Since my early childhood my family made it clear that to them a person’s sexual orientation was simply part of who they were, the same as their hair or eye color. I was taught that if you were a good person, didn’t hurt anyone, and had good manners, you should be judged based on your words and actions, not on who you loved. I had no idea that this message would also become the basis for an organization that would change — and save — lives over the next four decades.
My grandparents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, were the founders of PFLAG, and this year we mark 45 years of family love, acceptance, and celebration, something I saw every day in my home that now lives in hearts and homes everywhere thanks to my grandparents; it’s a legacy I am very proud to carry on as a parent and ally.
Forty-five years ago, I was only 4 years old when my uncle, gay activist Morty Manford, was beaten during an act of civil disobedience. His mother, my grandmother, was furious and wrote a letter to the New York Post criticizing the bullies who beat him and declaring her love for her son. “My son is a homosexual,” she wrote, “And I love him.” It was 1972. This kind of public declaration was a revolutionary act.
My uncle asked my grandmother to protest with him in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, an early precursor to New York Pride. She said yes, but “only if I can carry a sign.” So she marched, carrying a homemade sign that said “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.” So many young people begged her to talk to their parents, and soon our home phone began to ring. Parents of Gays (now PFLAG) was born.
People began to visit us, meeting in our living room in the Flushing section of Queens. Soon the meetings grew bigger, and the first official meeting was held at the Metropolitan Community Church in lower Manhattan in March 1973.
In every other way, my days were pretty average and, in retrospect, idyllic when I was a child living in Flushing with my grandparents, uncle, and mom. I played outside, went to school, ate cereal, and watched Sesame Street on Saturday mornings.
Once a month, however, I’d spend Saturday morning with my grandparents on the 7 train to Penn Station, from which we would make our way to Greenwich Village for the meetings. The meetings were pretty boring for a little kid. I felt sorry for the crying adults who couldn’t understand what was taught to me at such a young age: Their kids were fine. Honestly. My grandparents tried to comfort, listen, and explain.
I went to Parents of Gays meetings, marched in gay pride parades, and accompanied my grandparents all over the country when they appeared on radio and TV shows simply to declare their love for my uncle.
Some of my earliest memories are of these meetings and trips, and learning from my grandparents and uncle that just because someone is different from you doesn’t mean they are better or worse. To think otherwise, I was taught, is bigotry — unthinking, uneducated discrimination based on fear without facts or cause.
As I sit down to write these words, it seems so basic. It is like learning about colors and letters to me. Like so many others right now, I am stunned that we have to revisit these simple ideas, yet in a cultural and political climate that is increasingly hostile to diversity and difference, we need to bring out this message more than ever.
At the time, I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was for my grandmother, a shy schoolteacher, and my humble (and very ill) grandfather to put their friendships and careers on the line to make these public statements.
The fear that others might have felt, however, didn’t matter to them. To them, the worst had already happened. You see, they had three children, but their eldest, Charles, had died by suicide. My Uncle Morty was their youngest child, their golden boy, and he too had tried to end his own life when he was first grappling with his sexuality. They were not going to let that happen.
What my grandparents didn’t know was that their intuition — that parental support and family affirmation could save their child’s life — was right on target; in fact, their instincts would turn out to be evidence-based facts.
The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has found that LGBT youth who experience high levels of rejection by their families are:
· More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide
· Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
· More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and
· More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases when compared with youth who are not rejected by their families because of their gay or transgender identities.
However, even the smallest amount of family acceptance can turn these numbers around.
The simple building blocks of common decency I was taught in my childhood have helped shape who I am as a person, a parent, and a doctor. I specialize in family medicine and try to give advice that is going to help the body, spirit, and mind — all related. In my office, I have patients, some young children, who are just figuring out their identity and sexuality. I have had children suffer with depression until their parents figured out that their insistence on a gender identity other than that with which they were born was not a phase. Once they are accepted for who they are, I see the happy looks on their faces and the ease in their bodies. Doctor visits for tummy aches for which there is no physical cause disappear.
The opposite, unfortunately, is also a reality: Young people who have been thrown out of their house due to their sexuality show up in my practice frequently with chronic complaints or depression. For these folks, the best path that I have seen is when they develop a community outside of family that can help with resilience and self-acceptance. There is always sadness, however, and my patients who have been rejected by their families do frequently struggle with depression, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse.
Having a medical home in which sexuality and gender identity are accepted as a given is important — I am so happy to provide that — but my really successful patients are the ones for whom their family primarily provides such an environment.
My grandparents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, are gone now. They provided me with a remarkable childhood full of love and life lessons. I saw firsthand through their relationships and activities how the political was personal. I saw how individuals could make a difference by using their voices and hearts. I began, as a child, to understand how the mental and physical health of each family member was dependent on the others. My grandparents shared with me the pain of having lost a child, and they taught me through their words, political activities, and actions at home how to save a life. I believe that their message of love, pride, and acceptance is needed now more than ever, and I am so grateful that 45 years later, PFLAG carries on what they started.
AVRIL SWAN is family physician based in San Francisco and a proud granddaughter of Jeanne and Jules Manford, the founders of PFLAG.