Thursday, May 5, 2016

Empowering Long Island's Gay Men of Color

Empowering L.I's Gay Men of Color
Pride for Youth Focuses on Black, Latino Communities 

via Bellmore Herald. March 2, 2016.  Read the original article here.

When Sony Abraham, 23, came out to his parents in the summer of 2013, he didn’t know how they would react or what to expect. Coming from a traditional Indian background, he didn’t have the most supportive environment growing up as a gay man struggling with his identity, he said.

“In Indian culture, it’s not OK to be gay. It’s viewed as a sort of shameful secret, at least mostly because there is so little exposure,” said Abraham. “People don’t accept or understand that LGBT is who we are.” After moving back to Floral Park from Buffalo, where he attended college, in January 2014, Abraham found the Mpowerment program. “I needed [to find] a group with kids my own age I could connect with,” he said. “You know, somewhere I could go and just feel comfortable to be who I am, and get away from the daily aggravations of just being a member of the LGBT community.” Abraham said he’s now happy and studying engineering at Hofstra University.

Gus Gonzalez, left, Mario Manaseri and Sony Abraham had a productive and lively meeting of the Mpowerment group.

Pride for Youth’s Mpowerment Program is designed to meet the needs of young gay, bisexual and transgender men, ages 17 to 26, with a special emphasis on African-Americans and Latinos. The program is based at the Long Island Crisis Center in Bellmore, and its main objective is to help young men stay free of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and to provide a safe space and support structure for gay, bisexual and transgender men in need.

“Now I feel like I could live a happy, healthy life, but I didn’t feel that way when I first came to Mpowerment,” Abraham said. “I saw no light, I saw no hope, I saw no dream. All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get through this, how am I going to get through school, get through life if I don’t have anyone supporting or understanding me?’”

“Mpowerment was like my solace, 
It was that place I could go to hang out, 
just be myself, and talk to other people like me
 who understand and relate to what I’m saying.”

“Mpowerment was like my solace,” he said. “It was that place I could go to hang out, just be myself, and talk to other people like me who understand and relate to what I’m saying.”

Thanks to the camaraderie and support that he received through the Mpowerment program, Abraham was inspired to get involved with another initiative called LGBT Immigrants of Long Island, which represents a community that he believes has too few advocates.

“We have like-minded individuals here [at Mpowerment] who are career-driven like me, and who understand and accept me, individuals that genuinely care about you and your wellbeing, and just want to see you live a healthy, open and happy life,” he said. “If they see that, then they know they’ve done their jobs.”

Pride for Youth was established in 1993 to serve Long Island’s LGBT community, offering free, individual, group and family counseling, sexual health services and education, and youth leadership opportunities.

Mario Manaseri, 24, is a Pride for Youth Services coordinator from Huntington, and he has seen the MPowerment program grow up from its inception in 2011. “I’ve been a part of the MPowerment group since it began,” said Manaseri. “I wish I had known about the program when I was in high school; it would have helped me a lot.” He noted Mpowerment’s focus on the African-American and Latino communities, which have traditionally been less accepting of those who are LGBT.

The Mpowerment program, along with the Young Men’s and HIV+ support groups, provided direct services to 369 gay and bisexual young men in 2014, 72 percent of whom were men of color, according to an annual report published by the LICC. “Gay people in the colored community are more affected by the HIV epidemic,” said Manaseri. “That’s a big reason we reach out to those communities; they are a higher-risk population.”

The culturally diverse staff works with young men individually, in groups and through community outreach and events to provide opportunities for them to socialize, develop supportive relationships and become educated about HIV/STD prevention and safer sex. During a “core group” meeting on Feb. 13, members gathered to discuss topics of concern to the LGBT community, schedule events and activities and socialize. Members, new and old, introduced themselves by name, zodiac sign and identifying pronoun (he, she).

Pride for Youth has had a lasting impact on the young people in the program, members say. 95 percent said the program has helped them to become more accepting, 88 percent reported that it has helped them to be more connected to their LGBT peers, 88 percent said they had come out to a family member or friend since taking part, and 84 percent said that program involvement helped them to deal with self-esteem issues, according to the 2014 Client Satisfaction Survey.

When we come together to support each other,
 it's comfort, support, solidarity 
and just awareness too.

“To me the program means empowerment,” said Gus Gonzalez, 21, a sociology student at Nassau Community College. “You can see it in its most basic sense; we all have different lives, we all have things going on outside of this club, but when we come together to support each other, it’s comfort, support, solidarity and just awareness too.

“I think it’s the fact that Long Island doesn’t really have that many places for the LGBT community to come congregate,” Gonzalez added. “Sometimes you really long to connect with people who have similar experiences and would be able to share ideas. Not only that but creating a family and a strong social network you can incorporate in your regular life makes all the difference.”

The members of the Mpowerment program gathered during a group meeting at the Pride for Youth Coffeehouse at the Long Island Crisis Center on Feb. 17.

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