Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mother Love

This is the 4th Sunday in Lent which in the Christian calendar is called Mothering Sunday. In some countries, as here in the UK, this is also when we celebrate Mother’s Day (an American invention which they celebrate in May).

Several years ago I mentioned how I was proud that my mother and father accepted my sexuality without judgement (a legacy of our liberal Methodist upbringing). My main sadness is that neither parent were able to join me at a Pride event like so many parents of other Pride attendees (illness prevented both parents from doing so).

However, I still feel very fortunate as I am. Not everyone is so fortunate. So today, Mothering Sunday, I want to look at two mothers who were pioneers in the formation of organisations for the families and friends of the lgbt community. And this very Mothering Sunday has added significance in the history of those organisations because it is also on the same date on which the US Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) held its first meeting in 1973.
But let’s start in wartime France and a British secret agent billeted with members of the French Resistance.

Rose Laimbeer, an agent with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was parachuted into Nazi-occupied France after her training. During her liaison work between British Intelligence and the French Resistance she stayed with some Resistance fighters. One night, as activist Peter Tatchell revealed in Rose’s obituary, “she entered their room and found them in an embrace. There was mutual embarrassment all round. Not a word was said for three days. Rose knew nothing about homosexuality and was curious. She eventually plucked up the courage to ask them. Both men told stories of family prejudice and rejection. Their story affected her deeply … But it wasn’t until 1965 that she decided to do something about it.”

Britain in the 1960s was going through a change in attitudes to sex and sexuality. It was in 1957 that the Wolfenden Committee recommended that some aspects of homosexual activity should be decriminalised. It was still a period where many gay men were being arrested and prosecuted.

In 1965 Rose Laimbeer, by now Mrs. Rose Robertson and the mother of two boys, opened her home to two young lodgers and she realised fairly soon that they were a couple and not afraid to describe their experiences to her when she enquired. They told her of the homophobic attitudes of their parents. Once again Rose was deeply effected by stories or rejection.

Rose then set up the UK’s first telephone helpline for parents and families of lgbt people to give advice on what to do if a family member comes out as homosexual. This helpline was called Parents Enquiry and was run from Rose Robertson’s own home for several decades.

As word of Parents Enquiry spread Rose Robertson received other calls for advice from people who had been referred to her by local social services and the police. As the reputation of the helpline grew so did Roses’ public profile. She was invited to give talks, lectures and interviews and gradually it became clear that a larger national organisation was needed to handle the volume of callers.

In 1993 Parents Enquiry became a founding member of Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FFLAG). Today FFLAG members take active parts in Pride events. Rose continued to work for, and support, FFLAG up her death at the age of 94 in 2011.
Mrs. Rose Robertson (left) and Mrs. Jeanne Manford (right)
The American PFLAG, whose anniversary we are commemorating today along with Mothering Sunday, originated through a different route.

Mrs. Jeanne Manford’s gay son Monty was present at the Stonewall Inn in New York during the landmark riot in 1969. He took no active part in the violence but he was prompted to join the Gay Activist’s Alliance as a result.

In 1972 the New York Daily News ran an editorial which made derogatory remarks on gays and lesbians and the recently defeated Gay Civil Rights Bill. Monty Manford protested by handing out leaflets criticising the editorial at a prestigious dinner at the Hilton Hotel in New York.

A frequent form of active protest among thee early gay protest groups was the “zap”, a physical interruption to any event or meeting. Monty added a zap to his leaflet distribution and stormed the speech platform. A tussle broke out and Monty was pushed to the floor and stamped upon (by a former heavyweight boxer) and he and several other activists were hospitalised.

At the home of Monty’s parents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, a phone call alerted them to their son’s plight. They were horrified at the way Monty had been attacked and Jean sat down and wrote a letter to the Daily News that same day. In it she came out as the proud mother of a gay son, and complained at the inaction of the police to change the assaulters.

A couple of months later Jeanne Manford accompanied her son on the New York City Gay Pride march proudly holding a placard which read “Parents of Gays: UNITE in support of our children”. She may not have been the first parent to march with an lgbt child in a Pride march but she was probably the first to make visible her desire to protest with her son. The response was phenomenal, Hundreds of gay men yelled with pleasure. Many ran over to kiss and hug her and express their hurt at not having a parent who would not march with them.

Jeanne Manford’s phone never stopped ringing after that. And so the idea of a special organisation and support helpline for parents of lgbt children was formed. Initially called “Parents of Gays”, the first official meeting was held on this very day in 1973 in the Duane United Methodist Church. Even though only 20 people attended the meeting paved the way for the formation of the organisation now known as PFLAG.

In 2012 Jeanne Manford was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for her contribution to the community.

On this Mothering Sunday we remember Rose Robertson and Jeanne Manford and celebrate their influence in the lives of so many families and friends in the lgbt community.

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