Born Jean Sobelson in Flushing, Queens in 1920, the third of five daughters of Sadie, a housewife, and Charles Sobelson, a salesman, she studied for a short time in Alabama before stopping her studies to return home after her father’s death. She married Jules Manford, had three children (Charles, Morty and Suzanne). Charles though unfortunately died in 1966. We are unsure of the cause of death.
In April 1972, Jeanne Manford and her husband Jules were at home in Flushing, Queens, when they learned from a phone call from the hospital that her son Morty, a gay activist, had been beaten while distributing flyers inside the 50th annual Inner Circle dinner. The Inner Circle is an American parody group made up of seasoned reporters, bloggers, web journalists, and television and radio personalities. It hosts an event every year in March at the New York Hilton, and each year the show has a different theme. There is a strict “No Professional Talent” rule.
Reports stated that Morty was “kicked and stomped” while being led away by police. In response, she wrote a letter of protest to the New York Post that identified herself as the mother of a gay protester and complained of police inaction saying “I have a homosexual son and I love him”.
A Mother’s Love
She gave interviews to radio and television shows in several cities in the weeks that followed, always accompanied by her husband or son.
On 25th June 1972, she participated with her son in the New York Pride March, carrying a hand-lettered sign that read “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children”. At the time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and sodomy a crime, and California Senator Mark Leno has subsequently reflected that “for her to step into the street to declare support for her mentally ill, outlaw son – that was no small act … But it was what a mother’s love does”.
Prompted by their enthusiastic reception, they developed an idea for an organisation of the parents of gays and lesbians that could be, she later said, “a bridge between the gay community and the heterosexual community”. They were soon holding meetings for such parents, with her husband participating as well. She called him “a very articulate person … a much better speaker than I. He was right along with me on everything.”
The first formal meeting took place on 11th March 1973 at the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church in Greenwich Village (now the Church of the Village). Approximately 20 people attended. In the next few years, through word of mouth and community need, similar groups sprang up around the country, offering “safe havens” and mutual support for parents with gay and lesbian children.
In 1976, PFLAG LA had their first meeting of 30 parents. By 1977, the group had integrated with other LGBT activist groups to oppose Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade and defeat the statewide Briggs Initiative.
The Briggs Initiative, officially California Proposition 6, was a ballot initiative put to a referendum on the California state ballot in the November 7, 1978 election. It was sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County. The failed initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools.
By 1980, PFLAG, then known as Parents FLAG, began to distribute information to educational institutions and communities of faith nationwide, establishing itself as a source of information for the general public. When Adele Starr, who organised the Los Angeles P-FLAG chapter, called “Dear Abby” to discuss the purpose of P-FLAG, “Dear Abby” mentioned PFLAG in one of her advice columns.
Los Angeles P-FLAG then received more than 7,500 letters requesting information. Every letter was answered by a member of the chapter. In 1981, members decided to launch a national organisation. The first PFLAG office was established in Los Angeles under founding president Adele Starr.
Manford recalled in a 1996 interview the cheers she received in the parade, and that the “young people were hugging me, kissing me, screaming, asking if I would talk to their parents … [as] few of them were out to their parents for fear of rejection.”
Morty’s attacker went on to testify for gay rights on behalf of teamsters’ union president Barry Feinstein more than a decade later, and formed a cordial relationship with Morty, regularly joining him for coffee and pastry.
Jeanne Manford’s Retirement and Honours
Whilst doing all this she was a school teacher at the same time. After teaching at Flushing’s PS 32 for 26 years, Manford retired in 1990 at 70 years of age.
Her son Morty, who became an assistant New York State attorney general, died of AIDS at age 41 in 1992, and her husband Jules had died in 1982.
She relocated to Rochester, Minnesota, in 1996 to be near her family. In October 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama recounted Manford’s founding of PFLAG in a televised speech before the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner.
Jeanne Manford died at home in Daly City, California on January 8, 2013, aged 92. A collection of Manford’s papers is archived at the New York Public Library. James Martin, Catholic Jesuit priest and editor of America, paid tribute to her: “No matter what you think about the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage, no matter what religion you are, no matter what political party you favor, I hope that you say a prayer for Mrs. Manford. For she loved prophetically.”
In February 2013, it was announced that President Barack Obama was to honour 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.
She was one of 18 Americans selected to receive the award from more than 6,000 nominations. It recognises “exemplary deeds of service for their country and their fellow citizens”.
On 15th February 2013, Manford’s daughter, Suzanne Manford Swan, accepted the award on her behalf at a White House ceremony at which Obama said: “These folks participate, they get involved, they have a point of view. They don’t just wait for somebody else to do something, they go out there and do it, and they join and they become part of groups and they mobilize and they organize.”
The President described the founding of PFLAG and continued: “This was back in 1972. There was a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol toward gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them. But instead, she wrote to the local newspaper and took to the streets with a simple message: No matter who her son was — no matter who he loved — she loved him, and wouldn’t put up with this kind of nonsense.” He said “that simple act” provided the impetus for a national organisation “that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country”.
On 26th April 2014, on 171st Street between 33rd and 35th Avenues in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens, New York was named “Jeanne, Jules, Morty Manford PFLAG Way“.
On 20th May 2017, the US Post Office-Jackson Heights Station was dedicated to Jeanne and Jules Manford.
In June 2019, Jeanne Manford was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
You can listen to this and more in our podcast episode: