PFLAG: a community of support

By Julian Wise - April 27, 2006

Members of the Island's Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) group provide strong mutual support. (Front row, from left) Blair Shick, Sarah Shepard, Rita Brown. (Back row, from left) Peg Thayer, Jane Thayer, and the Rev. Judy Campbell. Photo by Ralph Stewart

In 1972, Morty Manford was beaten and thrown down an escalator during a gay rights protest at the New York City Hilton Hotel. The bigots responsible for the beating underestimated a force more powerful than prejudice and hatred: a mother's love. Two months later his mother, Jeanne Manford, walked alongside Morty in New York's Gay Pride parade. From this simple gesture the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) movement was born. Today there are more than 500 chapters of the organization nationwide with more than 200,000 members.

The year 2006 marks the incorporation of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of PFLAG, providing an opportunity for Island families and friends of gays and lesbians to create a loving and supportive community for all of its members, regardless of sexual orientation.

Rita Brown and Jane Thayer, leaders of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of PFLAG, believe that the next step in society's acceptance of its gay and lesbian members lies in moving beyond tolerance towards affirmation. Both are warm, matronly women who come to the table with different perspectives. Ms. Brown, owner of the popular M.V. Gourmet Cafe and Bakery with locations in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, married her same-sex partner last May under the state's reformed marriage law. Ms. Thayer is the parent of a lesbian daughter and has had to undergo her private journey from confusion and self-recrimination towards embracing her daughter in the fullness of her identity as a lesbian. Together with their fellow PFLAG members, their goal is to encourage the Island community to affirm their love and support for gay, lesbian, trans-gender, and transsexual individuals. "I believe that we are the most recently chartered chapter in the USA," Ms. Brown says.

Exploring the issues
The chartering process grants the Vineyard chapter of PFLAG 501-C nonprofit status and allows it the use of the familiar PFLAG logo. On April 30, PFLAG will sponsor a showing of the film "The High School Football Hero" at Grace Episcopal Church followed by an open sharing with the Rev. Robert Hensley. The forum will be an opportunity for Island families to explore the issues of inclusion and acceptance that often challenge families with gay and lesbian family members.

Fred Thornbrugh, a member of PFLAG, says family support is often lacking from families of openly gay or lesbian individuals. "Gays and lesbians need support just like anybody else in a community," he says. "Often in the process of finding out one's sexuality, those who love us are those who are less likely to give support or understanding."

Indeed, Fran Kirschner, an early parental member of PFLAG, writes on the organization's web site, "When your child comes out of the closet you go into the closet." Families often adopt a conspiracy of silence where the issue of homosexuality is hushed rather than discussed openly. PFLAG's mission is to bring the issue of alternative sexuality to light and ensure that all members of the family are embraced.

The Vineyard chapter of PFLAG emerged from a workshop series at the Unitarian Universalist Church to foster a welcoming community environment for all people regardless of their backgrounds or sexual orientation. PFLAG currently includes 15 active members with more invited to join as the organization develops.

Acceptance and support
For Ms. Thayer, her involvement in PFLAG has been part of her personal journey of growth and acceptance as a parent of a lesbian child. When her daughter Peggy came out to her in the 1970s, Ms. Thayer fell back on the paradigm of her training as a clinical psychologist. She attempted to view her daughter's sexual orientation in light of the current doctrine of psychology during the decade. Conventional wisdom held that homosexuality was a mental disturbance caused by an overbearing mother and a passive father.

"I felt very guilty," Ms. Thayer recalls. "I felt very angry, I felt pain, I felt scared. What had my husband and I done to our daughter to make her a lesbian? I said to my daughter, 'you've got to get into therapy.' That went on a couple of years."

Eventually, through communicating with other parents in PFLAG, Ms. Thayer began to perceive her daughter's sexual orientation as a natural phenomenon on the spectrum of human sexuality rather than an aberration. "It was so wonderful to meet with parents who had already gone through acceptance phase," she recalls. "It was educating, talking to people who also had felt guilt and pain. It changed my whole approach, my whole sense of the need for parents to understand and appreciate it's a natural minority response to sexuality, that it was there from the beginning of time, it isn't something any of us choose."

This is a refrain echoed by Mr. Thornbrugh, who says, "Gay people abide in being gay even in the face of persecution, which suggests that being gay is not a matter of easy choice."

Mr. Thornbrugh, who grew up in an insular community in Oklahoma, adds, "in order for me to grow as a person, I had to leave my community and my hometown. That's indicative of most gay individuals. There's so much to fight, there's so many conflicts, we often have to leave in order to bloom."

Pointing to the support he receives from Ms. Thayer and says, "One of the nice things about PFLAG for me is Jane. That's the closest I'll ever get to a parent who accepts me on my own terms. My own parents will never do that. I had to go 3,000 miles to find a parent who would represent me."

More than tolerance
One of the critical missions of PFLAG is to help society cross the threshold from mere tolerance to full acceptance of gay and lesbian citizens. "We're looking to being embraced as a significant part of the fabric of the community," Ms. Brown says.

"If you're talking about affirming, you're talking about being proud, honoring, being out there," adds Ms. Thayer. In her eyes, acceptance is not enough. It's critical for parents to stand up for their gay and lesbian children and affirm their worth as beloved family members. "Parents not only have to accept," she says. "At this point they really need to go a step further. We have to affirm, we have to fight for the rights of our kids."

A second goal of the Vineyard chapter of PFLAG is to support gay and lesbian youth who may be dealing with severe emotional pressures due to their sexual orientation. Ms. Brown cites the death of several gay and lesbian youth in the recent past and says, "The suicide rate for youth is much higher for g/l youth than for straight youth. To me, that's enough reason for me to be involved in trying to create a safer community."

She envisions PFLAG as a resource that can provide support for youth who may be struggling with issues of sexuality, identity, and self-worth.

A high school member of PFLAG who prefers to remain unnamed spoke of the relatively tolerant climate of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School towards homosexuality. "I would say it's almost totally accepted," he says.

At the same time, he cites the value family support plays in creating a supportive environment for homosexual youth.

"There's a difference between saying 'whatever' and being supportive," he says. "Having your family be there and be supportive is really important."

The subject of suppression of one's individuality resonates among PFLAG members. "There's a phenomenon called internalized oppression," Ms. Brown says. "You hear those messages. They hit into the fiber of your ligaments and tendons and form how you look at the world in all dimensions. We have to constantly shed that because one of the great losses for society is that people cannot participate in the workplace, volunteer activities, in their full personhood because there's stuff that weights you down, that you're always hiding."

While the debate on same-sex rights is often crowded with heated exhortations from conservative politicians and the religious right, Ms. Brown believes that the issue can be simplified by person-to-person dialogue. "The only way you break down prejudice and fear is putting a face to that prejudice or fear," she says. "If you get to know me as a woman who is a lesbian, it changes how you think. When it's abstract, when you read about it in the paper, or listen to it on CNN, you can have emotions all over the map. When you find out your niece is a lesbian, it changes how you look at that issue forever."

PFLAG's vision extends both to current families with gay and lesbian members and to future generations who will hopefully live in an open and accepting society. "It's not about us," Ms. Brown says. "It's about other people being able to continue the journey."

"The High School Football Hero," Sunday, April 30, 3 pm, Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn Avenue, Vineyard Haven. Discussion follows, lead by the Rev. Robert Hensley. Free.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.