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Changing Minds, One
Speaker at a Time

Changing Minds, One
Speaker at a Time

In an effort to combat homophobia in schools, PFLAG volunteers participate in speaker panels in which they share their experiences -- the highs and the lows.

For more than 30 years, the forces of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays have been uniting to make the process of coming out -- and subsequent conversations with family members, friends, and coworkers -- a little bit easier. Founded in the 1970s, today the all-volunteer organization boasts more than 500 independent chapters worldwide.

As the latest step toward raising awareness and understanding about LGBT people, speaker bureaus have been organized as offshoots of local PFLAG chapters. These bureaus host free panels at all sorts of organizations -- high schools, colleges, businesses, employee groups, labor unions -- to help members and participants understand issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.

A typical panel includes straight parents of a gay son or daughter, a gay man, a lesbian, and a transgender person. Each speaker opens with a three- to five-minute introduction about the personal experience of coming out or how it felt when their child came out. They share the "aha" moments and the intense feelings that came to the surface through the coming-out process.

Several years ago, a friend approached me about speaking for PFLAG, which felt like a worthwhile way to give back to my L.A. community. I went through the training and began signing up for speaking engagements at local high schools. Through this process, I met Andy Birnbaum and Ron Elecciri, the two men responsible for keeping the bustling Los Angeles bureau alive and running. They coordinate all of the Los Angeles-based speaking opportunities and training sessions.

Birnbaum, 39, is a Long Island native and works as a labor union attorney. Elecciri, 44, grew up in Orange County and works in TV development at Disney. They have been a couple for 11 years and married in San Francisco in 2004 and again in Los Angeles last summer. did you learn about PFLAG?Andy Birnbaum: When I came out to my family, I basically gave them a gay yellow pages-type book, but they wanted more support. My mom discovered PFLAG and absolutely loved it. My parents then became membership outreach coordinators. I began to speak on panels with them, which was a really incredible experience. In 1998, I moved to L.A. and sought out a local chapter of PFLAG. They were organizing the newly formed speaker bureau, so I volunteered to head it up. Ron Elecciri: I came out late -- at 32 -- and fell in love with Andy. Then I had to come out to my Catholic, Latino family. Andy's parents were a tremendous help in supporting that process. I wanted to give back and contribute, so I became the co-coordinator. Ten years later, we've never looked back.

Are both your folks in PFLAG?Andy: My parents were active speakers. Ron's family participated through marching in parades and staffing the booth at festivals.

What is your motivation after all these years?Andy: It's an incredible experience for the speakers and the audience. I see the difference it makes with each engagement. One time we spoke to a high school class in the valley. After the session, students handed in comment cards. One card said, "When he/she heard the speaker topic, they were angry that those type people would be coming, but after listening, they felt ashamed over their anger." We get that response all the time and it keeps us going. The message we try to impart to the audience, who is often young, is that it's OK to be yourself -- whatever that means. Ron: This outreach is a chance to educate society, which is how we overcome homophobia. We put a face on what it means to be LGBT. This past administration was so divisive, and now I feel part of the solution. It's cathartic and feels like we're making a difference with the youth. For many of the kids, this is the first time they've seen or engaged with a gay or transgender person, so it's really educational and impactful. A girl came up to one of our transgender speakers after a panel and said, "You are just so brave," which is absolutely true. These comments have really stayed with us over the years.

Do you have any colorful stories about panelists' experiences?Andy: During a speaking engagement last year, someone taped the panel and then posted a botched-up transcript on the Internet. They used it as a tool to dislodge school board members and ban PFLAG from coming back to the district, which is heartbreaking. It truly terrifies some people to have us telling our stories.

Thankfully not all administrators feel that way, right?Ron: Yes, there are success stories to tell as well. Dozens of teachers (gay and straight) invite us back annually to speak. And we've also had antigay teachers and faculty change their mind and welcome us back once they heard the message and saw the benefits of the panel on the students. People's attitudes change once they hear personal stories. Andy: Having parents on the panel is particularly influential because they can describe their experience of having a child come out and loving them through it. Repeatedly, we've seen anger turned into acceptance. Lifetime's Prayers for Bobby is a common PFLAG family story, which we share on the panels.

How do you train the speakers?Andy: We break out in small groups and talk through our stories. We encourage them to talk about feelings and personal experience versus arguing Scripture, which is a losing battle. Rather, they can talk about how it felt to be rejected or disappointed. People can't argue with your emotions and feelings. At the trainings, participants are given model questions so they can know what to expect, because it can be a little scary your first time.

What do you think makes a good panelist?Ron: I think someone who is not afraid to express his or her feelings does well. We've also noticed that when the demographics of the panel match that of the audience, we have more success, as the cultural hurdles are lower. Andy: A sense of humor really captures the kids and helps them connect with the speaker as well.

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