Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
PARENTS, FAMILIES AND FRIENDS OF LESBIANS AND GAYS (PFLAG)
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is a unique organization that reflects the adaptation of LGBT persons and their allies to the practices of social movement advocacy in the United States. Its mission is to "promote the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends" through support, education, and advocacy. At the end of 2002 the group claimed eighty thousand members and 460 affiliates in the United States. What makes PFLAG unique is that it exists to facilitate participation in the movement for LGBT civil rights by persons who are not themselves LGBT.
LGBT persons are unusual among identity-based social movements because the vast majority do not share the relevant identity characteristic with their parents. Thus, while racial and ethnic minorities have no need for a "Parents, Families and Friends of" Organization, PFLAG plays an extremely important, albeit often intangible, role in the LGBT social movement. It is difficult to specify the exact psychological characteristics that give rise to active political engagement on one's own behalf, but the highly conflicted relationships many LGBT persons have with their families of origin can significantly diminish their capacity for activism. On the other hand, a significant and growing number of family members and friends of LGBT persons find discrimination against LGBT persons outrageous. PFLAG members acknowledge these issues in various ways. They include "support" along with "advocacy" in their mission. At the 1993 March on Washington, PFLAG parents fanned out into the crowd in front of their exhibitor tent for the express purpose of bestowing hugs on any passersby who wanted one. In general, PFLAG has become adept at leveraging the esteem with which American culture regards parents, especially mothers, on behalf of LGBT civil rights claims.
PFLAG's history is closely intertwined with that of the LGBT movement and its advocacy work from the outset. According to the organization's own history, its conception resulted from Jeanne and Jules Manford's 1972 experience of watching on television as counterprotestors attacked their son Morton during a gay rights demonstration in New York City. The Manfords were horrified to see that the police did nothing to intervene. Later that year Jeanne Manford marched with her son in the annual Pride Day parade in Greenwich Village and found that many participants asked her to speak with their parents. In March 1973, Parents and Friends of
Gays, as the organization was originally named, held its first meeting in a church.
Throughout the 1970s, parents of lesbian and gay children formed individual local support groups. These different groups often communicated with each other, but they would not create a national structure to unify local groups until the end of the decade. In 1974 the Manfords visited Los Angeles and encouraged Adele and Larry Starr to form such a group. The Starrs' Los Angeles group, founded in 1976, was the first in the nation to apply for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). A PFLAG representative spoke on issues that parents of lesbians and gay men face at the first-ever meeting of lesbian and gay activists at the White House in March 1977, organized by the National Gay Task Force.
In 1979, at the first national lesbian/gay rights march in Washington, D.C, a group of parents held a press conference to express support for their lesbian/gay children. They also met to organize what was now termed Parents-FLAG at the national level. Two more years elapsed before another meeting in the Starrs' living room brought about the creation of the national group. Adele Starr volunteered to serve as president of the board of directors. PFLAG's primary activities during this period consisted of creating and supporting local chapters, responding to requests for information, and contacting public officials to oppose discriminatory policies.
PFLAG moved its national office to Denver, Colorado, when Elinor Lewallen became board president in 1987, and hired its first paid staff member that same year. In 1988, boasting two hundred local chapters across the nation, PFLAG moved to rented office space in Washington, D.C., where its headquarters have remained. In addition, the organization hired its first paid executive director at that time. In this respect, PFLAG reflects the increased professionalization of American politics during the last third of the twentieth century. Its activities during the 1990s also indicated the increasing prominence of LGBT civil rights issues in national politics.
Board President Paulette Goodman created a stir in 1990 when a letter she wrote to First Lady Barbara Bush, and Bush's response, were made public. Bush, whose husband had always aroused suspicions among conservative Christians, wrote to Goodman, "I firmly believe we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country" as cited on the PFLAG website. Activists on the Republican right responded with outrage, claiming that Bush supported "the gay agenda."
Conservative activists would later pay PFLAG a backhanded compliment by creating Parents and Families of Ex-Gays (PFOX). The "ex-gay" movement—Christian ministries dedicated to converting lesbians and gay men through various combinations of psychotherapy and Christian faith—languished largely unnoticed by the rest of the conservative Christian movement until the late 1990s, when conservative activists recognized it as the means to convey their opposition to LGBT civil rights in a seemingly compassionate manner. PFOX exists to offer support for parents and family members of "ex-gay" persons and claims that its members suffer discrimination and harassment.
Also during 1990, PFLAG endured significant internal tensions over the appropriate role of its national staff. In August, dissident board members revealed calls for votes of no confidence in both the executive director and the board president, along with a detailed report of significant management failures at the main office. In part, the disagreements reflected the organization's rapid growth, from two hundred to over four hundred chapters in a matter of months. In part, they reflected conflicts over the relative importance of the headquarters' two main tasks of supporting chapters and conducting advocacy in Washington, D.C. Nancy McDonald, board president at the time, identified both PFLAG's key strength and the tension inherent in the organization's self-definition when she claimed, "'I look at PFLAG as a continuum. You enter needing support. We're hoping you'll gain enough information and knowledge about the topic to be able to educate others. Then maybe you'll write that letter or speak at that committee. All three are important'" (Gideonse, p. 32).
The organization ultimately resolved its difficulties. In a further reflection of U.S. society and social movements, during the late 1990s PFLAG supported the creation of subsidiary groups specifically for African American and Asian American parents—implicit recognition of the difference that race and ethnicity make in individuals' experiences of their or their children's sexuality. It has also mirrored the larger movement in explicitly supporting the civil rights claims of bisexual, transgender, and intersexed persons. PFLAG thus continues to play a unique, and uniquely necessary, role in the social movement for LGBT civil rights.
Gideonse, Ted. "PFLAG's Family Crisis." The Advocate (October 28, 1997): 32.
PFLAG website. Available from www.pflag.org/about/history.html
Schwartz, Harriet. "The Ex Files." The Advocate (June 10, 1997): 44.
Stefanakos, Victoria Scanlan. "Does Your Mother Know?" The Advocate (August 28, 2001): 36.
William B. Turner
see alsofamily issues; family law and policy; suicide.