When Miller Place alumni Doug Shapiro, Kate O'Brien and Michael Pesce went to high school as gay youths, acceptance at the time in the 80’s and 90’s was tough to come by.
Fast forward to 2013, and while there is more widespread acceptance, LGBTQ youth still must deal with the challenges of coming out. The three alumni teamed up with Live Out Loud’s Homecoming Project and Miller Place High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance to share their stories with students going through their own struggles and triumphs; sharing the important message that while it is never easy, it can get better.
Live Out Loud has been doing their Homecoming Project since 2008 as a way of connecting youths to role models and leaders in the LGBTQ community.
“Kids are coming out younger and younger,” said founder Leo Preziosi, Jr. “A lot of times the support systems aren’t there so…the LGBT community has to play an active role.”
Shapiro, a 1988 graduate of Miller Place, had originally decided to take part in the project before inviting friends O’Brien and Pesce. The singer, actor, and voice-over talent was thrilled to see the support systems that these students now have.
“It was pretty empowering and wonderful,” Shapiro said. “Each of us were able to bring a certain element that was needed. I didn’t realize I was gay in high school despite really obvious signs, but now to have kids that are out and proud and to have students there to support them is a complete turnaround.”
Pesce, who like Shapiro graduated from Syracuse University as a theater actor, graduated from Miller Place in 1995. A longtime friend of Preziosi, Pesce jumped at the opportunity to speak as someone who is gay and comfortable with the label of his sexual orientation.
“It was a chance to explain to these kids how it felt back then when understanding my own innate sexuality was very confusing and how I found my way from where they’re sitting, through college to what I’m living now; an adult life where everything has fallen into place,” he said.
“I know at their age they may not necessarily feel that that’s going to be the case, even though there is currently much more visibility for the LGBTQ community.”
The message touched Rebecca Ogno, president of the school’s GSA, who helped organize the event.
“It was just such an inspiring message that each and everyone shared that day,” Ogno said. “Even coming from me as president of the GSA, myself being openly gay, it really did affect me that much. I know for a fact that even the people in the audience that were straight were just so moved…it was absolutely beautiful.”
O’Brien, a 1991 alumna of MPHS, is now Director of Education for a Jewish nonprofit organization in New York City.
After marrying her wife in 2010, she felt more and more that she needed to tell her story, “If for no other reason than to open people to the possibility that coming out to themselves and to others – as LGBTQ or in other ways they keep hidden – is part of becoming who they were created to be.”
“I was terrified walking into MPHS again for the first time since I graduated,”
O’Brien laughed. “It was a reparative experience. I came to give my support and to create a space for dialogue and imagination. I was overwhelmed to feel so embraced by my co-presenters, former teachers, and the students.”
While there is clearly more widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community in today’s society, Pesce and Preziosi stressed that there is still a long way to go and the young kids and teens still have many obstacles to overcome.
“We’re not getting it right as a country,” Preziosi said. “There’s so much more that we can do to support students…high school really is the most important part.”
Pesce added, “It’s very difficult for myself as a member of the gay community to see what we’ve been seeing recently in the past couple of years, which is something those of us in the gay community have known for years, that the suicide rate is incredibly high for at risk youth, specifically LGBTQ. It’s very scary.”
If Ogno speaks for the majority of students in the room who listened to the three alumni speak, it’s clear that their message hit home and had a positive impact on everyone there.
“If anything it was just motivation, definitely inspiration to just keep going and keep being who you are,” she said.
“I would talk to all the kids in the school if I had the opportunity,” Pesce said, “ My story is one of an insecure gay youth, but all kids have something about which they feel insecure.
"All kids have to deal with the issue of ‘coming out’ in some way in reference to who they are or where they’re from. Kids are bullied for a myriad of reasons and no matter what that might be, we have to understand it and support them unconditionally.”