More than 250 people crowded the Old Whalers’ Church grounds in Sag Harbor on Saturday for a bittersweet celebration—the grand opening of the very first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community center in the Hamptons.
Members of that community and their supporters, including Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, turned out to support the Long Island GLBT Network’s achievement in opening its third center, after Bay Shore and Garden City.
As the ribbon was cut, the memory of 16-year-old David Hernandez Barros, an East Hampton High School student who committed suicide last October, was heavy on people’s minds, but their sorrow was met with the joy of a new home for those who need support in their struggles with their sexuality and homophobia. In his memory, the community center was dedicated to David and the community room named after him.
David’s mother, Carmita Barros, and his sister, Gaby Hernandez Barros, said while they still struggle with his death, they know he would have been happy for this most recent development.
“This is very hard for me—I miss my son every day,” Ms. Barros said, trying to hold back tears. “David is happy for his people, and I am happy for the sexuality of my son.”
In July, the organization took on a two-year lease for the church’s second-story space while it continues to work to raise at least $1 million for a stand-alone center. It will make a monthly donation to the church in return for the space, which was previously used for the Sag Harbor Youth Center. The center has conference rooms, a common room and office space. Eventually, at least two full-time staffers will be added.
The center will offer support, health and social programs for people of all ages, including the families and friends of GLBT community members, starting August 20. On September 6, the center will offer testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases as well.
David’s peers and teenagers who go to the other community centers up-island gathered at the church early on Saturday and expressed their excitement and hope for the new space.
“It’s a new center for people to not only learn about themselves but to learn about the community around them,” said 15-year-old Janine “Jay” Guercio of Bay Shore. “The fact that the center is in a church says so much about the progress of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth,” she said of a youth-oriented subgroup of the network.
Eighteen-year-old Margaret Winthrop of Northport said the Long Island community is in desperate need of another safe space for gay and transgender folks. “It’s sad that we live in an age where acceptance is growing but stuff is still happening,” she said, referring to David’s suicide. “It hits close to home. This is a huge deal.”
Joel Johnson, president of East Hampton High School’s Gay Straight Alliance and a member of the GLBT Center’s Youth Committee, said a friend from Montauk used to drive him to the Bay Shore center once a week, which proved to be difficult. Now, he has a place to go just a few miles from school.
“Having this center is more than any of us could wish for,” the 17-year-old said in front of the Old Whalers’ Church. “I came out both as gay and transgender last year to my school, and while everyone was really supportive, it was really, really clear that high school could not offer enough support. It is incredible to have this actually behind me. This is a new life here. This is what will bring back our community. This is something every teenager was hoping for out here. Every kid that comes here is going to support another kid that is too afraid to.”
Ms. Barros has said that David was bullied because he was gay and that school officials ignored his predicament because he was Latino.
According to David Kilmnick, the CEO of the Long Island GLBT Services Network, David’s death was the catalyst that brought about the new center. “It is what prompted us,” he said. “We want to keep his memory alive forever and make sure that no other kid feels like he has no option but to end his life.”
On July 18, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a section of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and ruled that committed same-sex couples who are legally married in their own states can now receive certain federal protections. Ms. Windsor, who was the plaintiff in the case, which involved the government’s insisting that she pay inheritance taxes on the Southampton home of her late spouse, said she received thousands of letters while her case was under way and that the well-being of teenagers like David was on her mind.
“When I thought about winning [the case], I thought about teenagers falling in love for the first time, I thought about couples no longer having to defend their dignity to their families, I thought about the beginning of the end of stigma—ultimately, the end of abuse, bashing and the internalizing of homophobia, lying about who we are and suicides. And that’s what community centers do,” she said. “We stand behind our brothers and sisters fighting injustice and striving for full equality.”
At the end of the ceremony, David’s sister, Gaby, 19, said that he dreamed of a safe community center where he and his peers could go.
“It was his dream to help other kids dealing with bullying,” she said. “I think he’s happy in heaven. I think if there were a center like this, it could have stopped his death. This is a hard situation—we have to remember all our memories of David, but at the same time we are really happy.”
For more information about the community center, call 899-4950.