Orlando – From bullying to human trafficking, the first-ever Central Florida Youth Empowerment Summit covered the gamut of issues and problems that LGBT youth may face.

On Feb. 1, The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Orlando Youth Alliance and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays teamed up for the Summit, inviting attendees of all sexualities, gender and ages.

City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the first openly gay elected official in Central Florida, helped put together the event and was a keynote speaker.
“We’re here to offer hope and to tell you that you are not alone,” Sheehan said in her address. “You all made history by being here today.”

Florida State Representative Joe Saunders, one of the first openly gay Florida House members elected in 2012, also was in attendance as another keynote speaker at the event, and shared how the world was different today than it was before and these differences should be celebrated.

“I remember feeling completely alone. I was the only person like me,” Saunders said. “My world was not full of positive LGBT figures.”

Resources, programs and information were provided for anyone in the LGBT community and their families who attended, and other LGBT and progressive organizations—like Equality Florida and Planned Parenthood—attended the event to also provide resources and information for attendees.

Workshops addressed issues like bullying, internet safety, the transgender community and creating gay-straight alliances in schools. Officer Karen Long of the Orlando Police Department talked about safety in schools and how to prevent bullying.

“I have a passion for people who cannot defend for themselves,” Long said. “I’ve worked with kids who were afraid to go to school. There’s no reason for anyone to put up with this. We should be celebrating diversity. If you see someone struggling, help them out a little bit.”

The workshops were not only targeted toward the youth in attendance but also their parents and family members. One of the workshops was titled “Parenting and Family Solutions,” where Brigid Noonan, a professor from Stetson University, discussed how parents and family members can help and support each other.

“It’s really important to think about how scary it is to come out,” Noonan said.

Another panel covered human trafficking, where panelists spoke about how it affects LGBT youth and how they can get help if they have been personally affected by it.

“We wanted to talk about the vulnerabilities for the LGBT community for human trafficking,” Kimberly Grabert, the director of Statewide Human Trafficking Prevention, said. “There is a preconceived notion that girls are the only victims. I don’t think it’s reported because there is a lack of awareness. They don’t see boys as victims and there is a discomfort level that needs advocacy.”

Another workshop discussed how LGBTs can find acceptance within religious communities.

“You are not always safe in every church,” said workshop host Rev. Bryan G. Fulwider said.

“We are all fellow humans; we are all trying to make sense of life when it is handed to us,” Pastor Jim Coffin said. “We have to be there to help them. If [LGBTs] feel condemned, they’re not going to come to you.”

After each workshop, panelists held a short question and answer session. Lindsey Steadman, a student at Seminole State College, said she found value in the Summit’s information.

“I wanted an opportunity to grow more as a person and a leader in my community,” Steadman said. “I definitely found answers to things like making a connection of religion and sexuality. I got to meet people I normally wouldn’t and coming to this was a great learning opportunity.”

Share this story: