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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.
Watch a brief interview with Jeanne’s daughter, Suzanne Swan, in which she speaks about her mother being awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal. You can watch the whole ceremony here. That’s Suzanne Swan in the photo below.
I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History.
For this episode we’ve dug into our stack of cassette tapes for a story that dates back to the early 1970s. It’s about Jeanne Manford and her son Morty. They founded a group for parents of gay people in 1973. Today it’s an international organization called PFLAG. Originally that stood for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It’s got 400 chapters across the country.
By the time I came out to my mom in 1977 I knew about PFLAG. So when my mom told me that she wanted me to see a psychiatrist I told her I’d go if she went to a PFLAG meeting. She said no. I said no. Big mistake. We both would have been better off. But thirteen years later my mother went to her first PFLAG meeting. She became such activist that I had to remind her that I was the gay one, that this was my issue. I’ve put a photo of my mom on makinggayhistory.com website from the 1993 gay march on Washington and you’ll see she paid no attention to me.
Jeanne and Morty’s story starts with a letter. I wish you could hear this story from the beginning, but I screwed up the audio. I thought I’d be interviewing Jeanne Manford by herself. But when I got to her house it turned that Morty was there, too, so I interviewed them together.
But I hadn’t done a double interview before.They were already part way through telling me about how Jeanne came to write a letter to a New York City newspaper about her gay son when I realized there was a problem with the sound. And that’s where we’ll pick up the story.
So, the context. 1972. Morty was 21. He’d gone to a protest against the New York Daily News, which had published a very offensive editorial calling gay people “fairies, nances, swishes, fags, and lezzes.” There are some words there that I hadn’t heard before used against gay people.
At the protest Morty got the shit kicked out of him by the president of the New York City Firemen’s union, who was never charged. Several protesters wound up in the hospital, including Morty. You can read all about the protest in our show notes on makinggayhistory.com.
So it’s seventeen years later and I’m sitting with Jeanne and Morty at the dining room table of the Manford family home in Flushing, Queens. Jeanne is a widow and Morty has moved home to live with his mom. He’s an assistant New York State attorney general.
Jeanne is very soft-spoken. Her face is framed by a halo of silver hair. Morty is not soft spoken. He’s handsome and his thick curly hair is chestnut brown. I have no idea where I put the microphone, but I definitely pressed record.
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.
For a shy person Jeanne was fierce. And I knew it was her love for Morty that drove her. But it always felt like there was something more behind it. Then just recently I heard that Morty had an older brother, Charles.
I called Morty’s sister Suzanne and asked about him. She said it was something the family never talked about. Charles killed himself in 1966. He was 22. There was my answer. Jeanne wasn’t gonna’ lose another child.
So Jeanne was determined to make the world a safer place for her son and the rest of us, too. But she couldn’t save Morty from a virus. He died from complications of AIDS on May 14, 1992. He was only 41.
A month after Morty died, my mom and I did an event at the gay center in Manhattan for the publication of Making Gay History, my book. We read from Jeanne and Morty’s interview—pretty much what you’ve just heard. And then I introduced Jeanne. Oh, my goodness. Three hundred people got to their feet and cheered. People wouldn’t stop applauding until Jeanne came up to the microphone to say a few words. She was so tiny that her head hardly poked above the podium.
Just one more anecdote about Jeanne and I only just learned that my mom figures into this one as well. Eleven months after Morty died Jeanne got a call from an out, gay elementary school teacher in Queens named Danny Dromm. In those days there were virtually no out teachers.
Danny asked Jeanne to be the grand marshal of the first Queens Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Now, I’m from Queens and growing up there it felt the last place that would have a gay pride parade. Jeanne said yes. But there was a condition. She wanted Danny to help her start a Queens chapter of PFLAG.
And where is Danny the elementary school teacher now? He got himself elected to the New York City Council. And he chairs the Council’s Committee on Education. I met with Danny recently and he told me that he knew my mom. Turns out my mom helped Danny and Jeanne start the Queens PFLAG chapter. I had no idea. My mom’s been dead twelve years. I wish I could tell her how proud I was of her.
Jeanne spent the last years of her life with her daughter Suzanne and her husband just outside San Francisco. She died in 2013. She was 92. She outlived her Golden Boy by three decades.
One month after Jeanne died, President Obama awarded her with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, which recognizes citizens of the United States who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens. Jeanne’s daughter accepted the award at a White House Ceremony in her mother’s honor. To see a photo of that ceremony and to learn more about Jeanne, Morty, and PFLAG, please visit our website at makinggayhistory.com. That’s where you’ll also find the iconic 1972 photo of Jeanne carrying her “Parents of Gays” sign.
I’ve got a few key people I’d like to thank for making this podcast possible. Thank you to
our executive producer, Sara Burningham, our audio engineer Casey Holford, who worked very hard on fixing the sound for this episode, and our composer, Fritz Myers.
Thank you also to our social media guru, Hannah Moch, our webmaster Jonathan Dozier-Ezell, and our head of research, Zachary Seltzer. We had production help from Jenna Weiss-Berman, who believed in this project before it was even a podcast.
Making Gay History is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Funding is provided by the Arcus Foundation, which is dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world. Learn more about Arcus and its partners at ArcusFoundation.org.
And if you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe to Making Gay History on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen to all our episodes on makinggayhistory.com.
So long. Until next time.