Last week the southwestern Connecticut chapter of PFLAG held a farewell dinner for its members. After 35 years the group is no longer going to be holding regular monthly meetings as a support group for parents of LGBT persons.
In 1978 my own parents were among the founding members of that chapter of the national organization. A few months earlier they had learned that I'm gay, which was shattering news to nearly any parent at that time.
Today we know that the 1950s and '60s were the nadir of anti-gay propaganda in America. In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association officially classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. A year later, in 1953, the year that I was born, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which made "sexual perversion" grounds for dismissal from federal employment in the United States. It wasn't until 21 years later, after an entire generation of gay persons had been labeled deviant, that the APA relented and recognized that there isn't any mental illness involved in being gay.
Although most farewell dinners are somewhat bittersweet, the parents gathered at the dinner last week couldn't have been happier about ending their regular monthly meetings. There simply was no further need for them, at least in this part of Connecticut. Although there had been months in the past with more than 50 parents in attendance, over the past couple of years, only a handful had been showing up to seek help and support after learning that a child is LGBT. Most months there was no one.
As my parents recalled at the dinner, when they were growing up in the 1930s and '40s in the same Connecticut town where I would be born, almost no one ever spoke about homosexuality. By the time I came around, thanks to the medical community's determination that homosexuals were "sick," everyone was hearing plenty about homosexuality. Scary homosexuals were all over the place: When they weren't passing state secrets to the Communists, they were molesting children. (We know now that, according to the American Psychological Association, "homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.")
How terrifying it must have been for parents to learn that their child was gay at that time. Even if they were politically left-leaning, as mine were, the only life they could imagine for their child was one of shame, despair and misery. And why not? In 1970s America almost no one had ever heard of a happy, successful homosexual.
In newspaper articles, television shows and movies, every homosexual ended up arrested or dead. The future was grim: jail or the cemetery. There were no openly gay politicians, performers, athletes, teachers or police officers to be seen. And with gay people ashamed and closeted, almost no one knew gay people in their communities or workplaces, and certainly not in their own families.
Just as things were starting to improve in the early '80s, AIDS hit. It became normal for parents to find out that their child was gay at the same time that they found out that he was dying. But for all the horror that it wrought, the AIDS tragedy accomplished what years of pride marches and activism had failed to accomplish: Suddenly people realized that gay people were everywhere around them. Rock Hudson, the epitome of the Hollywood leading man, was one. And the nice neighbor down the street. And the guy in the next cubicle too.
Once people began to see that there were gay people among their friends, coworkers and family members, it became a lot more difficult to accept the irrational fear and hatred that had been pushed upon them for decades. We homosexuals weren't so bad after all. People began to realize that maybe if they just let us keep our jobs, rent apartments, and freely socialize, then we might be able to form the stable relationships that the so-called experts had long assured the public that we were incapable of sustaining.
At the dinner last week, the parents took turns speaking about their experiences. Each told similar tales: the shock and sadness when they found out, the agony of wondering what they might have done wrong, and then the eventual coming around to love and acceptance, in a matter of weeks for some, years for others. They talked of their children's successes, and of their grandchildren, passing around photos.
Not all the stories had happy endings, though. I wasn't the only gay "child" at the farewell dinner. There was another: a successful attorney, now in his 40s, whose family had never come around to accepting him as a gay man. He had first come to the group when he was still in law school, asking the other parents for advice on talking to his own. With his graduation day coming up, he'd been hoping that his parents might attend the ceremony. But nothing would change their minds, and they'd refused. But some of the parents from the PFLAG group had gone, cheering for him and snapping photos as he collected his diploma. Then, recently, he had heard about the farewell dinner and wanted to come to tell the group how much that gesture had meant to him.
Thankfully, the LGBT youth of today are growing up in a different America. In Fairfield County it's now the homophobes, not the gay people, who are considered the "deviants." Undoubtedly, same-sex couples' marriages will be recognized across all 50 states when today's youth are ready to get hitched. What we knew as "coming out" -- the moment when you stopped pretending to be straight and began being yourself -- will be a quaint, no-longer-necessary tradition mentioned in history books.
Yet despite all of the progress, one doesn't need to look far to realize that we still have a ways to go. Not every part of the country is like Fairfield County. Our federal government and 29 of the 50 states still don't protect gays from discrimination in employment. For this reason, PFLAG Southwestern CT isn't disbanding. Although there will no longer be regularly scheduled meetings, they'll still offer outreach to schools and organizations and peer-to-peer programs.
This may have been the last meeting of PFLAG Southwestern CT, but let's pause to remember that there are far too many places in the world where the parents of LGBT kids still need to have their first meeting.