Jeanne Manford

A remarkable story that has moved me to tears, for reasons I’ll try to explain later in this posting. From the New Yorker issue of 4/17/23, “How one mother’s love for her gay son started a revolution:  In the sixties and seventies, fighting for the rights of queer people was considered radical activism. To Jeanne Manford, it was just part of being a parent” by Kathryn Schulz, on-line on 4/10 (which is the version reported on here; my hard-copy NYer of 4/17 hasn’t yet arrived).

The teaser copy:

When Manford’s son Morty came out, in 1968, homosexual acts were criminal in forty-nine states. She never tried to change him; she set out to change the world instead.

At the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation Day March: Monty and Jeanne in front, Benjamin Spock just behind Jeanne, to the side (this was over 50 years ago; I was 31 at the time, 10 years older than Monty was in this picture)

The crowd along Sixth Avenue was losing its mind. It was Sunday, June 25, 1972, and Dr. Benjamin Spock was walking uptown with the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, the scrappier, more revolutionary precursor to the New York City Pride Parade. Although he had risen to fame as a pediatrician, Spock was almost as well known for his support of left-wing causes — from legalizing abortion to ending the Vietnam War — as he was for “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” which had already sold more than ten million copies. Still, even by his standards, joining the Christopher Street crowd was a radical act. Two years earlier, when the march was held for the first time, its organizers had worried that no one would come. Those who did were so hopped up on adrenaline and fear that the fifty-block route, from the West Village to Central Park, took them half as long as anticipated; afterward, they jokingly called it the Christopher Street Liberation Day Run. Now here was Dr. Spock, one of the most influential figures in America, joining their ranks. As he passed by, the people lining the streets whistled and clapped and screamed themselves hoarse.

But all this hullabaloo was not, as it turned out, for the famous doctor; it was for a diminutive middle-aged woman marching just in front of him. She was not famous at all — not the author of any books, not the leader of any movement, not self-evidently a radical of any kind. With her jacket and brooch and plaid skirt and spectacles, she had the part-prim, part-warm demeanor of an old-fashioned elementary-school teacher, which she was. She was carrying a piece of orange poster board with a message hand-lettered in black marker: “parents of gays: unite in support for our children.” She had no idea that the crowd was cheering for her until total strangers started running up to thank her. They asked if they could kiss her; they asked if she would talk to their parents; they told her that they couldn’t imagine their own mothers and fathers supporting them so publicly, or supporting them at all.

The woman’s name was Jeanne Manford, and she was marching alongside her twenty-one-year-old gay son, Morty. Moved by the outpouring of emotion, the two of them discussed it all along the route. By the time they reached Central Park, they had also reached a decision: if so many people wished that someone like Jeanne could talk to their parents, why not make that possible? The organization they dreamed up that day, which started as a single support group in Manhattan, was initially called Parents of Gays; later, it was renamed Parents flag, for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; nowadays, it is known only as pflag. Just a handful of people attended its first meeting, held fifty years ago this spring. Today, it has four hundred chapters and well north of a quarter of a million members.

That growth reflects a cultural change of extraordinary speed and magnitude — a transformation, incomplete but nonetheless astonishing, in the legal, political, and social status of L.G.B.T.Q. people in America. Paradoxically, one consequence of that transformation is that the moral courage of Jeanne Manford, so evident to everyone lining Sixth Avenue that day, has become hard to fully appreciate. Parents in general, and mothers in particular, have long been a potent political force, from the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Moms Demand Action. In such cases, the power of parents derives from loving their children and trying to protect them, among the most fundamental and respected of human instincts. What made Jeanne Manford different — and what made her actions so consequential — is that, until she started insisting otherwise, the kind of child she had was widely regarded as the kind that not even a mother could love.

… Newspapers used the words “homosexual” and “pervert” interchangeably, and the handful of gay people who appeared on television to discuss their “life style” almost always had their faces hidden in shadows or otherwise obscured. In 1974, when “The Pat Collins Show” aired a segment on parents of gay children, the host introduced it by saying, “Even if he committed murder, I guess you’d say, ‘Well, he’s still my child, no matter what.’ But suppose your child came to you and said, ‘Mother, Dad, I am homosexual.’ What would you do then?”

You could fit most of the solar system into the chasm between how the average American of the era would have reacted in that hypothetical situation and how Jeanne Manford responded upon learning that Morty was gay. She was dismayed to discover that his sexual orientation had troubled him for so long, but she herself was not concerned about it. Not for a moment did she entertain the possibility that something was wrong with him. Not for a moment did she wonder, as the otherwise supportive Jules [her husband] initially did, if his gayness reflected some failing of theirs as parents. And not for a moment did she worry about how other people would react; she told her sisters and friends right away, making plain that she was fine with the information and they had better be, too. “You don’t love him in spite of something,” she later declared on national television, her face free of shadow or blur. “You love him.”

From my 1/30/11 posting “It Gets Better / Wonderful Dad”:

[About 20 years before the scene in the photo,] my father called me in for [a] serious talk, which he started by asking me if I’d heard about my Uncle Paul (the brother of the husband of my mother’s twin sister). I hadn’t.

It seems that Paul had gone from Allentown PA, where he lived and worked, to New York City for a night (probably a weekend) on the town, and was arrested, in one of those police sweeps of gay bars so common in those days, for dancing with another man. As was standard then, the names of people arrested in such cases were published in newspapers, and for out-of-towners the NYC papers shared the information with local papers, so that the Allentown Morning Call ran a story with a head something like “Local Man Arrested on NY Morals Charge”. And Paul’s life was ruined: his brother and local acquaintances refused to have anything to do with him, he was fired from his job, and he fled to NYC, never to be heard from again.

[I knew Paul pretty well, especially from summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm. He treated me much like a younger brother, and we spent time hiking in the fields and forests and just talking. I think he saw in me something of what he had been as a boy. In any case, he never said or did anything sexual with me. I did divine something of his feelings towards men, though, when his best buddy from the Army — Paul and his brother were both World War II vets — visited the farm, and they spent all of their time together, much of it in the bedroom they shared; there was a visible bond between them.]

Now, my dad on Paul: he laid out the situation, pretty much as I have above (well, I got the story from him), and went on to explain, earnestly, that some men loved other men the way most men loved women, that that was just the way they were, and there was nothing wrong with that. He added that he knew I liked Paul — and that he and my mother and my aunt all liked him, still did — so I should know there was nothing wrong with Paul, and if I heard nasty talk about him (I never did; apparently the news didn’t really make it from Allentown to Reading) I shouldn’t let that affect my opinion of the man.

Remember: this was the early 1950’s, scarcely an enlightened time. Wow.

My dad could not have known how electrifyingly comforting his words were to me. (Maybe, at some level he did.) In any case, all through his life I never heard him say anything disparaging about gay people or saw him go along with anyone else’s disparagement.

My dad did this for me, and I truly think it helped to save my life, through years of my agonized coping with the stigma of being gay, until (about the time of the photo above) I hooked up with my first male lover, who was young, proud, defiant, and political — and helped me to become proud, defiant, and political as well.  But all of this was grindingly difficult, and led to death threats, surveillance by the police, and much casual hatred (Sweet Church Lady at a museum exhibition where I was wearing one of my provocative t-shirts, in paraphrase: “Well, I’m sure you’re a very nice human being, but Our Lord has ordained that you be put to death for your sins, and only our meddlesome laws prevent that.”) I persevered nonetheless. Concealed all this from Dad.

Who was ridiculously proud of all my achievements, from early childhood on, even though I was utterly different from the sort of son he’d expected.

He and my mother just rolled with it all, partly because that was the sort of people they were, and partly because it was a miracle that I was born at all, and my parents would never be able to have another child. Rather than try to mold me into what they might have wanted me to be, instead they poured their love, acceptance, and support into me.

This is relevant to Jeanne Manford’s story, because she and Jules originally had three children, two sons and a daughter, and when their older son committed suicide as a young man, instead of splintering the family (as so often happens), the event caused them to pour their love unreservedly on the two they had left.

And now we must interrupt this program. There’s a lot more here, about the events in Manford’s story and mine as well, about   the appalling prevailing attitudes concerning and the monstrous treatment of LGBT+ folk in the early 20th century, about the eventual eruption of gay pride and politics, about the AIDS plague (in which Monty died, along with most of the gay men of my generation and the one after it), and much more. How it is important not to see these events as just things that are over and gone now, of no personal or social significance; it’s important not to be merely satisfied that the situation is vastly improved.

I would like to be able to say something about how straight people like Jeanne Manford and my father (and a number of my friends) came to be so reflexively and deeply comfortable with gay people, but frankly I don’t know. I’ve talked at some depth with several of my unthinkingly supportive straight male friends — every single one of them was astonished at the question (how could they have been otherwise?) — but their life stories vary a good bit, and I don’t know how to generalize.

All of this and more in my plans, but this has been a spectacularly bad day on the osteoarthritis front, with phenomenal pain in a large suite of joints, making it almost impossible to walk or use my hands for most things (though I can still type with two fingers on my right hand). Plus deep exhaustion from enduring this pain, which has caused me to retreat into sleep for 12 hours already today. Pain that I have no way of alleviating, but must just endure.

I had a ton of domestic projects needing to be done today, but they’re toast. Otherwise, I managed to do everything I could on the net. Now it’s back for more sleep.



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