“Growing up in the Russian-speaking Jewish community, I haven’t yet found much support in expressing my queer identity at home, but at the JCH, I can explore my identity surrounded by supportive people.” Hearing these words from a Russian-speaking gay Jewish teen provides a glimpse into the incredible work of the new Marks JCH LGBT Russian-speaking Teen Initiative. Supported by a generous grant from the Neighborhood Improvement committee at UJA-Federation of New York, the program builds on the foundation created by the modest Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) already established within the Zehut Teen Center at the J, by providing new professional resources for support not previously available for the teens in Bensonhurst. Through these resources, teens now have access to LGBTQ and allied role models and support, Through regularly scheduled meetings, participants acquire knowledge that is then shared through their networks and families, with the goal of creating a safer neighborhood community for teens of all sexual and gender identities. Homophobia and ignorance abounds in the émigré community; the J has created a framework in which teens from émigré families can come out in a safe and supportive environment.
To date, teens have partnered with local college LGBTQ student-run organizations to learn skills needed to share their stories and to feel more comfortable speaking in front of audiences. Collaborating with the local GSAs at nearby Brooklyn Studio High School, Fort Hamilton High School, Edward R. Murrow High School, and New Utrecht High School (where a majority of our teens go to school), Marks JCH has created a larger teen LGBTQ community presence in a neighborhood that desperately needs exposure to the rich diversity outside and awareness training on such communities. We are strategically situated to work with youth in high schools that have a large RSJ and diverse demographic. Welcoming sessions and storytelling workshops have helped teens in our community get to know teens in the GSA, dispelling stereotypes and creating teen bonding opportunities that otherwise would not exist.
It is the goal that this initiative leads to a greater shift in RSJ attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity understanding in our local community, which is populated largely by immigrants for whom life in America is new and strange. If we can create greater acceptance in the community, we can continue increasing teens’ comfort in LGBTQ spaces and safety in the community. By promoting teens’ connection and acceptance of their RSJ identities we are ensuring their long-term engagement in the community. We also want to increase direct support provided for LGBTQ teens by bringing in professionals who can properly assess teens’ needs and refer them for further help as needed.
Through personal conversations and in a group context, Marks JCH GSA teens have been expressing their excitement for this group. Several teens have begun to take on leadership roles in the GSA to promote LGBTQ awareness and inclusion throughout the agency. GSA teens are demonstrating greater confidence speaking to other teens regarding the program which is reflected in increased recruitment numbers. Several of these teens have ‘come out’ to their family members since joining the GSA and were comfortable sharing the experience not only with the group but with other members in our community. The Marks JCH LGBT RSJ Teen Initiative is encouraging changes in our programs to promote LGBTQ inclusion as well.