Episode 06 — Jeanne & Morty Manford
By the time Jeanne Manford’s gay son Morty was beaten up at a 1972 protest, she had already lost her older son Charles to suicide. She wasn’t going to lose another son. And not at the hands of anti-gay bigots. So the shy, petite elementary school teacher from Flushing, Queens, put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the New York Post (which was then a liberal newspaper) expressing her outrage at the incident and stating, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” The letter was published in the April 29, 1972; no parent had ever written such a letter before that was published in a major newspaper.
That letter and Jeanne’s subsequent participation in the 1972 New York City Gay Pride March set Jeanne and her son on a path that led to the founding of the first organization for parents of gay people that ultimately became PFLAG (originally known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Jeanne is yet another inspiring example of how one person can help change the course of history by having confidence in her beliefs, speaking up, and organizing. She’s an example for us all!
By the way, that 1972 protest was held at the Hilton Hotel during an annual dinner for New York City politicians and the political press. Morty was handing out leaflets protesting a New York Daily News editorial with the headline, “Any Old Jobs for Homos.” And the lead sentence was “Faires, nances, swishes, fags, lezzies, call ‘em what you please.” Morty was assaulted by Michael Maye, who was then the head of the New York City firemen’s union. He was never charged for his crime.
The Daily News editorial was about the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an appeal by Michael McConnell, a young gay man who was denied a job at the University of Minnesota because he was gay. He’d already been promised the job, but the Minnesota board of regents found out that in 1970 he and his male partner, Jack Baker, had applied for a marriage license. The job disappeared. A year later, Jack and Michael secured a legal marriage license and become the first same-sex couple to marry in the United States. Michael and his partner are really important figures in the LGBT civil rights movement. Have a look at the resources below for additional information.
For more information about Morty Manford, a fairly comprehensive biography can be found here. In 2015, Business Heroine magazine detailed Jeanne Manford’s biography as a part of an ongoing series focusing on “Heroines of History.”
If you are interested to learn more about the origins of PFLAG, Jeanne Manford’s papers from 1972 to 1995 have been donated by Jeanne to the New York Public Library and an overview of these documents can be found here.
Shortly after Morty’s death, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote a compelling opinion piece detailing the tireless efforts of both Jeanne and Morty Manford. You can find the New York Times obituary for Morty here and Jeanne here.
In 2013, NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported on Jeanne Manford in a touching segment by Lily Percy that highlighted her motivations, compassion, and activism.
Specifically highlighted in the NPR piece is a 2009 speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner shortly after his inauguration which culminates in an inspiring anecdote about Jeanne and PFLAG. Eric Marcus helped the President’s speechwriter choose an anecdote for the speech from Jeanne’s interview in Making Gay History, which is where you can find Jeanne and Morty Manford’s full oral histories.
Watch Rachel Maddow’s “Love Letter to PFLAG Founder Jeanne Manford” from April 18, 2013.
On April 3, 2013, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation dedicated a plaque at the Church of the Village (formerly Duane United Methodist Church), where the first PFLAG meeting was held.
In 1983, Vito Russo interviewed Amy Ashworth, who was another co-founder of the organization that became PFLAG, for his cable TV program “Our Times.” You can watch “Episode 5—Parents” here. To learn more about Vito Russo, listen to MGH Episode 10.
The New York Newsday newspaper published an article on June 22, 1992, about the event Eric Marcus references in this episode when he spoke at New York City’s LGBT center shortly after the publication of his book, an event that was attended by his mother and Jeanne Manford.
Read about Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, early gay rights pioneers and the first gay couple to get a marriage license in the United State—in 1971!—in this New York Times article.
Daniel Dromm, who was one of the principal organizers of the first Gay Pride Parade in Queens, New York, in 1993, and invited Jeanne Manford to be the grand marshal, is one of New York City’s fiercest proponents of LGBT rights and was elected to the New York City Council in 2009.
Eric: Interview with Jeanne Manford and Morty Manford on Saturday, May 13, 1989. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Location is the Manford home in Queens, New York. Tape one, side one.
Jean: I had a call from the hospital and then I sat down and wrote a letter to The New York Post.
Eric: Did you have any hesitation about writing this letter?
Jean: No. I mean I was furious.
Eric: Why were you furious. What infuriated you?
Jean: What right have they got to assault my son and others. And why didn’t the police protect them? I guess it was the first time a mother ever sat down and said, “Yes, I have a homosexual child.”
Eric: Were you hesitant at all about saying that?
Jean: No, I didn’t even think about it. And I was amazed that Morty told me that it received such wide notice and that he had so many calls at the time from people.
Eric: What did you think of your mom?
Morty: I thought she was terrific! It seemed to me on one level to be a very natural kind of reaction and concern and involvement for a parent. What I thought was extraordinary was that other people weren’t doing the same at that time.
Eric: What made your mother different?
Morty: She’s a unique person.
Jean: I’ve always felt that Morty was a very special person. And I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over him.
Morty: Well, I mean a lot of parents who knew their gay children were gay felt their families were very important to them. The question is, what about our family? I would have to say that we were always very open thinkers. This was an area that they really didn’t understand. There was a lot of ignorance, but they were willing to consider what are the prejudices that we’re taught and are they in fact founded in any reality or are they pure prejudice. We’d all learned a great lesson from the black civil rights movement of the early ‘60’s and the women’s movement. And I think my parents agreed that the principles of civil rights for blacks and for women were just demands. And this was simply bringing into the discussion a new civil rights perspective.
Eric: How do we get then from this first letter to what has now become a national/international federation? Did you have any idea that this could come to pass? That you would wind up being in such a public position? You seem like a very private person.
Jean: Not at that time. Not at that time. I’m very shy, by the way. And I was not the type to… I’ve never belonged belonged to organizations. I never tried to do anything. So it just happened, you know.
Now I was asked to be on a television show in Boston and…
Morty: The three of us went. Went went out to Cincinnati. At one point my parents appeared on a TV show in New Orleans.
Jean: I was in Boston five times, Cleveland, two or three times Detroit.
Morty: Every talk show in New York City.
Jeanne: Because we were the only people who were willing to go public. We felt that it was a way of educating the public, you know, making people understand and besides that when I did march with Morty, was it ’72?
Eric: Did you ask your mom to march?
Jean: Yeah, you came to me and you said, you know, he said, “Will you march with us?” I said to him, “I will march if you let me carry a sign.”
Morty: “Parents of Gays: Unite In Support for Our Children.”
Eric: How did people react to you?
Jean: They screamed! They yelled! They ran over and kissed me. “Would you talk to my mother.” “Wow, if my mother saw me here…,” you know. They just couldn’t believe that a parent would do that.
Morty: It was unbelievable because I had been in the previous year’s march also. And the outpouring of emotion from our own community was overwhelming. Nobody got the loud emotional cheers that she did.
Jean: They were fearful of telling parents. Most of them wouldn’t tell. And many had been rejected because the parents knew. I guess they just didn’t feel that any parent could be supportive of any gay child.
Morty: The symbolic presence that my mother provided was a sign of great hope that parents can be supportive, that the people we’re closest to, whom we love the most need not be our enemies, can be our supporters.
Jeanne: As Morty and I walked along during that first march so many people said, “Talk to my parents,” and there were phone calls. All day long my phone was ringing. So that’s when we decided though, during the march, to start something, some kind of organization.
Eric: What kind of organization did you have in mind?
Morty: An organization for parents.
Jean: To talk to each other. To know that you’re not the only one. Because each person thinks, I’m the only one who has a child who is homosexual and nobody was willing to let anyone else know about it. To get together and to talk to people and say, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Morty: And an organization which would be supportive of the struggle for gay liberation.
Jean: The parents group was a bridge between the gay community and the straight community, heterosexual community.
Eric: How so? How did you see it doing that?
Jean: Well, I think when we did finally have the meeting, I think I may have voiced some day, you know, we will fight for the rights of our children. We will become political. We will have a national organization. I remember thinking that at the very beginning. But the immediate thing was to talk to parents and help them come to terms with the fact that they have a gay child and there was nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing was wrong with it. He or she was no different than anybody else.
Eric: Did you get calls regularly at home from people?
Jean: There were so many and so many letters. They were upset they had a child who was homosexual. I told them to come to the meeting and talk. At the meetings they would tell me how much I had helped them on the phone.
Morty: It was not so much what my mother said, but that she said it. I remember her many times saying, “There’s nothing wrong with your son being gay or your daughter being lesbian.” We’ve been taught by society that there’s something wrong and society has been wrong. This is a civil rights issue. People had never heard this before and to hear it from another parent, a peer. They expected to spend the phone conversation in tears with someone at the other end saying, “Now, now, dearie.” But that’s not what they got. I think the effect was to make them stop a minute.
Jean: You don’t just believe everything you’re told by society. And that society could be wrong.
Morty: Police were still raiding bars where gays were. Gays had no job protection in any city in this country whatsoever. There was still the stigma of being gay. They used to be fond of saying that the churches said we were sinners. The psychiatrists said we were sick. Capitalists said we were subversive. Communists said we were immoral. And many gays also accepted those prejudices, if only tacitly.
Eric: There was no one to say otherwise.
Morty. There was no pro-gay propaganda. The support wasn’t out there. I think the emergence of the parents group at this time provided a much needed pro-gay propaganda. We had to reach our own and then reach the world.
The general public will listen to parents in a different way than they will listen to advocates who are gay.
Eric: What has your mother been able to do that you weren’t able to do?
Morty: To speak to a lot of bigots and get through on a level that mere political or social discussion wouldn’t accomplish. A lot of people will look at parents and they can identify with parents. They look at me and they say, “There is a gay person. I’m not like him.” And therefore they’re not listening to what I’m saying. But they would say, “I have a mother and father, too. Let us understand what they’re saying.” On that level I think they’ve been able to reach a lot of people we wouldn’t have been able to reach alone.
Eric: So you changed lives all over this country, really, through your work.
Jean: I think at one time you told me my picture was over a bar in Brazil someone told you?
Eric: At a gay bar?
Morty: Somebody came back from Brazil and said they were in a bar and they saw my mother’s picture on the wall, a big mural, with her marching.
Jean: And someone said there was an article in the, was it the London Economist? We were in Kinsey. And I know my niece was taking a course in college and she turned [the page] and she said, “Oh, that’s my uncle and aunt.” So we never knew what made us famous or infamous.
Eric: So in your own way you were a quiet revolutionary to these people.
Jeanne: Well, I made the revolutionary calendar the following June.
Eric: What is the revolutionary calendar?
Morty: There was a calendar that somebody published, which I picked up over on St. Mark’s Place. And it had for each month a picture of some occasion. When Mao Tse-Tung’s birthday was, there was a picture of Mao. There was, I think, a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King during his birthday month. And for June, guess who the calendar girl was?
Jean: Well, before you turned to June, you said this is not a true revolutionary calendar unless it talks about the gay march, about gays. And when you turned the page, there you saw my picture.
Eric: Were you surprised?
Morty: Sure I was.
Jean: I considered myself such a traditional person that I didn’t even cross the street against the light.