By Anna Peirano
Jeanne Manford, co-founder of the ally group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and a pioneer in the straight ally movement, passed away earlier this week. She was 92 years old.
Jeanne, who has been described as a quiet person, short in stature, and the mother of the straight ally movement, began her journey as a gay rights activist in 1972 after receiving the news that her gay son, Morty, had been beaten while distributing flyers at a Gay Activists Alliance demonstration in New York City.
This would set into motion a series of events that would eventually lead to the founding of PLFAG, which is now a national organization, with over 200,000 members and supporters with over 350 affiliates in the United States.
“I am an ally and a mother of two young sons,” PFLAG Deputy Executive Director Beth Kohm tells dot429. “Jeanne Manford will always be my personal hero and I am honored to walk in the path that she forged for all of us. She represents who I always want to be as a mom – a fierce advocate for my sons because of unconditional love. Her leadership and courage inspires me as an ally to know that one voice can and did change the world.”
In an interview with historian Eric Marcus, Jeanne and Morty discussed the evolution of their relationship, and the events that set everything in motion:
Jeanne: I remember one night I got a phone call from the police at 1:00 a.m. “Your son is arrested.”
Morty: I was in the police station and the officer went out of his way to say, “And you know, he’s homosexual.”
Jeanne: I think my reply was something like, “Yes. I know. Why are you bothering him? Why don’t you go after criminals and stop harassing the gays?”
Morty: The officer was scratching his head after he put down the phone. He had just been zapped.
Jeanne: I believed Morty had a right to do what he was doing. I believed he was being harassed. But I worried about him. It was always in the back of my mind that he could be hurt, although I tried not to think about these things.
Then there was one time when Morty did get hurt, in April 1972…I had a call from the hospital. I was furious. I remember thinking, What right have they got to assault my son and the others? Why didn’t the police protect them? What kind of a police force do we have in New York? And then I sat down and wrote a letter to the New York Post…
I mentioned in my letter that my son was gay and that the police stood by and watched these young gays being beaten up and did nothing. And it was printed…I didn’t think anything of it, but I guess it was the first time a mother ever sat down and very publicly said, “Yes, I have a homosexual child.” I was never quiet about having a gay son. I’d tell strangers. I didn’t care. I figured this was one way to educate people.
Several interviews on radio and television shows followed the posting of that letter, and in June of that same year, Jeanne participated in the New York Pride March with Morty, carrying a sign that read “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children.” According the the New York Daily News, “Parade participants approached her with hugs and tears, asking Jeanne to speak with their own parents and help them cope with coming out.”
The first meeting of PFLAG, previously knowns as “Parents of Gays” or “POG,” was held the following year, with 20 people in attendance. Jeanne said the group could be “a bridge between the gay community and the heterosexual community.”
Jeanne’s daughter, Suzanne Swan, said in a statement that her mother, “is known to thousands of people as the mother of the straight ally movement, but to me – she was my mother. She was someone who would always do the right thing, the good thing. She supported all people, and that meant so much to us growing up.”
Jeanne is survived by her daughter Suzanne, a granddaughter, and three great-granddaughters. Morty passed away in 1992 after losing his battle with AIDs.
“I did not meet Jeanne Manford until the twilight of her life,” PFLAG National Executive Director, Jody Huckaby, tells dot429, “but her personal strength and her quiet manner reminded me so much of my own mother. I will always be grateful for her legacy that goes beyond the doors of individual homes like mine, into communities all over America and countries all over this world. Jeanne has become iconic for starting PFLAG but, like my mom, she will always be an icon because of her love.”
The family requests that any donations be made to the Jeanne Manford Legacy Fund to support the ongoing work of PFLAG National: 1828 L Street, NW, Suite 660, Washington, D.C. 20036.