ATLANTIC CITY — Mayor Don Guardian never came out as gay to his conservative Catholic parents as gay, but today embraces that identify as part of who he is.
“I would like to make it easier for all of you,” he told a group of about 25 mostly young people at a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Leadership Panel at the Boys and Girls Club Thursday might.
Mark Pino, a student at Mainland Regional High School where he organized a gay-straight alliance, coordinated the event to reach out to other young LGBT residents in the county.
Guardian, 62, said he was active in both Boy Scouts and the church as a youth, serving as an altar boy, then later working for the Boys Scouts.
“I didn’t even know I was gay,” he said. “College was the first time I met gay people.”
He said being gay in the 1960s and 70s was very hard. He never told his parents before they died because he realized it would be too difficult for them.
“It is so much more accepted now,” he said. “Before, you couldn’t even travel. You looked for a rainbow flag on an establishment. That’s how you knew you’d be safe.”
Asked about his treatment today, he said most people just want to know how he’s going to help the city.
Asked specifically about his treatment by Gov. Chris Christie, and if he thought Christie was homophobic, Guardian said Christie has never said anything specifically homophobic to or about him. But he does wonder about the tone of some statements the governor has made, while noting he is not the only one to whom Christie is rude.
“He can be so mean for no reason,” Guardian said. “He acts like a 12-year-old.”
Atlantic City attorney Jeffrey Wilson came out as gay at 16. Jeremy Bingaman, education director at Lucy the Elephant got married, had two children, and was leading a double life before he accepted that he was gay.
“I grew up in a very religious family in central Pennsylvania,” Bingaman said. “I knew I was different, but I didn’t know I was gay.”
He said coming out was difficult for everyone. He got divorced and moved away to start over while still staying active in his young children’s lives. His mother cried “for a month” when he told her, but when he finally told his father, he learned that his father’s brother was gay and was shunned by the family.
“He said he would not treat me the way his dad treated his brother,” he said. “It’s actually made us stronger together. You have to realize who you are, and accept who you are.”
Wilson said his family was concerned for him as a black gay male, but remained supportive.
“We are not broken,” he told the audience. “It’s tough being different, but cherish it. Honor and respect yourself.”
He said he works with young people all the time, and the new LGBT issue is the treatment of transgender youth.
“People don’t know how to treat a trans child,” he said. “But we have to take care of each other. We have to start educating people. There are kids with teachers who just refuse to call them by their new names. “
Melanie Rice of Galloway Township said she grew up thinking having crushes on other girls was just a normal part of growing up. In college she realized she preferred women, but said it was still a confusing time.
“It took a few years to figure it out,” she said.
Pressure from family and the entertainment industry kept her from being as open as she would like. But once she established herself, she stopped worrying about having separate public and private lives, though there was some early pushback in the 1990s.
“Today so many celebrities are out,” she said. “There are no labels. Love is love.”
Pino said LGBT youth need mentoring and support. He recalled as a sophomore watching a movie about an anti-gay church and going home in tears.
“I felt like the world was out to get me,” he said. He tried to get the school to agree to remove the video, but said it took support from the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to get results. He was also the victim of online cyber bullying.
He and “14 straight friends” started the gay-straight alliance diversity group at the school, which he said has now grown to include students from all different groups.
“It’s important to have safe spaces in schools,” he said. “Changing the culture in my school took work, but it was worth it.”
Tari Badil of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance said they offer a safe space for people ages 18-29 at the site at 32 S. Tennessee Avenue. Younger people can attend with parental consent.
Badil said he was severely assaulted once in Philadelphia for being gay, and understands the need for a safe place to go.
“Don’t let anyone break your spirit,” he said.
Tracy Parker, 27, a teen advocate at the Boys and Girls Club, is gay and said she is willing to work with students who want to start a gay-straight alliance at Atlantic City High School.
“As a teenager, it’s hard to understand it,” she said. “Some students are frightened. But I’ve walked the path. I want to make sure all kids are comfortable here.”