What Becomes a Legend Most

Jeanne Manford: In Memorium

Jeanne Manford crosses the bridge
Jeanne Manford crosses the bridge (by pflag.org)

Like many activists, Jeanne Manford got her start on the street – marching proudly with her son in the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Someone snapped a picture of the sign she was holding – a hand-lettered placard urging “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children” – and she became an accidental icon.

She couldn’t have known then that the ragtag parade would someday become an institution or that she would become a enduring symbol of the fight. What she did know was said in The New York Post and countless interviews: "I have a homosexual son, and I love him."

The LGBT community was fortunate that her love stretched far past her son. A year after the Christopher Street march, she began meetings of what eventually became PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in New York’s Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church, now known as the Church of the Village. As a teacher; it was natural for Manford to instruct others in advocacy. But it still took moxie. PFLAG publicist Liz Owen noted in a 2011 blog post that in the seventies, "the idea of equality for gays and lesbians was a radical notion." Despite stigma, Manford was resolute in creating “a bridge between the gay community and the heterosexual community.” She was, after all, the first person to walk across.

Manford remained active in the fight for equality even after the AIDS-related death of her son Morty. During that time, PFLAG’s reach expanded past its original moniker “Parents of Gays.” 1993 saw the group welcoming the bisexual community. In 1998, PFLAG harbored gender identity under the umbrella - becoming the first national lesbian and gay organization to do so. The number of chapters expanded too – to more than 350 communities and all 50 states. Further, the core ideas became the seed for international organizations and student gay/straight alliances. As PFLAG Austin President Jeffrey Early puts it, “the firm foundation she laid for us 40 years ago when she created PFLAG will allow us to continue sharing her message of compassion, advocacy, equality, and love … Her legacy will live on.”

It’s difficult to imagine the courage it must have taken to for her to stride down Christopher Street. Very few people were willing to discuss gay folks in 1972, much less rally to their defense. Even in the Eighties, PFLAG’s own pamphlets were asking “What Will the Neighbors Say?” Today - with marriage equality a reality in her home state and every year yielding more LGBT victories — the answer seems exceedingly simple. Incredulous that such a question would even be asked, they could only say that Jeanne Manford was a hero.

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