Jeanne Manford made headlines 50 years ago when she marched with her openly gay son in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade – one of the first Pride events in New York. Such behavior from a straight mother was unheard of at the time.
The following year, Manford founded an organization for people like her – PFLAG, which originally stood for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Over time, PFLAG has become a leader in the fight for gay rights. It was a valuable source of support for thousands of families, especially throughout the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. These days, Pride is a family event and PFLAG serves all members of the LGBTQIA community.
National PFLAG/National PFLAG
The culture has changed immeasurably, says PFLAG board member Kay Holladay. She remembers that in the early 1980s, when her son came out to her, she didn’t know any homosexuals.
“I think my choir director at church probably was,” she said dryly. His Southern Baptist Church in Norman, Okla. did not accept LGBTQ members. “We had no one to talk to. We had no other families. We had no resources.”
Holladay and her husband felt lost and isolated. They went to the public library to educate themselves but found nothing useful. However, they read about PFLAG in the Dear Abby union advice column and it inspired them to co-found a local chapter. This year they were the Grand Marshals of the Norman’s Pride Parade.
PFLAG was shaped by people like the Holladays for others like them – a largely white demographic that desperately needed support in the days before Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper helped make the very idea mainstream LGBTQ families. These days, coming out has become relatively painless for many children from families like theirs. But it wasn’t easy for Devin Green, a child of immigrants who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It was very upsetting,” the 19-year-old says after telling his parents he’s trans. “Being Jamaican and having a relatively conservative upbringing, I just didn’t know what to expect.”
Green’s family attended a Southern Baptist church that taught a literal interpretation of the Bible. When he came out in ninth grade, Green’s mother was less than thrilled. Now, she’s open and candid about her family’s journey. After all, says Claudette Green, it started for her at home in Jamaica, where she grew up hearing homophobic messages in church, on the news and in popular music.
“There were songs that glorified the killing of LGBTQ members,” she recalled. “There were actually laws on the books in Jamaica that you could go to jail if you were a member of the LGBTQ community.”
After Devin Green persuaded his mother to go to therapy, she was convinced to attend a PFLAG meeting. “It was difficult for me because when I got there I met families who were more accepting of their children and so I felt like a terrible parent,” she says. But Green was the opposite of a terrible parent. She and her child talked. Above all, she listened. “Devin was a great teacher and I was a really good student,” she says.
And when the head of the local PFLAG chapter invited her for coffee, she went. “She met me where I was,” Green says. “Going to PFLAG and seeing love, it helped me dismantle some of the things I believed in.”
Five years later, Green parades proudly in Pride parades. She changed her nursing career to focus on helping LGBTQ youth, and she and her husband have helped other Caribbean families adjust to LGBTQ children. They’ve moved to a more assertive church, and Green has just accepted a position on the PFLAG board of directors in Charlotte.
PFLAG San Gabriel Valley API Chapter
Still, PFLAG executive director Brian Bond says his organization still has a long way to go.
“It’s mostly white,” he says. But PFLAG is trying, he says, with bilingual literature and by developing spaces where people with similar backgrounds and cultural skills can support each other online. It is, however, haunted by people that PFLAG does not reach.
Bond keeps a receipt in his wallet, he told NPR. It’s for the funeral of a 13-year-old trans boy who committed suicide a year and a half ago. His family had never heard of PFLAG. The organization paid for the child’s funeral anonymously.
“Interestingly, it was a state trooper who contacted us,” Bond says. “And that’s not our job, but that’s what we had to do in the moment. And making sure no family has to do that should be our ultimate goal.”
Times have changed, but in some ways they haven’t. PFLAG has new battles to fight. For the first time, he became the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of Texas to protect trans children and their parents fighting for affirmative health care.