Jeanne Manford was a school teacher, which as we all know, is a noble profession. She was, more importantly, a parent. As it turned out, one of her kids, Morty Manford, happened to be gay. Although Morty wasn’t entirely certain whether she was supportive at the time, he would soon find out. “Of course, I knew Morty was gay,” Manford said later. Just as the PFLAG bumper sticker says “Mom Knows”, as a mom, Jeanne knew. “He didn’t want to tell me. I told him that I loved him, and nothing else mattered.”
In April, 1972, Morty was passing out flyers and engaging in a gay rights protest at the New York City Hilton Hotel. The protesters encountered resistance and Morty was beaten and kicked while police officers watched. The scene was captured by news crews and Jeanne and her husband Jules watched in horror on the evening news. Today there would (hopefully) be a major outcry. There wasn’t one in ’72. Knowing that the police did nothing, Jeanne phoned the New York Times, and they chose to hang up on her. Jeanne may have been “just a school teacher”, but that didn’t sit well with her.
Recognizing an injustice had occurred, and wanting everyone to know about her anger, she took further action. There was no Facebook or internet at the time, or any blogs or podcasts, so she wrote a letter to the New York Post. It was published, and one sentence in particular got noticed. “My son is a homosexual, and I love him.” In 1972, a comment like this was deemed newsworthy, even to the extent that it would earn appearances on The Phil Donahue Show as well as other shows.
Parents should always be concerned about the welfare of their kids. Decent parents recognize this. Clearly this hasn’t always been the case. Would you, as a parent, have done the same? Would your parents have done the same for you? This isn’t a test; this is life. In the real world, there are no hypotheticals. Your response under certain circumstances speaks volumes about you.
This wasn’t the end of the story though. Not even close. In June, there was to be a march in New York City. The Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade was an anniversary protest commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Morty would be marching, and if Jeanne knew anything, it was that her son couldn’t count on police to protect him if the march encountered resistance. As a parent, what would you have done? Jeanne felt like walking side by side with her son was the right approach. She would be his protection. That’s routinely called support today. There was nothing routine about it over 40 years ago.
She chose to carry a hand drawn sign that said simply, “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children”. The iconic photo of this event symbolically represents everything that being a PFLAG parent is all about. It’s quite easy, in fact, quite fun to walk in the Gay Pride Parade each year. Today, it’s a celebration. When I walk in it, it’s for support, not “protection”. It wasn’t either easy or fun for Jeanne to take on the role she took that day. She didn’t back down though, and that’s what makes her story so special.
Let’s not forget as well that as a teacher of children, some people weren’t thrilled to have their kids taught by an activist. If you think the religious right has some heart burn about GLBT issues today, you can only imagine how strong the fervor was four decades ago. Thankfully, fear from the threats of job loss didn’t sway Jeanne from continuing a life as an activist for the rest of her life. Courage doesn’t mean a lack of fear or concern. Courage is what you do, or continue to do, when faced with those realities. She stuck by Morty right up until his untimely death due to complications from AIDS in 1992. A parent can only protect their children so much. Dealing with the loss of her child had to be the toughest situation she ever had to handle, but of course her grace continued to shine through.
In 1972 I had no idea what actions Jeanne Manford was taking. Frankly, I didn’t know anything about her for another 30 years or so. Oh my, how things change though. I have spoken about her more times than I can count, to more people than I can even imagine. Her story doesn’t get old for me because it is so important.
I’m grateful that my family never needed the support of PFLAG. It was long after I was aware that my kids were gay that I became involved myself, primarily because of what I learned about the organization from others. It has become a part of me now though, much like my own skin. A PFLAG Dad is what I have become. It’s something that I am quite proud of, mostly because in doing so, I would like to think I’m emulating Jeanne. I can’t think of a better role model as a parent.
We lost Jeanne yesterday, at the age of 92. Her legacy is that of the Mother of the Straight Ally Movement. She was the founder and inspiration for PFLAG. She was a teacher, and one who taught us what it really means to be a parent. Mostly though, she was a Mom.
Phil Hicks, President
Metro DC Chapter, PFLAG