Jeanne Manford, founder of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), died last week at 92. PFLAG now has 350 chapters and more than 200,000 members and supporters in the United States.
At the 2009 Human Rights Campaign Dinner, President Obama praised Manford as the story of America, “of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change; of hope stronger than hate; of love more powerful than any insult or injury; of Americans fighting to build for themselves and their families a nation in which no one is a second-class citizen, in which no one is denied their basic rights, in which all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.”
President Obama described how Manford’s love for her son ignited her activism.
Soon after the protests at Stonewall 40 years ago, the phone rang in the home of a soft-spoken elementary school teacher named Jeanne Manford. It was 1:00 in the morning, and it was the police. Now, her son, Morty, had been at the Stonewall the night of the raids. Ever since, he had felt within him a new sense of purpose. So when the officer told Jeanne that her son had been arrested, which was happening often to gay protesters, she was not entirely caught off guard. And then the officer added one more thing, “And you know, he’s homosexual.” Well, that police officer sure was surprised when Jeanne responded, “Yes, I know. Why are you bothering him?”
On April 29, 1972, Jeanne Manford wrote a Letter to the Editor of the New York Post saying, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” Jeanne and her husband Jules were at home in Flushing, Queens when they received a phone call from the hospital about a beating incident involving their son Morty and other gay advocates. The police were nearby and did not intervene in the assault. Her letter to the New York Post expressed outrage over the incident and helped shine the spotlight on violence against gays.
Two months later on June 25, Manford marched with her son in the New York City pride parade. Eric Marcus, the author of a history on the gay rights movement in the U.S., described the move as unprecedented. “It’s a little hard to imagine now what that period was like, how revolutionary it was for a parent to walk in the gay pride march in New York City carrying a sign that said, ‘Parents unite in support of our gay children,’ ” he says. “The timing was right, the time really called for someone like Jeanne, and Jeanne was there.”
Her message was as simple as it was powerful, a quiet, courageous statement of unconditional love.
Walking alongside her son in an early New York City gay pride parade in 1972, elementary school teacher Jeanne Manford carried a sign she had written herself: “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.”
When spectators began to cheer, Manford figured the applause must be for Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned baby doctor who was marching in the parade just behind her and her son, Morty. It was only when young marchers and spectators began to approach Manford, thanking her with hugs and tears for her presence, that she knew the cheers were for her and her public support of her gay son, and by extension, all gay children.
“The young people were hugging me, kissing me, screaming, asking if I would talk to their parents,” she recalled in a 1996 interview with Newsday. “Very few of them were out to their parents for fear of rejection.”
Manford was so moved by the experience that the following year, she and her husband Jules founded a local support group for parents of gays and lesbians, which grew into the international organization known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. It now has 350 chapters and more than 200,000 members and supporters in the United States.
Watch the Rachel Maddow Tribute to Jeanne Manford
“One particular thing about the gay pride parade makes me weep every time…These are the parents of gay people marching in the parade. Just to say that they love their kids. Makes me cry every time.”