When David Kilmnick was pursuing a master's degree in social work in the early 1990s, little did he know it would lead to helping LGBTQ students across the country.
In 1993 — the same year gay rights advocates marched on Washington to demand basic rights for LGBTQ people — Kilmnick was studying at Stony Brook University in Long Island, a suburban community outside New York City. Kilmnick turned his master's project into an opportunity to show LGBTQ kids they can be proud of who they are.
"[I] created a curricula to go to Long Island schools to talk about what it's like to grow up LGBT," Kilmnick told NBC Out.
He convinced five public high schools to allow him to teach LGBTQ awareness workshops to their students. He said the same thing happened at the end of each one. As the classroom emptied out, a student would anxiously approach Kilmnick and ask: "How can I meet other people like me?"
There was no place to point them to, he said.
"That's when I said, 'You know what? This workshop needs to become something more than a 42 minute classroom experience in that we need to create a safe space for our kids.'"
That year, Kilmnick founded Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGLY), now known broadly as The LGBT Network, an association of nonprofit organizations that supports the LGBTQ Long Island community. The organization has grown to advocate for LGBTQ teens in 112 school districts during a time when high numbers of these students face difficulties nationally. According to a 2016 report from the Human Rights Campaign, 26 percent reported experiencing bullying, and 22 percent reported problems with class, exams and grades.
Kilmnick soon came to realize that parents were key to creating change. In 2012, he chartered the country's first gay parent/teacher/student association (PTSA).
"Every time we talked about [LGBTQ] curricular inclusion, what we would hear about from some of the schools was that the parents are not going to want that," he said. "So we said, 'OK, let's get a group of parents who do want it and then could advocate all the other strategies we had.'"
Kilmnick said the Long Island Gay PTSA has grown to 100 dues-paying members and attracts up to 60 people each meeting. He said the association submitted a resolution to the New York State PTA for public schools to provide LGBTQ-related books and web resources, as well as staff who are trained to handle LGBTQ students' needs. Once adopted by the state, it will be submitted to the National PTA in 2018, he said.
"When it gets adopted at the National PTA level, that affects every single school in the entire country," Kilmnick said.
Not everyone is happy with what Kilmnick is trying to accomplish. He said he received so many death threats over the years that police installed an emergency buzzer in his home. While the threats were unnerving, they didn't stop him.
"There was a more important agenda to get done here and that was the agenda that our schools needed to be safe, our communities need to be safe, our kids need to be out and celebrate who they are and not be bullied or suffer any kind of harassment, and that the parents needed to be supported, too," he said.
Kilmnick grew up in Queens, N.Y., where he attended a public high school in the early 1980s. Despite being a popular student who was active in the student government association, Kilmnick didn't have the confidence to come out as gay until college.
"There wasn't any education in the schools about LGBT youth. There were always rumors about, 'Oh we think this teacher was gay,' and it wasn't meant as anything positive," he said.
Kilmnick found a strong role model in his grandmother, who served as Democratic District Leader in Queens. He said she was a stalwart advocate for the vulnerable senior population in her community.
"I learned from a very young age to watch a powerful woman go out there and advocate for people who didn't have a voice," he said.
The 50-year-old said he has seen much change, and he is convinced that more is coming.
"Change can happen, and change does happen, and more change needs to happen. I know there are more good people out there than those that would want to work against us," Kilmnick said.
"What motivates me is finding those people and bringing them onboard as allies and supporters, because ultimately when we do that it really changes the world," he concluded.
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.