By: Maria Sestito
Accepting. Euphoric. Sacred.
These were just some of the words people used to describe the “In This Together” conference at the Embassy Suites on Saturday.
A diverse group of individuals, some strangers to one another, opened up and shared their fears, anxieties, and aspirations about how to support LGBTQ. Teens and parents shared their inspiring stories – stories that weren’t necessarily flattering, but that were vulnerable, raw and honest.
“I didn’t expect to see something like this growing up in Napa,” said Eduardo Rivera, 21. The conference, hosted by LGBTQ Connection Napa, was exciting to see, he said. When Rivera first got involved with LGBTQ Connection, he finally felt comfortable in his skin and was able to talk about LGBTQ issues, like coming out as “gay.” This is the first time Napa has had such a conference, but Rivera says he hopes there will be more to come and that more people from the Latino community will attend.
It took time for Rivera to be comfortable enough to come out to his family as it does many other LGBTQ youths. The focus of the conference was about how to support those youth through their journeys.
“The love that I see here today is the love that I want to see in every single family, every single school and every single community,” said Laurin Mayeno, co-founder of Somos Familia and Out Proud Families.
Even if a parent doesn’t like or agree with their child, it doesn’t mean that that parent can’t find ways to support the health and well-being of their child, Mayeno said during a family workshop at the conference, adding that parents should show their children they care about them by supporting them instead of rejecting them.
Making your child keep their LGBTQ identity secret, pressuring them to act or dress a certain way, blocking access to resources and friends, blaming them when they’re discriminated against or physically hurting them are all things that can make a child feel rejected. A high level of rejection make LGBTQ youth eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report high levels of depression, three times as likely to use illegal drugs and three times as likely to be at a high risk for HIV and STDs, according to a study by the Family Acceptance Project.
Janel Bello, the parent of a transgender youth, admitted that she has had her struggles with during her son’s transition. Being able to be honest about those struggles with other parents without being judged was a positive experience. At times, it can feel like you’re the only one going through this and having this experience, but you’re not, she said.
“Events like this are very good for the youth,” said her son, AJ, 15. Both of AJ’s parents have been supportive of him – first when he came out as a lesbian and again when he came out as being transgender. His mom, Bello, said that it isn’t always easy, but that the most important thing is AJ’s happiness.
Many of the parents at the conference had seemingly already hit a level of acceptance of their children. Not every LGBTQ youth has that experience with their parents.
A first-year student at Napa Valley College said that although the event was great, she wishes more people who aren’t as accepting would come out for the education. Due to safety concerns, she did not wish to be named.
“I have really traditional parents,” she said. “They were raised in a completely different time.” Stressing the fact that she loves her parents, she said that it is frustrating because they have actively denied her lesbianism since she came out a few years ago. “I want them to be in my life, but I also want them to want to be in my life,” she said.
Still, the conference was an amazing experience, she said. “It was heartwarming to see all the families out here… I’m proud to see an event like this in Napa.”
She also said it was good to hear how other parents with LGBTQ were feeling. She knows that there is an education process for some people, but it’s important for parents to try, she said. “As long as they’re trying – that’s all that matters. Children need to understand it’s going to be a process.”
“I heard a lot of peoples’ stories talking about how they wished they had this when they were going through it as a parent or even as a youth,” said Eduardo Galarza, 18, a senior at Napa High School. Galarza shared a personal poem about his experience during the event. It made him feel vulnerable, but knowing that it might help someone else got him through it, he said. “It means a lot to me… to be able to give them [youth] the support that they’re not getting.”
Galarza said that he found his community within PFLAG and LGBTQ Connection. “It’s really a second home for me,” he said.
“Growing up here in Napa, people didn’t talk about this topic,” said Ian Stanley, LGBTQ Connection Program Director. The conference was a way for families to open up and talk about their experiences and figure out how to build a network of support for their children. “If we’re not talking about it and finding ways to support the families and LGBTQ youth, people are isolated and really at risk,” he said.
The 130 or so youth, parents, caregivers, professionals and elected officials who attended the event made it “wildly successful,” Stanley said. By the end of the conference, he was already getting requests for more events, he said. And, although a yearly conference is planned, depending on funding, Stanley said that the work to build a network for LGBTQ youth and their families needs to continue year-round.