Old Friends, New Beginnings

BY TOM APPROBATO | On a Saturday in late autumn, almost a hundred of us gathered to celebrate the first annual reunion of the membership of Gay & Lesbian Youth of New York (GLNY).

Gay Youth was formed in the summer of 1969 by a group of teenage members of the Mattachine Society, the pioneering gay male organization founded more than 15 years earlier. We teens decided that we could, should, and would speak for ourselves. This attitude, reinforced by the riots that took place that June at the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village, started a movement that would last more than 30 years.

Gay Youth would over time emerge as the parent of every other gay and lesbian student group throughout the United States. From humble beginnings, with a handful of dedicated teenagers, Gay Youth left a legacy for LGBT youth in America.

Pioneering support group for New York gay youth holds historic meet-up.

GLNY was in fact one name for an organization whose mast changed several times over the years – Gay Youth; Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York (BiGLYNY); and Bi, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Youth of New York (BiGLTYNY) at different times were the words on the common banner.

The reunion, held on November 3, emerged from a spontaneous and overwhelming re-connection of members on the Internet. It all began when one alumnus formed a MySpace group in February 2007 to see what old GLYNY members were active in cyber space. This inspired someone else to create a message board to reach out to other friends. As old friends began to re-connect, the phenomenon took on a life of its own.

The one desire expressed over and over again was a hope to see each other face-to-face. A reunion committee was formed by a core group of volunteers to arrange the event. As more feedback came in, it became clear that most people wanted the planning to result in more than a one-time event. The decision was made to plan for annual reunions and meetings.

The reunion committee soon transitioned into a board of directors of the newly incorporated alumni group called GLYNY Again, with a new message board and domain name established for the organization. Through Internet searches and personal contacts, members from all incarnations of the group were invited to join GLYNY Again.

By November, the group had registered more than 150 members on the GLYNY Again message board at www.glyny.org, and another 50 former members had been contacted. Although the alumni were willing to chat on the Internet, it remained uncertain how a face-to-face gathering would turn out.

The answer surprised even some of the strongest doubters.

Eighty nine alumni spanning the years 1969 through 1994 traveled from their homes all across the country to answer a common call. Members came from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona, California, and even the U.K. There were men and women of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and even persuasions with one common bond – the feelings of friendship established during our teenage years.

We shared some of the toughest coming-of-age experiences with each other. In a peer-run support group, there was no place for false sympathy. Our bonds of friendship and support were earnest and heartfelt.

Mark Segal, one of the founders of Gay Youth from 1969, addressed the membership with a stirring speech. Although Mark now lives in Philadelphia, he made the trip into New York to see his contemporaries and his surrogate progeny. He spoke passionately about the lifelong friendships he established as well as the ongoing effect that this teen support group has had on his life.

“It's like the graduation I never had,” Mark said, “I never went to my high school prom or my high school reunion. This is my prom. This is my reunion.”

Many of us in the audience echoed those sentiments as we sat in a big circle and introduced ourselves.

As the chairperson, I addressed the membership and welcomed them to the first annual reunion event. As I looked at the faces in the crowd, I was surprised to recognize quite a few of them. Some I had not seen in 20 years. A good number of faces were fuller, hair was grayer, a few wrinkles had popped up here and there; but they were faces I knew and had kept in my heart.

As I looked at the crowd and then at my written speech, I decided that some of the more eloquent turns of phrase would not be necessary. These were not complete strangers to me. These people helped me to survive my teenage years. These people helped get me through high school. These people supported me when I lost my first friends and contemporaries to AIDS. I was surrounded by friends. I crumpled up my speech, threw it away, and spoke from my heart.

There was a passion to our teenage activism. There was a desire to change the world. We had better opportunities than other gay teens before us and we made a difference. The question was how much of a difference did we make?

The answer was more subtle.

The difference we made was with each other. We had formed familial bonds that seem not to have disintegrated over time. Oh sure, there is the weird uncle, dotty aunt, and more than one or two wayward sheep wandering around; but a family nonetheless. This was a high school reunion. This was a family reunion. This was reuniting a fellowship that had been separated but not severed.

Some groups of people gravitated toward each other in the familiar patterns they first established years ago. Other people sat amongst complete strangers and started new friendships. In the end, we all joined together in a big, safe circle. Circles within circles. Strength within strength.

We had gay, straight, bisexual, and transgendered members in our organization over the years. People came and stayed because they found a supportive environment to make friends, express themselves and grow.

We hoped to bring a spark of nostalgia back to the alumni of Gay Youth and GLYNY. In the end, I think we left them and ourselves with something more. We asked the members what they wanted, hoped for, or expected from GLYNY Again. They responded that, at the very least, they wanted this to be an annual event – and there will be a thrill to reconvene people from around the country year in and year out for short visits of reminiscence.

The other idea that garnered the greatest energy was the launch of an educational endowment for today's GLBT youth. Another idea that came up was a focus on documenting the history of gay teens from 1969 through now. We have a wealth of personal experience to draw on, and today's LGBT teens might not know as much about our shared teenage experiences.

Most of us grew up thinking, “I must be the only one who feels this way.” Teens today may not have as strong a fear of rejection when coming out, but they can definitely benefit from recognizing and understanding what it is that we all went through. GLYNY Again will work to document a personal history of our membership on our developing home page.

Ed Beverly, who now lives in New Jersey, told me that the reunion was everything he hoped it would be. Admitting he had not seen some people for nearly 20 years, Ed said he looked forward to his return to New York.

“GLYNY meant a lot to me growing up,” he said. “When I was coming out, I relied on the friends I made to help support me when my parents freaked out.”

Putting his arm around an old friend, Ed flashed a smile: “It's also great to see so many good looking people here too.”

That feeling of camaraderie as old friends reunited and new friendships were forged flowed over many of the participants.

Fred Vaughn flew back to New York from his home in Wisconsin.

“I can't believe all of the people that are here,” Fred began, “I never expected to see some of these people again.”

I asked him what he meant by this.

He responded, “I just never expected to come back to New York and see people from my teenage years. I come to New York and usually just visit with my family. I haven't thought about looking up GLYNY people.”

I asked him how he feels about seeing his old friends again.

With deep emotion in his voice, and a Cheshire-cat smile on his face, Fred responded, “It feels like coming home.”

I asked Peter Morley, the vice-chairperson of GLYNY Again, about how he felt the reunion turned out.

“This is so much better than I thought it would be,” Peter responded, a permanent smile seemingly glued to his face. “I hoped that a lot of people would come but we have over a hundred people here tonight.”

I asked Peter what this reunion meant to him personally. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled broadly again.

“I always wondered whatever happened to so many of my friends. A lot of people moved away. Some passed away. I wondered if there was any way to recapture some of the great times we had as teenagers. It looks like we were right. Now we can work together again as a group and do something good for our community and ourselves.”

For me personally, this is another journey. It was incredibly touching to see a return of so many faces from so long ago. GLYNY was a support group that I needed growing up gay in New York City. I no longer need a gay support group. My sexuality is far less of an issue now than it was 20 years ago.

GLYNY was never just a gay support group though. We had members who were homo, straight, and bisexual. It was a support group for like-minded people. GLYNY Again hopes to become something that blends the past and the present. As an alumni group, we hope to reunite as many people as possible and we are already planning the 2008 reunion event. And as friends reunited, we hope to lead again.