PFLAG NYC Visits More Schools, Reaches More Students

PFLAG NYC has been changing lives and probably saving lives through its support groups for years. “I’ve never seen a person new to a PFLAG support group who didn’t feel better and feel changed after just one meeting,” Board Chair Suzanne Ramos said recently, “but we realize,” she added, “that many people who need us won’t find their way to a support group, so we have been doing much more out in the community to help.”

PFLAG believes that one of the best ways to help is to reach young people, straight and gay alike, in order to promote respect and understanding. According to the latest research, in a school system with 1.1 million students, close to 100,000 are most likely lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Therefore, PFLAG NYC aimed its sights on expanding its work in the New York City school system. The results have been dramatic.

Reducing homophobia with personal stories

PFLAG NYC Speaker at Urban Assembly Institute in BrooklynVolunteer speaker John Mazzei talks about LGBT people pursuing successful careers to students at Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science in downtown Brooklyn.

When we go into classrooms and tell our family stories,” explained Diane Coughlin, Chairperson of the Safe Schools Program, “the kids are so interested. They listen, they ask questions, often they talk about their own families,” she said. “This is probably the only normal conversation they’ve ever heard about gay people. It definitely changes them.”

Howard Accurso, a PFLAG NYC parent and Safe Schools Program volunteer, was moved by his first speaking experience at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, where he grew up. “I was so impressed by how much both the students and the teachers in the school opened up when they heard family stories from the speakers with gay people in their families. Some members of our audience added their own family stories. Others contributed many thoughtful questions, which showed that our message had hit home.”

Principals, counselors and teachers in the schools PFLAG NYC has visited have applauded the program’s work. Lisa Nola, director of the Carrera Treasure Academy student enrichment program, and other staff members at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women in Brooklyn, were alarmed by an escalating amount of homophobic language and general name-calling. They asked PFLAG NYC to participate in a Unity Day they had planned. “You changed the climate in our school,” said Ms. Nola after speakers from the Safe Schools Program and other organizations spent a half-day in her school, addressing the entire student body of 250 middle- and high-school girls.

Marvia Lindsay, principal of the Bronx Academy of Health Careers in the Gun Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, heard the a PFLAG NYC Safe Schools Program presentation to one grade level in her school and quickly invited the PFLAG teams to come back. “I want every class in the school to hear your program,” she told Drew Tagliabue, PFLAG NYC Executive Director. And come back they did, with several volunteers who ended up visiting the school on three more occasions and speaking to almost 500 students.

This is where we need to be,” said Ms. Ramos. “The potential for change is enormous. I had a young man come up to me after we had finished speaking at a high school recently, and say, ‘I’m really sorry about some of the things I’ve said to people I thought were gay. I won’t be doing it again.’”