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Congratulations to Jeanne Manford, Posthumous Recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/09/13
Last updated on: 02/09/13
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Jeanne Manford.

Congratulations to the late Jeanne Manford, the co-founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), who has been named one of 13 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second highest civilian honor.

The Presidential Citizens Medal, established in 1969, is bestowed by the President of the United States on individuals who have performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens. Second in prestige only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the award may be bestowed only on United States citizens and may be awarded posthumously.

As Paul Schindler reports in Gay City News, Jeanne Manford, who died on January 7, 2013, is only the second person to be honored with a Presidential Citizens Medal for gay rights activism.

A 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal was awarded to Janice Langbein, a lesbian who sued a Miami hospital after she and her three young children were denied the right to visit her partner, Lisa Marie Pond, as she lay dying after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2007. (In 2001, Dr. David N. Ho and actress Elizabeth Taylor were awarded Presidential Citizens Medals for their work in AIDS research and prevention.)

In 2009, President Obama recognized gay rights pioneer and martyr Harvey Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor.

Jeanne Manford became active on behalf of glbtq rights in 1972 after her late son Morty, a Columbia University student who became an activist after witnessing the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, was beaten during a Gay Activists Alliance demonstration.

She and her husband Jules were outraged by the attack on their son, and Jeanne Manford wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post decrying the fact that police officers had stood by and allowed it to happen. In her letter, she said, "I have a homosexual son and I love him."

She was a school teacher and when the story was picked up by the New York Times, her principal asked her to be "more discreet" because parents were complaining. Jeanne Manford staunchly defended her right to speak freely, and the principal demurred.

Both Jeanne and Jules Manford began to reach out to even wider audiences. They and their son were invited to appear on a television show in Boston shortly after the letter to the editor was published. Radio and television stations in other cities sought them out as well, and the Manfords--sometimes with their son, and sometimes by themselves--traveled to venues including New Orleans, Detroit, and Toronto to speak out against discrimination.

In June 1972 Jeanne Manford marched alongside her son in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade, carrying a sign that read "Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children."

When young people along the parade route began rushing up to her, kissing her, and imploring her to talk to their parents, she realized the need for a support group for families. The opportunity to start one came a short while later when she mentioned the idea to a fellow panelist--a then-closeted Methodist minister--at a discussion sponsored by the Homosexual Community Counseling Service, and he offered the use of his church for meetings.

Jeanne and Jules Manford called the fledgling group Parents of Gays. Some twenty people attended the first meeting.

"It was very slow at the beginning," recalled Jeanne Manford later, noting that some subsequent meetings drew only three or four people, "but we always felt that if we helped one person, it was worth the effort."

Though the start may have been halting and the scope at first limited, the results of the Manfords' initiative have been enormous: Parents of Gays grew into PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which, as of 2007, had some 500 chapters and more than 200,000 members and supporters.

Manford's fellow 2012 Medal recipients include former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, the six women who died defending young children in the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, pediatrician Terry Brazelton, two military veterans, and activists and professionals working on issues of poverty, Native American youth, veterans' and women's disabilities, and immigration.

A full list of the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medalists, with brief biographies, may be found here.

They will be honored at a White House ceremony on February 15, 2013.

In the video below, from a 2009 Human Rights Campaign dinner, President Obama tells the story of Jeanne Manford and PFLAG.

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