Global warmth

Queens' Open Door Clinic welcomes LGBT folks from all corners of the world.

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When Alex, a gentle-faced Queens resident, fled the former Yugoslavia eight years ago, he figured that his life as a gay man could only get better. "Being gay there is terrible. It's absolutely not accepted by society," explains Alex (not his real name), sitting in the small and unadorned office of Open Door, an eight-month-old gay counseling center at Elmhurst Hospital. "It's still perceived as a mental disorder there, and people get bashed all the time."

But moving to New York City to pursue a business degree at CUNY did not provide the freed-up, flag-waving lifestyle the 31-year-old had hoped to find. He was overwhelmed by the simultaneous difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, being separated from his family and trying to come to terms with his homosexuality—something that led him to avoid the familiar Serbian community to prevent becoming an outcast. After suffering from panic attacks and what he calls "a serious nervous breakdown," Alex saw a counselor at the Callen-Lorde center in Manhattan. When his sessions ran out, they referred him to Open Door. "This," he says, "has been a good place."

Open Door is the brainchild of Chelsea resident Daniel Garza, 42. And though the program is still in its infancy, its scope has been far-reaching. "I have about 40 clients coming on a regular basis, and I don't think we have more than three who are from the same country," Garza says. The clients, recent immigrants from places including Colombia, Mexico, Serbia, Korea, Ecuador, the Philippines and elsewhere, are referred by agencies such as Callen-Lorde, Sylvia's Place and the Center, and can come for sliding scale psychotherapy or psychiatric services from one of the six-member staff. "What fascinates me about our demographic is that these are people who grew up without Stonewall, where Will & Grace is not on TV every week and where doctors told them that they were mentally ill," Garza says. "Now, on top of that, a lot are going through asylum procedures or are dealing with a new HIV diagnosis, with no hope of getting treatment if they leave the U.S. One young man I saw from Brazil was brutalized in his country; he can't ever go back."

A psychiatrist affiliated with Elmhurst Hospital, Garza was in charge of instituting Kendra's Law (a regulation for assisted outpatient treatment) in Queens County. But last year he had spent some time working as a consultant for the Health Outreach to Teens program, a free Chelsea clinic. It sparked an idea. "I saw lots of gay youth, and I was noticing most of them didn't live in Chelsea," Garza recalls. "A lot were traveling several hours just to get primary care in downtown, gay New York City." At the same time, he noticed the influx of young gay people in the area around Elmhurst Hospital, including Jackson Heights and Woodside. The public hospital, Garza says, has a history of being responsive to the diverse needs of its community, and he pitched the queer-clinic idea to his department. Garza's pilot program was approved without difficulty or fanfare. It operates inside the hospital's Community Health Clinic; clients wait with all other mental-health patients and enter an office that is not marked by rainbows or any other gay symbols—a neutrality many need in order to feel okay about walking in.

The clinic is especially noteworthy because it represents the first time that the New York Health and Hospitals Corporation (which runs the public-hospital system) has provided a specifically LGBT-identified service. Though Open Door still needs a permanent staff (its counselors are gay-friendly hospital employees doing double duty), Garza says it's "busting at the seams" and ready to expand in scope. "It's important to remember that not everybody's growing up with Chelsea just a cab ride away," he says, "or that everyone who's having difficulties is free to say, 'Oh, just call the Center.' People take that for granted."

The Open Door Clinic sees clients Tuesdays 9am--5pm. Call 718-334-1986 for information.

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