(AP) When Joe Belisle was growing up in the 1970s, there were no support groups or resources for teenagers questioning their sexuality. So, he and other teens made what they thought was the safest decision—they remained under the radar and hid their identities.
For Belisle, a gay teenager growing up in a devout Catholic household in Hadley, Mass., coming out could have invited physical or verbal violence, or exclusion from his family and religious community.
“The climate was very oppressed and scary,” said Belisle, now 57 and living in Stamford. “As a Catholic, I thought I was going to hell. I had attraction for another man, and I was having sex out of marriage so, two big sins, right there.”
It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s, while attending Syracuse University, that he decided to come out to friends and then his parents. Surprisingly, they were all supportive. But in a town without organizations that promoted and supported LGBTQ rights, Belisle still felt alienated.
“So, I clung to the community and I clung to the label,” he said. “That was gonna be my family, my new home. That’s what I did, I strongly identified with the gay community.”
In 1984, after graduating from college, Belisle moved to Manhattan and found a more satisfying and happy life as an openly gay man. He married his husband at 47 and adopted his 11-year-old daughter one year before the wedding.
But he’ll never forget what it was like growing up closeted, with parents who had never met another person like him. That memory is the primary reason he is devoted to supporting LGBTQ youth in Fairfield County.
“I wish I had something like this when I was a teenager,” he said. “I had no resources, nothing, and I didn’t want that for today’s kids.”
Belisle co-facilitates a group called Lighthouse, with licensed clinical social worker Debbie Katz. Lighthouse comprises 13- to 19-year-olds in the area and includes youth facilitators, who are former members, now in their 20s. It originally formed at First Congregational Church, but Kids in Crisis acquired the group last year. Now in its seventh year, Lighthouse invites LGBTQ youth and allies alike, to join. The group meets in Stamford but may expand to hosting meetings at the Arch Street Teen Center in Greenwich this fall.
Each Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m., at Stamford Hospital’s Tully Health Center, teens can find a safe and confidential space to discuss anything on their minds. As adult facilitators, Belisle and Katz refrain from telling students what to say, he said.
“What we do as adult facilitators is listen and allow people to be heard,” said Belisle. “If we hear something alarming or objectionable, we jump in. We don’t tell the kids what to think.”
Most area high schools have LGBTQ-friendly student-led groups, often called gay-straight alliances. But Belisle and members of the group said Lighthouse is something different. In some gay-straight alliances, attendance rates are low and sometimes transgender or non-gender-conforming youth are discriminated against, said Damien Daher, a 20-year-old youth facilitator at Lighthouse. In some, straight members dominate in numbers, making the LGBTQ population feel excluded or uncomfortable, said Daher.
Lighthouse is different and offers a layer of anonymity for students who may not be ready to come out about their sexuality since it’s hosted off-campus and away from school communities.
“The group is an endeavor of passion for me,” said Belisle. “I wanted this group to be a place for kids to come where they can be with each other and see others like them.”
Last Thursday night, six young people, primarily facilitators, sat alongside Belisle, a small turnout for the group, which usually draws larger numbers of teenagers. The conversation was informal, with some members whispering among themselves in side conversations and others knitting while sharing experiences of the week.
While rights for LGBTQ people have significantly improved, some in the group said there’s still a long way to go.
At 16, Sun Umphrey joined Lighthouse as a nonbinary person, or someone whose identity is not exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine. On Thursday evening, Umphrey, now 20, recalled an incident in which a local high school administrator had an issue with the bathroom Umphrey chose to use. At the time, Umphrey had already learned that Connecticut state law allows transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, but the administrator disagreed.
“She literally told me, `I don’t give a crap about the Connecticut state law,”’ said Umphrey. “I was a kid. I didn’t know that I could even really do anything about that. I just kind of accepted it and went on with it.”
The incident showed a person in power dictating that their own opinion was more important than the law—and also more significant than that of an already struggling teenager, said Umphrey.
“A lot of people who aren’t part of the LGBTQ community think that we just want special attention,” said Umphrey. “Like, `We have gay marriage now—so what else do you need?’ There’s a lot of issues going on. Kids are still getting bullied. Kids are still getting kicked out of their homes. There are laws that let people fire you for being gay still. There’s a lot more we need to do.”
LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts and engage in self harm, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit addressing the needs of people living with mental illness. The cohort is more than twice as likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol and many report feeling unsafe at school or missing a day of classes to avoid bullying, according to the organization.
Jose Lopez, a 20-year-old youth facilitator with the group, said he always struggled to make friends at school. He was socially awkward and was never really the kind of person his classmates cared for. A few times, when he had made acquaintances, the relationships didn’t last. Eventually, he became comfortable with just keeping to himself, he said.
As teenager, Lopez identified as bisexual. But after forming his first close friendship with Umphrey, he realized the label wasn’t accurate. Through their friendship, Lopez decided he was open to loving all people no matter their gender identity or sexuality.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean something sexual but just rather somebody you could really be close with,” he said. “The fact that I could get so close to somebody and that we could be happy existing near each other, that’s really what ultimately led to me figuring [it] out. I don’t care what [gender] the person is, if I’m comfortable with them, and they’re comfortable with me. I can be attracted to pretty much anybody. That’s how I see pansexuality.”
Similarly, for Jake Pavia, a 22-year-old member, the Lighthouse group has helped in finding a true identity.
“It’s really helped me find people who are like me, both personality-wise and sexuality, so I’ve come to make friends out of it and I’ve had a support group behind me,” said Pavia. “Either people have those same experiences and they’re there to help me out with it or they’re there just to listen _ and that’s what’s good about the group.”
In addition to its weekly meetings, Lighthouse holds special events four times per year. On Wednesday, the group is hosting its second such event, for free Harry Bennett Library in Stamford. The discussion will include information about laws protecting LGBTQ youth, among other topics. Open to the public, the 5:30 p.m. program will include pizza and a teen meet-and-greet with state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford. State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, and Stamford Board of Education President Andy George will also attend.
Without Lighthouse, Lopez said he would be a completely different person.
“For starters, I’d be a lot less educated, a lot less outspoken, a lot less social,” he said. “Because of this group, I’ve managed to `flower,’ for a lack of a better word. I really just want to make it clear that people can make connections and that there are people looking out for them.”
Belisle encouraged struggling youth to reach out to other LGBTQ adults or teens for guidance or attend meetings with Lighthouse or similar organizations such as Triangle Community Center in Norwalk.
“I think that everyone needs to come out in their own time,” he said. “Everybody has their own journey. I get that. I respect that. But the more people who come out, the more the world knows that we exist.”