Arthur Lipkin, chair of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, opened the committee's hearing in the Leslie Phillips Theater at HCC by asking everyone in the room to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. He then referred back to the Pledge in explaining what the hearing was all about.
"We're seeking input from the community to get a good understanding of where your liberties and your justice are not fulfilled," said Lipkin. "We're here to find out what's working and what still needs to be done."
The commission extended an open invitation to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth and their supporters to attend the hearing on Thursday, June 21, and make public statements about their personal experiences. The group had convened a similar hearing at the State House in Boston the previous day. The goal was to identify issues affecting GLBT youth and then share those stories and make recommendations to policymakers in Boston.
"Personal testimony is absolutely essential," said youth commissioner Nora Shea, a junior from Belmont High School.
About 50 young men and women testified at the hearing, which lasted 3½ hours. Some had come from as far away as Gardner, Mass., to tell their stories, which recounted instances of both subtle and overt discrimination, lack of support from educators and families and outright violence.
The first person to speak was Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, 23, a former member of the commission, who came out as gay when he was 16 years old and a sophomore at Holyoke High School. He started the first GSA (gay-straight alliance) at the school. He said 30 students showed up for the first meeting, which was testimony to the importance and need for such a group.
Morse said he was proud to raise have raised the first rainbow flag above Holyoke City Hall in an event Monday that was attended by about 100 people.
"It was great to see all the folks show up for the flag raising," he said. "We're really proud of that fact and to recognize there are still students struggling in our schools."
Jossie Valentin, senior counselor at HCC, said it was a powerful message that the commission decided to come to western Massachusetts and hold a public hearing at the college. "When it comes to having our voices heard, we usually have to go to Boston," Valentin said. "That they came to hear our voices here sends a strong message."
Amy Epstein, coordinator for HERA, Holyoke Equal Rights Association, brought ten GLBT youth to the hearing, and they all testified.
"That was very moving and powerful," said Valentin.
One youth from Springfield talked about being beaten for being gay recently.
The main issues raised centered on homelessness among GLBT youth and lack of support from parents and educators. Lack of support on medical issues was also a common theme. Valentin said there is often a disconnect between policies set by the state Dept. of Children and Families and the experiences of these youths.
"I saw the commissioners taking many, many notes," said Valentin, who videotaped the testimony for the commission at their request. "They're taking it seriously and believe it's their responsibility to be a part of trying to bridge the gaps."
Photos: (Left) Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse testifies at a hearing of the Mass. Commission of GLBT Youth at HCC. (Right) Commission chair Arthur Lipkin opens the hearing at HCC. (Thumbnail) A young women from the youth group Out Now in Springfield, testifies at the hearing.