Jeanne Sobelson Manford was born in Flushing, Queens. She was married and the mother of three when she graduated from Queens College in 1964. For the next 26 years, she was an elementary school math teacher at PS 32 in Queens; she retired in 1990.
In the early 1970s, she put into action the simple but radical concept — parents of LGBT people helping each other to accept their children and get over their own upset about their kids’ sexual orientation.
Her co-founding of what was then called Parents of Gays grew out of her fierce devotion to her gay activist son, Morty Manford. And the intensity of that devotion — it has now come to light — was likely due to the fate of her other son, Charles, who died before she and Morty became activists.
What has also been missing from most of the tributes to Jeanne Manford is the key role her son’s pioneering group, the Gay Activists Alliance, played in the founding of Parents of Gays (POG, but now the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, PFLAG).
Ethan Geto, 69, himself a legendary gay activist and one of the city’s leading political consultants, was very close to the Manfords, and Morty came to live with him in Manhattan after he left the family’s home in Queens in the early 1970s.
In 1966, Morty’s older brother Charles “committed suicide,” Geto said, “and it was pretty apparent…that he did it because he couldn’t cope with his increasing recognition that he was gay…. When Morty came out to his parents, Jules and Jeanne, their reaction was, ‘I am not going to lose another son because this society is so prejudiced against gay people. I want my son to thrive.’ She was instantly supportive. Jules came around — and quickly.”
Shortly after Charles’ suicide, Morty — himself depressed at 15 — asked his parents if he could see a therapist. The second therapist he saw told the Manfords, to Morty’s dismay, that their son was homosexual.
Geto said, “Her first reaction was to get him the help that he needed — not to change him, but to make sure he was okay. She wanted to do something. Her attitude was, ‘I cannot let happen to Morty what happened to Charles — I have to do everything I can in my own little way to change society.’ It turned out to be in a big way.”
Morty soon became a pre-Stonewall activist, involved with the formation of the gay group at Columbia University in 1968. He participated in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and soon became a leader of the Gay Activists Alliance.
It was Jeanne’s motherly affection for her son and Morty’s comrades that led her to go public in 1972, when Morty was physically attacked while engaged in a GAA action aimed at the Inner Circle press dinner that attracts the city’s political establishment annually. Morty was kicked and stomped there by Michael Maye, head of the firefighter’s union and one of the leading opponents of the city’s gay rights bill. Following press coverage, Jeanne wrote a letter published in the New York Post defending her son and attacking the police for standing by and not doing anything about it.
In the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation Day march commemorating the third anniversary of Stonewall, Jeanne marched with her son and daughter, Suzanne, carrying a sign that read: “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.” In a famous photo of that bit of history, Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of the best-selling books on caring for newborns, can be seen behind Morty, and the Manfords thought the intense cheering they heard from the sidelines was for him. But as it has been ever since, it was a mother and sister stepping up to march for their son and brother who were receiving the heartfelt thanks from a community where so many have suffered family rejection.
In late 1972, Geto was part of a meeting with the Manfords, Dick and Amy Ashworth, their son Tucker, and Bob and Elaine Benov at the Metropolitan Community Church…. “They said, ‘We’ve got to form an organization. We need to reach other parents’ … There were all these people with troubled relationships with their families. Parents were suffering and the kids were. From that day forward, [Jeanne] worked hard and organized. Would call parents cold when she learned they had a problem. ‘We don’t want to intrude,’ she’d say, ‘but we can help.’”
Parents of Gays met in early 1973 as a self-help support group and blossomed into what it is today, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters. In 1991, Jeanne was grand marshal of the LGBT Pride Parade in Manhattan and, in 1993, grand marshal of the first such parade in Queens.
Geto said that “at the end stages of Morty’s illness, he lived at home, refusing to be hospitalized. He slept on a bed downstairs in the living room — not out of the way in a bedroom upstairs — with IVs, right there when you came into house with people coming and going. His mother insisted. She wanted to take care of him personally…. He wanted to be at home and his mother wanted him at home. Her devotion was there to the last day.”
On February 15, 2013, President Obama honored Jeanne Manford posthumously with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal the second highest civilian award given by the United States, for her work in co-founding PFLAG and ongoing years of LGBT advocacy.
Adapted from obituary in Gay City News, January 16, 2013