Jeanne Manford, founder of PFLAG, dies at 92

One day in April 1972, Jeanne Manford received a call from the hospital. Her 21-year-old son, Morty, had been beaten at a Hilton Hotel in New York City. Witnesses later testified that his alleged attacker punched, stomped and kicked him as he lay on an escalator.

Morty Manford was gay. He had gone to the Hilton with other activists to storm a glitzy banquet attended by public officials and reporters in protest against what he viewed as the rampant bigotry and wanton neglect of gay rights.

(Courtesy of PFLAG National) - Jeanne Manford, at front and center, marches alongside her son Morty Manford in a 1972 gay rights parade in New York City.

“I was furious,” Mrs. Manford later told an interviewer, recalling the incident. “I remember thinking, What right have they got to assault my son and the others? Why didn’t the police protect them? What kind of a police force do we have in New York?

The next year, with help from her family and other allies, Mrs. Manford founded a group now known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. It began as a gathering of 20 people and today is one of the most prominent national organizations of relatives and other supporters of gays and lesbians.

Mrs. Manford, who died Jan. 8 at her daughter’s home in Daly City, Calif., was widely considered the mother of a movement. Her death, from undisclosed causes, was announced by PFLAG. She was 92.

Mrs. Manford had no background in social activism when she embarked on the mission on behalf of her son. She was born Jean Sobelson on Dec. 4, 1920, in Queens. (She later changed her first name to Jeanne.) She graduated from Queens College in 1964 and spent her career as a schoolteacher in New York City public schools.

She compensated for her lack of organizing experience with her love for her son. In interviews with national media, and in countless conversations with parents, she recalled the moment when she learned that her son was gay.

“I love you the same,” she recalled telling him. “This doesn’t make any difference.” Morty was so taken aback, she once told CNN, that it took him “a while” to accept her acceptance.

Morty Manford witnessed the 1969 riots after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, an event that became a catalyst for the gay rights movement. He became a prominent organizer in his own right and was noted for his role in the events at the Hilton. His alleged attacker was later acquitted because of what the judge described as “incongruities” in testimony.

After the attack on her son, the New York Post published a letter to the editor from Mrs. Manford. “I have a homosexual son and I love him,” she was reported to have written.

Morty invited his mother to march alongside him in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which is described as a predecessor to the New York City Gay Pride Parade. She did, carrying a sign that read: “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.”

The response, she later recalled, was overwhelming. She was said to have thought that the profuse cheering was for the man marching behind her — child-care guru Benjamin Spock. In fact, it was for her.

“As we marched,” she told the New York Daily News years later, “people came up and hugged me and cried and talked about their own parents. I had no idea so many people felt that way.”

The parade further convinced her of the need for an organization to support families such as hers. The group, originally known of Parents of Gays, met for the first time on March 11, 1973, in a Manhattan church. Today PFLAG says it has 350 chapters and 200,000 supporters across the country.

Mrs. Manford frequently spoke about the emotions sometimes experienced by the parents of gay children. She expressed her total acceptance of her son and tried to cultivate the same attitude among other parents.

“We’ve been good parents, we know we have,” she once said. “We’ve done the best we know how. No one causes a child to be gay.”

One day, she recalled in an interview, her son Morty came to her and said, “Sit down, Mom . . . I’m sick.” He had AIDS. He died in 1992 of complications from the disease.

Her husband of more than four decades, Jules Manford, died in 1982. Another son, Charles Manford, died in 1966. Survivors include a daughter, Suzanne Manford Swan of Daly City; a granddaughter; and three great-granddaughters.

Mrs. Manford considered herself a traditional person who joined the vanguard of a movement because it was “the thing to do.”

“I’m very shy, by the way,” she told Eric Marcus, a historian of the gay rights movement. “But I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over Morty.”

 
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