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A Mom Who Changed the World

Historians will note that Barack Obama’s reference to Stonewall in his inaugural address, along with Seneca Falls and Selma, broke new ground for presidential rhetoric.  But Obama was, in a sense, merely catching up to changing public opinion.  His words, while certainly welcome, were hardly prophetic, reflecting a trajectory of opinion already well underway in the country.  For courageous prophetic speech we should look to a far less well-known figure who became an activist because she was first a mother and whose witness to welcome came at a time when few could have predicted the world of equality and respect emerging in 2013.

Jeanne Manford, who died earlier this month at 92, was the mother of a gay man who was beaten up during a Gay Activists Alliance demonstration in New York in 1972.  When the police called Jeanne, an elementary school teacher in Queens, to tell her that her son Morty had been arrested, the officer added, “And you know he’s homosexual?”  The officer was surprised to hear her say, “Yes, I know.  Why are you bothering him?”  The attack on her son prompted Jeanne to write a letter to The New York Post.  She criticized the police for not protecting her son, and then wrote, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.”

Fifty years ago these words, along with Stonewall, launched a revolution. Far more common in those days was condemnation, silence, closeting and shame.  I was a college senior in 1972 when a fraternity brother came out to me.  I think I responded well, but nothing had prepared me for that conversation, and little prepared me for how the civil and ecclesial rights (and rites!) of GLBTQ folk would dominate church life during the course of my ministry.  The next year, 1973, Jeanne, along with other parents, formed PFLAG – Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.  While gay activists took to the streets in protest, Jeanne and her group began to infiltrate churches and synagogues, PTA groups and work places, and perhaps most importantly the living rooms of their friends and neighbors with a potent reminder:  Gay and lesbian people are not abstract, uncomfortable or divisive political or moral issues; they are daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, grandchildren, church members, co-workers, neighbors.  They are people, people other people love.

Jeanne and her PFLAG members marched in the early Gay Pride parades; they still do.  They always look a little dowdy compared to the flamboyance around them, almost out of place.  But in a sense that made their witness all the more powerful.  They weren’t scary or different.  They looked like your dad and my mom.  And while they organized and protested and, yes, sometimes confronted, their simple message was and is, “I have a gay son, a lesbian daughter, and I love him, I love her.”  And often when other parents couldn’t find it within themselves to say that to their own child, they took those children in, and showed them the parental love that sometimes meant the difference between life and death.  

It took courage, incredible courage in the 1970’s and 1980’s to say to the person next to you in the pew, “my son is gay and I love him.” In some places it still does.  It took courage, enormous courage to say to your neighbor, your co-worker, your relatives, “my daughter is a lesbian, and I love her.”  But that courage has played an enormous role in changing our world.  The LGBTQ community itself, of course, deserves most of the credit.  They came out, spoke out, stood up, singing for their lives and the lives of those they loved.  Brave religious people deserve credit – Troy Perry who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, and soon joining him many members of the United Church of Christ.  But when the whole story is written, PFLAG and people like Jeanne Manford will loom large. Writer Dan Savage honors every parent, every family member when he wrote of Jeanne,

What Jeanne Manford did was she put it in people’s heads that gay and lesbian people had parents, that we were somebody’s children, and that was the first real big step in the movement toward full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.

So let’s celebrate the fact that before God and everybody our president could announce in the most public of moments that the world has changed.  But let’s never forget people like Jeanne and all her PFLAG moms and dads who did so much to actually change it.

John H. Thomas
January 31, 2013

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