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Jeanne Manford: Mother of Invention

Jeanne Manford: Mother of Invention

If you doubt that one person can make a difference in the world, this name may change your mind: Jeanne Manford.

Manford, who died in January at age 92, laid the foundation for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in 1972, when she wrote a letter to the New York Post denouncing police’s failure to intervene when her son Morty was beaten during a gay rights demonstration.

“I have a homosexual son, and I love him,” she wrote. Later that year, after marching with Morty in New York City’s gay pride parade, Manford started a group for parents of gay children. Its first meeting took place in March 1973 in a Greenwich Village church basement, with just 20 people, primarily parents, talking about how to best support their gay kids and one another.

Word spread, and similar groups started around the nation. In 1982 the national organization was incorporated, with 20 member groups. PFLAG grew in rural areas as well as cities, and its mission became increasingly political. The organization opposed Anita Bryant’s antigay crusades and took up the cause of gays and lesbians in the military.

Today, PFLAG has over 200,000 members and 350 chapters. While some still meet in church basements and community centers, plenty of PFLAGers connect through social media, something unheard of 1973. And they’ve helped make LGBT acceptance a mainstream issue.

Manford was surprised by how her movement boomed, says her daughter, Suzanne Swan, but she was a tireless worker for the cause. For her efforts, in February she was posthumously awarded the Citizens Medal by President Obama, which Swan accepted in her honor. “I was able to tell her it was being considered [before her death],” Swan says. “She smiled.”

PFLAG has been through many changes in its 40 years, executive director Jody Huckaby says. It now  includes transgender people in its mission, has seen LGBT people come out at younger ages, and attracted more fathers to what was once largely a mothers’ movement. Huckaby predicts an ever-growing role for technology, as younger people look to the Internet for information. He also sees interest rising abroad in similar family support movements. And more LGBT people are joining their straight friends and family members in PFLAG’s work, he says.

One thing that hasn’t changed, he adds, is parents’ angst and concern when their LGBT children come out. But thanks to Jeanne Manford, PFLAG can help. Her legacy, Huckaby says, “is the power of one person and their willingness to stand up.”

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