PFLAG's Rich Past a Solid Foundation for the Future
They tell the stories as though it all happened yesterday:
“As we marched the parade route, so many people came up an hugged me and cried and talked about their own parents,” says Jeanne Manford, founder of PFLAG and the Mother of the Straight Ally movement.
“We called a convention in our home, with 30 to 35 people. We really spent 48 hours together and formed the national organization,” says Adele Starr, who helped form PFLAG's national organization.
“When there was no group to put on a national convention, I put one on myself, with my son. In Atlanta, GA, in 1985, when there was no chapter down there, we decided to give the rednecks something to look at,” says Bob Benov, who has been a part of the PFLAG movement from its earliest days.
“Nobody came to the first meeting. But one by one, they just started coming -- very slowly -- and they started talking. The meetings in those days were just out-of-this-world emotional,” says Lois Adams, who co-founded one of the first non-urban parents’ groups.
But it didn’t happen yesterday...
It began more than 30 years ago, with the first meeting of a parents’ support group. Over 40 years, that single support group in New York has grown to become a network of more than 350 chapters worldwide, with more than 200,000 members and supporters.
It started simply, almost accidentally. In April 1972, the New York Post published a letter from Jeanne Manford, whose gay son had been badly beaten at a protest while police stood by. “I didn’t think anything of it, but I guess it was the first time a mother ever stood up publicly and said, ‘Yes, I have a homosexual child,’” recalls Manford.
Two months later, Manford and her son, Morty, marched in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day March together. Manford carried a sign which read, “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.” The crowd screamed, yelled and cried as Manford approached. Initially, she thought they were cheering for Dr. Benjamin Spock, who walked behind the Manfords, but as people began to crowd around her, she realized they were reacting to her.
“As we marched the parade route, Morty and I began talking about starting a group for parents,” said Manford, then a fourth-grade school teacher in New York. “I never had any idea it would start all of this. I remember, as we marched, telling Morty that I hoped it would someday become a national organization, but that was just a dream. I never envisioned we would reach so many people.”
When Manford got home from the parade, her telephone rang constantly. Gay and lesbian people wanted her to speak with their parents. Other parents wanted to share their stories with her. For several months, Manford continued to field telephone calls, participate in panel discussions and travel the country for radio and television interviews.
In 1973, New York City Parents of Gays held its first meeting.
Nearly 20 people gathered in a Methodist church in Greenwich Village to share their stories and support each other. Amy and Dick Ashworth, whose two sons were gay, and Bob and Elaine Benov, who also had two gay sons, began attending meetings in the group’s first year.
"It made an immediate difference in our lives,” Benov said. “At that time we came from a very different place and needed the help that we got from the parents’ group and stayed on to continue it.”
Throughout the 1970s, the New York group received calls from parents nationwide who wanted support or information to start groups in their communities. Amy Ashworth traveled to dozens of cities to help start local groups. Jeanne Manford and her husband, Jules, traveled to the West Coast in 1974, where they encouraged Larry and Adele Starr to form a group in Los Angeles.
In March 1976, the Starrs launched the Los Angeles group, the first parents group to apply for non-profit, tax-exempt status.
More than 35 people went to the Starrs’ home for the first meeting. “During the next couple of years, I was taking a lot of helpline calls. Each time someone called it made me feel better, too,” Adele Starr recalls.
Among the people Starr spoke with were Harlen and Lois Adams, from rural Chico, CA. The Adams’ son, Martin, came out to them in 1962. “My father was very unaware of things and thought this was just a passing phase,” Martin Adams remembers. But several years later, Harlen Adams served on the national committee that advised the Presbyterian Church to ordain gays and lesbians. As part of his work on that committee, he read more than 400 books on homosexuality. “Once he had that knowledge, it was a total evolution for him,” said Martin Adams, who has lived in Mexico City since 1964. “He became very much an activist and an organizer, and he absolutely changed our hometown of Chico.”
Harlen and Lois Adams started a parents group in Chico in 1978 -- one of the first ever in a non-urban area. There was not yet even a group in San Francisco. “It was so scary for people to come to meetings then,” said Lois Adams. “One lady came to our house four or five times before she actually came inside. She would just drive over, sit in her car, then turn around and go home.”
Throughout the late 1970s, several other groups formed in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Washington state and Washington, DC. Founders of these groups gathered for the first time in the mid-1970s at the Manfords’ home in New York. Benov remembers that “quite a few people” attended and discussed forming a national organization. “We talked and agreed to keep in communication with each other. We didn’t get all that far in forming a group,” he said. “In the next three or four years, we met two or three times.”
Parents from across the country gathered in Washington, DC, in 1979 at the first National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights.
The parents marched in the parade, and Dick Ashworth and Adele Starr both addressed the historic crowd from the podium in front of the Washington Monument. Noting that the march occurred during the International Year of the Child, the parents also held a press conference to publicly proclaim their support for their gay children. Later that weekend, 25 parents met and “finally got down to business” to plan a national organization, Benov said.
Two years later, more than 30 people met at the Starrs’ home in Los Angeles to write the bylaws for a national organization, give it a name and draft the articles of incorporation. The 20 local groups decided to call themselves the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or Parents FLAG. They created a five-member Board of Directors, and Adele Starr became president of the Board. Larry Starr, the organization’s financial adviser, closed the books and filed the tax returns every year. “The national office was Adele Starr’s living room,” Benov recalls.
Throughout the early 1980s, Parents FLAG began to distribute information to educational institutions and communities of faith nationwide. The group also began establishing itself as a source of information for the general public. When the “Dear Abby” syndicated newspaper column mentioned Parents FLAG, the group received more than 7,000 letters. “The post office called us and told us we had to come there and pick up trays of mail. They were a little annoyed with us,” Adele Starr said. Twenty volunteers went to the Starrs’ home to help answer the mail. “We had people on our patio, in the living room, in our family room -- all over the house -- sorting and separating and answering the mail.”
The Federation also continued the advocacy work that local groups had been doing individually. The Starrs, who were active through the Los Angeles group in fighting Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in the 1970s, worked against the U.S. Military’s efforts to discharge lesbians in the 1980s. Parents FLAG sent letters to the staffs of every military post in the nation, and some responded.
“We did a lot of the things that are being done on another scale today,” Adele Starr said. “We used to do this on a shoestring budget. We realized after six or seven years that we just couldn’t continue to do it that way. We felt that we wanted to grow, and we felt that the potential was there because wherever we went, people listened to us.”
In January 1987, Parents FLAG’s leadership met in San Francisco to plan the organization’s future. Long discussions and a survey of the Board led to the formation of committees and task forces on specific issues, which were intended to bring a sense of professionalism and ownership.
Later that year -- with an increasing number of local groups, a larger Board of Directors and the establishment of Regional Directors to help start and support chapters -- Parents FLAG relocated to Denver, with Ellinore Lewallen as its president. Gay Bossart, a member of the Denver group, became the first paid staff member of the Federation, working from an office in the local community center.
The Federation had a mailing list of 1,300 and a budget of $16,000. All letters, lists, newsletters and other publications were done on one manual typewriter. “It became a complete national office,” Bossart recalls. “But it was a lot of work in those start-up years.”
The work was paying off. More than 100 communities formed local groups, and “once chapters were going, they were amazingly enthusiastic,” Bossart said. “It was an exciting time.”
As Parents FLAG grew, it began to reach into smaller, more conservative communities.
Eileen Durgin-Clinchard tried for several months to find Parents FLAG in Nebraska when her son came out. “People were extremely closeted then. It was hard to even find a chapter in the first place,” she recalls. Finally, in the early 1980s, she was in a beauty parlor and heard about the Federation. “That taught me that all you have to do is say something, and it makes a difference,” she said. From 1987 until 1992, Durgin-Clinchard volunteered as Northern Plains Regional Director, helping start and nurture chapters in Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The Federation was receiving an enormous volume of requests for information. The Board established task forces on issues related to religion, HIV/AIDS, straight spouses and youth. “We were part of a historical movement,” Lewallen said.
In 1988, with nearly 200 local groups, Parents FLAG permanently relocated to Washington, DC, and Paulette Goodman became president.
For the first time, the organization hired an executive director and a staff, and moved into independent office space. “The organization had been mostly a home-spun grassroots federation,” Goodman said. “What I wanted was to make the organization more visible, to raise funds and really have a national voice.”
Goodman’s efforts were catapulted into the national spotlight in 1990, when she began corresponding with First Lady Barbara Bush. Goodman wrote to Bush, explaining Parents FLAG’s work and asking the First Lady to “speak kind words to some 24 million gay Americans and their families, to help heal the wounds, and to keep these families in loving relationships.”
After repeated attempts to get the letter directly to Bush, Goodman carried it in her purse to a hate crimes bill signing at the White House and handed it to an aide. She received a reply from Mrs. Bush 10 days later, in May 1990. “I firmly believe that we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country. Such treatment always brings with it pain and perpetuates intolerance,” Bush wrote.
The letters were inadvertently given to the Associated Press, and Parents FLAG was in the middle of a political maelstrom. Conservative columnists attacked Bush for being sympathetic to the “gay lobby.” Goodman spoke out, clarifying Parents FLAG’s role. “That was literally the first time something positive came out of the White House,” Goodman recalls. “We got a lot of mileage out of that.” Goodman and the First Lady continued to correspond regularly until 1992.
To accommodate its growing public profile and local network -- and to ensure that it could still provide support to parents, educate the public and advocate for equal civil rights -- the organization restructured in 1993. An affiliation process was established for chapters, board seats became elected and the organization’s name changed to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG.
The restructuring allowed PFLAG to become a membership organization with an even stronger national voice, while still servicing local chapters, said Mitzi Henderson, who became the group’s president in 1992. “We had always been grateful for wonderful leadership that captured people’s imagination about our mission,” Henderson said. “It was time for us to focus on how we could mobilize our enormous reserves of enthusiasm and put them to work most effectively for our children. Growth is never easy, and our organizational planning took a lot of careful thought and hard work from everyone.”
Just as the organization was restructuring, issues affecting gays and lesbians became the center of ongoing national debate. More than ever, Americans were discussing whether gays should serve in the military, be protected from discrimination in their communities and have the right to marry. Many members were also losing loved ones to AIDS, a health crisis the organization worked against from its onset in the early 1980s.
PFLAG continued to support parents, while speaking out for their gay children, in 1996, when Nancy McDonald became PFLAG’s president. Following what Henderson calls “an enormous growth spurt,” 65,000 households were PFLAG members.
“Those years were largely devoted to sustaining PFLAG’s growth, staying focused on our mission and reaching out to even more people -- to open hearts and minds all across America,” McDonald said. “We’ve strengthened locally, and we’ve taken our place at the national table. When I first became involved with PFLAG, we were an afterthought. Now, people call us to testify before Congress.”
Reflecting on the organization’s evolution, Adele Starr said parents’ unconditional love has been constant. “In some ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, there’s obviously been tremendous change,” she explained. “We never agreed on a lot of things but we all got along because we all had one purpose in life, and that was to help our children and change attitudes in the community at large.”
Benov said, “We all did what we did because of the love for our children. We keep doing it. Amy Ashworth lost not only her two gay sons but her husband. My two gay sons died of AIDS in 1990. But that doesn’t stop what we do. These things are important for us to continue to do.”
PFLAG members and supporters continue to work tirelessly -- 40 years since the start of this national movement of families and allies...
In the early 1990s, PFLAG chapters in Massachusetts helped pass the first Safe Schools legislation in the country. In 1993, PFLAG added the word "Families" to the name, and added bisexuals to its mission and work. By the mid-1990s a PFLAG family was responsible for the Department of Education’s ruling that Title 9 also protected gay and lesbian students from harassment based on sexual orientation. Also in the mid-1990s, PFLAG put the Religious Right on the defensive, when Pat Robertson threatened to sue any station that carried our Project Open Mind advertisements showing examples of his anti-gay statements. The resulting media coverage drew national attention to our message linking hate speech with hate crimes and GLBT teen suicide. In 1998, PFLAG added transgendered people and their loved ones.
In 2012, the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary year, continuing its work as the leading family and ally organization in the LGBT movement.
The following year, on January 8, 2013, founder Jeanne Manford passed away. Within months of her passing, President Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the highest honor for a civillian. Additionally, for the first time the fight for LGBTQ equality was recognized as part of the Civil Rights float in the 2013 Inaugural Parade - the iconic image of Jeanne marching with her son and her sign represented that movement on the float.
Later that year, the site of the first PFLAG meeting in Greenwich Village, NYC was marked with an historic plaque, so that all who pass that place would know of its important place in LGBTQ history.
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