Coming of Age During the 1970s — Chapter Three: Family Ties
When Jeanne Manford’s gay son is badly beaten at a 1972 GAA protest, the shy elementary school teacher takes a stand. She cofounds the organization now known as PFLAG and launches a movement that harnesses the strength of our fiercest allies: parents and the other people who love us.
Episode first published May 11, 2023.
This episode has been made possible in part with support from PFLAG, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them.
Learn more about some of the topics and people discussed in the episode by exploring the links below.
- “50 years ago, PFLAG’s founder marched with her gay son. How’s it keeping up in 2022?” (NPR, All Things Considered, June 23, 2022).
- “1973: When the LGBTQ+ Movement Caught Fire” by Trudy Ring (The Advocate, April 7, 2023; contextualizes the founding of PFLAG within LGBTQ history).
- July 1974 episode of The Pat Collins Show featuring Jeanne and Jules Manford (starting at 2:45) and Sarah Montgomery (starting at 11:48).
- Video highlights of PFLAG’s 50th anniversary gala in March 2023.
- Current list of PFLAG chapters and similar groups operating around the world.
- “How One Mother’s Love for Her Gay Son Started a Revolution” by Kathryn Schulz (The New Yorker, April 10, 2023).
- “Jeanne Manford: A Mother First, Gay Rights Activist Second” (NPR, All Things Considered, January 12, 2013; obituary).
- Rachel Maddow’s in memoriam tribute to Jeanne Manford (The Rachel Maddow Show, January 11, 2013).
- “Public & Private; No Closet Space,” an op-ed by Anna Quindlen published shortly after Morty Manford’s death (New York Times, May 27, 1992).
- Information about the Manford family home, the Manfords, the history of PFLAG, and related media (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project).
- MGH episode featuring Jeanne and Morty Manford with accompanying episode notes.
- MGH episode featuring Morty Manford with accompanying episode notes.
- Overview of the Morty Manford papers housed at the New York Public Library.
The 1972 attack on Morty Manford that caused his mother to take a stand:
- Overview of the GAA zap at the Inner Circle dinner, April 15, 1972 (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project).
- “Gay Activist Member Charges 2d Fireman With Beating Him” (New York Times, July 7, 1972).
- NYPD surveillance footage of a protest on the one-year anniversary of the Inner Circle incident (NYC Municipal Archives; third video).
- A forgiving profile of Michael J. Maye, the man who assaulted Morty Manford (New York Times, November 3, 1996).
Coverage of the Inner Circle incident in the May 15, 1972, issue of GAY. Credit: HoustonLGBThistory.org.
- “Fighting Right Beside Him,” a profile of Montgomery (The Body Politic, March 1977).
- Interview with Montgomery (Women’s Press, October/November 1978, page 15).
Other POG/PFLAG member testimonials:
- “Parents of Gays,” 1970s TV news magazine segment (Joseph Lovett/YouTube; features Dr. Judd Marmor).
- “Parents,” episode of Vito Russo’s 1983 TV program, Our Time (Jeffrey Schwarz/YouTube; features an interview with Amy Ashworth).
- 1982 interview with PFLAG members conducted by Studs Terkel (Studs Terkel Radio Archive).
- 2006 interview with a Midwestern father of two LGBTQ children who founded a local PFLAG chapter (Ramble Redhead podcast).
- MGH episode featuring Paulette Goodman (president of PFLAG National, 1988-1992) with accompanying episode notes.
Cruising spaces in 1970s New York City mentioned in the episode:
- “Sex, Disco, and Fish on Acid: How Continental Baths Became the World’s Most Influential Gay Club” by Sam Davies (The Guardian, April 27, 2018).
- “A Night at New York’s Banging Continental Baths” by Paul Sorene (Flashbak, April 28, 2018).
- “Cruising the West Side Piers in the 1970s” (Gothamist; includes 1976 video footage).
- Recollections of cruising the cargo trucks on Manhattan’s West Side by Perry Brass (Queer New York, August 3, 2010).
Mary Jo Risher:
- By Her Own Admission: A Lesbian Mother’s Fight to Keep Her Son by Gifford Guy Gibson with Mary Jo Risher (Doubleday, 1977).
- “Lesbian Fights to Get Son Back; Seeks Funds Here for an Appeal” (New York Times, January 31, 1976).
- TV interview with Mary Jo Risher and Ann Foreman (PBS, Woman, 1977).
- Radio interview with Mary Jo Risher and Ann Foreman (Studs Terkel Radio Archive, 1977).
LGBTQ parents and custody issues:
- “‘In the Best Interests of the Child’: Lesbian and Gay Parenting Custody Cases, 1967-1985” by Daniel Rivers (Journal of Social History, Vol. 43, No. 4).
- “A Very Brief History of LGBTQ Parenting” (Family Equality).
- MGH episode featuring Willer with accompanying episode notes.
Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and STAR House:
- A brief overview of STAR (Lindsay Branson/OutHistory).
- Audio interview with Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and other STAR members, conducted in 1970 by Liza Cowan (New-York Historical Society/Lesbian Herstory Archives).
- Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, a documentary by Michael Kasino (2012).
- STAR research guide (Pratt Institute Libraries).
Pat Collins: Good morning. I’m Pat Collins, and I have an important question for you this morning. Your child broke his arm and came to you in pain; obviously you’d care for him and take care of him. And 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? Today, more and more parents are having to face this question.
There are parents of homosexuals who have literally written their children off as dead, and that is the idea behind this poster put out by one of the gay liberation associations. And it says, “Your child is not dead. Only gay.”
Eric Marcus Narration: In the early 1970s, it was really, really, hard for people to talk about gay kids. We weren’t supposed to exist. If gay adults had no rights, gay kids had fewer.
And there was zero support for the families of gay kids. But the power of love is a force to be reckoned with, and the quiet, intense bravery of one mother’s love set in motion a domino effect that continues to empower hundreds of thousands of people through PFLAG, an organization for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them.
This is the story of the triumph of love over hatred, the power of community, and the story of mom-and-pop revolutionaries.
I’m Eric Marcus. This is “Coming of Age During the 1970s,” a production of Making Gay History. Chapter three: “Family Ties.”
Eric Marcus: 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.
Morty Manford: In historical perspective, the parents’ organization began at a time when police were still raiding bars where gays were; gays had no job protection in any city in this country whatsoever; where there was still the stigma of being gay. The churches said we were sinners, and psychiatrists said we were sick. Capitalists said we were subversive, and communists said we were immoral. And many gays also accepted those prejudices, if, if only tacitly. There was no pro-gay propaganda. The support wasn’t out there.
At least today when people are facing problems, they have an alternative voice to turn to. In the early ’70s those voices were very few and far between. That’s why the parents’ organization was so important. It was one of the first voices. We had to reach our own, and, um, then reach the world.
EM Narration: Morty Manford was my favorite kind of troublemaker. He was an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance. In fact, when I interviewed him in 1989, we were accompanied by his dog, a sweet pooch named Zap.
Morty’s activism—right down to naming his dog—sprang from a pride in his identity, and his certainty of the urgent need for equal rights. But the road to that pride and certainty didn’t come without a struggle. If Morty was my favorite kind of troublemaker, his mother, Jeanne, was exactly the kind of ally such a troublemaker needs—albeit softly spoken…
MM: Speak up.
EM: I think I’m actually getting it ’cause I have, I have the, the, uh…
EM: … balanced her way up. It’s a fancy little machine, picks up almost anything.
Um, tell me when you first became aware that Morty was gay.
Jeanne Manford: Well, he hadn’t told me, but he did come to me—I forget how old you were, around 15—and asked if you could go for some, uh, help through a psychologist. And I couldn’t believe it because Morty was always a leader. He always had a lot of friends. He had parties here. He was president of the general organization in his junior high, and his teacher had said, “Oh, send him to the best colleges. He’s gonna be a senator someday.” And when he said he, you know, needed help, both my husband and I said, “You think so? Sure.” We didn’t know why. And eventually, for some reason, we did go to see the doctor and he told us, you know, without Morty’s permission.
EM: Wasn’t that a breach of, uh, …?
MM: Certainly was. The, um, psychiatrist I was seeing, um, invited my parents in for a meeting. He didn’t tell me what he was going to do and he presented them with the fact that I was gay. And at this time I was just starting to come out of the closet to myself, and it was a period of great turmoil and inner struggle. And it was a very upsetting experience for me for him to, uh, have done this.
EM: How did you find out that he had said something?
MM: I was there. Oh, he did it in my presence.
EM Narration: I had to take a moment to pick my jaw up off the floor. A trusted professional outing a vulnerable teenager without consent? Can you imagine the potential harms and danger he could be putting that kid in? In the mid- to late 1960s, Morty could have been faced with criminalization, conversion therapy, or treatments for his so-called disease like electric shock aversion therapy, chemical castration, electroconvulsive therapy, even lobotomy. Simply horrifying.
And it wasn’t the first time Morty’s family had felt horribly let down by a psychiatrist. Morty had an older brother, Charles, who had killed himself in 1966, aged just 21. Charles had been under the care of a psychiatrist, but just before he died, he reached out for help and was told he had to wait a week for an appointment. He didn’t make it.
We can’t know if it was because she had already lost one son, or because she just thought the world of her possible future senator son Morty, but Jeanne Manford accepted the news of Morty’s homosexuality—delivered without thought or care by his psychiatrist—with love.
MM: My, uh, mother’s initial reaction was, I only want you to be happy and whatever makes you happy is fine.
JM: You were no different than you were yesterday. I, I didn’t look at him in any different light. I didn’t understand—I was very naive anyway—I didn’t understand society’s condemnation and, uh, took people at face value.
MM: My father, on the other hand, he had a lot of thinking to do about it. I mean, he, he, he didn’t say anything critical, but he just, uh, decided apparently he had to, uh, think about it. And I think he, uh, harbored, uh, a hope, that, uh, uh, things would change. This, you’ve gotta remember, was in another era. This was the fall of 1968, and we’ll get to it later, but as you probably suspect, there was quite an evolution in both my mother’s and my father’s thinking. And my own.
EM Narration: There was quite an evolution in Morty’s thinking. From the uncertain, confused, depressed teenager of the late 1960s, Morty went through the radicalizing spin cycle of the Stonewall uprising and came out an activist.
MM: In early 1970, I became very involved in the Gay Activists Alliance. I had begun to get involved in the militant sense of participating in sit-ins and picket lines and getting arrested. And over a short period of time, I was bringing friends home. We would sit down and we would talk with my parents…
EM: Mrs. Manford, do you remember any stories from that time when, when Morty’s friends came home?
JM: No. I liked them. They were friendly and we talked. But I don’t, I don’t remember…
MM: Well, I have an anecdote. One evening a friend, Lou Todd, who lived not far away, came over and we were going out that evening to the Continental Baths. And this was around 1971—uh, it was a different era.
EM: Did you know what the Continental Baths were then?
JM: No, I don’t, I don’t know that I had heard…
EM Narration: I’m likely not surprising anyone here, but in addition to never having been to the Meat Rack, I never went to the Continental Baths either. But it was a legendary venue in the 1970s. Legendary because it was one of the most popular bathhouses in New York City when bath houses were a key gathering place for gay men in search of companionship and sex. Legendary, in part, because Bette Midler and her accompanist Barry Manilow got their start there performing before men who were wearing nothing but towels.
Bette Midler: It’s my 800th farewell appearance here at the Continental Baths. I swear to you, I’m [unintelligible] like a jack-in-the-box. Plus, then, I didn’t expect to be back here. I really didn’t. They had me booked at Fire Island, Cherry Grove. I was supposed to work at Cherry Grove. See, I was supposed to sing, but they couldn’t find room for me in the bushes.
MM: My parents were both sitting here at the table speaking with Lou. And it was the wintertime. I came downstairs, I was all bundled up in a heavy coat, and Lou looks up at me and says, in front of my parents, you know, “What do you have so much clothes on for? As soon as we get there, you’re gonna have to take them all off.” Now as open in the discussions had become at that point, I had never really broached such subjects with my parents.
EM: And usually you don’t.
MM: And they looked in wonder, “Where are you going?”
JM: Did we ask? I don’t remember.
EM: I’d ask when you realized where he was going, but I’ll skip that.
JM: I probably didn’t. It probably went way over my head because I, knowing me, many things go over my head.
Bette Midler: [singing] I got me my, I got me my friends…
EM: Were you fearful at all about Morty’s involvement in activism? About being arrested and…
JM: I was. As a matter of fact, I remember one night I got a—it must have been about 1:00 a.m.—I got a phone call from the police, “Your son is arrested.” And I think my reply was something about, “Why don’t you go back to the criminals?” I, I don’t remember the exact words, but, uh…
MM: That was apparently what you said.
EM: How did you find out what she said?
MM: Well, I was in the police station.
MM: And the, um, officer made the phone call, and I remember he went out of his way to say, uh, “Your son’s been arrested and, you know, he’s homosexual.” And, uh, apparently my mother said, “Yes, I know. And why are you bothering him? Why don’t you go after criminals and stop harassing the gays?”
I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but, uh, I remember the officer scratching his head after he put down the phone and, you know, he had just been zapped.
EM: Do you, uh, remember what you were arrested for?
MM: At that, uh, occurrence… There was a, um, a cruising area in the Village and a lot of gay people were along, I think it was Washington Street, and I, I was just standing there talking with some friends. And there were other people who were nearby in the back of these trucks doing whatever people used to do in those days in the back of trucks…
EM Narration: “Whatever people did in the back of trucks” back then was also legendary. There used to be an elevated highway that ran down Manhattan’s West Side, along the Hudson River. Big empty cargo trucks would park overnight under the highway adjacent to Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District. At times, there were hundreds of bodies doing whatever people used to do in the back of trucks, in the dark.
MM: And, uh, when the police came over, they started chasing everybody, including those of us who were just standing around talking. And I protested. I said, “We’re not doing anything wrong,” and they reacted by, um, grabbing us and arresting us for no apparent reason.
EM: And that’s when you got the phone call. You believed what Morty was doing was right.
JM: I believed he had a right to do what he was doing. I didn’t think he did anything illegal or unlawful. And I believed he was being harassed.
EM Narration: Morty believed he had a right to do what he was doing, too. He refused to accept the status quo of casual harassment and anti-gay violence perpetrated by the police. He refused to accept that being gay meant he was “less than.” And he continued to protest.
Fast forward to April 1972, and a night of skits and politics at New York City’s Inner Circle dinner at the Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The Inner Circle is an annual shindig. City Hall reporters put on a show for an audience of the great and the good of New York City’s civic life. And this time, Morty was there, with other members of the Gay Activists Alliance, handing out leaflets.
They were protesting the New York media and the city government’s bias against gay people. Specifically, they were protesting an editorial that had run in the Daily News a week or so before about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear an employment discrimination case concerning two men who had applied for, and been denied, a marriage license in Minnesota.
MM: And the New York Daily News editorial was titled, quote, “Any Old Jobs for Homos,” and the lead-off sentence was, quote, “Fags, fairies, nances, swishes, … Call ’em”—apostrophe E-M—“what you please…”
EM: By today’s standards, that, that’s pretty outrageous stuff. Was that as outrageous then as it would be now?
MM: Certainly to us it was outrageous. So we went to this dinner, armed with leaflets, and proceeded to distribute the leaflets to people, uh, in attendance, many of whom were good people who were very supportive. There were a number of thugs in attendance who were guests of the dinner that proceeded to physically attack the demonstrators. And a number of us ended up hospitalized, and I was one of them.
EM: What happened to you?
MM: Well, I was beaten up, punched and kicked, and no broken bones, no internal injuries, but a bad beating.
JM: I had a call from the hospital and then I sat down and wrote a letter to the New York Post. I said my son was gay and that the police stood by and watched these young gays being beaten up and did nothing. And it was printed.
What right have they got to assault my son and others? 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.” I didn’t think anything of it. And then Morty called me up and said, “You can’t believe, you know, everybody’s talking about your…”
EM: Did you have any hesitation about writing this letter?
JM: No, I didn’t. I mean, I was furious.
EM Narration: A couple of months later, in the summer of 1972, Jeanne was on the march. Literally.
JM: I said to him, “I will march if you let me carry a sign.”
MM: “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.”
EM Narration: On Sunday, June 25, 1972, Jeanne Manford stepped off with Morty in the third annual Christopher Street Liberation Day March.
JM: As we walked along, the people on the sidewalk screamed, they yelled, they ran over and kissed me. “Would you talk to my mother?” “Wow, if my mother saw me here,” you know. And they just couldn’t believe that a parent would do that.
EM: Were you with your mother during the march?
MM: Oh, yes. We marched shoulder by shoulder there. Nobody got the loud, emotional cheers that she did. The outpouring of emotion from our own community was overwhelming.
JM: We learned that they were fearful of telling parents—most of them wouldn’t tell—and many had been rejected because the parents knew. And I guess they just didn’t feel that any parent could be supportive of a gay child.
MM: Being estranged from your parents is a very traumatic thing. Being forced to closet your lifestyle from them is a very devastating thing. The symbolic presence that my mother provided was a sign of great hope that parents can be supportive.
JM: 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 during the march that it might be a good idea to start something, some kind of an organization. Yes, that’s really where it began.
MM: An organization for parents…
JM: … to talk to each other, to know that you’re not the only one, because each person thinks, oh, I’m the only one who has a child who is homosexual, and nobody was willing to let anyone else know about it.
MM: And an organization which would be supportive of the struggle for gay liberation.
JM: And actually the parents’ group was a bridge between the gay community and the straight community. We will fight for the rights of our children. We will become political. We will make a, have a national organization. I remember thinking that at the very beginning.
EM Narration: And so it was, the very beginning of what would become PFLAG. In March 1973, a year after Morty’s assault and Jeanne’s letter to the New York Post, Morty and Jules and Jeanne Manford organized the very first meeting of POG—Parents of Gays. It was held at the Church of the Village, a stone’s throw from Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn. Morty had placed an ad in the Village Voice, and recruited Barbara Love, a well-known lesbian writer, to help organize and publicize the new group.
JM: I think there must have been about 18, 20 people.
MM: In those days we were very sensitive to the need for men and women to be working together. And it was very important that Barbara was one of the organizers, and she was able to reach out to the lesbian community, as I reached out to the gay male community, in an effort to publicize this and ask everybody to let their parents know, “Here, we’ve got a place for you to come.”
EM Narration: If you build it, they will come. The Manfords were amassing accomplices. And one of Jeanne’s closest allies was Sarah Montgomery.
JM: Sarah called me—we started at the end of March and she called me about September—and told me the story of her son, who was in California. And because it was discovered that he was gay, and he had lost his job, he and his lover committed suicide.
EM: Oh, god.
JM: You didn’t know that story?
EM Narration: Until Jeanne told me, I didn’t know that story. Here’s Sarah in 1974 on The Pat Collins Show—the one we played at the top about “Don’t worry if your kid’s gay, at least they’re not a murderer”? Sarah is dressed in a sensible navy blue dress, a rectangular gold broach at her neck, cat’s-eye librarian glasses, and dangling, old-fashioned antique earrings. In Jeanne and Morty’s words…
MM: She’s very diminutive in size. She looks like anybody’s grandmother.
JM: Like, New England, uh, …
MM: … grandmother.
Pat Collins: Sarah is 75 years old, although we’ve been telling her all morning she doesn’t look it. And in the late ’60s, uh, she discovered that her son Charles was a homosexual. Uh, it was in 1972 at the age of 46 that Charles and his male lover killed themselves in the garage of their home. A, a tragic and, and awful story, as I’m sure you can imagine it was for, for Sarah and those close to you.
I know that it’s not easy to talk about this, Sarah, but, uh, looking back—and it’s been a couple of years, you’ve been able to think about it—do you know why Charles killed himself?
Sarah Montgomery: Yes. I feel that it was life itself that killed those two men, because they had lived all their lives in the closet. And, uh, when they finally came out, they bought a house together. When they bought that house together, John, who had always been in the closet, uh, it was known then that they were homosexual. Charles had come out, uh, quite a few years before.
And John was demoted from a job that he had held for 15 years back to what he had been doing 15 years before. My son’s job was threatened every day. And at 46 and 48, they just couldn’t face any more of what they had been taking all their lives.
The first thing a parent has to know is their child faces a very hostile world, and they need them more than ever.
PC: Don’t go away.
SM: Not less.
PC: Don’t go away, be right back.
JM: She was very much loved in the gay community. Of course, she upset some people because of the story, but the gay people really loved her.
EM: Her loss was so profound.
MM: But she turned it into a great commitment of love and dedication.
EM Narration: Both Sarah Montgomery and Jeanne Manford put that commitment of love and dedication into action with a quiet determination, a kind of stealthy radicalism. While Jeanne insisted she herself was very shy, Sarah had been a longstanding troublemaker.Untitled design-2
Interview with Sarah Montgomery, conducted by Randy Wicker for the March 1974 issue of GAY. Credit: HoustonLGBThistory.org.
MM: Sarah was marching for Black civil rights in the 1920s. In the 1930s, she was a premature anti-fascist. In the 1940s, she was demonstrating against the Dies Committee, which was the predecessor of the House Un-American Activities Committee. And in fact, they subpoenaed her to testify before it because of her involvement in the Communist Party, and she refused. She was something of a cause célèbre back then. And she would tell of this chronology. “And, uh, and now I’m marching for gay civil rights.” I mean, to show that hers has been a life of commitment to justice.
EM Narration: But there she was, in a grandma dress, smiling demurely behind her bifocals at Pat Collins, looking every bit the New England grandmother. In some ways, this was the beauty and the genius of their fledgling organization. They were parents who loved their children and almost no one dared to question their sincerity, or their politics.
PC: Sarah Montgomery, Dr. and Mrs. Manford, thank you for being with us. There is an organization for the parents of gay people. If you don’t wanna be a closet parent, as Sarah says, call us and we’ll put you in contact with these nice people. Take care of yourself, we’ll see you tomorrow.
EM Narration: These “nice people” were becoming a political force—revolutionaries in, forgive me, grandma’s clothing. Here’s Jeanne Manford speaking at Philadelphia’s Gay Pride rally in 1975.
JM: We are fighting for the dignity of members of the same sex to love one another. I hope Parents of Gays groups will form in every city and community in America. Too many parents of gays are still in the closet.
The main battles of this war are fought by the younger generation of gays who fight in the streets, on picket lines, in television studios and the offices of the oppressors, in the courts and in the legislatures, for the implementation of the rights and liberties that the Constitution guarantees.
We, parents, in our small sector have an auxiliary aim: to help other parents un- trouble their minds and free their spirits so that they may help their children to achieve what other people’s children take for granted, namely, the right to live in dignity and with integrity.
We care about our sons and daughters, their lovers and friends, and all oppressed people. As the gay struggle moves into its seventh year, I pledge to you that, as parents, we will sustain the fight alongside you, so that gay liberation shall come closer and closer. Thank you.
Rally Participant: All right!
EM Narration: With Jeanne and Jules Manford, Sarah Montgomery, and others, parents of gays were finding their voice and joining the movement for gay liberation. But another set of parents, for the longest time silenced by fear, were reaching public consciousness. Gay and lesbian parents were routinely cut off and denied custody, or even visitation rights with their kids, because of their sexuality.
Mary Jo Risher: I received the citation telling me that, uh, I was unfit as a parent because of my homosexuality, and Mr. Risher wanted the children immediately removed from the home.
EM Narration: Mary Jo Risher, a nurse from Texas, was in the fight of her life. After her marriage collapsed in 1971, she fell in love and started living with Ann Foreman. Ann had a daughter from her previous marriage, and Mary Jo had two sons. Ann’s former husband was supportive and agreed to maternal custody. At first, so was Mary Jo’s ex—until he found out she was a lesbian. Then the legal papers started flying. Mary Jo’s older son had already moved out, but her younger son, Richard, wanted to stay with his mother. A temporary hearing in 1974 allowed Richard to stay with Mary Jo, but then a jury trial was set.
Oral historian Studs Terkel interviewed Mary Jo Risher and Ann Foreman in 1977.
Studs Terkel: We come to the judge, don’t we? Uh, he at first agreed, the same judge, that this was not an issue at all…
ST: … as far as the happiness and health, mental health, spiritual health, of the child is concerned.
ST: Then how did he, how did he change?
MJR: Well, it, uh, from the time that we had the temporary hearing until we went into the courtroom, it was, uh, a year and about two months had passed. But, uh, in September of ’75, uh, the judge heard expert witnesses and, uh, my lawyers had presented a motion to keep the issue of homosexuality out of the courtroom. But, uh, after the judge heard the expert witnesses and what they had to say about it, uh, finally decided that homosexuality, uh, any acts or, uh, or what have you on homosexuality could, um, be brought into the courtroom.
Ann Foreman: Maybe he was curious, too.
MJR: Oh, I think so.
EM Narration: A psychologist who was called as an expert witness for Richard’s father said he found two examples of Mary Jo using “poor judgment” as a mother.
MJR: My son Richard is, was nine years old and capable of dressing himself in any attire he wanted to—you know, his clothes, he had his clothes in his closet. I had, uh, let him wear a boy’s blue jean outfit bought from Sears—Tough, Toughskin, I believe is the, uh, brand—uh, a blue jean jacket and, uh, blue jeans. They had belonged at one time to Judie Ann, Ann’s daughter, and she had outgrown ’em, and Richard received them and he was quite happy.
The, uh, psychologist, uh, complimented Richard on how nice he looked. Uh, but he said, as soon as he found out that the outfit, when Richard said, “Well, thank you, uh, it used to belong to Judie Ann,” he said, uh, that, uh, uh, you know, that me being a lesbian, I could never allow that to happen. Now, it could happen to, with a heterosexual mother or father…
ST: We know that kids that age [unintelligible].
MJR: Oh, yes, yes, uh-huh. But, uh, under the circumstances…
ST: You can’t tell the difference today [unintelligible] a guy would say.
MJR: Uh, but under the circumstances, uh, me being a, a lesbian, I could never allow this. The other poor judgment that I used, exercised, he said, was that I allowed Richard to wear a YWCA T-shirt. Now Richard belonged to the YWCA, uh, in Dallas County. They had, uh, many wonderful programs for men and women and boys and girls. And, uh, Richard and Judie Ann belonged to a gymnastics class there. And, uh, that was a form of Richard’s uniform. He was quite proud of it.
ST: I mean, this guy was unaware the YW… had coeducational—
AF: It didn’t matter to him again.
MJR: It didn’t matter.
ST: So the matter of fact that you were lesbian, therefore you must behave in other matters altogether differently than someone else.
MJR: Oh, yes, yes. My whole mannerism would have to be completely different than any other person.
EM Narration: All too often gay and lesbian parents were held to a completely different standard. An impossible standard. What society demanded was that they be… straight.
ST: The case made headlines of course. The media of course took it up, of course they were just ravenous. You realize you were taking a tremendous risk, didn’t you?
MJR: Oh, yes. And of course we also, uh, realized that it was the first jury trial in the history of the United States that set judgment on a homosexual parent. Mm-hmm, yes.
ST: That jury was 10 to two, wasn’t it?
MJR: Uh, yes, it was.
EM Narration: Mary Jo lost custody of her son Richie. Their case was probably the most high profile of the time, and it may have been the first jury trial, but gay parents all around the country were facing the prospect of losing their kids.
Remember Joyce Hunter? We heard from her in chapter one, describing the mixture of exhilaration and overwhelm she felt walking into the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse for the first time. That moment of revelation for her was tempered by a deep-seated and well-founded fear that she could lose her kids.
I first spoke to Joyce all the way back in 1989 and we’ve stayed in touch since. I interviewed her again last year.
Joyce Hunter: I kept my life as a gay person, as a lesbian, very quiet. I didn’t let anybody know that I was a lesbian, and I didn’t come out to a lot of people at all because my fear was, well, that somebody would, uh, like, want to take them.
JH: And eventually my sister wanted them.
EM: Because you were a lesbian?
EM: Wow. What did she say?
JH: She didn’t think that it was proper for a lesbian to be raising, uh, children, especially girls. My sister went and got custody of my daughter and…
EM: How did she do that?
JH: She reported me to social services. And in those days it wasn’t, they didn’t, you know, they were all, “Lesbians raising girls…?”
EM: How did you resolve that with her?
JH: I don’t know if it ever got resolved.
EM: So you really had no option but to fight for your rights, having lost…
JH: Oh, you kidding? Yeah. You know, these are my kids. I gave birth to them. You give me a break. You’re not good en—you know, just take these kids ’cause you feel like I’m not good enough? But I was good enough.
One of the things that always bugged me when I, when I thought about it and I, I said that we have a right to be who we are and right to have families and children and stuff like that.
EM Narration: The Lesbian Mothers’ National Defense Fund was formed in Seattle in 1974 to help those in custody disputes. In 1978, Sandy Schuster and Madeleine Isaacson from Seattle, Washington, won in America’s first custody battle in favor of a lesbian couple. And the Gay Fathers Coalition, which would go on to become the Family Equality Council, was founded in 1979.
While gay parents fought for access to their children, and growing numbers of parents of adult gay children accepted and became fierce allies of liberation, gay kids were almost invisible. The first time I saw a gay teenager represented anywhere was in the mid-1970s. And in my experience, there were not many ways to be out as a gay kid without finding yourself in situations that were not at all age-appropriate.
People who actually wanted to support gay youth were prevented from doing so because of rampant homophobia. Gay adults were labeled pederasts and branded a danger to children. There were no services, there was no support. Anti-gay activists claimed all gay people wanted to recruit and corrupt kids. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
But still, gay people have always been here, of all ages, and there have always been chosen families that found ways to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ young people, despite the risks. I’m thinking about Shirley Willer, who started taking in young people as far back as the 1940s.
Shirley Willer: I may have to remove this little guy or he’s gonna be taking over the mic…
EM Narration: I interviewed her as her many caged pet birds kept an eye on us while we talked on her screened porch in Key West, Florida, in 1990.
SW: There were so many young women that were being thrown out of their homes. So we started our own little informal groups, and we would take in all the kids that got kicked out in the street. And we would keep pushing to, them to stop trying to hide it, um, be themselves.
EM: In those days, why would a, why would a young man or a young woman be thrown out of his or her home?
SW: Because as soon as their family would realize that they weren’t the accepted heterosexual, they would be, uh, horrified, terrified, and disgusted. These little lost ones that show up at our place, and we’d have ’em hang out there until we could find, help them find jobs that were suitable. Many of them we were able to get scholarships for and get ’em into school. They weren’t old enough to be out on the street.
EM: How did they find you?
SW: It wasn’t hard. Um, word of mouth, I think. In fact, we not only took in women, we took in young men. I can remember having three of ’em sleeping on the kitchen floor.
EM: There must have been so much heartbreak.
SW: Oh, there—as I say, I’ve stayed angry most of my life.
EM Narration: Shirley told me that after she joined the homophile group Daughters of Bilitis in the 1960s, she was dismayed to find they turned away gay kids looking for help. But they were just terrified—terrified of police entrapment, terrified that the whole organization could be brought down by any accusations of consorting with minors.
The new gay liberation organizations of the early 1970s were also terrified of working with kids. When Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries tried to provide a safe house for LGBTQ street kids in New York City in the early 1970s, which they called STAR House, they were on their own.
Sylvia Rivera: When we asked the community to help us, there was nobody to help us. We were nothing. We were nothing. We were taking care of kids that were younger than us. I mean, Marsha and I were young, and we would take care of them.
And GAA had teachers and lawyers and whatnot. All we asked them was as well, if you could help us teach our own so we can all become a little bit better… There’s nobody there to help us. They left us hanging. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. I mean, we took a building that was, I mean, a slum building. We tried, we really did.
Marsha and I and a few of the older, other older drag queens kept it going for about a year or two. We went out and made that money off the streets to keep these kids off the street.
EM: So you sold yourselves to, to take care of the kids.
SR: Instead of showing them what we were doing. Because we already went through it.
EM: But you wanted to protect them? What were you protecting them from?
SR: From the world. From life in general.
EM: Who were these other kids, the young ones? Where’d they come from?
SR: From everywhere. We had kids from Boston, California, …
EM: Where were their families?
SR: I guess at home.
EM: So things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped.
SR: Um, well, well, you figure it’s, it’s always gonna happen.
EM: Yeah, but if you’d gotten your way, you would’ve had a building where kids could come and…
SR: I would’ve loved to have had a, a STAR House for the children.
EM: Mm-hmm. I would imagine you and, and Marsha did not have the, the resources, the experience, uh, …
SR: We just didn’t have any monies and we—
EM: You needed the help of GAA.
SR: We, we needed the monies from the community and the community was not going to help us.
EM Narration: It would be the late 1970s before a group of concerned adults, including mental health professionals and members of PFLAG, got together to start an organization that would come to be known as the Hetrick-Martin Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth. Today, we know it as HMI. More than a decade after STAR House folded, this new organization began providing help to some of the most vulnerable and marginalized LGBTQ youth on the streets of New York.
———GAY April 1973
Cover story about the Manfords and early Parents of Gays meetings in the April 23, 1973, issue of GAY. Credit: HoustonLGBThistory.org.
It’s Friday, March 3, 2023, the night of PFLAG’s 50th anniversary gala at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. Technically, I’m here in my role as a journalist, so it’s my excuse to mostly hang back and watch from the sidelines as the hundreds of guests stream in. The parents, the allies, the fabulous drag queens with towering hairdos, the spectacularly dressed young influencers teetering on their super-high heels, … Trans, nonbinary, gay—all the letters of QTPOC LGBTQIA+. This gathering is so beautiful and joyful.
Here’s Dylan Mulvaney, an actress and comedian known for her daily TikTok videos of her gender transition journey.
Dylan Mulvaney: If I can, you know, do something for a queer youth that, um, I wish that I could have had growing up, then this is definitely worth it.
EM Narration: Also here, Olympic diver Tom Daley and his husband, the writer and director Dustin Lance Black, who’s posing for the cameras while Tom gives an interview.
Tom Daley: To be honored here tonight on the 50th anniversary is so special, such an honor, and to actually be here not only with my husband, but also, my mum and our son are upstairs in the hotel, so it’s, like, really special to be here all as a family as well.
EM Narration: Comedian Amber Ruffin takes the stage to emcee.
Amber Ruffin: We’re here to celebrate PFLAG’s greatest accomplishment: creating something cool that involves parents. It’s hard, it’s hard to do. It’s hard. It’s hard, but you did it.
EM Narration: And Grammy Award-winning bounce music superstar Big Freedia is here to get an award tonight.
Big Freedia: I know the powers of walls you can break down when you have parents and people who see you. Thank God for the people who saw me. I’m here today because I was seen and supported and encouraged to be myself.
EM Narration: As I take it all in, a middle-aged woman with silvery blonde hair approaches me with an outstretched hand. She looks as though she’d be equally comfortable at a well-appointed country club as in this ballroom full of flamboyance and LGBTQ++ folks. She shakes my hand, introduces herself as Susan Thronson, PFLAG’s president, and with a warm smile, she adds that she’s the first parent of a trans child ever to hold that position. Another soft-spoken revolutionary. I love PFLAG parents.
Susan Thronson: I’m so, still inspired by Jeanne Manford and what she did 50 years ago, by taking the step off the curb and joining the protestors in the Christopher Street march. And she was spurred on by her son Morty, and I’m here because of my family’s experience. At this time, it’s both a, a festive evening, but we understand that we are in one of the most challenging times in our shared history.
EM Narration: In 50 years PFLAG has done so much to transform life for LGBTQ people through the work and advocacy of our fiercest allies: parents and the other people who love us. PFLAG is now an international network of organizations—in the U.S. alone currently counting 400 chapters nationwide, and 200,000 members and supporters. People who have directly benefited from PFLAG’s support must number in the tens of millions by now.
But despite the party spirit, honestly, I’m feeling wistful. I’m missing the people who are gone from PFLAG. The people I knew when I was a young gay man. Like Amy and Dick Ashworth, who I had the pleasure of introducing at an event in 1979 during parents weekend at Vassar College. Amy and Dick’s son, Eric, wound up being my literary agent on the original Making Gay History book. Bob and Elaine Benov, the super-loving parents of two gay sons from Long Beach, New York, who I interviewed for a couple of my early books. And my mom, who helped cofound the Queens, New York, chapter of PFLAG with Jeanne Manford and co-chaired a PFLAG gala dinner a quarter century ago just up Broadway from here. My grandmother came to that one. They’re all gone.
They’d be so proud of how far we’ve come. Still, not nearly far enough, not when so many thousands of young LGBTQ people wind up living on the streets, parents struggle to accept their trans children, and supportive families struggle to access care. Today’s PFLAG members are again called on to fight the bigots and the legislatures waging an all-out war on their loved ones.
And so, while I miss all those people—my PFlag people—it is so right and reassuring to see the new guard celebrate and support each other in this fight. My PFLAG family was there for me, and the gathering in this ballroom is just a tiny fraction of the activists and allies on the frontlines of today’s battle. To see Susan Thronson fighting for her son, just as Jeanne and Jules Manford fought for and alongside their son, well, there’s a lump in my throat.
And there’s a lump in my throat when I think about how, despite all her best efforts to protect her son Morty from homophobia, to hold onto her surviving son in a world stacked against him, Jeanne Manford lost Morty—the world lost him—to complications of AIDS in 1992.
So, yeah, I’m feeling wistful, but also hopeful as I turn to leave the celebratory hubbub and catch the subway home. I’m an early riser these days; 9:00 p.m. is pumpkin time for me. I’ll leave all those young folks to tie one on for PFLAG.
EM Narration: Next time on “Coming of Age During the 1970s,” chapter four: “Respectable.”
This season of Making Gay History was produced and written by me, Eric Marcus, and Making Gay History’s founding editor Sara Burningham, with archival research and production assistance from Brian Ferree. Our studio engineers for this episode were Casey Danielson, Charles de Montebello, and Katherine Cook. “Coming of Age During the 1970s” was mixed and sound designed by Anne Pope.
This season of Making Gay History was recorded at CDM Sound Studios. Our theme music and additional scoring were composed by Fritz Myers. Our new theme features flautist Anna Urrey.
Many thanks to our hard-working crew at Making Gay History, including deputy director Inge De Taeye, photo editor Michael Green, and our social media producers, Cristiana Peña and Nick Porter.
Thank you as well to the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division for use of their Morty Manford collection, including archival photos, as well as other material. And a big thank-you to Suzanne Swan, Morty’s sister, for permission to use Morty’s archival recordings. And thank you to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, courtesy of Chicago History Museum and WFMT, for use of their interview with Mary Jo Risher. Thank you to PFLAG National for the 50th anniversary gala audio. We’d also like to thank the LGBT Center archive for their help with this season.
Making Gay History is made possible thanks to the support of the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Calamus Foundation, Andra and Irwin Press, Louis Bradbury, David Quirolo, Kathy Danser and the Danser Family, Rick Fishell, and we are so grateful to Patrick Hinds and Steve Tipton for their support of Making Gay History’s mission to bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it.
This episode has been made possible in part by PFLAG, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. Thank you, PFLAG!
Please consider joining us on Making Gay History’s Patreon channel where you can support our work and at the same time gain access to exclusive interviews, behind-the-scenes conversations, and additional archival audio excerpts that we think you’ll enjoy hearing. Sign up for just $5 a month at patreon.com/makinggayhistory or just go to makinggayhistory.com and click on the Patreon button. Next week, Patreon subscribers can access my conversation with PFLAG President Susan Thronson.
One very last thing. I couldn’t leave without this update from Joyce Hunter.
EM: So when were you able to get your daughter back?
JH: She came back.
EM: How so?
JH: She got old enough. She turned, uh, 17 or 18 and she decided to come home. She couldn’t do it earlier, but she could do it at that age. And so she came home. And we’re very close, my daughter and I, and my son and I. And our grandkids, and my grandkids, their kids. Jan and I have been together over 40 years, so we have, collectively—I’m gonna count her kids, one, two…—together we have five children. Of those five children, we now have 16 grandchildren, and out of that 16, we have—let’s see, uh, Ezra, Clara, …—six or seven great-grandchildren.
EM: It’s a lot.
JH: Yeah. It’s, it’s a big family!
EM Narration: “Coming of Age During the 1970s” is a production of Making Gay History. I’m Eric Marcus. So long, until next time.