Robert Vitelli dreamed of moving to Detroit and designing cars. A degree in mechanical engineering from Manhattan College—becoming the first member of his working-class family to go to college—gave him the requisites. But there was one impediment: his sexual orientation. Vitelli worried he might not find acceptance in the conservative field of automotive engineering—his experience growing up gay in suburbia taught him to keep his sexual identity to himself. “Being out didn’t feel like an option,” Vitelli said. “There was a lot of fear and there were no resources.”
Evidenced by his position as COO of the LGBT Network, a non-profit organization working to serve the LGBT community of Long Island and Queens, he’s come a long way. His current work is to engineer a social about-face of the intolerance he once experienced and provide support for those victim to these prejudices.
Vitelli’s first experience with social services came in his 20s when he volunteered for a tutoring program in Oakland aimed at getting middle and high school students on a trajectory for college. “Oakland was my first experience in non-profit. I don’t think I understood at the time what a community program [was]. It was a powerful experience, seeing first-hand how kids in a different part of our country have access to a very different kind of education.”
In 2001, Vitelli found work at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, a fledgling organization that would eventually grow into the LGBT Network. It was a three-person operation and shortly after Vitelli started, he fell in love with its founder, David Kilmnick. They’ve been partners ever since and married in 2014.
Kilmnick also helped found the Long Island Pride Celebration, an annual Network Pride Month event now in its 27th year. It includes a parade, market, fair and concert on the beach. This year’s event, dubbed “Pride on the Beach,” takes place in Long Beach June 9-11.
In addition to its potent mix of high-profile, awareness-building events, the LGBT Network—which operates community centers in Woodbury, Bay Shore, Sag Harbor and Little Neck—provides health, counseling and social services to LGBT individuals. “We are a safe-space. At the same time we work on changing the environment LGBT people live in.” Their mission, Vitelli said, “is to provide a home and a voice.”
Vitelli believes that making change takes universal participation. Non-LGBT supporters are a solid pillar of support for the Network’s programs (of which Pulse is proud to be one). “Our big fundraiser gala is the straightest LGBT gala in America. Sometimes more than 50 percent of the people who come are not LGBT, but they are allies and they believe in the cause.”
Vitelli knows that his life with Kilmnick reflects, and is a result of, the progress the LGBT Network has helped make. “The world has changed so much for the better. And we have been a part of it.”