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Real Stories from Rainbow Room Alumni and Parents

    

Joey Viola 

Where do I even begin?  

Growing up in a conservative, catholic family wasn't easy for a gay boy. I was raised to dislike not only the queer community, but even others who weren't like us. I went to catholic school in most of my adolescent years. This, inevitably, made me a very sad, depressed child. I was bullied for being effeminate. Called faggot, gay boy, queer among other slurs that regarded my weight. When my family made the decision to move to Doylestown, PA and let me attend a public high school, it would be the most important change in my life. 

It wasn't soon after I found some close friends at CB West High School, that' I'd find the safe haven that would save my life. 

CB West showed me a more liberal, accepting demographic that gave me a little bit of relief. However, I still was too fearful to come out or be my true self around my family.  

Then I found the Rainbow Room.  

With my stomach turning and breaking a nervous sweat, I made my way to the basement of the Planned Parenthood after school one day. The basement was filled with a handful of queer kids and I was greeted with the warmest smiles by Marlene and Talya.  

After that meeting I was a permanent fixture at the Rainbow Room. It was there I was introduced to LGBT films, safe sex education, meaningful conversations and created friendships that have lasted even to today, 19 years later.  

It was because of the comfort I felt from RR that I was able to come out to my friends and eventually my family. It was a rough few years after coming out to my father, but because of the support and knowledge I received from RR, I was able to navigate through life as a young gay man.  

My relationship with my father has since healed as he became less ignorant to LGBT folk and more understanding of unconditional love. He is very much a part of my and my husbands' life. 

I feel as though without RR, my life would have looked a lot different. I had no other outlets to feel "normal." I fear my depression would have worsened into dangerous territory.  

The Rainbow Room still goes strong because it is NECESSARY! LGBT youth NEED a space. A SAFE space. The Rainbow Room saves lives. Marlene SAVES LIVES.  

Don't give these kids anymore reason to feel unloved, not normal or misunderstood.  

With Gratitude and Love, 

Joseph (Joey) Viola
CB West Class of 2004
Rainbow Room Alum Circa 2001 

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Shane Bagwell 

Springfield Township School District (2006) 

As a teenager, I'd only spend 2 hours a week at the Rainbow Room, but it was the brief period during which I could feel happy and truly be myself. The guidance I received from Marlene, Paul, Justin, and every other person helped me become the person I am today. Without the support I received from the volunteers and other youth members, I doubt I would have developed the self-esteem and sense of purpose that helped me get my life on track and led to my life as a Soldier, lawyer, and husband. There's no doubt in my mind that the Rainbow room was indispensible in getting me to where I am, and I couldn't possibly imagine the impact that they've had on so many of the region's LGBTQ+ youth. 

-Shane Bagwell

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H.A.P. 

Long before I came out as gay (and later Trans when I was an adult) I had trouble with school. By the time i was Eight I had survived the trauma that world later lead to my PTSD diagnosis and had been diagnosed Dyslexia.  What I remember from my childhood is alot of social policing of my gender and being sad, afraid and eventually angry. Institutions aren't really designed for people who are "to different ". I was at Lenape for seventh and half of eighth  grade and East for half of my Junior and Senior years. Ultimately I graduated  in 2006 from an alternate school the district paid for. In 12 years I was at 10 schools, of which 4 were public, 1 specialized  in learning  disabilities, 1 was private school with  a really low student  teacher ratio,  2 specializing in providing emotional support and 2 locations  of the same alternate schools (sort of a catchall). 

In middle school I used to buy the paper at Kenny's on the way to school and read it in Mrs. Cullen's classroom (my safe haven) before school. That is when I started to realize that not only were my classmates shouting homophobic abuse and shoving me in the halls but the world at large was debating  whether or not I had a place in it. Discussions of "gay marriage" and other LGBTQ+ civil rights issues were often used as an excuse to objectify and degrade people. That was the context  in which  I was experiencing  harassment. Mostly slurs the halls and shoves, but also instances of physical assault, all while I was trying to get an education with a learning disability and pre-existing  anxiety and depression. I very nearly didn't survive school let alone get a proper education.   

I found Rainbow Room shortly after returning to PA my Junior  year. My favorite thing about it is the culture that is created partially by the amazing  Staff and Youth leadership that we had over the years but also institutionally by the ground rules: no assumptions, be real, respect, right to pass and hold each other accountable. For once in my life I could be me. All of me, even flawed. I could hide out in the back or participate as I felt comfortable. It was our standard to meet people where they are. The amazing  thing  is  that because I was authentic when people when they liked me it was actually me, not a version  of me or an idea of me. They taught me self advocacy skills, confidence, self defense, sexual health, history and healthy relationships (something  not modeled in my family of origin). In a world that didn't  have  a place for us we were  taught to claim and hold a safe space for ourselves and other. And not just  LGBTQQAI+ people.  We were taught  to hold that space for people of all cultural, racial and ethnic  backgrounds, people  of different  faiths and people with different  physical  and cognitive  activities. Having  previously  attempted Suicide at the beginning of my Junior year and suffering  from depression it isn't hyperbolic to say I wouldn't have survived my senior year without Rainbow  Room. 

I remember when Marlene Pray was the director of Rainbow Room the first time and her continued support and programs afterwards. Her inclusive and dynamic programs taught my friends and I so much that we carry with us. We are safer, happier and stronger people for her presence in our lives.  

- HAP, class of 2006 New Hope Academy Doylestown 

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Dr. Talya Zemach-Bersin  

When I was in high school, the Rainbow Room was my beacon of hope for a healthy and successful future. It replaced my fear and loneliness with community. It replaced my feelings of powerlessness with a sense of leadership and responsibility. In a world that can be so hostile and demeaning to young people who don't fit a straight and narrow conception of what it means to be a valuable or good human being, the Rainbow Room offers a glimpse of what a more affirming, empathic, and liberatory world might feel like. It's not that the Rainbow Room was a utopian paradise -- it wasn't. My peers and I showed up with our wounds, our infinite pounds of baggage, our nightmares and prejudices and antagonisms. There, in what used to be a small basement room, we grew into better citizens and healthier individuals. People unfamiliar with the Rainbow Room might be inclined to think of it primarily as a social experience. But it is actually a place of both study and fugitivity. We were given safe harbor, and in that space, we were entered into what felt like forbidden study. We learned how to organize, how to build solidarities, how to see the world through an intersectional lens, how to disentangle our own souls from toxic patterns of socialization, how to foster mental and physical health in the face of a world that perversely wanted to deprive us of that wisdom. We came to the Rainbow Room disoriented and in many ways living lives unimaginable even to ourselves, and the Rainbow Room enabled us to safely pull ourselves out of darkness, shoulder to shoulder with a community that prioritized love, inclusion, and justice.  

Dr. Talya Zemach-Bersin 

Central Bucks West '03

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Rozz 

 The Rainbow Room for me has made a positive difference in my life. It helped me make most of my current best friends who I hangout with pretty much on a daily basis. It also has helped me feel more comfortable with myself in general. 

Rozz, Doylestown

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James Peuplie 

 Hi! I’m James Peuplie, I started at the Rainbow Room almost 4 years ago. I started as a shy under-educated trans male. I didn’t understand what I was going through, I didn’t understand what I was supposed to feel, I didn’t understand anything about the LGBTQ plus community. four years later, I now help fundraise for the Rainbow Room, and do everything I can to make it an amazing place.  

I met some of my best friends at the Rainbow Room, I met the love of my life at the Rainbow Room. I will never forget my first time at the Rainbow Room, it was an amazing experience. I thought it was gonna be like an AA meeting, where you sit in a circle and you talk about your issues, and you talk about your family problems, but it wasn’t. it was a place where I felt free, I could be who I was without needing to hide any part of it. When I first came out as trans I thought I had to be completely 110% male. I still identify as male, but now I have the confidence to paint my nails, to wear earrings, to show that I won’t be pushed over in this crazy world.  

 Marlene has gone an extra mile every time I have told her I needed help. She is always there if I need to talk, she’s always there if I need help with an issue at school, she is always there for me and many other youth. She has helped me organize many events, and helped me move forward in my life. The Rainbow Room created a space like myself I could feel free and reach your full potential. without Marlene, we wouldn’t have the Rainbow Room, therefore I would never be where I am today without Marlene.   

Thank you for your time, please know you are loved and appreciated and always shapes and forms. 

-James Peuplie  

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Heather

I wanted to write to personally thank you for all of the love, support and genuine care you have provided for my son and me through our journey. 

You have been a valuable resource through so many things; initial feelings, concerns, and unrest in our lives, but not to mention you’ve been a true friend and ally for both my son and me. 

The Rainbow Room program is a place where all can feel welcome and included. I am so incredibly grateful for this invaluable resource provided free of charge to all. The level of abandoned children left to work through things on their own without support is alarming. I am happy to refer people to the Rainbow Room, to specifically you, for unbiased love and acceptance.  

My son began attending the Rainbow Room the week of his 14th birthday and is now 17, a high school senior at Pennridge, an LGBTQ+ advocate, a well rounded young man, and striving to be an intern to this amazing program that YOU work so incredibly hard for. 

 Thank you for all you did for my son, for my family, and for the community at large. 

 Many, many thanks 

 Heather 

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Joey Blevins  

When I first went to the Rainbow Room in 2002, it didn't have a name. I just heard from a friend of my mom's that there was a new program for LGBTQ+ youth, and thought I should go.  

Growing up in New Hope, the LGBTQ+ community wasn't unknown to me, but it felt like something apart from me that I had no access to as a gay 16-year-old. My parents' gay friends, the shop owners in town, etc all made me feel accepted, that there would be a place for me, one day, but the present was still bleak.  

I was the only male student out at NHS, where I went to high school, and while I had an accepting group of friends, they didn't know what I was going through and didn't understand how alone I felt, or what I did every day to minimize the harassment and bullying I had been dealing with for years. Without knowing it, I desperately needed a place with people like me. 

My nervousness vanished when I was welcomed into that basement nearly twenty years ago. Warm smiles and friendly banter were the standard, and I was welcomed for who I was. One night a week I enjoyed chilling out over movie nights or games and activities. Guest speakers opened my mind about what other people in the community went through and gave me the chance to express my solidarity. Open mic nights allowed me to share my creativity without fear of judgment. The "afterparty" at the local Starbucks (where I would work as a barista and shift lead years later) was a treasured tradition and totally worth the couple times I got grounded for staying out too late.  

LGBTQ+ youth need space to be themselves and feel welcome. I didn't have that before the Rainbow Room, and didn't realize how badly I wanted it until I had it.  

Joey Blevins (2002-2004) 

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Mom D 

My child has been going to Rainbow Room since they started high school, and I am beyond grateful for that. You see, despite so much progress in the way the world views LGTBQ+ people, there is still a lot of difficulty for children like them - sometimes in the form of harassment by their peers, and even in the form of threats and intimidation by full grown adults!  

It was I who suggested my child started going, based on the recommendations of others I trusted. It was every bit the nurturing, confidence boosting experience I had hoped it would be. Even though my child already had (and continues to have) support from their family, the experiences they've had there, among their LGBTQ+ peers and adults who have been where they are now, have been enormously helpful. I can only imagine what a lifeline this place must be for children not as lucky as my own. 

All I can say is, thank goodness for this place and thank goodness for the dedicated volunteers who have contributed to its well-being over the years. If anything, the level of opposition to a place where LBGTQ+ teens are accepted and encouraged to grow just proves how much the Rainbow Room needs to be there.  

- Mom D 

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Kody Trauger 

The Rainbow Room is where I learned as a young person to love and be loved. It’s activator and steward, Marlene Pray serves as a mentor and guide, a role model for freedom and compassion. A true professional and community leader, she has touched, inspired and saved so many of us Rainbow Room alumni. I am truly wiser, better, and a higher being because of her presence in my life and all the people I met at the Rainbow Room. I learned to believe in myself, I discovered my power, and I became a leader. I was provided with the tools and resources needed to survive and contribute to our world as a young adult. My work since then for over 15 years in college student affairs was sparked by the part time position I held with Planned Parenthood as a teenager. I decided to devote my time to facilitating the development of young people because I personally knew how impactful one person can have on the lives of youth. To be healthier in mind and body is an undeniable universal good and is precisely what Marlene and the Rainbow Room project into the world. I am lucky and honored to know her and be part of the RR community. We are, we persist, and we live free. 

Kody Trauger, Pennridge High School, Class of 2004