In his inaugural year, the 45th president of our country has issued proclamations for June as National Home Ownership Month, National Ocean Month, and Great Outdoors Month. But in a shameful lack of action, he has failed to acknowledge June as Pride Month.
Ironically, while “45” egregiously turns his back on the LGBTQ+ community, there’s another 45 that towers with honor above his lack of compassion and leadership. This year marks the 45th anniversary that Queens elementary school teacher and PFLAG co-founder Jeanne Manford became the lead support mom for LGBTQ youth and adult children everywhere. If you’re unfamiliar with Jeanne, I want to share some of her remarkable story with you this celebratory weekend of the NYC Pride March.
“I have a homosexual son and I love him.” –Jeanne Manford, Letter to the Editor, New York Post, April 29, 1972
Jeanne’s advocacy began with a letter. In April 1972, her gay activist son, Morty, was kicked and beaten at a political gathering by a leading opponent of New York City’s gay rights bill while police just stood by. Outraged, Jeanne wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post defending her son and calling out the police for doing nothing to stop the attack. Her letter included this declaration: “I have a homosexual son and I love him.”
Two months later, on June 25, 1972, Jeanne marched for the first time, with Morty, in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade (the predecessor to today’s Pride March). They were commemorating the third anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, in which Morty had participated. Jeanne’s now-famous, hand-lettered sign read: “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.” Being gay was still considered a mental illness in 1972, and there was tremendous hate spewed at LGBTQ people and their supporters.
“…few of them were out to their parents for fear of rejection.”
In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jeanne recounted the cheers she received in that first parade, and that “young people were hugging me, kissing me, screaming, asking if I would talk to their parents … [as] few of them were out to their parents for fear of rejection.” It was that outpouring of love and appreciation that prompted Jean and her husband, Jules, to launch an organization comprised of the parents of gays and lesbians that she hoped would be “a bridge between the gay community and the heterosexual community.”
The historic New York Times photograph above of Jeanne and Morty is a national scrapbook remembrance of the verve, determination, and parental devotion that led to the founding of PFLAG, today our country’s largest family and ally organization. And it also marks the beginning of decades of activism.
In 1990, at 70 years old, Jeanne retired from teaching. The following year she was grand marshal of the NYC Pride March. Her advocacy work continued after Morty’s untimely death from AIDS in1992, at age 41. She was named grand marshal of the first Pride Parade in Queens in 1993, and organized a local PFLAG chapter there.
In a televised speech in October 2009, at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner, President Obama spoke as he so eloquently does of Jeanne Manford’s founding of PFLAG. His three-minute tribute to Jeanne will move you emotionally and most likely also move you to act.
A year after Jeanne Manford died, in February 2013, the White House announced that President Obama would honor her posthumously with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal for her work in co-founding PFLAG and her ongoing years of LGBTQ advocacy. Jeanne’s daughter Suzanne Manford Swan, accepted the award on her behalf at a White House ceremony on February 15. President Obama said of Jeanne’s initial letter to the New York Post, “that simple act” provided the impetus for a national organization “that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country.”
Each year with the PFLAG group at NYC’s Pride Parade I’m reminded of Jeanne’s hope that families get the support and encouragement they need to love their LGBTQ kids unconditionally. I see her legacy personified in the energy of thousands of proud parents, families, and allies who march in Pride parades across the country. I hope you’ll join a Pride March if you can, or just go to one to cheer in the celebration.
Please become engaged in this year of dire need: Call your elected state officials and demand equal rights and freedoms for LGBTQ people, donate an LGBTQ children’s book to community library or a queer history book to a school library, visit itgetsbetter.org to make a video of support for LGBTQ youth, or donate to any of the national nonprofits who work to change minds and make a difference in the lives of those who face continual discrimination, intolerance and, often times, violence.
Like Jeanne Manford, let’s all commit to speak up and stand up against injustice wherever we see it. When following the rainbow, there’s always more work to be done.
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