LGBTQ community center for NJ’s most populous county

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Anthony Torres, Nick O’Neill, and Layna from Bergen County LGBTQ organization.
Bergen County LGBT Alliance volunteers: (from left) Anthony Torres, Nick O’Neill, and Layna.

Bergen County LGBTQ activists working on safe spaces and community building

Bergen County has the largest population of any county in New Jersey, yet it has never had its own LGBTQ community center. That is, until now. There are plenty of malls in this primarily suburban county, but there are few dedicated resources and safe spaces for the LGBTQ population. To access specialist support and community resources, the almost one million strong population of LGBTQ people in Bergen County had to go to Hudson County, Essex County, or even New York City. Now, the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance (BCLA) has been established to fill that void.

This lack of LGBTQ focused resources was brought home to one Bergen County resident when he saw members of the local LGBTQ community dying during the COVID pandemic — not because of COVID but because of a lack of resources focused on the needs of those individuals.

“Lack of resources, such as medical support for transgender individuals and for those in the local LGBTQ+ community struggling with mental health issues and addictions, were leading to a lot of unnecessary consequences and even premature death among our people,” said BCLA co-founder Anthony Torres.

This lack of tailored services is having real, and too often horrific, consequences for families. For example, the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year. That figure goes above 50% for non-binary and transgender youth. In particular, the survey calls attention to “mental health care disparities, discrimination, and food insecurity” as well as the extra isolation brought about by the COVID pandemic as leading contributors to these statistics.

Torres points out that in Bergen County, as well as in the country as a whole, this lack of resources focused on the needs of LGBTQ people can cause life-long damage for LGBTQ people and their families — as well as wider damage across society as a whole. In addition to much higher risks of suicide, many LGBTQ youth are failing to fulfil their full potential because bullying and greater levels of isolation can often lead to mental health issues and addictions that are then not being addressed through specialist services. Left unchecked, many of those issues result in affected individuals leading much less productive lives. In turn, that can have significant knock-on effects for the local economy as many of those individuals fail to hold down jobs or fail to realize their full career potentials.

With the most recent Gallup poll showing that 21% of Generation Z individuals self-identify as being LGBTQ, this type of significant unrealized potential across our community can even have significant impacts on local economic well-being.

Torres and his husband, Nick O’Neill, decided that something had to be done and got together with other members of the local LGBTQ community to set up the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance in early 2021.

Following a needs assessment that the group carried on during Pride month 2021, BCLA has set up several programs to help the local LGBTQ population, with several more in the pipeline.

“We’re not looking to reinvent any wheels,” Torres said. “Bergen County has lots of amazing services available for its residents. It’s just that a lot of those services are not catering to or accessible by our LGBTQ population. We should not feel that we have to go to New York City, Newark, or Union City to be able to access the services that we need. We believe that spending a small amount on tailoring these local services to our community can pay huge dividends for both our community and also for society as a whole.

“What we are trying to do is to start building a community among the local LGBTQ community. Our youth and our seniors in particular need safe spaces and support groups where they can feel comfortable being their true selves and feel a sense of belonging. That, combined with some focused mental health resources, will go a long way to support our community while helping more of our community members realize more of their true potential.”

These messages are reinforced when speaking with others who have joined the effort and who meet every other week in lively and enthusiastic online meetings of BCLA’s Advisory Committee.

Karen Rappaport, who is instrumental in leading BCLA’s new funded seniors’ program, said, “LGBTQ seniors attending our group, which meets monthly both in person and online, have often felt very isolated and are looking to our group to help build a community among local LGBTQ seniors.”

I really hope that BCLA will give us more of a voice and help us fight for access to services local to where we live.”

In addition to the senior support group, which meets at Rutherford Pancake House on the second Tuesday of every month and online every third Friday, BCLA has also set up a weekly support and harm reduction group for those who are suffering from the effects of addiction. Local therapist Dwight Panozzo, who leads that group, pointed out how damaging drugs can be to those in the LGBTQ community and how many just need to feel supported by others who understand their struggle on their road to sobriety.

Another local therapist and active member of the Advisory Committee, Craig Cutler, noted how difficult it has often been for those in the local LGBTQ community to access specialist mental health resources, something that he and others joining the BCLA effort are trying to address, including through a conference planned for the spring on many of the mental health issues facing the transgender community.

Ari Jordan, who runs BCLA’s social media, sees the work for the local transgender community as especially important. “This is part of the LGBTQ population that has been marginalized and subjected to violence and abuse for far too long. I really hope that BCLA will give us more of a voice and help us fight for access to services local to where we live.”

Torres and Jess Horan, a high school phys ed teacher from Dumont, are also working to marshal resources for local LGBTQ youth — everything from additional support for LGBTQ homeless youth to regular online chat groups and a queer closet, allowing non-binary and transgender members of the community to access clothing matching their own gender identity. There will also be in-person get togethers of LGBTQ youth, both through work with the Rainbow Café, which has been providing a safe space for LGBTQ youth in Cresskill since 2009, and through an LGBTQ Prom planned for later in the year.

The group is still some way from having its own dedicated space for a community center. “That will take some time and a lot of fundraising,” O’Neill said.

Torres added, “Assuming COVID restrictions continue to lift and everything begins to open up again, we will increasingly have in-person meetings at various locations around the county until we can finally get our own home and a permanent safe space for our community.”

BCLA has come a long way in a short time, and hopefully we will see great things from them and for the LGBTQ population of Bergen County in the future. The group expects to be particularly active around the county during Pride month, with lots of events planned. In the spirit of not reinventing what already exists, BCLA is planning to reinforce some of the great Pride events and flag raisings that already exist among Bergen County towns such as Ramsey, Mahwah, Tenafly, and Leonia. So look out for BCLA at all Bergen County’s Pride events where you can learn more about the organization’s plans. Meanwhile, check out the website and social media feeds. If you would like to get involved, be added to the BCLA mailing list, or have queries about BCLA’s work, you can contact the organization via email: nick@bergencountylgbtq.org.

bergencountylgbtq.org