Jeanne Manford made headlines 50 years ago when she marched with her openly gay son at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade – an early Pride event in New York City. Such behavior from a straight mom was unheard of at the time.
The following year, Manford founded an organization for people like herself – PFLAG, which originally stood for Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays.
Over time, PFLAG became a leader in the fight for gay rights. It was a cherished source of support for thousands of families, especially throughout the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. These days, Pride is a family event and PFLAG serves every member of the LGBTQIA community.
The culture has changed in immeasurable ways, says PFLAG board member Kay Holladay. She remembers how in the early 1980s when her son came out to her, she did not know any gay people.
"I think my choir director at church probably was," she says dryly. Her Southern Baptist church in Norman, Okla. did not accept LGBTQ members. "We had nobody to talk to. We had no other families. We had no resources."
Holladay and her husband felt lost and isolated. They went to the public library to educate themselves but found nothing of use. However, they read about PFLAG in the syndicated advice column Dear Abby and that inspired them to co-found a local chapter. This year, they were grand marshals of Norman's Pride parade.
PFLAG was shaped by people like the Holladays for others like themselves – a largely white demographic who desperately needed support in the days before Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper helped make the very idea of LGBTQ families mainstream. These days, coming out has become relatively painless for many kids from families like theirs. But it was not easy for Devin Green, a child of immigrants who grew up in Charlotte, N.C.
"It was very nerve-racking," the 19-year-old says of telling his parents he was trans. "Being Jamaican and having a relatively conservative upbringing, I just didn't know what to expect."
Green's family attended a Southern Baptist church that taught a literal interpretation of the Bible. When he came out in ninth grade, Green's mom was less than thrilled. Now, she is open and candid about her family's journey. After all, says Claudette Green, it started for her at home in Jamaica, where she grew up hearing homophobic messages in church, on the news and in popular music.
"There were songs that glorified killing of LGBTQ members," she recalls. "There were actually laws on the books in Jamaica that you could go to jail if you were a member of the LGBTQ community."
After Devin Green persuaded his mom to go to therapy, she was talked into attending a PFLAG meeting. "It was difficult for me because when I got there, I met families who were more accepting of their children and so I felt like a terrible parent," she says. But Green was the opposite of a terrible parent. She and her kid talked. And most importantly, she listened. "Devin was an excellent teacher and I was a very good student," she says.
And when the head of the local PFLAG chapter invited her out for coffee, she went. "She met me where I was," Green says. "Going to PFLAG and seeing the love, it helped me dismantle some of the things I believed."
Five years later, Green proudly marches in Pride parades. She's changed her nursing career to focus on helping LGBTQ youth and she and her husband have supported other Caribbean families adjusting to LGBTQ kids. They've moved to a more affirming church and Green has just accepted a position on PFLAG's Charlotte board.
Still, PFLAG's executive director, Brian Bond, says his organization has a long way to go.
"It's predominantly white," he says. But PFLAG is trying he says, with bilingual literature and developing spaces where people with similar backgrounds and cultural competencies can support each other online. He is haunted, however, by the people PFLAG does not reach.
Bond keeps a receipt in his wallet, he told NPR. It's for the funeral of a 13-year-old trans kid who died by suicide a year and a half ago. His family had never heard of PFLAG. The organization paid for the child's funeral anonymously.
"Interestingly enough, it was a state trooper that reached out to us," Bond says. "And it's not our job, but it's what we needed to do in the moment. And making sure no family has to do that should be our ultimate goal."
Times have changed but in some ways, they haven't. PFLAG has new battles to fight. For the first time, it's become the plaintiff in a lawsuit, against the state of Texas to protect trans kids and their parents fighting for affirmative health care.