When Jeanne Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post in 1972, declaring: “I have a homosexual son, and I love him,” she must have felt she was trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper (not even a teaspoon).
When she passed away yesterday, the organization she founded had more than 200,000 members and 350 chapters in the United States alone.
That’s impressive, but it’s not what I think of when I think of Jeanne.
I think of my first Gay Pride parade -- in Portland, Oregon, 1980.
At that time, I’d been out to myself for more than ten years, out to my lovers and close queer friends for six, but had never appeared in public as a lesbian before.
PFLAG was there. I remember watching this group of people gathering in the park before the parade began and thinking that they didn’t look like your typical parade-marching queers. When I found out what their acronym stood for, my eyebrows went up for the first time that day.
I’d moved west from small-town Kansas, and had been in Portland less than a year. I was not only not “out” to my parents, but actively closeted to them and my entire family. Seeing these parents, sisters, brothers, and straight friends standing up and speaking out about their love and support for their queer loved ones brought tears to my eyes. It was like touching a possibility that I had never dared hope for.
That happened every year after, for me, too. I’d try to march toward the front of the parade, so that I could stand in the crowd at Waterfront Park and watch the rest of the contingents come through -- every time PFLAG came through, I got choked up.
A few years later, when I came out to my parents, I can say without hesitation that PFLAG helped me do that.
A decade after that, my parents wrote a letter to the Secretary of State of Colorado saying that they wouldn’t be visiting the State until its anti-gay laws were repealed, and then testified at their Lutheran church in support of ordination for queers. I believe that PFLAG helped them do that, even though they never became official members of the organization.
The existence of an organized group of allies -- a group that was willing to be visible, vocal, and stand at my side -- changed my mind about what was possible in terms of my relationship with my own family, and carved out a safe space for my parents to become my allies.
For that, I will be forever grateful to Jeanne Manford.