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Recalling a Cringe-Inducing But Powerful TV Coming-Out

Recalling a Cringe-Inducing But Powerful TV Coming-Out

Jeanne Manford
Screen capture via The Rachel Maddow Show

This mom of a trans child reflects on the poise of PFLAG founder Jeanne Manford when she appeared with her gay son on Today.

In 1978, Jeanne Manford, a schoolteacher from Flushing, Queens, her husband, Jules, and their son, Morty were invited on to the Today show with Jane Pauley. They were being interviewed because their son was gay and they loved him and accepted him. That’s it. That was the big story.

Five years earlier, Jeanne and Jules had founded Parents of Gays, which would become PFLAG, the first and largest LGBTQ+ ally group in America. But, make no mistake, they were invited on the show because, as accepting parents, they were “exceptions,” as Pauley put it.

In the interview, when Jeanne explains that, after her son came out, she went to the library to read books on homosexuality, a flabbergasted Pauley interjects that other parents would be too “traumatized” to find their way to a library. (Pauley’s other favorite adjectives are “thunderstruck” and “horrified.”)

She then turns to Jules and says, “I know a lot of parents would react to the news by beat[ing] up their sons. Some have sent their brothers to beat some sense into a son who makes some kind of announcement.”

Rachel Maddow Jeanne Manford Model for Parental Love -

As the mother of a trans daughter, I have my eyes on Jeanne. The high white collar of her blouse, her perfect posture, how she keeps trying to get her point across — her son is still her son, she loves him, her son hasn’t changed.

When Jeanne brings up her organization’s goal of helping parents “change the myths that they have heard,” Pauley seizes on that moment to blame the couple. “One of the myths that you must have suffered over — and I don’t know that we can call it a myth — is the mama’s boy sSyndrome, that homosexuality is caused by the domineering mother, the retiring father … do you suffer over that?”

I watched the interview with a mix of horror and awe. While Pauley’s questions and suggestions come across as barbaric, Jeanne, Jules, and Morty are swimming valiantly through a rough tide — their comments are strikingly…familiar.

I’ve said the things that Jeanne said on Today in 1978, about realizing how little I knew and diving into research, about loving my child, about seeing her as she is, the same wonderful person. My husband has echoed Jules. Both of them worried that they’d made mistakes in how they’d raised their children. Both realized that wasn’t the case; it wasn’t about them.

Jeanne Manford was there to model love — simple, straightforward, and steadfast love. Her insistence that you could love and be proud of your gay child was sparking a cultural shift in America.

For parents of transgender kids today, it’s not hard to imagine how radical this parental love is. In 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an order that called on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report any kids who seemed to be receiving health care to affirm their gender. Abbott added that there would be “criminal penalties for failure to report” what he called child abuse.

Although that 2022 order has been blocked by the courts, it sent a message to families like ours: We will blame you. We will call you abusers. And we will take your child from you.

Our family already knew this terror, firsthand. Shortly after our youngest child began to transition, we got a knock at the door. A caseworker had been called by the Department of Children and Families to follow up on an anonymous call, accusing us of child abuse because of our support for our trans daughter.

The caseworker found a loving, happy home, and the case was closed. But we knew that if we received another knock and were put in front of one of the many Republican-appointed judges in our state, we could lose custody of our daughter. In less than a year, we’d moved, with our four children in tow, to a state with laws to protect our family.

This year there have been more than 500 bills introduced that are aimed at oppressing, controlling, and erasing the lives of LGBTQ+ people — but a primary target has been transgender kids. Families with transgender kids in Texas and Florida and other red states are having to choose between staying and fighting, or hiding, or fleeing persecution. Sometimes they have little choice; their children’s health and well-being — their lives — are at stake.

I think about Jeanne and Jules when they got a call in the middle of the night, telling them their son had been beaten so badly at a protest that he was in the hospital. It reminds me of the knock at our door. The fear of losing a child, though different for both of us, came from the same root cause: bigotry and ignorance.

I think about how our daughter feels safe in our home, but isn’t out as trans at school, which is why I’m writing under a pen name. And I often wonder what Jeanne Manford would do as a mother of a trans child in America today.

Yet I know the answer because it’s simple. In 1979, Jeanne sent a letter to the editor of the New York Post with this radical sentence in it: I have a homosexual son and I love him.

I have a transgender daughter and I love her, and someday I won’t have to write that under a pen name.

Carolyn Hays is an award-winning, critically acclaimed, best-selling author who has chosen to publish Letter to My Transgender Daughter under a pen name to protect the privacy of her family. Her novels have been published by Hachette, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins; her books are also widely translated.

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