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Jeanne Manford, the founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), died on January 7, 2013 at her home in Daly City, California. She had been in declining health for some time, her daughter Suzanne Swan said in announcing her death.
Born Jeanne Sobelson on December 4, 1920 in Queens, New York, 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 speak 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.
In a statement released today, PFLAG officials said, ""All of us--people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight allies alike--owe Jeanne our gratitude. She paved the way for us to speak out for what is right, uniting the unique parent, family, and ally voice with the voice of LGBT people everywhere."
PFLAG's Executive Director Jody M. Huckaby, said the world had lost a pioneer with Manford's death. "Jeanne was one of the fiercest fighters in the battle for acceptance and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It is truly humbling to imagine in 1972--just 40 years ago--a simple schoolteacher started this movement of family and ally support, without benefit of any of the technology that today makes a grassroots movement so easy to organize. No Internet. No cellphones. Just a deep love for her son and a sign reading 'Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.'"
Suzanne Swan said of Jeanne Manford in an e-mail statement: "She is known to thousands of people as the mother of the straight ally movement, but to me--she was my mother. She was someone who would always do the right thing, the good thing. She supported all people, and that meant so much to us growing up.
In addition to her daughter Manford is survived by her son-in-law Richard Swan, her granddaughter, Avril Swan and her husband Stuart Streepy, and three great-grandchildren. She was predeceased in death by her husband Jules, her son Charles, who died in 1966, and her son Morty, who died in 1992.
A private interment service will be held and details of a later celebration of Manford's life and legacy will be announced later. The family requests that any donations be made to the Jeanne Manford Legacy Fund to support the ongoing work of PFLAG National: 1828 L Street, NW, Suite 660, Washington, DC 20036.
In the video below, President Obama tells the story of Jeanne Manford and PFLAG.