Back in the early 1970s, when being gay was still widely considered both a mental illness and a crime, Jeanne Manford got a phone call late one night in Queens, N.Y. It was a police officer, who informed her that her son Morty, a student at Columbia University, had been arrested. “And you know,” the officer told her in an ominous tone, “he’s homosexual.”
The response from Manford, a normally soft-spoken schoolteacher, was blunt. “I know that,” she said. “Why are you bothering him? Why don’t you go after criminals and stop harassing gays?”
As gay rights historian Robert A. Bernstein recounts, Morty Manford saw the officer scratching his head in astonishment after he put down the phone.
Jeanne Manford had always considered her family’s life to be a private matter. But after her son was beaten up for handing out leaflets during a 1972 demonstration, she felt she had no choice but to get involved. She wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, in which she proclaimed, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.”
That was just the start. Manford, who died on Jan. 8 at age 92 in Daly City, Calif., began traveling around the country with her son and husband, Jules, appearing on local TV talk shows to provide an example of how parental love could transcend society’s disapproval. Later that year, she even marched in a gay rights parade in New York City, carrying a hand-lettered sign that read, “Parents of Gays: United in Support for Our Children.” As Bernstein recounts: “young people began running up to her, crying, screaming, hugging her, kissing her, asking her if she would talk to their parents.”
That planted in Manford’s mind the notion of founding a parents’ support group for gays. The following March, with the help of her son, she organized a meeting at a Greenwich Village church that attracted 20 participants. That historic get-together eventually led to the founding of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national organization that today has 200,000 members and 350 chapters across the United States.
Manford continued her activism even after Morty, who had become an assistant New York state attorney general, died of AIDS at age 41 in 1992. As a 1996 New York Times article noted, for years, her house in Flushing served as a support center for distraught parents and their children. Eventually, though, she did cut back on her activism for another family cause: taking care of her great-granddaughter while her granddaughter attended medical school. In 2009, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Manford in a speech.
Here’s a video remembrance of Manford from YouTube: