Family boosters

By Fred Kuhr

Originally published on Advocate.com August 15 2005 12:00 AM ET

Gays—the
national organization better known as
PFLAG—couldn’t have asked for better
publicity than it received from Showtime’s Queer
as Folk.
Sharon Gless plays the brassy mama
Debbie Novotny, who is a proud member of the
Pittsburgh chapter. PFLAG buttons weighed down her
work uniform (until she quit her waitressing job this
season) and partially obscured her i am proud of my
gay son T-shirt.

Debbie Novotny is
the kind of ideal that an organization like PFLAG
stakes its public identity on. Its timeless and universal
role as a group of straight allies making public
proclamations of pride—many times in parades
and protests in the most conservative parts of the
country—evokes raw emotion in gay men and
lesbians. Members are a huge source of comfort and
education to parents who are coming to grips with their
child being gay. PFLAG is the only major national gay
and lesbian civil rights group whose members are not
predominantly gay or lesbian. It currently boasts 500
U.S. chapters with 200,000 members.

And unlike the
other major gay rights organizations, it is guided by the
local chapters and not the national office in Washington,
D.C. Members at the local level decide what issues to
tackle, how to raise money, and how much to charge for
membership. “The national office did not create the
chapters,” says Jody Michael Huckaby, who took over
the post of executive director of PFLAG in March.
“In fact, the reason the national office exists
is to support the chapters.”

Some chapters
have been around for more than 30 years, while the national
office and position of executive director have existed for
half that time. The downside to PFLAG’s
grassroots origins and local control can be a
considerable weakness in coordinated organizing and
activism. PFLAG is largely lacking the national
fund-raising, membership building, and public
relations efforts that are the lifeblood of other GLBT
groups. This absence is frustrating to some chapter
officials.

“For those
of us in the nitty-gritty of operating a chapter, the
national office doesn’t give those of us in the
trenches enough support,” says Myra Shays,
president of the Greater Providence, R.I., chapter.
“I’d like to know what we’re
getting for what we are sending them.” Shays is
referring to the fact that while each chapter sets its own
membership fees, chapters must send $15 per member per
year back to the national office—a bone of
contention for some chapters with limited funds,
resources, and members.

Lack of support
from the national office was also a problem for the
Brooklyn, N.Y., chapter, which folded in 2001 after
operating for 13 years.

Former group
member Linda Simka says that after a number of years of
successful meetings, attendance began to drop. Members
marched in pride parades, spoke at Brooklyn College,
took out ads in local newspapers, hung fliers around
the chapter’s home base of Park Slope, held a
speakers series, managed a lending library, and even
chipped in for food for a Christmas party. “We
kept going, but in the end it was the same seven
people over and over again,” says Simka. “We
had no money, and the seven of us just couldn’t
do it alone. Then three of the seven moved away, and
there was nothing to do but fold.”

So it
wasn’t money that the Brooklyn chapter necessarily
needed but rather help from the national office on
increasing membership. “How do you make people
attend a meeting if they don’t want to or
don’t feel like it? You need people to come to
the meetings no mater what national does,”
Simka says. “They could have given us $5,000, but if
there’s no interest, there’s not much
else we could do.”

David Tseng, the
group’s previous executive director, defends
PFLAG’s bottom-up approach: “The
national office respects and values the authenticity
of grassroots activism, which is unique in our
movement.”

Huckaby does
acknowledge that PFLAG could do a better job of tackling
issues such as chapter support but adds, “It’s
amazing what PFLAG has been able to do with the
resources it has. We have four field and policy
coordinators, and we would need 10 to really cover the
country. We need to be at chapter meetings. We need to
be able to offer more training. We have over 500
chapters and affiliates, and we need to strengthen the
chapters we have as well as get ready for the next
500.”

Huckaby also
admits PFLAG is reticent about tooting its own horn.
“I don’t think we’ve been as good
at marketing who we are. It’s great that PFLAG
gets the loudest applause at the pride parade, but
it’s important that GLBT folks support PFLAG so
that parents’ stories can continue to be
told.”

In PFLAG all
chapter leaders as well as regional directors—there
are seven who act as liaisons between a group of
chapters and the national office—are
volunteers, one reason PFLAG relies heavily on retirees.
Jerry Miller, for example, is the regional director
overseeing 27 individual chapters in North Carolina,
South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. A 71-year-old
retired American Baptist pastor, Miller, based in
Hendersonville, N.C., devotes 15 to 20 hours a week to his
volunteer job in addition to traveling around the
region to attend meetings.

“This is a
big job for a volunteer,” says Frances Kirschner, 61,
a former president of the Philadelphia chapter.
“It would be great if we had the money for a
paid administrative assistant or something like an office.
Right now we keep literature at someone’s house, and
our members are spread out all over the Philly area,
including southern New Jersey, so sometimes
it’s hard to get to. And we meet in a church basement
where they don’t ask for rent. We only take up
a collection for the custodian.”

“Yes,
burnout is a problem,” adds Miller. “But most
of us are parents who are driven to see that our gay
children get the same rights as our straight
children.”

While money
remains an issue, others feel that the beauty of PFLAG is
that the community drives the chapter. “If we had
more money, I’m sure we’d be able to do
some wonderful things,” says Tamara Hawk, president
of the Flint Hills, Kan., chapter. “But the
heart of the chapter comes from the local community.
The chapter tailors itself to your community’s
needs.”

Hawk’s
chapter was at the forefront of trying to beat back
Kansas’s constitutional amendment barring gay
couples from marrying, which was approved by 70% of
voters in April. The chapter spent $3,000 on political
ads. During the battle, Hawk says, she had a great deal of
contact with the national office, but it was only
because the chapter wanted the contact. “Local
politics set the agenda for the chapters,” she says.

PFLAG was founded
in 1972 when Jeanne Manford decided to march with her
son Mortie in New York City’s pride parade. Angry
that her son had been assaulted at a gay rights rally
two months earlier while police did not attempt to
stop the beating, she carried a sign in the parade that read
parents of gays: unite in support for our children. The
first formal meeting took place in early 1973. Through
word of mouth PFLAG chapters sprung up around the
country, and in 1979 leaders from the different groups
met for the first time in Washington, D.C. PFLAG
didn’t hire its first executive director and
open its headquarters until 1990.

According to the
group’s Web site, PFLAG president Paulette Goodman
sent a letter to Barbara Bush in 1990 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 much political controversy.

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
its name and added bisexuals to its mission and work. By
the mid 1990s a PFLAG family was responsible for the
Department of Education’s ruling that Title IX
protected students from harassment based on sexual
orientation.

During the past
14 years, Huckaby, 40, has served as executive director
of New Mexico AIDS Services, based in Albuquerque; Bering
Community Service Foundation, an HIV/AIDS service
group based in Houston; and most recently the
Washington Humane Society. Huckaby is a native of Eunice,
La., a town of 11,500 about 150 miles west of New Orleans
that bills itself as the state’s
“Prairie Cajun Capital.” Huckaby is the
seventh of eight children born to his Republican
Catholic parents. Not only is Huckaby gay; he has
three gay brothers.

“Having
been raised in a large family in a small town, I know the
challenges that families can face when coping with sexual
orientation and gender identity,” he says.
“My family didn’t have the resources of PFLAG
to help us back then.”

Given his humble
beginnings and experience in the nonprofit sector, it is
no surprise Huckaby feels at home at PFLAG. The group
occupies the fourth floor of a nondescript downtown
office building, and the offices are replete with
fluorescent lighting and dropped ceilings, stacks of storage
boxes and books everywhere, drab metal office furniture,
flat white walls, and drooping plants. PFLAG employs a
staff of 15. “When people come to see us for
the first time in our office, they always say that it
is much smaller than they thought it would be,” says
Huckaby.

For Kevin
Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and
Straight Education Network, a civil rights group for
educators, PFLAG’s strength is its
members’ ability to speak honestly to others.

“You have
to meet people where they are, and PFLAG is able to meet
other parents where they are—around the
commonality of the love for one’s children and
the want of their children to live in a world free of
antigay discrimination,” says Jennings. “When
a PFLAG member speaks, they take it out of the
‘special rights’ context and into a very real
and personal context. No other organization can do
that quite like PFLAG.”

Still, given all
the time and effort, why do PFLAG volunteers continue to
do what they do? At the 2003 pride parade in Raleigh-Durham,
N.C., Miller, the regional director based in
Hendersonville, marched with the local PFLAG
contingent. He recalls that amid all the applause and the
tears, “one young man said to me, ‘I wish my
dad was out here.’ That makes it all
worthwhile.”