Being a member of the LGBTQ community is not easy. Potential discrimination, isolation and health risks are just some of the obstacles that members of the community face. Serving as a soft spot to fall since 1993, the LGBT Network has fought to end homophobia and transphobia, provide a home and safe space for the LGBT community and advocate for equality. Formerly known as the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY), the LGBT Network has been able to help 30,000 members annually.
We spoke with Long Island LGBT Network Program Coordinator Camille Limongelli on support systems the network provides for the old and new generation, why they call themselves the LGBT Network and how they’ve responded to the recent Smithtown library incident.
Camille, can you talk about how you got involved with LGBT Network?
Absolutely! I joined the LGBT Network in January as our program coordinator. I work out of our Hauppauge and Sag Harbor location. What really drove me [is that] I am an LGBT identified individual myself.
I have a master’s in mental health counseling, but my passion has always been to work with my own community. I was previously doing more mental health work. Before moving to Long Island, I was living in a different state where access to LGBT services was incredibly limited. There wasn’t the opportunity to break through for me professionally as well as for me to access any community as an LGBT individual.
So seeing that need both on a professional and personal level just really increased my motivation and passion to work with our community. I moved to Long Island from New Jersey and then I found the opportunity with the LGBT Network and joined in January 2022.
What does the LGBT Network do?
We try to do as much as we can for our community. So we really try to be a home and a voice for LGBT people as well as their friends, families and allies. So we’re not just here for the LGBT community. We’re also here for each individual’s community as well.
We do try to create a home and voice for LGBT people and their community. We have a variety of services, so we’re everywhere from the Queen’s Midtown tunnel out to the Hamptons. We do both virtual and in person programming and we offer different types of groups. Some are just based on socialization and are more fun and recreational. Other social other groups are a little bit more serious where they’re more like supportive peer groups. We offer parent support groups which I actually facilitate twice a month.
We also offer Sage, we have a family’s department, which is for LGBT-headed households as well as family building, becoming a parent. Then we have an initiative where we go into workplaces and make them more LGBT-affirming.
I’m seeing an emphasis on the network part of the LGBT Network.
Exactly, and that’s, that’s the thing about the LGBT network. We’re actually kind of smaller, like agencies within the network. We have Sage, we have community education. We do have some health and HIV services as well, and some limited health services, education, referrals and databases. So folks will contact us and say, “I need a trans-affirming doctor.” We can provide all of that and we’re always evolving. We recently just launched initiatives because of what’s going on in Long Island right now with the LGBT community. We launched initiatives to create school ambassador programs to help individuals run on their local government organization, school or library boards.
We work with the Department of Social Services as well. We do their foster parent training, which is now a mandatory part of the foster parent training in the state of New York because we went to them and advocated for that change.
Could you get into that a little bit?
So we train foster parents. Foster parents have to receive continuing education certifications for their recertification. We know there’s a disproportionate amount of LGBT youth in the foster care system. Sometimes they’re leaving their home because it’s not safe for them to be part of the LGBT community. Sometimes they’re kicked out of their homes when they come out. So that’s why we feel it’s so important for foster parents to be trained and educated. Being in foster care is a trauma within itself. There are unique experiences that LGBT youth have to deal with as well.
Do you want to talk about your work with families? So many queer kids don’t have that or lose that at some point.
We do have a parent support group that we meet with twice a month virtually. That group really varies. There are some parents that are really on board and are just looking for information on how to best support their child. Then there are other parents that are still struggling because this is really new or perhaps are struggling with their own moral or religious convictions.
What’s great about that group is that it’s so varied. The parents are really able to kind of guide each other and say “I was once in that place,” or “I had a similar experience.” They also help each other with some of the logistics of being an LGBT parent. Addressing things like “How do I share this with my family? What doctor do I take my child to? When do I change their name?” They need support and you don’t find those answers readily available.
There’s no roadmap, especially, if a child is coming out as trans. Every child is gonna go at a different pace and take a different path. These parents are just trying to help their child navigate the world that they’re in. So that’s what’s really great about that group. They’re able to get some answers. They’re able to share and support each other in the process.
I actually can’t think of any other scenario where I’ve seen people in that particular context meet. That’s new to me, that’s different.
Yes, we try to support the parents, especially with the youth as well as LGBT individuals of any age, especially when they don’t have that support network. So for instance, with our Sage group, which is our older adults group, a lot of folks don’t have family support. A lot of those folks don’t have children. Some of them have lost spouses or partners or come out later in life and have never had a partner before, and they don’t have a network. As we age, our children typically become our primary caregivers and for the LGBT community, probably especially the older LGBT community, where it wasn’t as common to have children, the access wasn’t there.
There’s a lot of “Who is going to take care of me?” or “Who can I call in case of emergency?” So we’ve created a system where they are each other’s contacts in case of emergencies. And we have lists where we can reach out for support. We have a friendly visitors program where if somebody is, for instance, home and isolated, whether it be a temporary or a more permanent situation, another Sage volunteer will go out and support or visit with that person. We have programs where the kids come to the center on Friday nights just to hang out. They have created such amazing relationships in our center where you really come as you are. We have folks that sometimes take advantage of the bathrooms and come here and change, because perhaps they can’t present themselves at home.
Do you particularly see young people grow in a space like that?
Absolutely, our young people are incredible and they inspire me constantly. They really do flourish, especially when they’re given purpose. For instance, we have our youth prom, and the kids had a lot of ownership, in that, they chose the theme. They worked on prom decorations. They provided a playlist. So they get that sense of purpose and ownership over their space. And you really do see them thrive in that kind of environment. They all have different talents they bring to the table. They all bring some kind of talent, they even performed. We had a talent show. It took several weeks and contestants were eliminated. The winner got to perform at prom. Bethpage Federal Credit Union was our sponsor and they provided a financial award.
While legal protections for LGBT people are being stripped across the country, are LGBT kids finding solace from that, or are you seeing the struggles?
I think a little bit of both. The kids like to take advantage of our space and their friendships and their ability to be themselves. I think it’s so wonderful to see them be content and at peace here. At the same time, they have a lot of questions. So we have a group chat with some of the kids and they’ve had a lot of questions, especially as it’s gotten a little bit closer to home here in Long Island in Smithtown. This decision is local so it’s something that impacts all of us. So I think that the closer it gets the more you know, the more they’re noticing it. So I’ve been trying to answer their questions as much as possible. I’ve kind of tried to take a two-prong approach with them, or maybe even three-prong.
One, I want you to feel incensed. I want you to stand up. I want you to take a stand. I want you to use your voice. I want you to feel empowered. So I’ve been trying to get them to understand that even at their age, they can be heard and can take a stance. We had some youth participate in a community meeting in Smithtown where they were trying to plan a response [to the public library removing Pride-themed items]. Then we had a virtual town hall on Monday where we launched our longer term initiatives and we had youth participate in that as well.
Secondly, I think as we know, queer joy is radical and I want these kids to have fun and just exist as teenagers. It’s unfortunate that these are issues that they have to deal with as teens. One time, we had Friday night out, which is when we have the youth space open. We had a very packed house of young people and I left and participated in the protest in Minola at the Supreme Court. Then I came back and I just saw all these kids, running around our space, laughing, smiling, giggling and making prong decorations. I even turned to my boss at one point and said this is so nice to see the center like this.
Where can people find your center?
We have multiple centers. Hauppauge is our main one. It’s brand new and opened in 2019. It quickly closed for COVID. So it doesn’t even feel that old. It’s a big, beautiful space. At our centers, we’re really just trying to give the kids what they don’t get at home. Also just to touch on family, when we’re growing up, we learn a lot from our parents, families, cultures and traditions. If you’re Italian, you learn about what makes us Italian, right? Or what makes us our ethnicity? You typically don’t have a lot of queer parents to look up to. Just because we might be a queer kid doesn’t mean we came from a queer household or from a queer parent.
So you don’t learn how to exist as a queer person in the world, especially in a world that really wasn’t created for you. We really do try to give them tools and guide them. For instance, [we offer] queer sex ed so that they have those skills and can learn how to function as an LGBT person and keep themselves safe as well. And as I’m sure as you know, there’s a disparity with healthcare and being LGBT-informed. So we really try to educate folks on what perhaps we might be at an increased risk for as well.
How do the journeys of older LGBT adults compare to the kids’ growth?
So it’s interesting because I do a lot of the youth programming and family programming. I’m kind of in the middle and looking at these two generations that I’m completely inspired by, because we have our older adults who fought for so much and really paved the way for us, the out individuals. Then we have this younger generation who I think is opening the space in ways that weren’t opened before and are very much in tune with their identities.
But our older adults, I think, just deserve so much respect for everything that they did for our community and what they have lived through. So I feel like I’m often bridging the gap between the younger and older generation, and we do try to do some intergenerational programming as well. We have that mix of all ages and the experiences are very different. For example, we do not have the word “queer” at the end of our name because for our older adults who are a big part of our programming and our constituency, they don’t like that word. They made that very clear to us that it’s very traumatic and triggering for them. So we will not be the LGBTQ center, we’re the LGBT Network. We’re mindful of that. We’re also mindful that [the word “queer”] is empowering for young folks, so we use it when it’s appropriate.
[Older LGBT people] were really coming out at a different time. Their health needs are pretty significant as well as, you know their mental health needs, especially going through this last pandemic. They already experienced a pandemic that affected our community back in the 80s and 90s, and HIV and AIDS are still present. It’s not as much of an issue for our young people as it is for our older adults.
I remember reading a story by an older queer person who said that when she goes to a Pride parade, there’s a whole generation of middle aged men that’s just gone.
Yeah, and these people talk about their experiences of holding hands of their friends and loved ones while they died. I think COVID was kind of traumatic for them and going through that again triggered those old memories.
Some of our older adults are coming out for the first time as older adults. Some of them were in, you know, heterosexual presenting relationships for a long time and perhaps had children, and then came out. Some have been out since the 60s and 70s, went through Stonewall, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and sodomy laws.
Which are currently possibly facing a revival.
Absolutely, and unfortunately, it feels like our young people are going to go through what a lot of our older folks already fought for because we’re going backwards in this country, so their experience is different. I marched in Pride with them for the first time. It wasn’t a big group, because a lot of the folks are not out outside of our center, which is completely fine. Some might be out, but some were like, “It’s just too close to home, I don’t want people like my neighbors knowing, cause I just don’t feel safe.” And that’s fine.
But one of the things that they really loved seeing was the families that might not be part of the community, especially ones with young children, being there and cheering them on. They felt like these young children were gonna see this from birth. Like they’re gonna see this from such a young age that this is normal. This is okay.
I took a picture of one couple again, they’re an older couple and they put their arms around each other. The look on their faces was just… I could cry just thinking about it. They were really soaking in the moment. They had a look of I don’t wanna sound corny, but like they had a look of pride on their face. And that’s what pride is all about. So it’s yeah, they have very different experiences, but again, I think that there’s something that the young people can offer the older generation and that the older generation can offer the younger generation.
Where can people find the LGBT Network?
Everything is primarily on our website, LGBTnetwork.org. We’re on all the major social media platforms as well. And our help line number is (631) 665-2300.
Thank you, Camille.