 after he was reportedly bullied because of his sexual orientation.
“No one should feel so alone and isolated that he has to take his own life,” said Mr. Kilmnick, who operates state-licensed community centers in Bay Shore and Garden City similar to the one he envisions in Southampton or East Hampton Town. “A permanent venue where young people can feel welcomed is long overdue on the East End.”
He shared statistics related to anti-gay bullying: “Eighty-five percent of [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] youth report hearing anti-gay and homophobic language on a regular basis.” “Hispanic and Latino G.L.B.T. students experience higher levels of verbal and physical harassment and physical assault.” “Four in 10 G.L.B.T. youth say the community they live in is not accepting.”
Mr. Kilmnick’s organization has been working closely with the East Hampton School District since 1995, he said, and the district is home to the only middle school in Suffolk County with a Gay Straight Alliance, a student club that seeks to improve school environments, regardless of sexual orientation.
Several district officials were on hand on Monday, as were Bridget Fleming, the Democratic candidate for New York State Senate, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.
In the absence of school funding for such programs, an East End community center would provide youth and family support, as well as programs to improve the school environment for gay youth, H.I.V. and disease-prevention programs, and a social outlet, said Mr. Kilmnick, who said that LIGALY will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. An L.G.B.T. center “would give a visibility and a voice to people who don’t have it here.”
The $20,000 matching pledge, received on Sunday, came from the filmmaking couple, Jennifer Brooke and Beatrice Alda of Sag Harbor, Mr. Kilmnick said. Near the end of the discussion on Monday, Beverly Dash and Debra Lobel, an East Hampton couple that have been together for 54 years, announced a pledge of $2,500, a moment that sparked some of the night’s most spirited applause.
The public comment portion of the evening centered around how to combat bullying, sparked by a question from George Aman, president of the East Hampton School Board.
“Bullying happened before David [Hernandez] and unfortunately, it will continue to happen,” Mr. Kilmnick said. “We obviously cannot police every kid all the time.” He added, “It begins with changing the community norm.”
Harriet Hellman, a pediatric nurse practitioner who said she treated David, recommended that the center include programs tailored toward the Hispanic population and other minority groups; she also suggested the center be named after David Hernandez.
One person challenged the school officials in attendance to address the audience about issues surrounding David’s death, describing the way the district has handled it as a “no-comment stance.”
“Not everything is black and white,” Mr. Kilmnick said, explaining that certain laws restrict “the district’s ability to share certain information.”
“It is difficult to describe the sickness and sadness we’ve felt in recent weeks,” said Maria Mondini, the high school’s assistant principal. “We talk openly about gay and even transgender issues.” She added, “It would be difficult not to find someone who wasn’t bullied in high school. As open as our community is, kids still need a space in our community.”
“We are discovering how to move forward to achieve long-term success,” said Adam Fine, the school principal, who mentioned that the National Center for School Climate and School Culture will assess the school’s environment. “We want to prevent kids from making decisions that hurt one another. . . . It’s about teaching respect and how to react when they see inappropriate behavior.”
Joel Johnson, who helped form the Gay-Straight Alliance at the middle school, and is now president of the high school’s G.S.A., said his weekly travels — from where he lives in Springs — to the community center in Bay Shore gave him the courage to come out, and “people here also need support, and safety to be who they are.”
Rhonnie Winokur, a school bus driver who identified herself as an “old, gay woman,” said “bullying sometimes starts at home.” She recounted childhood stories of being abused by her father. “In addition to reaching out to young people who are being bullied, something should be done to engage the bully’s parents,” she said.
Mr. Kilmnick agreed; he said there is a L.I.G.A.L.Y. program that gives young people who commit a hate crime the option to do community service at his organization. “It’s often the parents who are against their children’s interaction with gay people.”
Katrina Foster, a married gay woman and pastor of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, said young people sometimes learn homophobia from church. She said she had given a sermon on acceptance in response to David Hernandez’s death.
Mr. Kilmnick referred to a L.I.G.A.L.Y. program called the Aleph Project, which offers “acceptance-based” programs in churches, particularly synagogues. He called the 8-month-old program “very successful,” and said he looks forward to enhancing its offerings on the East End.
He encouraged people to visit L.I.G.A.L.Y’s Web site to sign up for a new East End G.L.B.T. Advisory Committee, as well as to donate toward the proposed community center.
“We were very happy with the evening, both in turnout, commitment, and willingness of folks to get actively involved,” Mr. Kilmnick said yesterday. “Although the turnout may not have looked that large in the 900-seat auditorium, we just counted the sign-in sheets of everyone who attended and there were 134 folks who showed up!” He added, “Out of the 134 attendees, 37 signed up to be part of the East End G.L.B.T. Advisory Committee, which is a fantastic number and indicative of the community support that is out there and needed to make The Center a reality.”
This was the first of a number of meetings planned to discuss a community center.