LGBTQ Community Center for New Jersey’s Most Populous County

Bergen County LGBT Alliance volunteers: (left to right) Anthony Torres, Nick O’Neill and Layna.

Bergen County LGBTQ activists working on safe spaces and community building

Bergen County has the largest population of any county in New Jersey, but it has never had its own LGBTQ community center. That is, until now. There are plenty of malls in this mostly suburban county, but there are few dedicated resources and safe spaces for the LGBTQ population. To access specialized support and community resources, Bergen County’s large LGBTQ population of nearly one million people had to travel to Hudson County, Essex County or even New York City. Now, the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance (BCLA) has been formed to fill that void.

This lack of LGBTQ-focused resources was pointed out to a Bergen County resident when he witnessed members of the local LGBTQ community dying during the COVID pandemic – not from COVID but from a lack resources focused on the needs of these people.

“The lack of resources, such as medical support for transgender people and for members of the local LGBTQ+ community struggling with mental health and addiction issues, was leading to many unnecessary consequences and even untimely deaths among our people” , said BCLA co-founder Antoine Torres.

This lack of adapted services has real, and too often horrific, consequences for families. For example, the Trevor project 2021 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that 42% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. This figure exceeds 50% for non-binary and transgender youth. In particular, the survey draws attention to “disparities in mental health care, discrimination and food insecurity” as well as the additional isolation caused by the COVID pandemic as major contributors to these statistics.

Torres points out that in Bergen County, as well as across the country, this lack of LGBTQ-focused resources can cause lifelong harm to LGBTQ people and their families — as well as broader harm in society as a whole. In addition to much higher suicide risks, many LGBTQ youth fail to reach their full potential, as bullying and increased isolation can often lead to mental health issues and addictions which then go unaddressed. specialized services. Left unchecked, many of these problems result in those affected leading far less productive lives. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on the local economy, as many of these individuals fail to retain employment or realize their full career potential.

With the latest Gallup poll showing that 21% of Gen Z individuals identify as LGBTQ, this type of significant unrealized potential in our community can even have significant impacts on local economic well-being.

Torres and her husband, Nick O’Neill, decided something had to be done and came together with other members of the local LGBTQ community to form the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance in early 2021.

Following a needs assessment the group conducted during Pride Month 2021, BCLA has implemented several programs to help the local LGBTQ population, with several more in the pipeline.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheels,” Torres said. “Bergen County offers many incredible services to its residents. It’s just that many of these services are not suitable or accessible to our LGBTQ population. We shouldn’t feel compelled to go to New York, Newark or Union City to be able to access the services we need. We believe that spending a small amount to adapt these local services to our community can pay huge dividends to both our community and society as a whole.

“What we’re trying to do is start building community within the local LGBTQ community. Our youth and elders in particular need safe spaces and support groups where they can feel comfortable being themselves and feel a sense of belonging. This, combined with targeted mental health resources, will go a long way in supporting our community while helping more members of our community achieve more of their true potential.

These messages are reinforced when speaking with others who have joined the effort and who meet every two weeks in lively and enthusiastic online BCLA Advisory Board meetings.

Karen Rappaport, who is instrumental in leading BCLA’s new funded seniors program, said, “LGBTQ seniors participating in our group, which meets monthly in person and online, have often felt very isolated and look to our group to help them create a community among them. local LGBTQ seniors.

I really hope BCLA gives us more of a voice and helps us fight for access to local services where we live.

In addition to the senior support group, which meets at Rutherford Pancake House on the second Tuesday of each month and online every third Friday, BCLA has also set up a weekly support and harm reduction group for those suffering from the addiction effects. Local therapist Dwight Panozzo, who leads this group, highlighted how harmful drugs can be to members of the LGBTQ community and how many just need to feel supported by others who understand their struggle on their journey to recovery. sobriety.

Another local therapist and active advisory board member, Craig Cutler, noted how difficult it has often been for members of the local LGBTQ community to access specialized mental health resources, which he and others who join the BCLA effort are trying to address, including through a conference scheduled for the spring, many of the mental health issues facing the transgender community.

Ari Jordan, who runs BCLA’s social media, sees working for the local transgender community as particularly important. “This is part of the LGBTQ population that has been marginalized and subjected to violence and abuse for far too long. I really hope BCLA gives us more of a voice and helps us fight for access to local services where we live.

Torres and Dumont High School PE teacher Jess Horan also work to mobilize resources for local LGBTQ youth — everything from extra support for homeless LGBTQ youth to regular online discussion groups and a closet. queer, allowing non-binary and transgender members of the community to have access to clothing that matches their own gender identity. There will also be face-to-face meetings of LGBTQ youth, both through work with the Rainbow Café, which has provided a safe space for LGBTQ youth in Cresskill since 2009, and through an LGBTQ ball planned for later in the year.

The group is still far from having its own dedicated space for a community center. “It will take time and a lot of fundraising,” O’Neill said.

Torres added, “Assuming COVID restrictions continue to lift and everything starts to open up again, we will have more and more in-person meetings at various locations around the county until we can finally get our own. home and a permanent safe space for our community.

BCLA has come a long way in a short time, and I hope we see great things from them and for Bergen County’s LGBTQ population in the future. The group expects to be particularly active in the county during Pride Month, with many events planned. In the spirit of not reinventing what already exists, BCLA plans to reinforce some of the large Pride events and flag raisings that already exist in Bergen County towns such as Ramsey, Mahwah, Tenafly and Leonia. So look for BCLA at all Bergen County Pride events where you can learn more about the organization’s plans. In the meantime, check out the website and social media feeds. If you would like to get involved, be added to the BCLA mailing list, or have any questions about BCLA’s work, you can contact the organization by email: [email protected]

Jill E. Washington