December 31, 2013

Today we hear from Jeff Johnson, a Communications and Policy intern with PFLAG National. Jeff had the opportunity to meet with longtime PFLAG leaders Sam and Julia Thoron. Following is his report on their journey to becoming dedicated PFLAG leaders, their many years of service, and what the future holds for their LGBTQ advocacy work.

This week, PFLAG National expresses its deepest gratitude to Julia and Sam Thoron. On Sunday, December 14, Sam and Julia stepped down from the board of PFLAG San Francisco after 25 years of service. The occasion was marked by an informal buffet dinner. PFLAG members, friends and community leaders were in attendance.

Sam and Julia didn’t have a clue that their daughter Liz might be gay. Then in January 1990, during the winter break after Liz’s first semester at college, Liz came out quietly to Julia. Julia gave Liz a big hug and told her she loved her. She suggested it would be best if Liz would tell her father. Julia spent the next few days waiting for the other shoe to drop until Liz finally pinned her father down at the end of the day while Julia was out of the room.

“Dad, I have something to tell you,” Liz said.

You can imagine all the thoughts that went through Sam’s mind. “She is pregnant, she has flunked out of college, she’s going with someone she knows I will loathe.” So, he replied, “Oh?”

“Dad, I’m gay.”

“Oh, are you sure?”

“Yes Dad, I’m sure.”

“Are you sure you are not Bi?”

“Yes, I am sure I am not Bi.”

“How do you know?”

Liz looked her father in the eye and answered, “Dad, how do you know you are heterosexual?”

Sam tells me, “I got it, I understood that being gay was just who Liz is.”

After receiving a loving hug from her father, Liz left the room, and Julia rejoined Sam to process the new information together. They were upset and somewhat tearful, but not angry. Realizing that Liz had not changed, they began asking each other why they were so upset. They went through a litany of stereotypes: “There won’t be a wedding.” They agreed that they would support any form of commitment ceremony Liz might want. “There won’t be grandchildren.” But, if Liz wanted to bring up children, either as a single mom or in a partnership, there were any number of ways this could be accomplished. In any case, the choice would be hers. In the end, Sam and Julia realized that they were scared. “It never occurred to us that one of our children would be discriminated against and even subjected to violence just because of who she was.”

Sam and Julia understood that their daughter had not changed, but they knew they would need help and guidance in assimilating the new information about her and how that would impact their lives. They figured that there must be a group around these issues. Liz had given them two books, both of which suggested PFLAG. In those days, because of the hostile climate, local chapters often did not have an easily accessible public presence. In order to find the local SF chapter, they wrote to the Los Angeles address shown in the references Liz had given them.

On a February day, both Julia and Sam attended a San Francisco meeting and chose that chapter to return to. As Julia explains, “We felt a lot of connection, a sense of being supported.” It was a remarkable experience, Julia says, especially since there was “nobody we knew, of course”. Those in attendance that first meeting made up a mixed group: a married couple, a single parent, a gay man. I followed up, asking what made the meeting such a draw. Sam answered, “It’s the peer support, from people who had walked the path.”

When you consider that Sam would sit on PFLAG National’s board of directors and serve as its 8th President, it is amazing that he almost stopped attending meetings after his third visit. He says, “I was sitting in my third meeting, and I thought, I’m okay with this. I won’t need this in a few more meetings. I’ll stop going.” Then the chapter president said they had a little business to do before they went home. Sam recalls, “In a gentle voice, she said, ‘If nobody steps up, we won’t have a meeting next month.’” She went around the room several times, and no one stepped forward. Finally, one of the members said, “No one has to do it all. We can share leadership.” Five families, including the Thorons, stepped forward to form a steering committee.

I asked Sam to comment on how he went from being done with PFLAG to becoming a Regional Director and then President, and his answer tells us a lot about how movement activism can start with concern for just one person. He describes a chapter meeting coinciding with Mother’s Day 1991 that he and Julia attended, just a year after they began attending meetings and sharing leadership.

Sam says, “Instead of a regular chapter meeting, it was cookies, coffee, and just a conversation.” He walked up to his wife, took her in a loving embrace, and kissed her. He remembers realizing then, “My daughter can’t do this. Julia and I can do this almost anywhere, anytime. And no one will blink. My daughter can’t do this, and that is wrong.”

Sam reflects, “My activism comes from the particular to the general. I believe that my daughter deserves to be treated with the same respect and dignity that flows so naturally to her two straight brothers in every aspect of her life. I believe that she deserves all the rights, privileges, and obligations of full citizenship. If she deserves this, so does everyone else.”

As shared leaders of San Francisco chapter, Sam and Julia met Mitzi Henderson, who at the time was PFLAG Director of the Mid Pacific Region. One of the many jobs of Regional Director is to guide new chapter leaders, bringing her into close contact with the Thorons. In 1992, Mitzi was elected to be PFLAG National President. Sam reflects, “Getting more involved meant being around long enough to be asked.” As Mitzi moved from Regional Director to President, she asked Sam to serve as a Regional Director; he agreed.

Meanwhile, Julia became very active at the local level. She focused much of her energy on meeting people at the community level, especially partnering with LGBT groups.

“I wanted to be as much of a presence in the LGBT community as I could,” Julia explains.

Sam talks about the importance of that work. He can’t do it, but Julia is good at talking to other people. Julia volunteers, “I like talking to strangers.” She got involved in conventions. Remembering their difficulty finding a local chapter, Julia urged and assisted the steering committee to establish a helpline. Julia says, “This was a publicly accessible phone number so that people could find us, which is really important.”

Much of this led to situations wherein Sam and Julia had to consider how visible they were willing to be. As Sam puts it, “If you are around long enough to be asked, the stakes get higher. When we are asked to push the envelope of our comfort zone, we ask ourselves, ‘Okay, do we care about equality for our daughter?’ The answer is always yes. So we agree to push the envelope.”

Sam continues, “So once you’ve been asked enough and you say yes, it gets to be that there is no envelope.”

This is how Sam and Julia found themselves at the forefront of the “No on 8” campaign. They were asked to appear in a campaign commercial against California’s 2008 ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in the state, known as Prop 8. Sam and Julia’s faces appeared on California TVs all across the state during the 2008 election season defending their daughter’s fundamental right to marriage equality. The amendment passed. “That was a low for me,” Sam remembers. “Our failure to defeat Prop 8.”

But there were plenty of highs.

Julia says, “A seminal experience for me was the 1994 convention.” Julia led the planning committee for the 1994 National Convention held in the Bay Area. She recalls how energizing it was, bringing people together, sharing resources with all of the chapters. “So many people came forward to help, I didn’t do anything really, just went down the checklist, okay we need to do this, and so many people offered their connections, ‘Oh, I know so and so, someone to do entertainment, someone to give a workshop, a speaker.’ Those are the type of people who built it.” Julia reflects, “It was very fulfilling to me to be working with so many people, working on change in the best way possible. I mean, a PR person came forward to help us get the word out nationally. A lot of energy.” The convention is remembered as a big success, with 84 volunteers and 1100 attendees. “There were 15 seminar rooms, and they were never empty.”

After 25 years of PFLAG involvement, Sam and Julia haven’t lost sight of the source of their commitment to change hearts and minds. Prop 8 was eventually overturned, and last April Liz married her partner Lisa. Both Sam and Julia agree. It was the highlight of their careers.

Sam happily notes, “It was a private ceremony at our summer home.”

Julia adds, “It rained the day before, and it rained the day after, but the weather was beautiful on the day of the wedding.”

“It was truly a joyful and fulfilling day.”

Though stepping down from their chapter work, Sam and Julia will always be an important force for advocacy and change for PFLAG.

We will miss their day-to-day wisdom and passion but at PFLAG National, we are already talking about how their historical knowledge can be archived so we do not lose that first–hand narrative and contribution to the organization’s history.

Sam and Julia have created a legacy of incredible change in the world; we are grateful to them for many years of service to PFLAG, and know that they have truly made the world a better place for all of us, LGBTQ and allies alike.