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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory and, in many cases, very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound, and it is time that they were given a voice. Jeanne Manford, we hear you.
It is said that the fiercest creature that can be found is a mother protecting her young. Jeanne Manford proved this adage to be true. Born in Flushing, Queens, on December 4, 1920, Jeanne Sobelson was the third of five daughters and had a typical childhood. She moved to Alabama for college, but when her father died suddenly, she quit and returned home. Back in New York, she married a man named Jules Manford and they had three kids; Charles, Morty, and Suzanne.
Jeanne returned to college in her thirties and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Queens College in 1964, then promptly got a job teaching at PS32, also in Queens. The Manford’s lived a common, quiet existence. Then tragedy struck in 1966 when Charles died of an accidental drug overdose while away at college. Like many students of that time, he had gotten involved in the drug culture and one night took a dose of LSD that had been made incorrectly.
Charles’ death rocked the Manford family. So when Jeanne received a call from the hospital on April 15, 1972, saying that her son Morty had been badly beaten and hospitalized, she rushed to his side, terrified that she might lose another son. When she found out the circumstances of his beating, that terror turned into rage. Morty was a homosexual and a member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The GAA had showed up at the 50th Annual Inner Circle Dinner and Show to hand out flyers and leaflets in an attempt to raise gay rights awareness. Morty was one of the volunteers and got into an altercation with Mickey Maye, a former Golden Gloves boxer.
Accounts vary as to what started the altercation, some say Morty started it by grabbing Mickey, while others say that Mickey started it unprovoked. Regardless of who started it, it ended with Morty being kicked, stomped on, and thrown down an escalator in front of police officers – who did nothing to intervene. It was members of the GAA who got Morty help. In fact, the altercation was such a non-event that many of the attendees of the Inner Circle that night didn’t even know that anything had happened until they read about it in the newspapers.
Mickey Maye was arrested for harassment over the incident, but this wasn’t enough for Jeanne. She tried calling the New York Post to demand more adequate coverage of the incident, but was hung up on. So Jeanne sat down and wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in the April 29, 1972, New York Post. In this letter, she complained of the police inaction during the assault and the appalling treatment of homosexuals. However, there was one sentence that stood out from all the rest – “I have a homosexual son, and I love him.” This marked the first time that a parent had ever stepped forward in a public arena and not only admitted, but proudly announced that she had a homosexual child and that she supported and loved that child. In the 1970s, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and sodomy was illegal in many states. To come out very often meant being shunned and disowned from one’s family and community. You could be fired from your job, with no legal recourse, if your employer found out that you were gay. So for someone to unabashedly announce that she loved her gay son was completely unprecedented.
Her own son, Morty, even admitted that until that letter was printed, he had doubted his mother’s claims that she accepted his alternative lifestyle. Her letter put all doubts to rest. In the weeks that followed, Jeanne was asked to do television and radio interviews, which she accepted and always attended with either Morty or Jules by her side. Then on June 25, 1972, at Morty’s invitation, Jeanne participated in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day March, which is known today as the Pride Parade. In the march, Jeanne and Morty wound up positioned directly in front of Dr. Benjamin Spock, so Jeanne assumed that the enthusiastic response and cheers that were coming from the crowd were directed at the famous doctor behind her. It was only after participants and onlookers started coming up to her to thank her and give her hugs that she realized that the cheers were for her. She was marching with a handmade sign that read, “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children.”
Once more, Jeanne had loudly announced that she supported what the majority of the country considered to be her mentally ill, outlaw son. It was the first time that anybody had drawn attention to the fact that homosexuals were somebody’s children, and that those children deserved support. Many of the people who approached her that day asked if she would talk to their parents or told her that they were afraid to come out to their parents because they were afraid of the reaction. Jeanne had unintentionally shown that there didn’t need to a gap between the homosexual and heterosexual communities. Straight parents could, and should, stand up for their gay children.
After the parade, Jeanne became a sort of honorary mom for the gay community. The Manfords were listed in the phone book, so people would call or sometimes show up at their doorstep. Without fail, Jeanne would welcome them in, listen to their stories, and provide what support and advice that she could. At times, Jeanne would even call the parents of whoever had come to visit, to provide support to them and help answer questions that they had. For many parents in the 1970’s, a child coming out as gay was synonymous with losing that child. Jeanne impressed upon parents that that didn’t need to be the case. Jules Manford was just as welcoming to these guests as his wife. He quickly discovered that large portions of the gay community didn’t have access to affordable dentistry and therefore went without. Since Jules was a dentist himself, he would provide free or low-cost dentistry for those who stopped by and were in need.
In the months following the parade, they discovered that there was a great schism between the heterosexual and homosexual communities, a schism that needed to be bridged in a much larger way than they could accomplish on their own. So on March 11, 1973, Jeanne and Jules formed an organization called Parents of Gays (POG). The idea behind the organization was to provide a safe place for parents to come together to learn to get over their own upsets and confusions about their children’s sexual orientation and to learn to accept them as they were. The first meeting was held at the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church, now the Church of the Village. Only twenty people attended this first meeting, but it was twenty people that they were able to reach.
Over the next several years, similar groups formed all around the country, and in 1979, after the National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Washington D.C., leaders from these groups met for the first time. It was at this meeting that POG turned into Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. In 1980, PFLAG began distributing information to schools and faith organizations in an attempt to establish themselves as a source of reliable information for the general public. However, they truly gained national attention when Dear Abby mentioned PFLAG in her advice column. After that column ran, PFLAG received more than 7000 letters requesting information.
Realizing that the need could no longer be handled by a small smattering of community clubs, PFLAG launched a national organization. The Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc. was incorporated in Los Angeles, California, in 1982. The Federation represented twenty groups, including Jeanne’s original group. PFLAG was thriving, but sadly, the Manfords were not. Jules died in 1982. Jeanne remained active in PFLAG, even after she retired from PS32 in 1990, at the age of 70. She served as the Grand Marshall of the New York City Gay Pride March in June of 1991. When Morty contracted AIDS, she cared for him until his death in 1992. Jeanne kept his bed in the living room, so that he could receive visitors, and so that she could take care of him while still working for PFLAG and being of service to the gay community. In 1993, Jeanne served as the Grand Marshall of the first Pride Parade in Queens and organized a PFLAG chapter in Astoria.
Jeanne stayed active in New York, until she moved to Rochester, Minnesota, to care for her granddaughter while her daughter attended medical school. After her daughter’s graduation, they moved to California, where she passed away at home in Daly City, California, on January 8, 2013. She was 92 years old. That February, President Obama awarded Jeanne the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal – the second highest civilian award – for her work in co-founding PFLAG and her years of LGBT advocacy. Her daughter Suzanne accepted the award on her behalf. On April 26, 2014, 171st Street between 33rd and 35th Avenues in Queens was renamed “Jeanne, Jules, Morty Manford PFLAG Way.”
In the forty plus years since that first meeting was held, PFLAG has become a powerful voice for the LGBTQ community. In the 1980s, they opposed Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade and strove to end military discharges of lesbians. In the 1990s, PFLAG chapters in Massachusetts fought for and passed the first Safe Schools Legislation, which was followed shortly thereafter by a push to get the Department of Education to pass Title 9 to help protect gay and lesbian students from harassment based on their sexuality. It was also in the 1990s, that PFLAG pushed the message that hate speech was not only linked to hate crimes, but that both played a major role in LGBTQ teen suicides. In 2000, PFLAG began to roll out national campaigns such as: Cultivating Respect: Safe Schools for All, Straight for Equality, Bringing the Message Home and Welcoming Faith Communities. Today, PFLAG has over 350 chapters with over 200,000 supporters across the country.
All of this, because one woman stood up for her son. Jeanne told Eric Marcus, a historian of the gay rights movement, in an interview, “I’m very shy, by the way. But I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over Morty.”
Jeanne Manford, this is in your honor. Thank you for all that you did.
For information, support or to join PFLAG go here – https://community.pflag.org/