Jeanne Manford: A Mother First, Gay Rights Activist Second Jeanne Manford broke ground by speaking up for her son's rights as a gay man in the 1970s. She would go on to found the national support group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, better known as PFLAG. She died this week at the age of 92.
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Jeanne Manford: A Mother First, Gay Rights Activist Second

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Jeanne Manford: A Mother First, Gay Rights Activist Second

Jeanne Manford: A Mother First, Gay Rights Activist Second

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Earlier this week, we lost an important figure in the gay rights movement. Jeanne Manford was a shy, petite lady - only 5 foot 2 - from Flushing, Queens. A mother and an elementary school teacher, she became an activist for gay rights, drawn in by her son's involvement in the 1970s. She realized children like her son couldn't do it alone; they needed their families to be involved, too. She founded PFLAG, the national support group better known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. NPR's Lily Percy brings us this remembrance.

LILY PERCY, BYLINE: In 2009, President Obama made a speech at his annual Human Rights Campaign dinner.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Soon after the protests at Stonewall 40 years ago, the phone rang in the home of a soft-spoken, elementary school teacher named Jeanne Manford.

PERCY: In his speech, the president told the story of Jeanne Manford, whose son Morty was an out gay man and an important figure in New York's gay community during the turbulent 1970s. The phone call Manford received was from a police officer, who told her that Morty had been arrested for protesting at Stonewall.

OBAMA: And then the officer added one more thing. "And you know? He's homosexual."


OBAMA: Well, that police officer sure was surprised when Jeanne responded, "Yes, I know. Why are you bothering him?"


PERCY: Jeanne Manford always supported her son, Morty.

SUZANNE MANFORD: When my brother needed her, she just dropped everything for him. She was like a mother bear.

PERCY: That's Manford's daughter, Suzanne. Suzanne was 21 when Morty came out. A few years earlier, Manford's oldest son, Charles, had died from an accidental drug overdose. So when Morty ended up in the hospital in 1972, after being brutally beaten at a protest rally, Jeanne Manford knew that she had to act.

MANFORD: My mother was beside herself with rage, that anybody could hurt her child. She had already lost one, and the fact that she could have lost another - she was seething.

PERCY: After the attack, Manford wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, criticizing the police for not protecting him. She said, "I have a homosexual son, and I love him." Two months later, she marched alongside Morty in what would eventually become New York's Pride March - an unprecedented move, according to writer Eric Marcus. He wrote an oral history of the gay rights movement in the U.S., called "Making History."

ERIC MARCUS: It's a little hard to imagine now what that period was like; how revolutionary it was for a parent to walk in the gay Pride March in New York City, carrying a sign that said, "Parents Unite In Support Of Our Gay Children." The timing was right. The time really called for someone like Jeanne, and Jeanne was there.

PERCY: In 1973, Manford organized the first formal meeting of PFLAG, which took place at a local church in Greenwich Village. Twenty people gathered and soon after, she began to receive calls from other parents all across the country, who wanted to start groups in their own communities. They now have more than 350 groups nationwide. One member says that as a parent, a support group just makes sense.

PAUL TAGLIABUE: She thought it was just a normal thing to do, as a mother; and that's true of most all the parents who get involved.

PERCY: That's former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son Drew is gay. He and his wife joined PFLAG, seeking support and guidance from other parents in similar situations.

TAGLIABUE: They don't think they're going out there to become politicians, or advocates, in a unique way. They're doing what parents should do - which is care for their kids, and keep their family together. And it's pretty simple, when you think about it at its core.

DAN SAVAGE: One of the things my mom talked about being so valuable for her was - in a way - to go to a PFLAG meeting, and see her pain affirmed; see her pain reflected.

PERCY: Writer Dan Savage's mother was also a PFLAG member. Savage says that his mother found solace in the group because it helped her understand what it means to be gay, and to be the parent of a gay child.

SAVAGE: What Jeanne Manford did was, she put it in people's heads that gay and lesbian people have parents; that we were somebody's children. And that was the first real, big step in the movement toward full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.

PERCY: New York City Council member Daniel Dromm is another child of a PFLAG mom. Dromm was friends with Morty Manford. And when Morty passed away in 1992 of complications from AIDS, he reached out to Jeanne Manford, who he had never met. The two became fast friends from the first time that he ever set foot in her house.

DANIEL DROMM: The day I first went there, the house wreaked of history. I walked in, and Jeanne had pictures of Morty on the mantelpiece. And she took them down and she's showing, to me, them. As a matter of fact, there's a famous photo of Jeanne marching in that first pride parade. And she was so proud of having that photo, that that moment was recorded in history.

PERCY: Manford received letters from gay people all over the world; thanking her for standing up for them, and for loving them unconditionally. It is this love, Dromm says, that he will remember most.

DROMM: Jeanne Manford is like the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement. She is the mother to all gay people, but she's particularly the mother to gay people whose parents have rejected them.

PERCY: Jeanne Manford died this past Tuesday, at the age of 92. She's survived by her daughter, Suzanne, and the thousands of children whose families she influenced.

Lily Percy, NPR News.

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