GARDEN CITY, N.Y. – A New York group calling itself the first Parent-Teacher Association unit in the country dedicated to the needs of gay and lesbian youths is under fire from the president of the state PTA, who says permission was never granted to use the trademarked organization's moniker.
Maria Fletcher did not take a position Wednesday on whether the group should be given permission to use the PTA name, but expressed concern that it was focused too specifically on one constituency.
"We're an organization that prides itself on being for all children, regardless of race, creed, religion or sexual orientation," Fletcher said in a telephone interview.
James Martinez, senior manager of media relations at the National PTA, said the national organization knew of no PTA dedicated specifically to advocacy for gay students. He referred further questions to the state organization.
David Kilmnick, the head of an association of five nonprofits supporting the Long Island Gay Parent Teacher Association, said the group contacted state PTA officials in October but never heard back. Kilmnick contended the group merely wants to be another advocate fighting bullying and intimidation of homosexuals in school. The group holds its first meeting Wednesday night on Long Island.
"The argument against this reminds me of the debate about civil unions versus marriage and other civil rights debates in the past," said Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network. "We are not going to allow them to say that a Gay PTA is not welcome in the front of the school bus."
Kilmnick said he sent a letter to the state organization on Oct. 24, expressing interest in forming the PTA chapter, but never got a response.
"The person I spoke to at the state organization thought it was a fantastic idea," Kilmnick said. "We would be more than happy to sit down with them and explain why we should be doing this."
Fletcher, a longtime PTA member from Valley Stream, N.Y., said she did not receive a copy of Kilmnick's letter until a reporter forwarded it to her on Wednesday.
"There is a concern," she said. "I am not sure what we would do if some group came to us and said they want to have an African-American PTA or a Hispanic PTA. Our primary objective is we're for all children."
Fletcher said her organization was considering its options regarding the group, but said legal action was not an option at this time.
"We'll probably send a strongly worded letter," she said. "I mean, what would we gain by having a court fight?"
Unlike most PTA units that are affiliated with a particular community school, the Gay PTA is inviting parents and school officials from across Long Island to participate. Kilmick said the primary focus is to advocate for students who have been harassed in school because of their sexual orientation.
"There is an epidemic of bullying and violence in schools, and gay students are targeted more than any other group," he said. "For the most part, the local PTA organizations do not address this head on. Many parents have come to us and want to get involved; they want to do something to change the course of their child's life."
Laurie Scheinman of Port Washington said her 19-year-old son Sam announced he was gay about five years ago. She said she and her husband sought out community groups and others to discuss how to deal with the issue, but found few community resources.
"We are pretty progressive parents, I like to think," she said. "But we really knew very little about the gay movement. We tried to understand more and tried to wrap our heads around the political and emotional implications. We felt helpless and wanted to become educated."
She and her husband met Kilmnick years ago and discussed the possibility of forming a PTA for parents of gay children.
"We have to make it so that people do not feel like they're all alone. It would have been nice for me to have a go-to person when I was first dealing with this. But those people really didn't exist. Now, I would like to be a go-to person for a parent or families or kids dealing with this."
She said she would also encourage opponents of gay rights to attend the meetings.
"I hope that even people who are negative will come and have a discussion," she said. "They should come with their concerns and worries. I hope they all come and we can have a dialogue."
Kilmnick said he expected several dozen people would attend the group's first meeting, in Garden City.
"We want to be a model for other communities to follow," he said.