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Westchester’s LGBTQ Youth, Front And Center At Center Lane

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Center Lane, a program of Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) and the county’s only community center serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, yet many people aren’t aware of the wonderful work the program has done—and continues to do—for LGBTQ young people and “straight allies.” Center Lane takes its name, according to its website, from its goal to lead LGBTQ youth “from the margins of society into the Center Lane.” 

The program began in 1995, as a safe and supportive space in which LGBTQ youth could learn, explore, and grow. Center Lane provides workshops, psycho-education, and counseling to more than 500 Westchester-area LGBTQ youths and their families. Center Lane also hosts social events—such as the popular annual Gay Prom and youth hangouts at their two centers in White Plains and Yonkers—and offers educational and cultural sensitivity training to schools and other nonprofit organizations, fulfilling a claim by Program Director Santo Barbagiovanni that “education is key” in advancing and sustaining this cause. 

In September, LGBTQ rights activists and Center Lane board members Michael Sabatino, a Yonkers city councilman, and Robert Voorheis hosted the 20th anniversary event at their Yonkers home. A highlight of the night was speaker and longtime LGBTQ rights crusader Edie Windsor, best known for her groundbreaking United States v. Windsor case in 2013—a milestone that declared the Defense of Marriage Act’s restriction of terms such as “spouse” and “marriage” to heterosexual couples as unconstitutional. 

Windsor spoke of the critical nature of the LGBTQ youth community’s needs. She expressed in particular a rising concern with homelessness, an issue that “shuts off your life so early,” Windsor said. “It’s so important that we grab them and help them and find a world for them,” she added. Center Lane is partnered with a number of organizations (namely Hope Community Services and Children’s Village) to address the increasing urgency of LGBTQ youth homelessness, which, Barbagiovanni said at the event, is “an epidemic in lower Westchester and in Manhattan.” 

Susan Lewen, WJCS’ director of development, praised Center Lane for giving young people the tools to find their way to a safe, healthy, happy, and productive life. To the small crowd gathered in a garden tent, she read pieces of anonymous program-participant feedback that gushed deep-set gratitude: I’m starting to feel like I’m not alone. “A lot of people wonder, now that we have same-sex marriage, that we won’t need these programs anymore,” said Barbagiovanni. “But we need them now more than ever. Just because the climate of LGBTQ issues is changing, it doesn’t negate the fact that there are still so many issues out there.”