In early 2020, mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire world, hundreds of LGBTQ+ youth from across Bucks County gathered for quite the momentous occasion — the first annual queer prom, held at the James A. Michener Art Museum.
The event was organized by The Rainbow Room and its director Marlene Pray as a way for LGBTQ+ teens to enjoy this rite of passage without fear of bullying, harassment or judgment.
Currently in its 20th year, The Rainbow Room is an initiative of Planned Parenthood Keystone and based out of Salem United Church of Christ in Doylestown. Drawing ages 14-21 from all parts of the county and surrounding areas, the youth center provides a supportive, accepting and empowering environment…especially for those who don’t have this at home or school.
However, during the prom, state Sen. Steve Santarsiero noticed something. Despite the Doylestown location, many attendees hailed from Pennsbury and other school districts of the Lower Bucks County region.
“They were so excited just to see that there was this event. They were gonna be able to go to this prom and be who they were. And it occurred to me that a lot of those kids would have loved to come to The Rainbow Room on a regular basis, but that this is a big county and it takes time to get up here from Lower Bucks,” said Santarsiero. “It’s not reasonable to expect that you’d get a lot of kids from those areas coming up here.”
In an effort to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth in southern parts of the county, Santarsiero recently announced that a state grant of $630,000 will assist in opening a second Rainbow Room location in Lower Bucks. The exact spot and grand opening date is slated to be revealed in the coming weeks. The grant will also ensure the continued operation of the current Doylestown location for years to come.
“It is my sincere hope that this will make a huge difference in the lives of many kids moving forward,” said Santarsiero during a press conference. “It is hard, and it always has been hard, to be a teenager. There are so many challenges at that stage in life … But it’s that much harder to be an LGBTQ youth, so much harder to be able to first accept yourself and who you are and love yourself … and then to open that up to everyone…”
On hand at the press conference was SueAnn Devito, whose daughter was one of the first participants at The Rainbow Room. Devito expressed gratitude that her daughter not only found a safe space free of bullying, but also formed skills that have been carried into adulthood.
“They learned how to advocate for themselves. They learned how to create safe spaces for others,” said Devito of The Rainbow Room participants. “There is a long lasting and profound impact that The Rainbow Room has brought to all of the students.”
Another parent reflected on how, when her 13-year-old mustered up the courage to come out to her, she felt limited in her resources to support her teen. But she desperately wanted to show support. That’s when they turned to The Rainbow Room, where both were greeted with open arms by Pray.
“From that moment I realized that James was going to be OK because not only did he have me in his corner, he had this Rainbow Room youth as a guide and Marlene at the helm to support him and welcome him unconditionally,” she said. “He knows his boundaries. He knows how to create a safe environment for himself. He holds three jobs, he has great grades. I am an extremely proud mom.”
Carson Delaney, who was introduced to The Rainbow Room three years ago, travels over an hour by train each week from Cheltenham to experience the community. Delaney is excited about the forthcoming Lower Bucks location, which will greatly reduce their commute and provide access to other LGBTQ+ teens.
“The overwhelming support that I found when I walked through the door three years ago probably less than two weeks after coming out as non-binary was insane,” recalled Delaney.
Melissa Reed, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Keystone, said, “It’s an affirming place for those young people where they can be their authentic selves, get information they need to lead healthy lives, and the tools they need to navigate in a world that sometimes is very hard to navigate and is set against them.”
Also present at the press conference was Pray, who said, “The Rainbow Room for me is one of the things that I’m most proud of in my life and it will go on long past any role that I played.”
According to Pray, she has received an influx of requests from organizations, teachers, parents and students looking to partner with The Rainbow Room as it prepares to open the doors to its second center.
One longtime supporter of 17 years has been Rev. Michael Ruk, of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Hope. During the conference, he stressed the fact that many religious leaders want to help The Rainbow Room thrive: “At the heart of all faith, it’s about respecting the dignity of each human being and realizing they’re beloved by God.”
In wrapping up the event, Santarsiero shared Ruk’s sentiment: “We forget about the fact that we’re all human beings. We’re all entitled to dignity, respect and love. And that’s what this place is about.”
Visit salemstrong.org/rainbow-room for more information on The Rainbow Room.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org