BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Jamesly Louis says that when he was a gay 11th grader at North Miami Beach Senior High, he wanted to die.
“That was the first time I tried to take away my life,” says Louis, 21, who was raised a Roman Catholic and came here from Haiti in 2005.
“It was all about guilt. All I had to do was accept that I wasn’t wrong. It was so hard to do because all my life I was taught one thing — it was like a program — that it was wrong.”
Thanks to Pridelines Youth Services, founded 30 years ago in Miami and one of the oldest nonprofit gay youth groups in the nation, “Everything changed,” he says.
After meeting dozens of other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, “I said, ‘Oh my God, how could I be so stupid and think I was the only one? … And if this could be wrong, how could God create so many wrong people?’ That was all I wanted, and I found it.”
Saturday night, Louis and 250 others — including a few now-middle-aged Pridelines alumni — will celebrate the group’s anniversary at a sold-out reception at the Villa by Barton G. (the old Versace mansion) on Ocean Drive.
“Pridelines gave me a new start, a new beginning. Without them, I would not be here today. They gave me my life,” says Louis, who took public buses everyday to the center when it was near Wynwood.
“They gave me food, computer access so I could do my homework. Everything my parents were supposed to do. They gave me what I needed,” says the former Pridelines youth council president, who works in a gay-owned Miami Beach insurance company and recently earned a degree in drama at Miami Dade College.
Now headquartered at 9526 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores, Pridelines currently serves 614 young people ages 14 to 24, not all of whom are gay.
“Thirty percent of our kids are straight,” Executive Director Victor Diaz-Herman says.
“I try to come by once a month,” said Timothy Tierney, 18, of Biscayne Park, who likes to hang out with his gay friends. “You could always tell them anything. Everyone at Pridelines tells their whole life story. And even though I’m straight, I have some weird life stories.”
Tierney said his godfather lived with HIV. “When I found out he was gay, I said ‘I really don’t care.’ He was my idol growing up.”
When Miami sexologist Marilyn Volker helped a group of gay youths start Pridelines three decades ago, “It was a time when boys could not take any home-ec or cooking [classes]. Girls could not take anything about cars. People said they would be confused about their gender. It would make them gay.”
In about 1980, Volker says, she organized a conference at Florida International University on “Developing a Positive Gay and Lesbian Identity.” Soon after, she helped move FIU’s Institute on Sexism and Sexuality to what was then Miami-Dade Community College.
Volker recalls three young men telling her there were four places for gay youths to get sex education: “Bars, beaches, bathhouses and bookstores.”
“I was just shocked,” says Volker, now 65 and still lecturing on sex education. “I’m an educator, a mother. I said ‘that’s just awful.’”
After getting an OK from then-MDCC Vice President Eduardo Padron (now Miami Dade College’s president) and support from professors Kim Porter and Irene Lipoff, Volker helped launch the Gay and Lesbian Youth Group at Miami-Dade. (It was renamed Pridelines in 1999.)
“The Wolfson Campus was incredibly centralized to everything,” says Alexei Guren, one of the three gay friends who first approached Volker. “From 7 to 9 every Friday night, we knew where we were going to be and so did many of the youths in Miami. … The group maxed out at 24, 25. It spanned all races. Being in Miami, we had plenty of representation of Latino youth.”
Guren, known at the time as Alejandro Oyanguren, came out as a student at Archbishop Curley High School in 1977 during Anita Bryant’s anti-gay-rights campaign.
Thirty years ago, he says, it was hard for gay youth to meet each other. “This was back in a time when there was no Internet, no ‘friending’ of people.”
Members of the Dade County Coalition For Human Rights, formed to oppose Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, were hesitant to involve young people, he says.
“There was so much concern because at this point a lot of the members didn’t want to be seen as ‘recruiting.’”
Guren organized a small group of gay young people who met in office space donated by the old Weekly News gay newspaper, but it “sputtered out” when he joined the Navy in 1980.
Honorably discharged two years later, he returned to Miami and met Volker.
Guren, who turns 50 on Aug. 30, is the only surviving member of the trio who helped start Pridelines. Leonard Feinberg died of AIDS complications in 1986 at age 26; Greg Walder died of a heart attack in 2001 at 40.
Today, Guren lives in Tucson. He now identifies as bisexual and is married to a woman with whom he has two children.
Guren will be at Saturday’s Miami Beach party. Louis says he looks forward to meeting him and other Pridelines alums.
“I really want to tell them thank you for giving a lot of people hope. Thank you so much for doing this,” Louis said. “They save a lot of lives.”
For more information about Pridelines, call 305-571-9601.