In 2023, PFLAG celebrates 50 years of leading with love for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them, and 51 years since Jeanne Manford’s historic march with her son, prominent gay activist Morty Manford, at the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation Day March. Many people know that part of the story, but what many DON’T know are the events that led to that march, and the subsequent work that would lead to the formation of a meeting of parents, LGBTQ+ people, and allies just nine months later—a meeting that would eventually become known as the PFLAG organization.
In 1969 Morty, a leading activist in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, was at the Stonewall Inn when the now-famous police raid happened. Later that year, Morty helped found the Gay Activists Alliance, becoming becaming its president. It was in that role that Morty and others led a variety of protests, including one in 1972 at the 50th annual Inner Circle dinner, an event at the Hilton Hotel attended by reporters, which included dinner, celebration—and the performance of anti-LGBTQ+ skits and satire. At the event, Morty and others participated in a “zap,” a form of direct activism popularized by the GAA. The zap was intended to gain attention for a city gay-rights law that the GAA wanted passed. The GAA distributed leaflets and seized the stage in an attempt to highlight the law, which the mainstream media was all but ignoring. When the GAA was ejected, a fight broke out. Michael Maye, president of New York City’s Uniformed Firefighters Assn., vehemently opposed the law. At the dinner, he beat Morty, with witnesses stating that they saw Maye throw Morty down an escalator, kicking and stomping him. Maye was acquitted of the assault; the law finally passed years later.
This April 15, 1972 event garnered some of the equality movement’s best media coverage and drew attention to anti-LGBTQ+ violence.
It also inspired Morty’s mother, schoolteacher Jeanne Manford. “I was furious,” Jeanne recalled to historian Eric Marcus, who knew the family and who conducted a joint interview he did with Jeanne and Morty in his wonderful Making Gay History podcast [he also has a separate interview with Morty he shared in another episode of the show]. “I’m not the type of person who belonged to organizations. I never tried to do anything. But I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over Morty.”
As shared by Marcus in the episode, “…the shy, petite elementary school teacher from Flushing, Queens, put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the New York Post expressing her outrage at the incident…The letter was published on April 29, 1972 [entitled “A Fair Chance”]; no parent had ever written such a letter before that was published in a major newspaper.”
The letter created a sensation. Not long after, Morty asked his mother to march with him at the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation Day Marc; she agreed, as long as she could carry a sign that explained why she was there and marching.
Marcus says, “Looking back on her work as an activist, Jeanne didn’t think of herself as a radical or revolutionary. But others did.”
In an interview, Morty explained, “There was a calendar that somebody published, which I picked up over on St. Mark’s Place that next year. For each month it had a picture marking some occasion. For example…there was a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., during this birthday month. And for June, guess who the calendar girl was?” Jeanne said, in the same interview, “Before Morty turned to June, I said, ‘This is not a true revolutionary calendar unless there is something about the gay march—about gays—for the month of June.’ And then when I turned the page, there was my picture. The irony, of course, is that I considered myself such a traditional person. I didn’t even cross the street against the light.”But cross the street she did, many of them as the march moved through Manhattan in June 1972. Morty knew that her presence caused a stir—and inspired others to ask her for support, or ask her to support their own parents. Over the next few months, it became clear to Morty that a meeting of like-minded people could help not only LGBTQ+ people get the support they needed, but would really help the parents and families learn how to support their loved ones. PFLAG was born out of this need.
Morty urged Jeanne (and his father Jules, who was very much a part of the PFLAG story) to hold a meeting; without Morty’s encouragement it likely would never have happened. And Morty knew, as a smart activist, that Jeanne and Jules HAD to be the ones to start the group; it could not be Morty because it needed parents and families—ALLIES—to meet other people, potential allies, where they are and bring them along. Without Jeanne and Jules, PFLAG could never have happened.
The power of PFLAG—from a letter to a march to a meeting to a movement—was born from the unified front of this family. It is the unified front of LGBTQ+ people, parents, families, and non-family allies that continues to fuel PFLAG 50 years later.
In the next years, through word of mouth and community need, similar groups sprang up around the country, offering “safe havens” and mutual support for parents with gay and lesbian children. Following the 1979 National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights, representatives from these groups met for the first time in Washington, DC.By 1980, PFLAG, then known as Parents FLAG, began to distribute information to educational institutions and communities of faith nationwide, establishing itself as a source of information for the general public. When “Dear Abby” mentioned PFLAG in one of her advice columns, we received more than 7,000 letters requesting information. In 1981, members decided to launch a national organization. The first PFLAG National office was established in Los Angeles under founding president–and PFLAG LA founder–Adele Starr.
In 1982, the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc., then representing some 20 groups, was incorporated in California and granted non-profit, tax-exempt status. In 1987, PFLAG relocated to Denver, under President Elinor Lewallen. Also in the 1980s, PFLAG became involved in opposing Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade and worked to end the U.S. military’s efforts to discharge lesbians—more than a decade before military issues came to the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. And by the late 1980s, PFLAG began to have notable success in organizing chapters in rural communities.
In 1990, following a period of significant growth, PFLAG employed an Executive Director, expanded its staff, and moved to Washington, DC. In 1990, PFLAG President Paulette Goodman sent a letter to Barbara Bush asking for Mrs. Bush’s support. The first lady’s personal reply stated, “I firmly believe that we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country. Such treatment always brings with it pain and perpetuates intolerance.” Inadvertently given to the Associated Press, her comments caused a political maelstrom and were perhaps the first gay-positive comments to come from the White House.
In the early 1990s, PFLAG chapters in Massachusetts helped pass the first Safe Schools legislation in the country. In 1993, PFLAG added the word “Families” to the name, and added bisexual people to its mission and work. By the mid-1990s a PFLAG family was responsible for the Department of Education’s ruling that Title 9 also protected gay and lesbian students from harassment based on sexual orientation. PFLAG put the Religious Right on the defensive, when Pat Robertson threatened to sue any station that carried the Project Open Mind advertisements. The resulting media coverage drew national attention to PFLAG’s message linking hate speech with hate crimes and LGBTQ teen suicide. In 1998, PFLAG added transgender people to its mission.
At the turn of the century, the national office of PFLAG began to also develop signature programs to support the chapter network and to raise the family and ally voice in the battle for equality. Programs like Cultivating Respect: Safe Schools for All, Straight for Equality, and the National Scholarship Program.
In 2014, the organization officially changed its name from “Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” to, simply, PFLAG. This change was made to accurately reflect PFLAG members, those PFLAG serves, and the inclusive work PFLAG has been doing for decades.
PFLAG celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023.