NEWARK, N.J. - Just about every Friday Karina Rodriguez and Corina Adorno ride the PATH train from Newark Penn Station to hang out on Christopher Street in New York City.
They can be themselves there, do what heterosexuals take for granted. They can be a couple, hold hands, socialize with other gay and lesbian youths in lower Manhattan.
If they could, they would stay in their hometown -- Newark. But their lifestyle is not widely accepted, making it uncomfortable to be themselves, making it difficult to be safe.
We know the derogatory names, and we've heard the twisted logic that says "you're too cute to be gay." We know what follows next -- the bullying, the fear of being attacked.
"Here you have to mind yourself," Rodriguez, 17, said. "If you're a person trying to come out, it's hard, because everyone is always saying something to you. It's intimidating."
Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-LedgerKarina Rodriguez, left, and girlfriend Corina Adomo, walk through Newark, where they say their lifestyle is not accepted.
These young women don't hide their sexuality, but kids like them leave Newark and go where people's minds are not closed, where there are places to congregate freely, where they can talk about their lives and issues that affect them.
A space like this -- with resources, programs and counselors -- should have happened here six years ago, when Sharpe James was mayor. Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian from Newark, was killed in a bias crime when she rejected the advances of a man on Broad and Market streets, the crossroads of a city that Mayor Cory Booker said is on the rise.
Newark, unfortunately, didn't do much after Gunn's death.
The school district held a "no name-calling day" the following year, but talks with Mayor James for a lesbian and gay teen counseling center went nowhere.
The city is now working to change its ways, trying to be progressive. For the past six months, city and school officials have been meeting with gay advocates from the Newark Pride Alliance to start an after-school program for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning (LGBTQ) youths in the city. It would be the first center of its kind in Newark to deal with an often-ostracized population of young people.
Booker mentioned the program in his State of the City speech, saying he would not tolerate harassment of city youth because of their sexual orientation. If everything works out, organizers said, the program will start out in a city school this fall and put Newark on the map with other cities that have been providing services for gay and lesbian youths for years.
"To put it simply, it's been a long time coming," said James Credle, executive director of the alliance. "Too many people treat them as less than human."
The program will be modeled after one run by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a 30-year-old organization that serves LGBTQ youth in New York City. The institute deals with 1,000 youths a year from more than 200 ZIP codes in the metropolitan area and helps another 2,500 through outreach. Newark kids figure into that number, because they don't have many options in New Jersey's largest city.
"LGBTQ young people are far less provincial than straight young people," said Thomas Krever, executive director of Hetrick-Martin. "They will travel further for services because for many of them, it's not safe for them to receive services in their own communities."
So instead of reinventing the wheel, a volunteer committee of community stakeholders will pick the best of Hetrick-Martin and design a program for Newark's gay and lesbian young people. Most likely, its components will include counseling, health and wellness, career exploration, HIV education, GED programs for those who have dropped out of school and suicide prevention.
"We want a safe place for our youth," said Darnell Moore, an active member with the alliance. "They are one of the most vulnerable populations in our city."
Not just in Newark, but across the country. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network surveyed 6,209 middle and high school students in 2007 and learned that nearly nine out of 10 (86.2 percent) of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students experienced harassment at school, three-fifths (60.8 percent) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about a third (32.7 percent) skipped a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe.
Adorno, 16, believes the proposed after-school program will help Newark's gay and lesbian students come out and hopefully feel comfortable enough to join LGBT clubs at school.
There are only two in the district -- at arts and science high schools -- but Adorno believes there would be more if students weren't afraid. They fear reaction from friends and, sadly, from family members, some who have kicked their sons and daughters out of the house.
So when Booker talks about Newark lifting itself up, he understands the renaissance has to be more than structural. It has to be a renaissance of the mind.
This may take a while, but the after-school program is a good start.