On a rainy October night in 1978, Annella Harrison of Houston met with another mother of a gay child, because “the anguish, grief, and disappointment had become unbearable,” Harrison said later.
A career nurse and counselor, Harrison had no problem with her son Patrick McIlvain’s sexual orientation, but she was deeply concerned about the hatred that was directed at him daily.
In June 1978, Harrison had spoken publicly about her concerns during a Houston City Council meeting. By October, she was ready to take things a step further and organize against what she saw as unfair treatment.
Harrison, now deceased, and the other mother whose identity is unknown, discussed the discrimination facing their children, and explored ways to help. Their conversation gave birth to what would become the Houston chapter of PFLAG (formerly Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
On October 13, PFLAG Houston will mark its 40th anniversary with a celebration at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church.
“Coming out was always the most important part of the gay movement,” says pioneering LGBTQ activist Ray Hill. “PFLAG has made it easier for people to come out to their parents. The organization has provided proof that accepting parents do exist, and it has helped parents become accepting after their children come out.”
Longtime Houston LGBTQ activist Deborah Bell says when she finally came out to her mother, she turned to PFLAG for help.
“I did not come out until my 30s, and it was several years after that before I came out to my family of origin,” Bell says. “PFLAG is an excellent resource for anyone, wherever they are in that process.”
The Early Years
The group formed by Harrison and the other mother was originally called FAFOG (Families and Friends of Gays). Its first year became a blur of media attention, with Harrison and others appearing widely on TV, radio, and in local newspapers.
In 1979, Harrison traveled to Washington DC for the National Gay March on Washington. The day before the march, she met with dozens of people from similar groups across the country. From their meeting emerged a national network, which evolved into the federation called PFLAG.
“Unlike the more internal support groups in the gay community, this one dances on the fringe—pulling in the hurt, the bewildered, the disillusioned parents and friends who want to understand and accept their gay sons or daughters or longtime friends,” the Montrose Voice newspaper reported in 1984.
At the time, president Freda Jerrell said the group’s monthly meetings drew an average of 30 people. Jerrell and her husband, Frank, were deeply committed to the cause, joining RMCC and visiting Montrose bars with their ever-growing circle of gay and lesbian friends. In 1985, the group’s visibility had increased to the point that Jerrell was named grand marshal of Houston’s Pride parade.
By 1995, co-president Gail Rickey reported that the organization had 250 paid members, and an average attendance of 125 at monthly meetings. The group’s newsletter was distributed to a mailing list of 700.
A year earlier, PFLAG Houston sponsored its first “Healing the Hurt” conference, designed to train educators, counselors, and law-enforcement officials about issues facing the LGBTQ community. PFLAG Houston also premiered the film Always My Kid, a groundbreaking family guide to accepting a gay or lesbian child or sibling. The film was produced in cooperation with Houston-based Triangle Films.
In 1996, the organization organized a bus trip to Washington DC to lobby in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. That successful trip was featured on the cover of OutSmart and also gave rise to the documentary film Claiming America’s Promise.
PFLAG Houston twice financed local billboard campaigns, although some of the signs were defaced. The group also placed ads on Metro buses and produced PSA videos about hate speech that some local TV stations refused to air.
An Evolving Mission
By 2005, participation in PFLAG Houston had begun to decline, according to then-president Jim Null. In 2009, president Deb Smith said in an OutSmart story that membership had fallen to 100, and the group’s annual budget had dropped from $12,000 to $4,000.
Faced with possible extinction, PFLAG Houston responded with a practical solution: forward-thinking members reinvented the organization.
A new focus was placed on transgender individuals and their families. Children as young as 5 and 7 were coming out as trans, and PFLAG Houston added a sharing group specifically for families dealing with gender-identity issues.
“It’s the biggest sharing group we have now,” says current co-president Aaron Ritchie, the father of a 15-year-old trans son.
PFLAG has also placed a renewed emphasis on serving communities of color and reaching out to bisexual and gender-expansive individuals.
“We do a lot of ‘tabling’—setting up tables at conferences, festivals, and all sorts of gatherings,” says current co-president Rosemary Cloud.
The group is also active in “lobby days” when the Texas Legislature is in session. During the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance fight in 2015, PFLAG members canvassed and phone-banked in support of the ordinance.
Currently, the group has about 100 dues-paying members. While their general monthly meeting at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church draws an average of 40 people, additional meetings are held in three satellite locations—Clear Lake, Katy, and Montrose—with a fourth in Pearland in the planning stages.
PFLAG Houston leaders say the group is deeply concerned about LGBTQ youth, especially homeless teens, and works with Harris County to make facilities more LGBTQ-friendly. The organization is also proud of its involvement in Out for Education—a scholarship foundation that grew out of PFLAG Houston’s initial gift of $1,000 in 1996. In the past two decades, over $1.8 million has been awarded to LGBTQ students.
PFLAG Houston’s T-shirts bear the slogan “You’ll Always Have a Home at PFLAG.” Over the last 40 years, 14 PFLAG members have served as grand marshals in the annual Houston Pride parade, and the group has twice been honored as Organizational Grand Marshal. Cloud says Pride parade spectators often reach over the barrier to hug her and say, “I wish my parents were like you.”
And a parent can never be too old to care: one long-time PFLAG Houston member and former Pride grand marshal, Blake Weisser, remains a tireless advocate at age 99. She will turn 100 next May.
What: PFLAG Houston 40th-Anniversary Celebration
When: 7–10 p.m. on October 13
Where: RMCC, 2025 W. 11th St.
More info: pflaghouston.org
This article appears in the October 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.