This year marks the first in which the town of Guttenberg held an official celebration of Hudson County Pride Month.
Prior to a Pride flag raising ceremony and happy hour at town hall on Aug. 21, a panel discussion at the Gerald Drasheff Community Center drew dozens of North Hudson’s LGBTQ residents, activists, advocates, and members of local nonprofits.
“This is a kickoff event which started as an idea a few months ago by Councilman William Hokien, and once we brought Hudson Pride Center in, we put together a subcommittee for ideas,” Town Administrator Cosmo Cirillo said.
The panel drew members of Jersey City-based Hudson Pride Center, along with PFLAG, a support network of parents and friends of young people coming out as LGBT, and with GLSEN, an LGBT student advocacy organization that partners with local school districts.
The discussion addressed recent efforts to improve social and quality-of-life issues for the local LGBTQ community. While the group acknowledged there’s momentum in the fight for social progress, more work needs to be done.
Members of nonprofit organizations said that efforts to establish support programs in North Hudson have been well-received by school districts, police departments, and municipal governments.
In schools, the organizations are pushing for the adoption of student GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances), along with providing tools to educators, administrators, and counselors to ensure schools are welcoming to all students.
“We’re working in high schools in North Bergen, Union City, and West New York right now with LGBT students who may be undocumented, or living in low-income households,” Hudson Pride Center’s Mercy Villa said. “Right now, we’re working with Guttenberg’s Board of Education to have teachers undergo professional development training.”
Hudson Pride Center offers support groups for Hudson County residents between the ages of 13 and 24. The organization is trying to make its services known beyond its Jersey City headquarters.
“In Union City, one school adviser was able to work with the Board of Education to provide a bus specifically for LGBT students to attend our annual prom,” Villa said.
A North Bergen resident named Steph who identifies as transgender said that had she been more aware of the context of her experience growing up, she’d have been in a much better place.
“I find that children who are exposed to something in a healthy way are able to respond in a healthy manner,” she said. “I was very aware of my gender identity in that I didn’t feel like a boy. I didn’t have a way to express that, so I kept it to myself. I couldn’t find anything that represented me, and I felt isolated. That disconnect is still there, and I think exposure to these topics would benefit everyone’s mental growth and development.”
Local police departments are adopting new training directives specific to LGBTQ people. Guttenberg Public Safety Director Joel Magenheimer spoke highly of work it is doing with the Hudson Pride Center.
Panel members discussed things they’d like to see happen soon in North Hudson, where advocacy efforts started more recently than in towns like Jersey City and Hoboken.
Most Hudson Pride Month social events took place in Jersey City and Hoboken. A number of residents expressed interest in bringing that level of social activity closer to home.
“This is just the beginning, and Hudson Pride Center serves the entire county,” Hudson Pride Center COO Elizabeth Schedl said. “We have plans to start creating events throughout the year, and we realize there’s not much happening in North Hudson. So far, elected officials have been absolutely wonderful in creating this space and others, and we’re really looking forward to working with them.”
Speakers wanted more efforts on behalf of LGBTQ seniors in North Hudson, according to LGBT activist and Guttenberg resident Felix Padron. He recommended that residents connect with Sage, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, to accomplish this.
“As we become members of the elder community, many of us find ourselves without families or children, and without the support we need,” Padron said. “People see the older queer community as affluent people in pockets of New York or San Francisco, but we deal with every single struggle that everyone else has. I don’t want to survive anymore, I want to thrive.”
Administrators for the Hudson County Department of Family Services were on hand to discuss how they could assist LGBTQ members in navigating the healthcare system and acquiring basic needs like utilities and housing.
“There’s a few reasons why certain subpopulations aren’t being linked to healthcare,” Deputy Director Frank Mazza said. “Government subsidies, benefits, and healthcare involve different plans that cover different things. We want to educate the community, because they might get enrolled in a healthcare plan that doesn’t address their needs.”
This comprehensive panel discussion highlighting how community members can engage in LGBTQ issues drew a great deal of interest.
“Councilman Hokien knows what he’s doing, to say the least,” Mayor Wayne Zitt said. “We plan to build off of this, and make our network of support bigger and better.”