Jeanne Manford's Support for her Gay Son was RevolutionaryBreaking News
tags: family history, LGBTQ history, PFLAG
The crowd along Sixth Avenue was losing its mind. It was Sunday, June 25, 1972, and Dr. Benjamin Spock was walking uptown with the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, the scrappier, more revolutionary precursor to the New York City Pride Parade. Although he had risen to fame as a pediatrician, Spock was almost as well known for his support of left-wing causes—from legalizing abortion to ending the Vietnam War—as he was for “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” which had already sold more than ten million copies. Still, even by his standards, joining the Christopher Street crowd was a radical act. Two years earlier, when the march was held for the first time, its organizers had worried that no one would come. Those who did were so hopped up on adrenaline and fear that the fifty-block route, from the West Village to Central Park, took them half as long as anticipated; afterward, they jokingly called it the Christopher Street Liberation Day Run. Now here was Dr. Spock, one of the most influential figures in America, joining their ranks. As he passed by, the people lining the streets whistled and clapped and screamed themselves hoarse.
But all this hullabaloo was not, as it turned out, for the famous doctor; it was for a diminutive middle-aged woman marching just in front of him. She was not famous at all—not the author of any books, not the leader of any movement, not self-evidently a radical of any kind. With her jacket and brooch and plaid skirt and spectacles, she had the part-prim, part-warm demeanor of an old-fashioned elementary-school teacher, which she was. She was carrying a piece of orange poster board with a message hand-lettered in black marker: “parents of gays: unite in support for our children.” She had no idea that the crowd was cheering for her until total strangers started running up to thank her. They asked if they could kiss her; they asked if she would talk to their parents; they told her that they couldn’t imagine their own mothers and fathers supporting them so publicly, or supporting them at all.
The woman’s name was Jeanne Manford, and she was marching alongside her twenty-one-year-old gay son, Morty. Moved by the outpouring of emotion, the two of them discussed it all along the route. By the time they reached Central Park, they had also reached a decision: if so many people wished that someone like Jeanne could talk to their parents, why not make that possible? The organization they dreamed up that day, which started as a single support group in Manhattan, was initially called Parents of Gays; later, it was renamed Parents flag, for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; nowadays, it is known only as pflag. Just a handful of people attended its first meeting, held fifty years ago this spring. Today, it has four hundred chapters and well north of a quarter of a million members.
That growth reflects a cultural change of extraordinary speed and magnitude—a transformation, incomplete but nonetheless astonishing, in the legal, political, and social status of L.G.B.T.Q. people in America. Paradoxically, one consequence of that transformation is that the moral courage of Jeanne Manford, so evident to everyone lining Sixth Avenue that day, has become hard to fully appreciate. Parents in general, and mothers in particular, have long been a potent political force, from the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Moms Demand Action. In such cases, the power of parents derives from loving their children and trying to protect them, among the most fundamental and respected of human instincts. What made Jeanne Manford different—and what made her actions so consequential—is that, until she started insisting otherwise, the kind of child she had was widely regarded as the kind that not even a mother could love.
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