April 24, 2016

One mother's support and acceptance of her gay son led to the creation of a national support group for gays, lesbians and their families.

Jeanne Manford needs few words to make the most complex questions simple. "I loved him," she said of her son, Morty Manford. "He was my son." That love and pride inspired Manford to co-found the internationally-known support group PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in 1973. "Of course, I knew Morty was gay," Manford explained. "He didn't want to tell me. I told him that I loved him, and nothing else mattered. At first, there was a little tension there. He didn't believe I was that accepting. But I was."

In 1972, Morty was punched, kicked and thrown down an escalator during a gay rights protest at the New York City Hilton Hotel. Manford and her husband watched the attacks on the evening TV news, outraged that police officers appeared to ignore the assault. Manford's next steps erased any doubt her son may have had about her loyalty and acceptance. She tried to call The New York Times to expose the injustice, but says she was hung up on. Next, she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post. The letter was published. One sentence jumped out: "My son is a homosexual, and I love him."

The next day, she received a phone call from Morty. "You can't believe it [the response]," he told her. "No mother has ever announced to the world her son is gay." Through one letter, Manford and her now-deceased husband Jules were newsmakers. Together, they appeared on the Phil Donahue talk show and more than 20 different TV shows. A 30-year veteran elementary school teacher, Jeanne Manford's activism was quite a risk at that time. "My principal warned me that there were complaints from parents," she said. "She told me to be discreet. I told her this was my private life." The principal retreated, opposition faded and Manford's life as an activist continued through her 1990 retirement from education.

United in Support

She wasn't alone in her efforts, either. Manford noted that her husband was an active supporter of Morty and PFLAG. Remembering when her husband faced the realization that his only son was gay, Manford admitted he didn't enjoy the same quick calm of acceptance. "He talked about a huge knot in his stomach at first," she said. "[But] once Morty had friends over to the house and Jules talked to them, he became very comfortable." Manford, 84, laughed remembering her elderly mother's reaction to Morty's coming out. "My mother was advancing in years," she said. "When Morty told her, she replied, 'You're gay? I'm Hungarian.'" As for herself, Manford said she had never known a gay person before. "Gay?" she asked. "I grew up in a family of five girls. The word wasn't in my vocabulary."

Manford's son invited her to march with him in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1972. She agreed, accompanying him to the parade and carrying a sign to explain why she was there. The poster board read in large capital letters: PARENTS OF GAYS: UNITE IN SUPPORT FOR OUR CHILDREN. Today, that sign is part of the Gay and Lesbian Collections of the New York Public Library archives. When the parade began, Manford didn't understand the initial cheering. She believed the ovation was intended for the marcher behind her, noted parenting advocate Dr. Benjamin Spock. However, once crowd members ran into the parade route to talk to Manford, she realized the cheers belonged to her.

'Honored and Treasured People'

During the march, mother and son agreed that a parents support group was needed. In 1973, the first meeting was held at the Metropolitan Duane Methodist Church in New York City. Since then, PFLAG has gained international representation, with more than 200,000 members and supporters included in 400 chapters. Phyllis Steinberg, New York City PFLAG president, recalled Manford in 2003, as guest of honor at an awards dinner. "I still get chills from the ovation she got," Steinberg said. "The mass sense of gratitude for all she had done, the gratitude to be in the presence of this woman _ she didn't have to say a word." Steinberg's admiration for Manford goes beyond fellow activist. She commended Manford, one parent to another. "What can be a greater expression of a mother's love for her son than to stand up for that child in the face of such great adversity?" she asked.

Ron Schlittler, former PFLAG deputy executive director, explained how family members often begin their chapter involvement. "It's parental. It's an instinctual response to protect their own children," he said. "So many parents are not born activists. They don't come by this naturally." Schlittler related that most PFLAG chapters have started like Manford's 1973 efforts, when one parent wanted to aid a son or daughter.

"Every chapter has its own Jeanne Manford," he said. "They are honored and treasured people."