For gay men and lesbians, it was a different day and age.
The year was 1972, and the concepts of same-sex marriage, partner benefits or even openly stating your sexuality were foreign. Instead, gay and lesbian men and women faced open ridicule and discrimination – and Jeanne Manford was sick of it. The headstrong mom took a stand by walking with her gay son, Morty, in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day March, known now as the city’s most famed Pride parade. The gesture would open the flood gates of parents looking for ways to support and understand their same gender loving children, eventually birthing what would come to be known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Now known as PFLAG, the grassroots network born that day is still standing strong, with chapters across the country, including here in Atlanta. PFLAG Atlanta will mark its 30th anniversary this year, celebrating with a high-profile spot as grand marshal in the Atlanta Pride Parade on Oct. 9.
Three decades after its start, PFLAG Atlanta leaders say the grassroots group has pivoted to become more relevant to families with new and more complex issues – among them, transgender needs and sexual identity among increasingly precocious youth.
The national group recently embraced a more transgender-friendly name, while locally, Atlanta support circles have opened meetings to children.
“For some people, this really is a safe haven, where they can feel safe and welcome,” said PFLAG Atlanta president Maria Voutos, explaining the group’s staying power.
The PFLAG Atlanta format is simple: Queer men and women, allies and any other supporters meet on first Mondays and third Sundays, form a circle and talk about whatever they need to get out.
The Atlanta group has two chapters with roughly 200 paid member families, and a rotating cast of visitors; Voutos said while they don’t keep a tally of visitors, each of the support circles has been growing to upward of 30 attendees, she said.
Those range from men and women who are practicing coming out themselves to families anticipating a member coming out.
“On the other hand, we have parents coming in who are distraught and not understanding and in tears,” Voutos said. “[They’re] really struggling to find a place where they can connect with their child.”
PFLAG chapters in over 400 communities
It was the desire to see her child accepted that originally led Manford to join her son marching down Christopher Street all those years go. According to PFLAG lore, so many gay and lesbian men and women approached Manford to speak to their parents that she decided to begin a support group.
The first meeting took place on March 26, 1973 in a Greenwich Village church, according to the national group. About 20 people attended.
Decades later, chapters exist in over 400 communities, from Alaska to Alabama. Outside Atlanta, the Georgia region includes chapters in Johns Creek, Marietta, Macon, Peachtree City and Athens.
Over time, Voutos said the group’s mission has stretched to include educating the community on LGBT issues. In turn, she said the community is educating them on their needs – which increasingly center on transgender and queer youth.
Families like the Slipakoffs, in Kennesaw, typify the new face of LGBT families.
Eight years ago, Jennifer Slipakoff was looking forward to welcoming a son. Already the mother of one rough and tumble boy, she readied her nursery with traditional boys décor, and prepared for a house bustling with trucks and play gun fights.
Her transgender daughter Allie, now a third grader, had other plans.
Slipakoff said she first noticed her daughter gravitating to traditionally feminine things around 18 months – a doll here, female-themed pajamas there. When her little one started turning capes into skirts and pillowcases into flowing hair, Slipakoff concluded she was going to have a gay son.
Then one day, Slipakoff said Allie feigned sleepiness and slipped into the girl’s pajamas her open-minded parents had bought for her. Moments later, Slipakoff said her toddler was wide awake – but unwilling to take off the pajamas.
“I realized that she had just put those pajamas on because they were girl’s clothes,” said Slipakoff, who, in a lightbulb moment, realized she was seeing more than just a gay youth.
Over the next few years, her child transitioned into full-time girls clothing, female pronouns and a name that suited her better than her birth name. By the time Allie talked about being a mom, not a parent, Slipakoff had started looking for families like hers.
She joined PFLAG Atlanta two years ago. It has since become an invaluable place to meet people who understand the journey of raising a young transwoman.
“For me,” she said, “it’s just a place where people get it.”
For their work helping create a safe space for countless LGBT families and supporters, PFLAG Atlanta will be honored with a grand marshal slot in the Atlanta Pride Parade on Oct. 9. The parade will feature a dozen such grand marshals, nominated for ongoing contributions to the LGBT community. Other grand marshals include Simone Bell, southern regional director for Lambda Legal, and Out On Film.
By being in the parade, Voutos said the group hopes to build toward its future by echoing the past and that bold day so many years ago.
“It’s the opportunity for us to say come and talk to us,” Voutos said.