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In Memory of Its Founder, Celebrating PFLAG's Evolution From Acceptance to Affirmation and Advocacy

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This is a piece about PFLAG, prompted by the death last week of Jeanne Manford, who founded PFLAG 40 years ago. During the years of turmoil of the late '60s and early '70s, this mother wrote a letter to the then-liberal New York Post after her gay son was beaten while protesting a black-tie affair in Manhattan. That letter ignited a revolution.

I had been thinking a lot about PFLAG recently, anyway, because of its role in my personal life as I celebrated my 10th anniversary as Dana, and because of its role in my professional life, marked by both its impact on the lives of the families of trans persons in Maryland and its indispensable assistance in the passage of two Maryland county anti-discrimination laws. I am honored to call many of its leaders my friends and my colleagues on the board of Gender Rights Maryland. However, what is most remarkable about PFLAG to me today is its resilience as an organization, a resilience exemplified by its founder.

Ms. Manford, who was born in and raised her family in Flushing, N.Y., not far from where I grew up, created PFLAG in the very early years of the gay rights movement post-Stonewall, when few gay individuals, let alone their mothers, were out of the closet. We forget the courage shown by these parents, ignorant of their children's reality, living in a culture infused with a noxious Freudianism that blamed parents for all sorts of sexual variation. PFLAG started the straight ally movement and grew it against sometimes fierce resistance, through the AIDS crisis and beyond, and was one of the first national groups to actively support the growing trans community. Trans persons have parents, too, of course, and while the name "PFLAG" has not evolved to inclusion, the organization itself did so with a vengeance, occasionally fighting back against opposition among its own activists.

Over the past past decade I have been privileged to serve my local PFLAG support group in Bethesda as a resource for the families of transitioners who come to this organization, which functions as a first responder when they feel most overwhelmed. The Bethesda support group, one of the first exclusively trans-focused PFLAG support groups in the nation, and currently led by Debbie Strauss, has been welcomed and nurtured by the local Unitarian church, Cedar Lane, and has now spawned a clone in the Virginia suburbs. For many, this group's loving presence has been literally lifesaving.

I am very fortunate to know well one of metro D.C.'s first chapter presidents, Catherine Tuerk, a member of my synagogue and the author of the wonderful and instructive book Mom Knows: Reflections on Love, Gay Pride, and Taking Action. Catherine offered to mediate my coming out with my parents a decade ago and was a wonderful interlocutor, putting my parents so at ease that they soon became PFLAG's informal trans support group in south Florida. That she could ease my parents' own transition after 50 years of fear, anxiety and rejection seemed nothing short of miraculous to me. But Cathy was just a typical PFLAG mom, like Jeanne, as it turns out.

I then worked closely with PFLAG board member David Fishback as he led Montgomery County's school system to adopt a 21st-century sex-ed curriculum that is inclusive of gay and trans persons. That battle took four years and several court appearances before we could declare victory with a state-of-the-art curriculum.

More recently I have had the pleasure of working with the PFLAG chapters in Howard and Baltimore Counties, which were instrumental in helping pass gender identity anti-discrimination bills. Those PFLAG leaders -- Catherine Hyde, Matt Thorn, Heath Goisovich and Mark Patro -- were the primary personal connections who made the political work possible. Focused, committed, dedicated and professional, they exemplified the courage and love necessary to create political change. Finally, I had the pleasure of working with Rhodes Perry and colleagues from the national organization on last year's statewide gender identity legislation, when they formed an umbrella under which all the stakeholders could sit, challenge one another and move forward toward a common goal.

Looking back, what strikes me most is their resilience. PFLAG suffered along with most other LGBT organizations during the Great Contraction of the past five years. In addition, it even appeared for a time that there was a crisis of mission, as the gay civil rights movement accelerated to such a degree that parents and family members no longer seemed as crucial an element in the political process. As a parent I can certainly understand that, and I consider it a victory. We all want our children to mature and stand on their own. Yet they knew, both on a chapter and national level, that there was more they could still do, and more they still needed to do. As a result five local leaders now serve on the Gender Rights Maryland boards, leading us closer to full equality in Maryland, and national PFLAG has again joined the larger coalition pressing for the gender identity bill.

As stated by PFLAG officials, "All of us -- people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight allies alike -- owe Jeanne our gratitude. She paved the way for us to speak out for what is right, uniting the unique parent, family, and ally voice with the voice of LGBT people everywhere."

PFLAG has managed, by moving beyond acceptance to affirmation and advocacy, to reinvent itself and become just as essential today as it was when it was founded by Jeanne Manford 40 years ago. There is no greater testimonial to Jeanne than that.