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PFLAG Turns 40, And Friends And Family Still Help Pave The Way For Gay Acceptance

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PFLAG members attend the 1974 Gay Pride Parade in New York.
PFLAG members attend the 1974 Gay Pride Parade in New York.

Before the president of the United States declared that he personally supported the rights of same-sex couples to marry, there was Jeanne Manford.

In 1972, when the American Psychiatric Association still deemed homosexuality a mental illness, Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post declaring, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.”

Polls now show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Many gay rights experts and advocates say that a lion's share of the credit belongs to Manford and the organization she started, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Forty years ago this June, at a time when the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had few allies and no legal protections, Manford created an arena where friends and friends could stand up in support. And nearly all progress in gay rights since then has relied in part on these allies.

These days politicians routinely point to personal relationships with LGBT people to explain their shifting views on gay rights. President Barack Obama said this spring his views had changed, in part, after talking to gay friends. Former Vice President Dick Cheney frequently mentions his lesbian daughter when explaining his support for same-sex marriage. But when Manford wrote to the Post, it was largely unheard of for a parent to publicly support a gay child in the mainstream press.

"It was really, really radical for anyone to stand up and affiliate themselves with gay people," said Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School and director of its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

Manford wrote her letter to the Post after she saw on the evening news her gay son Morty being beaten while participating in a gay activist demonstration in April 1972. Shortly afterward, Manford and her son walked together in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade -- a predecessor to the New York City Pride Parade. She carried a placard "Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children."

Manford, a retired school teacher, now 91, lives with her daughter Suzanne Swan in California. Swan was away at college when her mother marched in the parade but said she wasn't surprised when she heard about it. "Morty's friends couldn't believe that a mother actually came out and said, 'My son is gay; I love him,'" Swan said.

"But my mother was always the type of person who did what she thought was right," Swan recalled. At one point, "her school principal, a very domineering woman, told my mother that people didn't like ... her work with PFLAG. My mother looked at her and said, 'If you have any criticism of my work, let me know,' and walked away."

Swan's most vivid memory is from the 1990s, when Manford marched in New York City's parade just weeks after Morty died of AIDS. There is a picture of her from that march. "I have never seen such pain on anybody's face," Swan said. "She's still fighting for him even though he was gone."

Many gay rights advocates still turn emotional, in recounting their first encounter with PFLAG or Manford. Daniel Dromm, a gay New York City Councilman who cofounded the Queens chapter of PFLAG, said in a recent interview that he cried the first time he saw PFLAG members in a gay pride parade. "It's the reaction, I think, you get from a lot of gay people because [for] so many of us our parents still don't accept us."

Today PFLAG has more than 350 chapters, which often serve as the only source of support in rural areas of the country where few other gay rights organizations regularly operate. For its 40th anniversary, the organization is publishing a hate-crimes prevention guide and working with Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) on an Anti-Bullying Caucus, an effort to "stop bullying -- both offline and online," according to a press release.

Honda has a history of working with PFLAG since the 1980s, including while he served on a California school board as PFLAG members educated its members about AIDS, explaining the disease wasn't God's punishment of gay people, Honda said. "The world's not different now, but it is more informed."

In some communities where PFLAG operates, old stereotypes about gay people still persist. Terry Moran, the president of the local PFLAG chapter in Hamilton, Mont., said she has encountered bitter resistance from some individuals, including her own sister, in this conservative community in the mountains.

"My sister was not open to even educating herself," Moran said. "They're told by their church leadership that it's a choice and a sin." But there are many other adults in the community, who are desperate for help with connecting with a child who has come out, she said. Then there are the LGBT individuals who feel comfortable going to PFLAG meetings with a group of allies. Moran hosts the chapter's meetings in a church with a gay-friendly pastor.

"We know that some of the most damaging hurtful statements have been made from fundamentalist Christian communities and they have caused families to be split apart, to separate," Moran said. "It's important to send the message that not all faith communities have the same perception."

Even in New York, where discrimination against gay people is illegal, same-sex couples can now marry and a new statewide anti-bullying law takes effect next month, there is still a lot of work for PFLAG to do, Dromm said. This month, a fifth-grader in Queens was barred from delivering a speech about same-sex marriage to the rest of his school. Although he was later allowed to give the speech at a special assembly, "separate is not equal," Dromm said.

"It annoys me when people talk about post-gay," Dromm continued, referring to the notion that so much progress has been made that "gay rights" is no longer a pressing concern. "Post-gay for who? Even with marriage equality, we're still so far from that at this point."

Sometimes, Dromm reflected, parents and other straight allies of gays can push forward even when other advocacy groups can't. "When a mother puts a face on the issue, it's hard to speak out against that," he said, adding that he still encounters schools that resist gay rights groups' speaking to students or faculty. "But they don't resist a parents-of-gays group coming in. How can anyone argue with a parent's love of their children?"

View photos below of PFLAG through the years.

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