Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays

Mollie Smith, President of PFLAG Western Sydney

The PFLAG groups is an important source of support within the gay community.

PFLAG, which is an acronym for “Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays”, began 25 years ago in the USA with the first meeting of a parents’ support group in New York. Like many groups that have grown up from feelings of outrage at social injustice, PFLAG had a very small beginning. In April 1972 the New York Post published a letter from Jeanne Manford, whose gay son had been badly beaten up at a protest, “I didn’t think anything of it, but I guess it was the first time a mother ever sat down and publicly said: Yes I have a homosexual child” Jeanne said. Two months later, Jeanne Manford and her son Morty marched in New York’s Gay Pride Parade. Manford’s sign read, “Parents of Gays, unite in support for our children.” People screamed and yelled and cried as she approached. At first Jeanne thought they were cheering Dr Benjamin Spock, the prominent paediatrician who walked behind her, but she soon realised they were reacting to her. As they marched, people were running up and hugging her and crying and talking about their own parents.

As she marched with her son Morty, they talked about starting a group for parents, and Jeanne said she hoped someday it would become a national organisation, but that was just a dream. She never envisaged it would reach so many people. When Jeanne got home from the parade, her telephone rang constantly. Gay and lesbian people wanted her to speak with their parents. Parents wanted to share their stories with her. For several months Jeanne fielded telephone calls and then in March 1973, New York City Parents of Gays held its first meeting in a Methodist Church in Greenwith Village. Phone calls continued and other groups formed. In 1979 parents from across the country gathered in Washington DC at the first National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights. Later that week, 25 parents met and got down to business to plan a national organisation. The Federation of PFLAG groups was born. Now there are over 420 chapters in the USA with more than 70,000 members and supporters (PFLAG pole, Autumn 1998).This history proves that small beginnings can produce a huge outcome.   PFLAG groups are all over the world. Individuals can and do make a difference.

PFLAG in Australia

PFLAG here had a modest beginning too. June Smythe, a parent from Perth WA, desperate for information on homosexuality, contacted the US Federation in 1986 to try to find information or literature in Australia to help her understand homosexuality. She then tried without success to find other interested parents to start a group in Western Australia. However, in 1989 Margaret and John Pugh from Perth heard about June by an American author with whom they were corresponding. The three met and resolved to start a PFLAG group in Western Australia. Amongst the early group was another mother Heather Horntvedt who later moved to Sydney and started the first PFLAG group in NSW (There had previously been an informal group in Sydney to support parents). Now almost every State in Australia has a PFLAG group with the exception of The Northern Territory. In NSW there are two groups in Sydney, one meeting at Heffron Hall, Darlinghurst, and the Western Sydney group of which I am the President meeting in Parramatta. Besides Sydney there are groups at Wollongong, Bathurst, Lismore, Port Macquarie, Wagga Wagga, the Central Coast, Albury, and contacts at Campbelltown, Griffith, and Gunnedah. I believe there is a group starting up at Sutherland. It seems PFLAG groups are popping up like mushrooms.

How Does PFLAG Help Families?

We believe it is a tragedy when a son or daughter is rejected by their parents because of their sexual orientation. One of our greatest areas of concern is that research in the USA has shown that homosexual youth are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth, and they may account for 30% of all completed suicides amongst teenagers.In their Life-Force Suicide Prevention Workshops, the Wesley Mission place gay and lesbian youth amongst the high risk groups of suicide attempts. We believe that keeping families together and providing parents with correct information may lessen that risk. We are an organisation run by parents. We are not professional counsellors, but we have experience and can identify with many of the feelings that other parents may have. Amongst our members are gay and lesbian people and we welcome them as we would welcome bisexual and transgender people who wish to join PFLAG. We offer a safe environment where people can speak openly, unburden themselves and begin the process of understanding and accepting their child’s sexuality.

The starting point for most parents is via the telephone. I believe the first contact that a person makes with PFLAG is vitally important. It is not easy for a person to pick up the phone, dial a number and speak to a stranger. At Western Sydney there are two numbers for people to call, and we are very aware of the difficulties and how vulnerable the caller is on the other end of the line. Often the parent or child breaks down and apologises profusely for crying. Yet one can sense the relief that at last they have found someone to unburden themselves to. Most people say they do feel much better when they have spoken to us. They almost always say how isolated they feel—the only person in the world to have a gay child.

It has been said that parents go through a process of bereavement when they first hear the news: feelings of shock, anger, denial—“It’s only a phase”. I said that myself when our youngest daughter came out aged 18. I have to say 15 years later that it has been a long phase! Initially most parents are homophobic: there’s something wrong about homosexuality so the blame has to be put somewhere. Guilt! “Where did we go wrong?” “We should have made him play football.” “We should have encouraged her to play with dolls – be more feminine.” “Shame! What will the neighbours think?” “Someone has influenced my child to become gay, or did they choose to become gay?” “Who can we tell, what about grandma—she might drop down dead, and Auntie Mary, neighbours, friends?” My experience is that grandmas are often more accepting than parents. “What about our church? Will the priest, minister, pastor, rabbi accept my child?” Many parents hop into the closet their child has just left, and hide away for a while.

There is sadness too. Most likely they will not have grandchildren. Fear for their children—will they be lonely, victimised for being gay, subject to violence, laughed at.

There are fears of HIV/AIDS. How will they cope with their child having a same sex lover? Parents often find it hard to accept that their child will have lovers. At first they may refuse to meet any of their child’s gay friends.

So it is clear that besides listening and allowing parents to tell their story we have to educate them too. So many parents say, “We don’t understand”. They want answers and we have a task of giving them up-to-date information. We have PFLAG literature on homosexuality and are now in the process of obtaining funding to produce an information booklet for families. There are also many excellent books on the market for families. A PFLAG meeting is probably one of the best ways of supporting families. They can listen to other parents and gay sons and daughters talking about their experiences. It not only gives parents opportunities to identify with other parents but also to learn from listening to gay and lesbian people how important it is for sons and daughters to have family support. PFLAG not only supports parents but supports gays and lesbians too. We have been asked so often for advice on “How to come out to mum and dad”. Sometimes we have sons and daughters coming along to our meetings to practise the ‘coming out’. Sadly we do not have a recipe that guarantees 100 % success, but we can offer a few practicalities. It is probably not a good idea to come out at a family Christmas dinner, or Mum’s birthday! >But choose a less emotional or stressful time, be well prepared, and feel confident about one’s sexuality. Have some information for the parents to read, and ensure that you have supports too. We hear some very sad stories about young people whose coming out was met with total rejection and sometimes violence—a father physically attacking his son when told the news, then throwing him out of the house. Time and time again sons have said to me “Mum understands and tries to accept, but Dad just won’t talk about it”. Many more mums do come along to PFLAG meetings, but at our Parramatta group we do have a good sprinkling of dads. Interestingly, and this is just my observation and not based on scientific data, it seems that dads accept their daughters’ homosexuality more readily than mothers do.

It is very hurtful for us parents when we hear cruel and uninformed remarks about lesbian and gay people. It is also part of our being educated as parents of gay children to realise that our sons and daughters have to put up with many unkind remarks because of their sexual orientation. One mum said to me recently that she still cringes when she is at a church group and people criticise homosexuals. “It hurts me” she said “because of my child, and it means that I could never share with them, even though we may be friends, something that is so important in my life”.

At PFLAG we believe that to combat homophobia one must not be invisible, one has to stand up and speak out. But that does not happen overnight. We always say to parents “Remember this is still the same son or daughter that you loved yesterday and he/she has bravely decided to share an important part of themselves with you. You are significant people in their lives and vital to their self-esteem. They need your love and support more than ever now.”

We have four children and three of them are gay: two daughters and a son. I well remember their coming out and their anxiety that they might be turned away or rejected. I remember feeling some of those feelings I have mentioned earlier: guilt!Where had we gone wrong? Were we failures as parents? >Overwhelming those homophobic feelings was a tremendous feeling of love and recognition of how difficult the coming out was for them. But I still had to learn and recognise my own homophobia and I learnt a lot from PFLAG, and other parents, and other gay sons and lesbian daughters. I remember my coming out rather cautiously at work as a parent of gay children and the wonderful support I got from my colleagues in the workplace and later from friends and neighbours. One confronts oneself, and embarks on a journey to understanding. I believe the process enriches us all, finishing the journey as more accepting people, accepting differences in people, and appreciating and enjoying the friendships made along the way with other parents and men and women in the gay community.

PFLAG Western Sydney

Besides producing an information booklet, Western Sydney is also organising a mini conference for rural groups at Wagga Wagga on September 4–5, 1999. We recognise that people living in country areas are often disadvantaged and often feel very isolated. I say a mini conference but it is turning out to be quite large. So far, over 50 people will be attending. This will include a large contingent from PFLAG Victoria, the ACT, Lismore, Griffith, Port Macquarie, Campbelltown, Bathurst, Wagga Wagga and the two Sydney groups. We hope that we can look toward forming our own Australia-wide Federation of PFLAG at the Conference. This will not only provide support and publicity but also give PFLAG some political clout.

We receive no funding except monies we raise ourselves. Mardi Gras has given us $2000 towards the information booklet, but we need to find more funding for the booklet and the conference. However, lack of funding has never deterred PFLAG Western Sydney from going ahead with projects. Last year we faced the same situation when we decided to produce a PFLAG poster, and we managed to obtain grants from Mardi Gras and ACON, which, together with money we raised, paid for the posters which have been very successful.Incidentally the family on the poster is a real PFLAG family and we are very proud of them for volunteering to be models.

We also provide parents to speak on panels organised by The Family Planning Association at high schools and educational centres. Parents are regularly requested to speak at training sessions held at the Goulburn Police Academy for Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers. We have given talks to Lifeline volunteers, ACON Fun and Esteem groups, university students and church groups. Parents have been interviewed on radio and TV stations, and have featured in newspapers and magazines. We regularly receive referrals from The Salvation Army, The Gay & Lesbian Counselling Service, ACON, and community health centres.

As well as supporting families, we at PFLAG have a commitment to educate and inform the community about homosexuality. Both our Sydney groups hold monthly meetings. The Sydney group meets at Heffron Hall on the first Tuesday of each month, and we at Western Sydney meet at 81 George Street Parramatta on the fourth Wednesday of each month. We always welcome gay friends to our meetings.