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Jeanne Manford dies at 92; co-founder of group for parents of gays

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Her message was as simple as it was powerful, a quiet, courageous statement of unconditional love.

Walking alongside her son in an early New York City gay pride parade in 1972, elementary school teacher Jeanne Manford carried a sign she had written herself: "Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children."

When spectators began to cheer, Manford figured the applause must be for Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned baby doctor who was marching in the parade just behind her and her son, Morty. It was only when young marchers and spectators began to approach Manford, thanking her with hugs and tears for her presence, that she knew the cheers were for her and her public support of her gay son, and by extension, all gay children.

"The young people were hugging me, kissing me, screaming, asking if I would talk to their parents," she recalled in a 1996 interview with Newsday. "Very few of them were out to their parents for fear of rejection."

Manford was so moved by the experience that the following year, she and her husband Jules founded a local support group for parents of gays and lesbians, which grew into the international organization known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. It now has 350 chapters and more than 200,000 members and supporters in the United States.

Known as the nurturing mother figure of the straight alliance movement, Manford died Tuesday of natural causes at the home she shared with family members in the Bay Area community of Daly City, said her daughter Suzanne Manford Swan. She was 92.

President Obama, in a 2009 speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group, praised Manford's efforts. Her work, he said, was the "story of America, of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change, of hope stronger than hate, of love more powerful than any insult or injury."

Manford's path to advocacy began in April 1972 when her son and other gay advocates were kicked and beaten after they handed out fliers at an annual dinner for politicians and reporters in New York City. Incensed that police were nearby but did not intervene when the men were injured, Manford called newspapers to report the injustice.

Eventually, she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, expressing outrage over the incident and stating: "I have a homosexual son and I love him." The letter was published on April 29, 1972, eliciting significant public response and drawing attention to persistent violence against gays.

Two months later, Morty Manford asked his mother to march with him in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, a precursor to New York's Gay Pride Parade. She told him yes, but insisted on making her own sign, carefully lettering it on the same poster board she often gave her students.

Even before the parade, Manford and her husband, a dentist, had talked about starting a support group for parents of gay children. After the crowd's emotional response to her presence, they were even more convinced of the need.

"Jeanne recognized that a major gap existed," PFLAG National's executive director Jody M. Huckaby said Wednesday. "She and her husband realized that although they loved Morty and accepted that he was gay, they didn't have any context for having a conversation about it. They knew that other parents probably didn't either and unless they started talking about it, incidents like what happened to Morty would continue to happen."

The first meeting of Parents of Gays was held in March 1973 in a church in Manhattan. The Manfords hoped it would give parents a place to ask questions, seek information and talk about their concerns and, through them, support their gay and lesbian children. Initial meetings often attracted only a handful of participants, but by the early 1980s, the group had changed its name to PFLAG and was a national grass-roots organization with chapters across the country.

"She just completely and unabashedly loved her children," Suzanne Swan said. "She was this quiet little lady with a spine of steel and she was the first one to stand up and say she loved her child, he was gay and she loved him."

Born Jeanne Sobelson on Dec. 4, 1920, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, she was the third of five daughters of Sadie, a housewife, and Charles Sobelson, who was a salesman. She started college in Alabama but left her studies to return home when her father died. She soon married Jules Manford and had three children, returning to college in her 30s, when she earned a bachelor's degree from Queens College. She taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade at a public school in Queens for nearly 30 years.

Jules Manford died in 1982. Their son Charles died in 1966 and Morty, who worked for the New York attorney general's office, died of AIDS in 1992. In addition to her daughter, of Daly City, Manford's survivors include a granddaughter and three great-granddaughters.

"She was just a mom, walking with her son in a parade," said Terry DeCrescenzo, a longtime advocate for gay and lesbian teens in Los Angeles. "That was what made her so compelling. She was simply standing with her son, bearing witness to the truth of his life."

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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