In Memoriam: Jeanne Manford (1920-2013)

PFLAG Founder Jeanne Manford
Courtesy of PFLAG

Jeanne Manford, mother of gay rights activist Morty Manford, pioneering straight ally in the gay rights movement, and the founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), died at her home in Daly City, Calif., on Jan. 8. She was 92.

Manford had been in declining health, according to her daughter, Suzanne Swan.

Manford was born Jeanne Sobelson on Dec. 4, 1920, in Flushing, Queens, New York. One of five sisters, she and her husband, Dr. Jules Manford, had three children: Charles (who passed away in 1966), her son Morty (who passed away in 1992), and her daughter Suzanne (who survives her). It was her outspoken support of Morty during a gay rights march in New York in 1972 that led Manford on a 40-year journey of outspoken activism for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

PFLAG Founder Jeanne Manford holds a photo of Morty Manford circa 1993.
Manford became active on behalf of gay rights after the police failed to intervene while Morty was kicked and beaten during a Gay Activists Alliance demonstration in April 1972. She wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, which was published in the April 29, 1972, issue, expressing her outrage at the incident. In that letter she also stated, “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” The statement sparked much public response and drew attention to violence against gays.

In June of 1972 Manford joined her son in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade (predecessor to NYC Gay Pride Parade), carrying a placard stating, “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of our Children.” She assumed the cheers and encouragement heard from the crowd were for Dr. Benjamin Spock, who walked just behind her and her son. It wasn’t until parade participants began to approach her and express gratitude for her presence with hugs and tears, asking Manford to speak with their own parents to help them understand, that she realized the cheers were for her and her open support of gay children.

The Manfords had been discussing organizing a support group for parents of gay children; these events convinced them such a group was needed. About 20 people attended the first meeting at the Metropolitan Community Church on March 11, 1973. At first the group called itself “Parents of Gays,” or “POG.” The group sought to give parents a place to ask questions, talk about their issues, and begin to better understand their children. Groups developed across New York and in other major American cities as the gay rights movement as a whole developed, and all the while Jeanne and her husband Jules spoke out for their cause through television, newspaper, and radio interviews.

By the early 1980s, the group formally established itself as a national organization fighting for equality for LGBT people. At about that time the name of the organization was changed to “Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” (PFLAG). PFLAG is now an international organization of parents, family members, and friends working for understanding and support of their gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual loved ones.

In addition to her daughter Suzanne, Manford is survived by her son-in-law, Richard Swan, her granddaughter, Avril Swan, Avril’s husband, Stuart Streepy, and great-granddaughters Clara, Grace, and Jules.

“I will miss my mother tremendously,” Suzanne Swan said. “She is known to thousands of people as the mother of the straight ally movement, but to me she was my mother. She was someone who would always do the right thing, the good thing. She supported all people, and that meant so much to us growing up.”
A private service will be held and details of a later celebration of Jeanne Manford’s life and legacy will be announced. The family requests that any donations be made to the Jeanne Manford Legacy Fund to support the ongoing work of PFLAG National: 1828 L Street, NW, Suite 660, Washington, DC, 20036.

PFLAG is the original family and straight ally organization. Made up of parents, families, friends, and straight allies uniting with LGBT people, PFLAG is committed to advancing equality through its mission of support, education, and advocacy. Now entering its 40th year, PFLAG has more than 350 chapters and 200,000 supporters crossing multiple generations of American families in major urban centers, small cities, and rural areas in all 50 states. To learn more, visit pflag.org.