Gays' Families Come Out of the Closet


Sandra Moore never paid attention to jokes about gays. Then her son, Sean Holden, told her that he was homosexual. He was 21 and scared to death she would reject him.

Moore reassured Sean that she loved him no matter what, and from that day on, she became an activist.

Recently, Moore, an executive secretary at an Anaheim-based electronics company, was making small talk with a co-worker when he commented: "The sun is shining and the faggots are dancing in the streets."

"His words got me right in the pit of my stomach," Moore said. 'He thought he was making a joke, and the words hurt me incredibly. I told him it wasn't funny, and we didn't talk after that."

Moore is typical of the people who have joined Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, an organization that in recent years has transformed itself from a support group for gays' loved ones into a key player in the struggle to secure equal rights and societal acceptance for gays.

This week, in a sign of its new aggressiveness, PFLAG is holding its international convention in Orange County, the back yard of such anti-gay figures as the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, and U.S. Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton).

"The conservative politics and the hate tactics used against our children have pushed us to fight back," said Elena Layland, president of the chapter. "We love our children. And we're coming out of our own closets to show them just how much we love them."

More than 500 people from throughout the United States and abroad are expected to attend the four-day convention, which begins Friday at the Hyatt Regency Alicante in Garden Grove.

The theme of the ninth annual convention is "Reaching Out Into the '90s." Thirty-two workshops with subjects ranging from "Gay and Lesbian Youth" to "Breaking Down Stereotypes" will be offered. Last year, 300 people attended the national convention in Detroit.

A year ago, chapters in Orange County and Charlotte, N.C., asked the national federation of PFLAG for permission to host the convention. At the time, both chapters were battling political backlash against gays.

Charlotte asked for the convention mainly because of its visibility as the hometown of ultraconservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), one of the gay community's most ardent opponents.

Orange County's PFLAG, meanwhile, was fighting to keep its speakers' bureau from being barred at Corona del Mar High School, where teacher Mike Marino had invited gays and lesbians to his psychology class for more than a decade. A handful of parents had attacked the bureau in 1988 and 1989, claiming that the speakers were recruiting students into the gay community.

Though the PFLAG speakers have not been invited back into the school, the fight energized the chapter and won extensive local press coverage. Indeed, in making its case to be selected to host the convention, the Orange County chapter provided the national federation with a 20-page scrapbook that detailed its role in this and other controversies.

"We want the conservatives to know that they don't have a monopoly on the family," said Paulette Goodman, national president of PFLAG. "Parents of gays and lesbians are just as traditional. We really don't believe what people like Dornan and Dannemeyer are saying. We are very much part of the traditional family. And nobody is going to tell us otherwise."

The speakers' bureau controversy was the catalyst for Orange County's PFLAG to become more active and "radical," said Layland, who joined the chapter four years ago with her husband, Raymond, when their 15-year-old son, Todd, told them that he is gay.

People don't think of parents as being outspoken and radical about gay rights, Layland said.

"Most people think of us as being rather meek," she said. "They think of us as being a group that sits around and holds hands for an hour. Well, that's not the case. We're fighters now."

To get the convention started, chapter leaders realized that they had to attract more members.

A year ago, there were only 45 dues-paying members in PFLAG, said Mel Trickery, a retired Los Angeles County probation supervisor who has two gay children. Though the group was meeting regularly each month, it was not attracting new members.

"The chapter was from the old school of thinking; they didn't want to stir any waters," Trickery said. "Some members wanted everything to be kept at a status quo. But with the attack on the bureau, members realized that they had to fight back for their children."

So the chapter's leaders became more visible by attending gay community functions and appearing on national talk shows such as "Geraldo!" PFLAG members also attended every gay pride event in Southern California.

As members of OC-PFLAG, Sandra Moore and her son Sean, now 22, marched side by side in the Long Beach and West Hollywood pride parades, their arms wrapped around each other.

"Here I was with my mom, telling the world I was proud to be gay," Sean Holden said. "To have her next to me was something I had never even thought of. It was emotional for both of us."

Today, membership for the chapter has more than quadrupled, with more than 204 paid members. The chapter is still growing, Layland said. It is now the largest chapter in Southern California, with more members than Los Angeles and San Diego, which have larger gay communities.

With more members, the chapter has been able to concentrate on organizing the event, Layland said. Problems with the convention ranged from raising money to keeping morale up.

Although the national organization gave OC-PFLAG $500 in seed money to start the convention, the chapter has to pay for the hotel and traveling expenses for its speakers. The chapter has been sponsoring fund-raising dinners for money. The convention is expected to cost the chapter more than $40,000.

The organization is relying on volunteer work and the cooperation of 150 members, many of whom have little or no experience in conventions.

Selecting the right hotel for the convention in tourist-minded Orange County became a matter of diplomacy. Layland found herself explaining to hotel management how much controversy the convention might attract because of its membership. Layland said she wanted to be upfront with the hotels. Many hotel managers were accommodating; others were not.

One hotel manager in Newport Beach wanted to know how many gay people were attending and wanted to charge an exorbitant amount for the rental of convention rooms, said Layland, who did not want to identify the hotel. Hotels do not regularly charge for convention rooms and instead make money with dinners and drinks, said Layland, who has organized conventions in the past.

"The hotel management was homophobic," Layland said. "They made it known that they did not want such a convention in the hotel premises. I was stunned."

In August, the chapter faced its most difficult hurdle when Rick Heckenlaible, one of the chapter's leaders and head of its speakers' bureau, died of AIDS. A cheerleader for the organization, Heckenlaible, 41, had kept morale high for the convention.

Several days before he died, Heckenlaible was still worried about the convention and was asking questions about how well it was going, Layland said.

"Rick's death left us wondering, 'How do we continue with the convention?' " Layland said. "The convention was a dream Rick had for all of us. But we know we all have to go on."

Already, Heckenlaible's dream is fast becoming a reality for PFLAG member and volunteer David Fuller, 22, who arrived in Orange County from Ellensburg, Wash., a year ago. As a teen-ager, he never thought of being truly open about himself.

"A PFLAG convention in Orange County proves that the county isn't as closed-minded as people may think," Fuller said. "Gays and Lesbians can be loved and supported in Orange County just like anywhere else."

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