PFLAG: A Piece of Our Hearts

“The day after (our daughter) came out to us, I told her that it did not matter to me who she loved, for anyone who had a piece of her heart would always have a piece of mine.”

— Posted by “Lioneljay” on the Soulcast bulletin boards

(The names of all PFLAG members and their family members mentioned here have been changed in respect for the group’s confidentiality policy.)

Rachael, a single mother of four sons, found out her youngest son, 17-year-old Damon, was gay when her oldest son showed her Damon’s MySpace page. There, in his personal profile, Damon had identified himself as a bisexual. Not sure how to respond, Rachael called the Louisville, Kentucky, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) chapter. She spoke with Sara, whose 27-year-old son is gay, and learned that the confusion she was feeling regarding what to say to Damon was not unusual. With Sara’s help, Rachael was able to talk to her son about the issue and learned that her son was not bisexual, he was gay.

Eventually, Rachael attended a PFLAG meeting, where she met other parents who could identify with her experience. One of those parents was Tom, whose 16-year-old son, Jake, had recently come out of the closet, as well. Tom and Rachael bonded so well that they decide to take their two families out to dinner. To the delight of their parents, Damon and Jake became friends, and eventually went off to spent time together to talk. Although the intent wasn’t to make a match of the two teens, Tom noted that it “was like they were on their first date.”

Tom and Rachael are typical of thousands of parents each year who learn that their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Both made the wise decision to reach out and seek information and support. Unfortunately, far too many parents, siblings, and friends choose another path: condemnation and abandonment. How loved ones react to a person’s coming out will not only shape the immediate relationship, it will affect that person’s entire perceptions of their place in the world. That’s why organizations such as PFLAG are an invaluable asset to the LGBT community.

Ask anyone who is openly gay and they will most likely tell you that they have heard statements such as these: “I have a cousin who’s gay, and it doesn’t matter to me.” “I knew a guy in college who was gay. I didn’t treat him any differently than I treated any one else.” “My sister’s a lesbian. Her partner’s as much a part of the family as if my sister had married a guy.”

Such comments create an implicit understanding between speaker and listener: I accept the gay relative/ friend in my life, so I accept your homosexuality, as well. However, if pressed, the majority of those who make such statements would admit that their advocacy for the gay community goes no further than acceptance.

Not Cyndi Lauper. Lauper has maintained a die-hard gay fan base for over 20 years, and she has a sister who is a lesbian. Yet, Lauper has chosen to do more than just accept the gay men and women in her life; she has openly campaigned for their equal rights. And this past year, she launched her True Colors tour, featuring herself and a diverse roster of artists including Erasure, Debbie Harry, Margaret Cho, The Gossip, The Dresden Dolls, and Rufus Wainwright, among others. One dollar of each ticket price goes to support the Human Rights Campaign, and Lauper et al use the stage to promote gay organizations like the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

One of those organizations is PFLAG. Lauper noted the group’s value to The Chicago Sun Times‘ Misha Davenport: “As a mother, I know. The connection with your child is a soul connection. You don’t want to ever lose that connection. PFLAG helps people stay connected.” (“Cyndi Lauper Waves True Colors with Pride”, 10 June 2007).

However, the pop star is hardly alone in standing beside gay friends or relatives in the fight to achieve equal protection under the law for the homosexual community. According to its website,

PFLAG began in 1972 when Jeanne Manford was cheered for marching with her gay son in the New York Gay Pride Parade, carrying a sign which said “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children”. The response inspired Manford to organize a support group for similar parents. Today, that group has over 200,000 members and 50 chapters.

Jeanne Manford and others, 1972. Photo from PFLAG History

The organization has three primary functions: support, advocate, and educate. At a recent meeting of the Louisville chapter, the focus was on the first of these three. The attendees were equally divided between parents of gay children and gay or lesbian adults. Each person was invited to share his or her story, and no two were alike. For instance, Gene was married for 25 years and has two kids. His wife attended a PFLAG meeting to support a co-worker who had just come out. Afterwards, she came home and told him, “I think you need to go to one of these meetings.” Shortly thereafter, Gene himself came out. His wife, from whom he is separated, is his “best friend”, and his kids are equally supportive. When a new girl at his son’s high school said she wanted to meet some “gay guys”, he offered to take her home to meet his dad.

For the parents at the meeting, the prevailing emotion was worry — worry that their children would find happiness, be accepted, and most importantly, be safe from gay-bashers and hate-mongers. They also worried about how they could have helped their children more. Sara’s husband stated that he wished they had known about their son’s sexuality sooner, when he was in high school, so that they could have been more supportive during the difficult teen years.

However, a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry revealed that most LGBT individuals wait years before coming out. According to the study, most become self-aware that they are “different” at age 10 and label themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual by age 14, but don’t come out to another person until they are 16. When they do come out, it is most often to a friend first, waiting for at least another year to tell a parent, usually the mother.

LGBT teens have good reason to be hesitant about telling family members. The study revealed that only half of all mothers and siblings were accepting, while one-fourth of fathers were. A quarter of all teens studied experienced total rejection by their families. Although the study didn’t delve into the affects of this rejection, it did note that one half of all those studied had attempted suicide at one point. (D’Augelli, Anthony R.; Hershberger, Scott L.; Pilkington, Neil W., “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth and Their Families: Disclosure of Sexual Orientation and its Consequences”, July 1998)

Kelsey experienced such rejection from her parents. She had been with her partner Dana for 17 years when she passed away from cancer. Although Kelsey’s family had disowned her years earlier, they swept into town the last month of her life and took control. Their first act was to have Dana banned from the hospital, over Kelsey’s objections, citing first a suicide attempt Dana had made as a teen as evidence of mental instability and second the fact that Dana was not, legally, “family”.

Thus, in order to spent time with her life partner as she lay dying, Dana had to sneak into the hospital in the middle of the night, when the family was gone and a more tolerant staff was on-duty. After Kelsey died, her family not only stole her ashes, they went into Kelsey and Dana’s home and stole all of Dana’s personal belongings. Then they flew back home to Canada, out of reach of local law officials.

Although it was small consolation, Dana did get the last word. When the hospital called a few weeks after Kelsey’s death to ask Dana how she planned to pay for the tens of thousands of bills not covered by insurance, Dana reminded them, “I’m not family. You’ll need to call Kelsey’s parents in Canada.” Dana felt it was only right that a family who made their child’s dying days even more painful should face some of the consequences of their actions.

Still, the financial burden the parents must face is a small price to pay for the underhanded and manipulative tactics they employed. Clearly, their interest was not in making a peaceful transition for Kelsey, who was denied the presence of the most important person in her life during a critical time; their interest was in exerting dominance over a family member who they felt they had lost control of years ago.

It is in situations such as these that PFLAG’s goals of educating and advocating are useful. The group’s mission to “enlighten an ill-informed public” help family and friends such as Kelsey’s to better grasp the reality of the situation; that homosexuality is not a choice and that the LGBT individual is the same person, just a little more open now about who they are. As Tom and Rachael both observed, their sons were still typical teen boys, except for their sexual identity. They still had to be fussed at to do chores and homework, and spent too much time involved in typical teen activities (hanging out, playing games, and such).

PFLAG’s goal “to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights” could also have been helpful in Dana’s situation. Legal marriage or civil rights would have prevented Kelsey’s parents from barring Dana from the hospital without a protracted legal fight. In a court of law, the standard to prove instability would have been higher and required more than a single instance that occurred 25 years earlier, particularly if Kelsey and Dana had been legally married. Marriage is just one of the many rights that PFLAG seeks to gain.

In the article “Doing ‘Real Family Values’: The Interpretive Practices of Families in the GLBT Movement”, authors Broad, Crawley, and Foley maintain that PFLAG has made strides in their fight for equality because of their ability to “subvert” the language of the religious right. The authors state:

In the today’s United States where the discourse of traditional family values still comprises the terms by which family is understood and family values made, the appropriation of that discourse by an organization in the GLBT movement is not insignificant…PFLAG appropriates the meanings of religious values from traditional family values discourse, effectively restoring morality as including progay sentiment. (Sociological Quarterly, Summer 2004)

However, the authors overlook one fact in their conclusion: the language of “traditional family value discourse” wasn’t appropriated because it has been the language of PFLAG from the group’s inception. For 35 years, long before “traditional family values” became a buzz-phrase, PFLAG has been preaching inclusion, love, acceptance, and understanding. Those were certainly the values evident at the PFLAG meeting I attended.

I recognize that I have been lucky. My parents, sister, and friends have always loved me for the man I am, both before and after my sexual preference became known. Additionally, they have embraced my partner. My mother refers to him as her fourth child, and to be honest, he gets more gifts from them at Christmas than I do.

Still, I’ve met far too many who don’t have that loving family, and who have slept in cars, on the street, and on my sofa because they had nowhere else to go. As long as there are men and women who can’t call home, even after decades of silence, and teens who wander the streets homeless due to rejection, PFLAG’s three objectives of support, education, and advocacy will be needed.