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Unfinished Business

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Middle-America PFLAG waxes as urban PFLAG wanes

By Leigh Bell • Photos by Yvonne Feece

Gay Rights Timeline

Lennon imagined no possessions, no need for greed or hunger. We imagine no prejudice, no need for advocacy or affirmation. Like a world without war needs no army and a land without sickness needs no medication, a society without discrimination against the GLBT population needs no support groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Thirty years after PFLAG Houston was founded, the group is struggling. Membership and coffers are dwindling. Is this a sign of moral evolution? Is Houston eradicating prejudice against gays? Hopefully, the optimist says, pointing to society’s increased acceptance of gays and lesbians and to parents heightened comfort with their GLBT children. And that optimist is right. A pessimist—or more accurately, a realist—disagrees, pointing to an ignited interest in PFLAG among middle and small-town Americans and a recent hate crime in Galveston. That realist correctly says the fight for gay rights marches on. Both are realities facing PFLAG Houston.

A Shift in Focus

PatrickMcllvain
Patrick McIlvain wears the Depression and Bipolar Support Association T-shirt in honor of his mother, Annella Rice Harrison, who founded PFLAG Houston.

It seems the fundamental purpose of PFLAG—to help families understand their GLBT loved ones—is less needed by a new generation of parents raised in a society less prejudiced against homosexuals.   Unlike the last generation of mothers and fathers, most parents of today’s teens and young adults—the normal “coming out” age—didn’t see TV footage of gay-bar raids, with police publicly and shamefully parading patrons into paddy wagons. This generation of parents was born after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of disorders. They work with “out” homosexuals and lesbians. They grew up on Boy George, Nathan Lane, Greg Louganis, Neil Patrick Harris, and Mary Cheney (the former vice president’s openly gay daughter).

“Americans now see GLBTs in movies and on television, in what I refer to as the Will-&-Grace generation,” says Steve Ralls, director of communications for the national PFLAG organization and an openly gay man, in a phone conversation from Washington, D.C. “That has had a major impact on many Americans, not just in urban areas, but all across the country…. Families are, in many ways, looking to become advocates rather than looking for support because that stigma around sexual orientation has dissipated dramatically, if not disappeared completely in some areas…. There are fewer families who feel the need to seek support when a loved one comes out.”

These days, many urban PFLAG chapters, like Houston, Chicago, and D.C., are shifting focus to the organization’s other points of a trifecta mission: educate the public and advocate for equality. In some ways, PFLAG has succeeded in its mission, but there is much to be done, and, in Houston, little resources with which to work.

Budget Shortfalls and Flagging Interest

“We have a lack of personnel, a lack of people, and a lack of funds,” says Ron Dupré, board vice president. “When people stop coming, it’s difficult to do anything.”

DebSmith
Deb Smith, board president of PFLAG Houston

Deb Smith, board president, says membership has fallen in the last few years from 300 to 100, bringing dues down from $12,000 to $4,000. The group has a 2009 budget shortfall of some $12,000, Dupré says.

Past fundraising monies will carry PFLAG Houston through the year, and there is hope with a benefactor who recently pledged to match donations three to one for up to $5,000. But still, that doesn’t leave much money for the future, which today is questionable.

The world in which PFLAG Houston existed 30 years ago is nothing like today, and in light of the progress, the group attempts to reorganize and refocus its purpose. Its existence depends on it. “I have no doubt that we will be around as long as necessary,” Dupré says.

For 30 years, PFLAG has been a refuge for families grappling with GLBT issues and the sidekick to Houston’s gay-rights activism. Its struggles seem a travesty, unless this is a sign of social enlightenment. Are parents these days more accepting of their GLBT children and less in need of groups like PFLAG? And if so, hasn’t PFLAG Houston been a success?

Yes, Smith says. Partly. “It’s more acceptable to be gay or lesbian,” she says. “I talk to younger kids who say their peers just don’t care that they are homosexual.”

However, Smith says, the organization is likely weakened by its own doing more than society’s emotional development. Over the last few years, members have grown insular, educational efforts have waned, and advocacy has languished, she says.

Resurgence is needed if the group wishes to survive, and that effort is under way, despite meager funds. Spearheaded by Smith, who became president this year, PFLAG Houston is already increasing outreach to area schools with an updated “Safe Schools” program, as well as planning public-awareness campaigns and open events. Smith is dividing chapter duties into doable chunks, hoping for greater membership participation.

“We just need to get people excited about it again,” she says. “The meetings are there, and everything seems to be going okay, but people just aren’t asking for help with anything. We have members who have been around for a while and who have worked through their issues. We do have new people come [to meetings], but they don’t come back again.”

The crowd at a recent meeting proved Smith’s point. It mostly consisted of older heterosexual couples seated in folding chairs peppered by the occasional gay individual. Where was the new blood?

Hate Crimes Persist

Society’s shift to accept homosexuality is subtle in much of middle America and small-town USA. In these areas of the country, PFLAG recently reported an increased interest in new chapters and memberships. The national organization, which includes nearly 500 chapters, cited inquiries from states like Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Utah, and Idaho.

Still, homosexuals in most U.S. communities are rarely viewed equally to straight, white Americans. California’s Proposition 8 proved that. PFLAG Houston, along with the city’s gay advocates, has made great strides in this community, but hate remains.

Just last month, three men were arrested and charged with felony assault for hurling large rocks or concrete pieces, as well as gay indignities, at people inside a Galveston gay bar, injuring two men inside. One victim required 12 staples to close a cut in the back of his head. Prosecutors filed hate-crime charges against the accused trio, which carry much sterner punishment than assaults not classified as hate-inspired.

In 2007, the FBI’s most recent statistics, 1,516 individuals were victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation. “Statistics show that there are still a lot of kids being tossed out of the house because they are gay,” says Dupré. “There is still a lot of distress and pain out there, and we have to be there for those people. Even if it is only one person.”

The Birth of PFLAG

It was one woman who, 30 years ago, helped gather parents of GLBT children and form a group to support families and advocate for their sons and daughters. The late Annella Rice Harrison would be 100 years old this year. She was a progressive woman with a backbone of steel.

“Mother was sort of out and more open than I was,” says Harrison’s son, C. Patrick McIlvain, a Houston gay-rights advocate. “She was a lady ahead of her time in so many areas. In fact, she was the one who told me to be careful around men because of my effeminate nature.”

Harrison accepted her son’s homosexu-ality but encountered many parents who spurned their gay children, to the point of turning them out on the street. “There was a lot
of misunderstanding with homosexuality, and Mother wanted to create a safe place for parents, not necessarily for their children, but for their families,” McIlvain says.

Harrison started PFLAG Houston alongside other local parents at a church in Washington, D.C, where they traveled in 1979 for the first National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights, her son says. Harrison marched with a sign saying: “I am not a closeted mother.” The group eventually called themselves FLAG (Families of Lesbians and Gays), McIlvain says, and his mother didn’t go unnoticed as the instigator of it all. She received hate mail and a few choice words.

Clusters of concerned parents similar to FLAG also met in D.C. that same year. They shared similar names, similar stories, and a dogged dedication to equal rights for their GLBT children. Word quietly spread.

One group, Parents FLAG, distributed information to organizations nationwide, but the turning point was when “Dear Abby” mentioned Parents FLAG. The column received more than 7,000 letters requesting more information, according to the national PFLAG organization. Soon after, the group launched a national organization with its first office in Los Angeles. It was 1981, the year Reagan was elected to his first term and Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” climbed the charts. 

PFLAG Still Needed

It was more than Harrison likely imagined when she marched through Washington, D.C., arms tired from holding that brazen sign. Thirty years ago, homosexuality was still considered a moral sore on the flesh of America, and it was treated with hatred and discrimination. Only a decade prior, in 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, and the patrons fought back for the first time, in a real way. The Stonewall Riots became a nationwide call to arms for gay rights. The stigma was deeply ingrained in the nation’s belief system, playing like a broken record, over and over again, until it was embedded in personal values. That didn’t stop the gay-rights movement, though. Discrimination fueled it.

One year after Harrison formed what became PFLAG Houston, the Democratic National Convention outwardly supported gay rights. Many setbacks were to come, from Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998 to the passage of Proposition 8 last November. With these also came victories. Same-sex marriage was legalized by Massachusetts and Connecticut. Our new president, shortly after being sworn in, called for the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to homosexual couples the extension of more than 1,000 federal marriage benefits and adoption rights.

This year, Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in the film, Milk. In his acceptance speech, he emphatically warned those who backed Proposition 8 to “anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support…. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone,” he said, and the crowd roared in response.

Homosexuals are still berated, belittled, and barraged by prejudice, while only 20 states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and access to public accommodations. There are 30 states to go.

Families still ostracize their GLBT children. And bricks and epithets are still thrown through doors. For now, PFLAG is needed, while members imagine a day that it is not.

New PFLAG Chapters

The national office of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is abuzz with at least 75 inquiries for new chapters in communities nationwide. Most interest came from middle America and includes a half dozen from Texas. New Texas PFLAG chapters are currently forming in Corpus Christi, Denton County, Kingwood, Kerrville, New Braunfels, and Odessa, according to Steve Ralls, PFLAG director of communications for the national PFLAG organization.

PFLAG attributes the attention to several current events: the 2008 Election, Proposition 8 in California and premiers of films Milk, the story of the murder of gay activist Harvey Milk, and Prayers for Bobby, the real-life story of Mary Griffith, a PFLAG member who first rejected her son’s homosexuality only to become an advocate for the GLBT population. The organization said it is working with those interested in starting new PLFAG chapters.

“If there is a silver lining to the setback our families experienced on Election Day, it is that our allies in communities across the country have started to mobilize at the local level and work for change,” says Jody M. Huckaby, PFLAG’s executive director.

This proves that the need for PFLAG remains, but is shifting from helping families understand and accept their GLBT relatives to educating the public and advocating for the GLBT population. These three goals create the organization’s mission.

“PFLAG families understand that having a GLBT loved one is not a catastrophic event anymore,” says Ralls. “They come to PFLAG so they can organize with other families to influence legislation changes, working with local schools and creating other policy changes.”

Since starting in 1981, PFLAG has grown to almost 500 chapters in all 50 states, accounting for more than 80,000 total members.

Lennon imagined no possessions, no need for greed or hunger. We imagine no prejudice, no need for advocacy or affirmation. Like a world without war needs no army and a land without sickness needs no medication, a society without discrimination against the GLBT population needs no support groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Thirty years after PFLAG Houston was founded, the group is struggling. Membership and coffers are dwindling. Is this a sign of moral evolution? Is Houston eradicating prejudice against gays? Hopefully, the optimist says, pointing to society’s increased acceptance of gays and lesbians and to parents heightened comfort with their GLBT children. And that optimist is right. A pessimist—or more accurately, a realist—disagrees, pointing to an ignited interest in PFLAG among middle and small-town Americans and a recent hate crime in Galveston. That realist correctly says the fight for gay rights marches on. Both are realities facing PFLAG Houston.

A Shift in Focus

It seems the fundamental purpose of PFLAG—to help families understand their GLBT loved ones—is less needed by a new generation of parents raised in a society less prejudiced against homosexuals.   Unlike the last generation of mothers and fathers, most parents of today’s teens and young adults—the normal “coming out” age—didn’t see TV footage of gay-bar raids, with police publicly and shamefully parading patrons into paddy wagons. This generation of parents was born after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of disorders. They work with “out” homosexuals and lesbians. They grew up on Boy George, Nathan Lane, Greg Louganis, Neil Patrick Harris, and Mary Cheney (the former vice president’s openly gay daughter).

“Americans now see GLBTs in movies and on television, in what I refer to as the Will-&-Grace generation,” says Steve Ralls, director of communications for the national PFLAG organization and an openly gay man, in a phone conversation from Washington, D.C. “That has had a major impact on many Americans, not just in urban areas, but all across the country…. Families are, in many ways, looking to become advocates rather than looking for support because that stigma around sexual orientation has dissipated dramatically, if not disappeared completely in some areas…. There are fewer families who feel the need to seek support when a loved one comes out.”

These days, many urban PFLAG chapters, like Houston, Chicago, and D.C., are shifting focus to the organization’s other points of a trifecta mission: educate the public and advocate for equality. In some ways, PFLAG has succeeded in its mission, but there is much to be done, and, in Houston, little resources with which to work.

Budget Shortfalls and Flagging Interest

“We have a lack of personnel, a lack of people, and a lack of funds,” says Ron Dupré, board vice president. “When people stop coming, it’s difficult to do anything.”

Deb Smith, board president, says membership has fallen in the last few years from 300 to 100, bringing dues down from $12,000 to $4,000. The group has a 2009 budget shortfall of some $12,000, Dupré says.

Past fundraising monies will carry PFLAG Houston through the year, and there is hope with a benefactor who recently pledged to match donations three to one for up to $5,000. But still, that doesn’t leave much money for the future, which today is questionable.

The world in which PFLAG Houston existed 30 years ago is nothing like today, and in light of the progress, the group attempts to reorganize and refocus its purpose. Its existence depends on it. “I have no doubt that we will be around as long as necessary,” Dupré says.

For 30 years, PFLAG has been a refuge for families grappling with GLBT issues and the sidekick to Houston’s gay-rights activism. Its struggles seem a travesty, unless this is a sign of social enlightenment. Are parents these days more accepting of their GLBT children and less in need of groups like PFLAG? And if so, hasn’t PFLAG Houston been a success?

Yes, Smith says. Partly. “It’s more acceptable to be gay or lesbian,” she says. “I talk to younger kids who say their peers just don’t care that they are homosexual.”

However, Smith says, the organization is likely weakened by its own doing more than society’s emotional development. Over the last few years, members have grown insular, educational efforts have waned, and advocacy has languished, she says.

Resurgence is needed if the group wishes to survive, and that effort is under way, despite meager funds. Spearheaded by Smith, who became president this year, PFLAG Houston is already increasing outreach to area schools with an updated “Safe Schools” program, as well as planning public-awareness campaigns and open events. Smith is dividing chapter duties into doable chunks, hoping for greater membership participation.

“We just need to get people excited about it again,” she says. “The meetings are there, and everything seems to be going okay, but people just aren’t asking for help with anything. We have members who have been around for a while and who have worked through their issues. We do have new people come [to meetings], but they don’t come back again.”

The crowd at a recent meeting proved Smith’s point. It mostly consisted of older heterosexual couples seated in folding chairs peppered by the occasional gay individual. Where was the new blood?

Hate Crimes Persist

Society’s shift to accept homosexuality is subtle in much of middle America and small-town USA. In these areas of the country, PFLAG recently reported an increased interest in new chapters and memberships. The national organization, which includes nearly 500 chapters, cited inquiries from states like Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Utah, and Idaho.

Still, homosexuals in most U.S. communities are rarely viewed equally to straight, white Americans. California’s Proposition 8 proved that. PFLAG Houston, along with the city’s gay advocates, has made great strides in this community, but hate remains.

Just last month, three men were arrested and charged with felony assault for hurling large rocks or concrete pieces, as well as gay indignities, at people inside a Galveston gay bar, injuring two men inside. One victim required 12 staples to close a cut in the back of his head. Prosecutors filed hate-crime charges against the accused trio, which carry much sterner punishment than assaults not classified as hate-inspired.

In 2007, the FBI’s most recent statistics, 1,516 individuals were victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation. “Statistics show that there are still a lot of kids being tossed out of the house because they are gay,” says Dupré. “There is still a lot of distress and pain out there, and we have to be there for those people. Even if it is only one person.”

The Birth of PFLAG

It was one woman who, 30 years ago, helped gather parents of GLBT children and form a group to support families and advocate for their sons and daughters. The late Annella Rice Harrison would be 100 years old this year. She was a progressive woman with a backbone of steel.

“Mother was sort of out and more open than I was,” says Harrison’s son, C. Patrick McIlvain, a Houston gay-rights advocate. “She was a lady ahead of her time in so many areas. In fact, she was the one who told me to be careful around men because of my effeminate nature.”

Harrison accepted her son’s homosexu-ality but encountered many parents who spurned their gay children, to the point of turning them out on the street. “There was a lot
of misunderstanding with homosexuality,
and Mother wanted to create a safe place for parents, not necessarily for their children, but for their families,” McIlvain says.

Harrison started PFLAG Houston alongside other local parents at a church in Washington, D.C, where they traveled in 1979 for the first National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights, her son says. Harrison marched with a sign saying: “I am not a closeted mother.” The group eventually called themselves FLAG (Families of Lesbians and Gays), McIlvain says, and his mother didn’t go unnoticed as the instigator of it all. She received hate mail and a few choice words.

Clusters of concerned parents similar to FLAG also met in D.C. that same year. They shared similar names, similar stories, and a dogged dedication to equal rights for their GLBT children. Word quietly spread.

One group, Parents FLAG, distributed information to organizations nationwide, but the turning point was when “Dear Abby” mentioned Parents FLAG. The column received more than 7,000 letters requesting more information, according to the national PFLAG organization. Soon after, the group launched a national organization with its first office in Los Angeles. It was 1981, the year Reagan was elected to his first term and Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” climbed the charts. 

PFLAG Still Needed

It was more than Harrison likely imagined when she marched through Washington, D.C., arms tired from holding that brazen sign. Thirty years ago, homosexuality was still considered a moral sore on the flesh of America, and it was treated with hatred and discrimination. Only a decade prior, in 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, and the patrons fought back for the first time, in a real way. The Stonewall Riots became a nationwide call to arms for gay rights. The stigma was deeply ingrained in the nation’s belief system, playing like a broken record, over and over again, until it was embedded in personal values. That didn’t stop the gay-rights movement, though. Discrimination fueled it.

One year after Harrison formed what became PFLAG Houston, the Democratic National Convention outwardly supported gay rights. Many setbacks were to come, from Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998 to the passage of Proposition 8 last November. With these also came victories. Same-sex marriage was legalized by Massachusetts and Connecticut. Our new president, shortly after being sworn in, called for the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to homosexual couples the extension of more than 1,000 federal marriage benefits and adoption rights.

This year, Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in the film, Milk. In his acceptance speech, he emphatically warned those who backed Proposition 8 to “anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support…. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone,” he said, and the crowd roared in response.

Homosexuals are still berated, belittled, and barraged by prejudice, while only 20 states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and access to public accommodations. There are 30 states to go.

Families still ostracize their GLBT children. And bricks and epithets are still thrown through doors. For now, PFLAG is needed, while members imagine a day that it is not.

Leigh Bell is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.
PHOTO CAPTIONS
Catch 22: Deb Smith, board president of PFLAG Houston, says membership in the local group has fallen by two-thirds, with funds dwindling proportionately. Has PFLAG Houston done such a good job changing hearts and minds that it has rendered itself obsolete?

Proud son: Pictured in Houston’s Knox Park, C. Patrick McIlvain wears the Depression Biipolar Association T-shirt in honor of his mother, Annella Rice Harrison, who founded PFLAG Houston. McIlvain continues his mother’s legacy of activism by chairing special events for Super Neighborhood No. 22.

__________________________

GAY RIGHTS TIMELINE
The Society for Human Rights in Chicago becomes the country’s earliest known gay-rights organization.
1948
Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, stating that homosexuality is far more widespread than was commonly believed.
1951
Harry Hay, often considered the founder of the gay-rights movement, forms The Mattachine Society, the first national gay-rights organization.
1955
The Daughters of Bilitis becomes the nation’s first lesbian-rights organization.
1962
Illinois is the first state to end anti-sodomy laws, almost a decade before another state does the same.
1968
Metropolitan Community Church, which today includes some 300 congregations serving the GLBT population, begins in Los Angeles.
1969
The Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village, which followed a police raid on The Stonewall Inn, evokes the modern gay-rights movement.
1972
The idea for PFLAG begins when Jeanne Manford marches with her gay son in New York’s Pride Day Parade.
1973
The American Psychiatric Association changes tune, declaring homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder.
1974
Kathy Kozachenko is elected to Michigan’s Ann Arbor City Council, becoming the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to public office in the United States.
1978
Gay activist Harvey Milk is elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
1979
More than 100,000 people attend the first “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.”
1981
PFLAG becomes a national group.
1982
Wisconsin becomes the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
1983
Science discovers Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
1984
Berkeley, Calif., passes domestic-partnership bill, giving equal benefits to long-term, same-sex, unmarried, heterosexual couples.
1985
Rock Hudson dies from AIDS-related illness.
1986
Becky Smith and Annie Afleck are the first openly lesbian couple granted legal, joint adoption of a child.
A court case in Georgia upholds the state’s sodomy law.
1987
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is introduced.
More than 200,000 attend the second March on Washington.
1989
Denmark becomes the first nation to legalize same-sex unions.
1992
Gay-rights legislation passes in California,
Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
1993
The U.S. military institutes the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing gays to serve but banning homosexual activity.
Tom Hanks wins an Oscar for his role in the film, Philadelphia, as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS.
1994
On her TV show, Roseanne, Roseanne Barr kisses Mariel Hemingway’s character.
Ellen DeGeneres’ TV show, Ellen, begins its four-year run.
1996
Supreme Court in Roemer v. Evans rules that Colorado cannot prohibit local gay-rights ordinances. 
Full AIDS quilt, the size of 43 football fields, displays on Washington Mall.
1998
Matthew Shepard is murdered in Wyoming.
1998
The TV show, Will & Grace, debuts.
1999
Vermont Supreme Court rules the state must grant same-sex couples the same rights as married couples.
2000
Vermont enacts civil-union
legislation.
2001
The Netherlands recognizes
same-sex marriages.
2002
Belgium follows The Netherlands to recognize same-sex unions.
2003
Canadian provinces British Columbia and Ontario begin marrying same-sex couples.
California enacts a domestic-partner law.
2004
New Jersey enacts a domestic-partner law.
Same-sex marriages become legal in Massachusetts.
Ohio becomes the 39th state to ban same-sex marriage.
2005
Civil unions become legal in
Connecticut.
2006
Civil unions become legal in New Jersey.
2008
The New York State Appeals Court unanimously rules that valid same-sex marriages in other states must be recognized by employers in New York, granting same-sex couples the same rights as other couples. In May, the California Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. When voters approved Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage in November, more than 18,000 same-sex couples have married. Also that year, Connecticut begins official same-sex marriages.

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