He stopped going to school for months at a time, hiding out on the roof of his apartment building on 31st Avenue. Not only did he not want to go to school, but he didn’t want anyone to notice him.
“I was afraid that if I spoke in class, people would hear my voice and automatically know I was gay,” he said. “That’s how terrified I was of being who I am today.”
After going to LGBT youth centers at the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) and the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, Van Bramer came out, found his voice, and was eventually elected to public office.
“Now I don’t give a s*** if people know that I’m gay when I talk out loud,” he said.
Van Bramer shared his story at the official opening of the first comprehensive center in Queens to serve the LGBT community, located in Long Island City.
Called the Q-Center, it’s run by the LGBT Network, a nonprofit organization that provides services and programs for the LGBT community in Long Island and Queens.
The organization started 25 years ago as a master’s degree project for founder and CEO David Kilmnick. Today, the LGBT Network offers more than 30 programs that reach 350,000 people annually.
In addition to their new site in Long Island City, the network has three other centers in Woodbury, Bay Shore and Sag Harbor. They are in the process of building affordable housing for LGBT seniors in Long Island, and hope to replicate that project in Queens in the next five years.
For the last three years, the LGBT Network also ran a space at the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck. During that span, they worked with more than 60 schools and hundreds of seniors to provide health education and outreach.
Kilmnick said the organization is working to help people be themselves, stay healthy through education and access, and organize and advocate for change.
They launched a Safe Schools Initiative, working in conjunction with 60 schools, to address “rampant bullying” of LGBT youth. The network provides anti-bullying workshop for students, as well as training for faculty, staff and parents.
The organization also helps start gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs throughout schools.
For LGBT seniors, Kilmnick said the organization hosts “mingles” for seniors to meet and combat isolation and loneliness. If an older adult can’t reach the center, they send someone to visit them.
On the advocacy front, the LGBT Network partners with community groups to ensure LGBT people are safe where they “live, learn, work, play and pray,” Kilmnick said. For example, they partner with the New York Mets and the New York Islanders to host Pride Nights.
However, despite their services and the progress made in the last decade, Kilmnick said the LGBT community and other groups are “facing an assault on civil rights.”
He noted that anti-LGBT hate crimes are up 20 percent this year nationwide. In New York City, hate crimes against the LGBT community are up 30 percent, the largest increase in any metro area in the country.
“We are fighting for what is right,” he said, “and that is equality, justice and safety for every single American.”
At the opening of the Long Island City site, Kilmnick announced several new initiatives.
The LGBT Network will begin to combat the “hate crime epidemic” by working with the Queens District Attorney and NYPD. To ensure LGBT people feel safe reporting violence to law enforcement, they will also have a dedicated advocate from the center working on the victim advocacy program.
The LGBT Network is also beginning a new leadership training academy for LGBT youth. Kilmnick said he hopes these young people “become advocates in their communities with regard to sexual and reproductive justice issues.”
Beginning on March 1, the network will provide HIV testing and screenings for sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) on site in Long Island City. All tests will be free.
They will also offer even more HIV-prevention education in local schools and communities. Also beginning on March 1, the network will help people enroll in the Affordable Care Act and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).
“These challenges are great and can seem daunting,” Kilmnick said. “However, our community has a history of not only surviving, but thriving in situations like these.”
Nearly a dozen local elected officials attended the center opening, from federal representatives to local politicians. Congressman Joseph Crowley said while Queens may not have been there to support the LGBT community 25 or 30 years ago, the borough is “there today.”
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “The support is here to help them feel safe, feel accepted and appreciated for who they are.”
Councilman Daniel Dromm, an LGBT community leader in the borough, said it had always been a dream of his to have a space to call their own in Queens. He praised the LGBT Network particularly for their work in schools, reaching out to parents and teaching them how to accept their gay children.
“By doing that and getting the word out to other parents, that these LGBT kids are all of our kids, they’ve been making inroads in some of the more conservative areas here in Queens,” Dromm said.
Manhattan Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the first openly gay man elected to the assembly, recalled the role that Queens representatives played in helping pass marriage equality. He spoke about the importance of community spaces for the LGBT community.
He highlighted one community space in Greenwich Village, “the only gay-borhood” then, that was founded in the 1980s. That center later became home to all of the gay Democratic clubs in the city and other crucial nonprofit organizations that advance LGBT issues.
It was even the first place in New York that provided treatment for people using crystal meth, O’Donnell said.
“In the 70s, 80s and 90s, you probably couldn’t put up a space like this in Queens because it would be perceived as unnecessary, even though it was,” he said. “That’s why this is so important.”
Van Bramer, the only gay member of the City Council who is married, said the Q-Center will be especially important for today’s LGBT youth.
“At Bryant High School today, I am sure that there is a student at that school, and at every school, who is discovering their sexual orientation or gender identity, is struggling with how to talk about that, is wondering if they are the only one,” he said. “It is so incredibly important that we have places where we can come to where we can’t just learn how to feel good about who we are, but about who we love and how we love, which includes having sex.
“That stuff is hard to learn sometimes,” he added. “But centers like this give us the space, the time and the place to make that happen so we can be healthy and happy.”