“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” – Harvey Milk
These are words that would be sure to resonate with this week’s Portrait. Marlene Pray, M.Ed. is founder of Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Rainbow Room, Bucks County’s only center for LGBTQ youth and allies. She currently serves as Director and as Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Regional LGBTQ+ Youth Education Coordinator. She is an education and training consultant and adjunct professor with over 30 years of professional, community, non-profit management and board leadership in community organizing, sexuality education, environmental education, social justice and human rights. She has led hundreds of workshops and professional trainings locally, nationally and internationally on sexuality education, anti-racism, youth empowerment/engagement, rites of passage, equity, inclusion, LGBTQ+ rights and social justice.
Pray is the recipient of numerous awards including: the Beyond the Rainbow Award from Planned Parenthood Bucks County in 2012, the New Hope LGBT Community Leader Award in 2007, and the Speak Up for Peace and Social Justice Award in 2017 from the Bucks County Peace Center for her efforts toward advancing social and racial justice. She was elected in 2011 to serve as a councilwoman on the Doylestown Borough Council, where she led the community effort to pass Doylestown’s LGBT inclusive, anti-discrimination ordinance in 2010.
Are you from nearby these parts?
No, I’m from Los Angeles.
Ah, tell me about growing up in La La Land.
I grew up in a working class family in the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains. I’m the daughter of a miner and a nurse and the youngest of 4 siblings. I was on a full scholarship going to a college prep school.
Was it more rural where you were or more suburban?
It’s really interesting because I know it’s hard for folks to imagine LA being anything other than what they see in the movies, but where we were was quite rural. I was at the farthest edge of the LA Valley. Literally right up to and in the mountains. It was a place called Eaton Canyon and we grew up hearing the coyotes sing every night. We had rattlesnakes and a waterfall at the top of my street. Our road would get washed away with the floods and we were evacuated numerous times for floods and fires in the mountains. It was a mostly poor community, and we would commute into the suburbs or the city into our different lives. When I was in high school and we could afford it, we moved out into the suburbs.
Yeah, long after we were gone, the entire neighborhood burned in a fire and was rebuilt as more of an elite little mountain getaway.
What was the worst weather event that you experienced?
Definitely the flooding. We had to be rescued using a cable that was put across the road that had washed out. We were hoisted up and repelled across rushing water. It was pretty intense, and loss of life and property was a reality of living in this canyon sanctuary. I was also in Santa Cruz, California in 1988 when the big earthquake hit there. That was another dramatic experience where many lives were lost.
Where were you when it happened?
I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, sitting at home at my desk typing a paper when it started. At first I thought it was neighborhood kids playing on the roof but then all of those earthquake drills that we did in school kicked into gear, and I crawled under my desk as things fell and crashed around me. As soon as it stopped I knew to get outside. There was a fireplace in my bedroom and it exploded and blocked the door so I couldn’t open the door. I actually pulled the door off of the hinges and was able to get out, thanks in part to that adrenaline rush of the crisis.
I know! I barely remember it, but that survival instinct took over and I was able to get out. I still have a beautiful letter that my dad wrote me shortly after because he knew how traumatic and scary it was. He worked in the mines and I spent a lot of my childhood with him out in the desert. The desert is very much a sacred place for me because of the time we spent together. He wrote that the earth was a dear friend that kicks out unexpectedly sometimes but to remember that what caused the danger were things that humans had done. I carried the note in my wallet for some time before tucking it away in a special journal.
What were you like as a kid?
I was often called a “tomboy,” and I was very into sports. I started playing soccer when I was 5 and played all the way into college. I loved being outside, climbing trees, and exploring nature. My mother would groan at how dirty my clothes and hair would get in a given day because of how much stuff I would get into. I was very spirited and had a lot of opinions about things, but I also liked to entertain people and to be a peacemaker. I wanted to grow up to be an actor and did some acting as a child. I was in plays, commercials, and did a little film and television. [Laughing] The first film I ever did was for the USC Film School, and I had to give a girl a hickey! I was 12 so it was before I knew my own bisexual identity. The theme of the film was dealing with bullies which is ironic and sort of foretelling to look back on.
What did your mother think?
She supported my passions, although she was very busy as a full time nurse and mother of four. She ran the health centers for several colleges, so though she wasn’t politically engaged, but she was a passionate supporter of public health, abortion rights, HIV prevention, and mental health care. I remember her concern when California’s then-Governor Reagan closed the institutions for people with mental illness and people were suddenly released into the streets where they became homeless.
Good for her! Fast forward, where did you go to school?
I got my bachelors in Community Studies, which is the Theory and Practice of Social Change, from the University of California, Santa Cruz and I got my Masters from Widener University in Human Sexuality Education, and I’m currently a PhD Candidate, where my focus has been on anti-racism and sexuality education.
What started your involvement in the community?
My sister, Leslie. She’s been my closest person my whole life. She came out when I was in high school and it was an awakening to me. I wanted to support and love and protect her but it also made me wonder about feelings that I had around my orientation. It was something that I was aware of in my adolescence but didn’t explore or acknowledge to anyone but myself until I was in college. It was there that I was exposed to feminist groups and LGBT groups. But it was mostly her example and then exploring my attractions and love for women and honoring that attraction and capacity for love and then expanding on it. Realizing that my attractions span the spectrum.
How did you come to find the Rainbow Room?
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse which is a part of what led me to the work that I do and part of what led me to work with young people who have both been victimized and who have caused harm. I worked in Alaska for a year leading a wilderness therapy program for teenagers who had been convicted of sexual abuse. I have a strong connection to wilderness and environmental education which I attribute partly to my dad’s love of the earth. Doing that work I realized that teenagers are in need of honest and empowering and consent based sexuality information and education.
Years later I was running a homeless shelter in Doylestown; it was a family center, and most of the women who had been there were survivors of sexual assault. We did programs where we would bring in groups like Planned Parenthood. It made me realize that sexuality education was the kind of work I wanted to do. I got a job at Planned Parenthood as the Director of Education and Training, consulting and doing outreach working with parents, teens, and schools all over Bucks County. Everywhere I went queer kids would ask me where can they go, who can they talk to, where can they meet other kids like them? This was 22 years ago, and I felt that was not sufficient for me to just give them a contact in Philadelphia, we needed something here. A place that would provide accurate and honest sex education and advocacy. A place that isn’t just a safe haven from the cruel world, but a place of celebration, joy and empowerment.
I went to my CEO and the board of PP and they were fully supportive of the idea. So we opened the doors and within a month we had dozens of kids coming in the door. They came up with the name Rainbow Room and we’ve been meeting almost every week since June of 2002. In 2022, we added a new component to it. We have so many younger people waiting to turn 14 to come to the Rainbow Room. I remember a mom telling me about her 12 year old who has the date circled on the calendar of when they turn 14 and are allowed to come to the Rainbow Room. So we started a Rainbow Room Junior for 10-14 years olds. We call it Roy G. Biv. The parents are very involved in that, including providing consent for participation.
It’s a playful acronym that children use to remember the colors in the Rainbow. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet!
What’s something about RR that makes you smile?
One of the things that warms my heart is that now we have children attending whose parents were part of our original crew from 20 years ago!
Yeah, it really is incredible to hear from alum and the successes and triumphs they have achieved as well as the obstacles they’ve overcome. One of them is an OB/GYN, another is now a professor at Yale, several are teachers, real estate agents, working in politics, home parenting and more. But not all the stories are great, I just visited the grave of a RR alum yesterday. We’ve lost some kiddos to suicide, and a lot of them are still struggling as adults with mental health and drug and alcohol concerns. On a positive side, we have folks with HIV living positive, empowered lives, which wasn’t common when we first started.
I often think how profoundly lucky I am to be in a community and connected to these kids who are so dynamic and fierce and awkward and funny and loving. They’re changing the world, along with their allies, we have a lot of straight cis allies, and the way they show up for and with us is profound. We have a kid right now whose parents are rejecting and punitive, and through connections here they were able to find support and housing and we were able to work well with children’s services and local and federal law enforcement.
We work closely with our victim’s advocacy group in Bucks County, NOVA, with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), which I’m honored to be on the board of. We are not a social service agency. We are proudly part of Planned Parenthood, but we don’t provide medical or reproductive health services at the Rainbow Room itself. The Rainbow Room is an education program and a youth center where kids come to gather, and we can help them find resources.
I was reading about a teacher in Bucks County who wanted to go to a diversity training and the school board wouldn’t allocate the money for them to go, so the community raised the funds.
Yes! And they raised so much money they were able to pay for that staff person and five more! And a Rainbow Room youth was the first to donate. It was an important reminder for us that while there still is what can seem like relentless and unprecedented hostility, misinformation and opposition towards LGBTQ+ people and rights, there’s also support and solidarity that’s beautiful. There’s a policy, #321, that was just enacted in the Central Bucks School district that bans pride flags from all 23 schools. Immediately after it passed a group of community members decided to get 321 pride flags and offer them to businesses in the area as a sign of support and to show how much they love the kiddos. And you see town by town, people fighting for our rights and passing anti-discrimination ordinances and organizing small pride events.
That is beautiful.
Yeah, while the attacks feel so toxic at times, it is vital to listen to the kids, who are definitely impacted and hurting but are smashing down barriers and obstacles so proudly and steadily. They give me so much hope. They are aware of policies and how they affect them. In fact most are counting the days until they can vote, and they are certainly cognizant of the importance of the school board and the hostility and dangers out there, but mostly they are concerned about day to day life. Getting through the school day without incident, or hanging out with friends, dealing with families, navigating relationships and goals for their lives.
That’s great, things can get a little scary these days.
Yes, but we are part of Planned Parenthood so we’re not unaccustomed to opposition. We’re used to dealing with bullies and misinformation and we’re stronger than ever. In fact the donations and support that have come in have allowed us to open a second Rainbow Room in Lower Bucks County. The opposition is led by a small group of far right politicians, who are very vocal, because they’re realizing that they’re on the outs, that they’re losing the culture war because younger people for the most part are so much more accepting of the beauty and diversity of humanity.
Agreed, so let’s do some rapid fire questions, which artistic talent would you most like to have?
To play an instrument well enough that I could lead song circles! To be able to pick up a guitar and say, “Everyone join in!” would be fantastic!
The last thing you lost?
The first thing that comes to my heart is my sister Leslie. She was murdered 4 years ago and that’s certainly the hardest loss I’ve ever had in my life.
Did it have anything to do with her being gay?
No, she was a cyclist and there was someone targeting them. She was a part of the cycling community out in LA. and Leslie was killed because of it.
My father, my grandfather and a female cousin are all named Leslie, so it’s a name close to my heart.
That’s amazing. She was named after a great uncle on our mum’s side. It’s funny, I just got a bunch of the new lesbian pride flags donated to us recently, and I kept writing “Leslie Pride Flags” on them instead of lesbian. I must have done it 5 or 6 times. Leslie/Lesbian was a joke between us when she came out. It was also a painful and sweet reminder of her profound presence in my life and work.
Hmm. Maybe my 22nd birthday, going to see Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson at a theater in Oakland. People pulled up in horse drawn carriages for the show, it was phenomenal. I also saw the Indigo Girls for my 21st in a small bar in Santa Cruz and was leaning on the stage, just a few feet away from them. That was incredible!
Do you know the origins of your last name?
It’s from Ireland or England, but it wasn’t originally Pray. It was changed when my ancestors fled to the US. I was named for Marlene Dietrich, she was a favorite of both my parents.
What makes you hopeful?
It’s incredible seeing the merging of LGBTQ and racial justice. I’m on the executive committee of the NAACP of Bucks County, and I don’t want to overuse the term “intersectionality” (thank you. Dr. Crenshaw), but we thankfully are seeing more and more of it. I see so many organizations coming together to support one another. Just the fact that I was invited to be a part of the NAACP was meaningful for me. For Black History Month, the NAACP and the Rainbow Room are hosting a panel of queer Black people talking about what it means to be Black and queer in Bucks County. More organizations today are embracing that sentiment of “It’s you today, it could be me tomorrow.” Having each other’s back is joyful and heart warming and important and something that more and more of us are embracing.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/pprainbowroom/.