PFLAG: A Spiritual Experience

Rejection, shame, and loneliness are common feelings many of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community have experienced, especially after coming out. These are feelings we have encountered from people’s reactions in our churches, families, and circles of friends. What would be the opposite? The tangible answer is Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians And Gays (PFLAG), and the result is love, love, love.

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the late Jeanne Manford.

In 1972, Jeanne Manford, a school teacher from Queens, New York, publicly marched with her son Morty in New York's Christopher Street Liberation Day March (pictured above). This march was the precursor to our modern day Pride Parades. Manford died in January 2013 at the age of 92.

The love and determination of that brave mother led to what we now call PFLAG. The first meeting was held in March 1973 at the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church in Greenwich Village (now the Church of the Village). This LGBT advocacy organization has grown to provide structure for more than 350 support groups across the U.S. PFLAG has also inspired the devlopment of many similar organizations in Canada, Mexico, and around the world.

A PFLAG meeting is an experience where you can be heard and feel safe. These meetings are a place where you can be yourself and discuss all those challenges of being different in a culture where being heteronormative is the dominant culture. For many parents and loved ones of LGBT people this is the only time when they can talk about their feelings without fear of being judged. Attending the PFLAG National Convention is like going to a PFLAG meeting on steroids.

The result is LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.

I have been part of PFLAG for almost four years, but this year was the first time I had the opportunity to attend a national convention. The amazing feeling of love and support was so strong in the air it almost felt like I was at an affirming church conference. This year, the convention was held in Washington D.C. in late October.

Besides meeting amazing allies from across the country, the support organization amassed thought-provoking workshop facilitators and speakers. Of the 37 workshops held at this secular, three day convention, five dealt with some area of faith. This is significant for an organization that has to walk very carefully with a very diverse membership of 200,000 people.

Faith based workshops included "Opening Hearts in Small-Town Faith Communities," "Religious Liberty Attacks: What the Public Thinks and How to Push Back," "Responding to Religious Arguments When You’ve Tried Everyting Else and Nothing Seems to Work," "Signs of Hope: Catholics and LGBTA Issues," "A la Familia: A Conversation About Faith, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Ethnicity," which covered LGBT inclusion in Catholic and Protestant Latino communities. Other workshops dealt with bullying, how to share your story to transform minds, immigration for non-U.S. born spouses, gender non-conformance, and supporting distressed parents to name a few. 

On the convention’s last evening, it was time to present the Betty DeGeneres Award for LGBT advocacy.

The award is named after the mother of comedian and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres who has been a high profile ally. Receiving the award this year were Tom Nelson and Linda Karl-Nelson for their work, especially their efforts to create dialogue on LGBT issues in Michigan Catholic parishes.

Tom and Linda each have gay sons, and they have both served on the board of Fortunate Families, a Catholic support group for parents of LGBT people. They also helped spearhead an ongoing panel discussion called “Putting a Face on Homosexuality," which was held in sixty parishes within the Detroit Archdiocese. Numerous priests in the archdiocese have come to support the Nelsons’ work.

Tom Nelson has written a book entitled An Ordinary Catholic: A View from the Pew. In his book, Nelson challenges traditional Catholic doctrine on many issues, including the church’s stance on LGBT relationships.

During his acceptance speech for the award, Tom shared a story that will undoubtedly grab your heart.

Tom's story is about his first wife Trish, who served as the president of the PFLAG Chapter in Detroit for three years. She later withdrew from the organization due to burnout. The two were married for almost fifty years. 

“Listen, listen, listen.” Those are the words that I heard from my late wife Trish....When I heard those words I was in the pit of my grief because of my loss. I had not slept for two months. My health had gone downhill. I was walking with a cane as I was so debilitated because of my grief when I heard those words. She then said, ”Go to bed.” 

Tom went to bed, and in his room, he again heard the voice of his beloved Trish:

She said to me as clearly as I am speaking to you now. “Go back to PFLAG. It’s more important than I thought.” Those words just startled me. I had no reason to think that. They had to be coming directly from Trish from the other side. So I resolved, tomorrow I will go back to PFLAG. I did. And what have I learned? PFLAG has taught me so much. Because of PFLAG I have learned so much about loving. That’s what it’s all about. Loving one another and the Almighty. It’s gotten to the point where I think PFLAG should have another “L” in its title. It would stand for Parents, Families, and Friends Loving Lesbians and Gays.

Raising his arms to the convention attendees, Nelson concluded:

"YOU are more important than you think. God bless you.” 

Subsequently after Tom began attending PFLAG support meetings again, he and Linda, who had been a good friend of Trish’s, formed a new relationship. They were married in 2006. 

If you have never attended a PFLAG meeting I encourage you to do so. Even people who believe they have resolved their own coming out challenges discover the wonderful support that this group provides. Sometimes you can even learn there are unresolved issues held down deep inside.

For those of you who have affirming churches, talk to your clergy and local PFLAG chapter leaders.

Consider having a PFLAG Day at your church where chapter members tell their stories.

Only God knows what positive outcomes there could be when different groups of loving people get together. 

Find a PFLAG chapter near you.

Photo of Jeanne Manford & her son, Morty, provided by PFLAG

Comments (1)

Ed, thank you for sharing your experience of your first PFLAG National Convention. We are fortunate to have you as a member of a PFLAG chapter, and Believe Out Loud is fortunate to have you on their team!

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