BY PAUL SCHINDLER Jeanne Manford, the Queens mother of two gay sons who co-founded PFLAG –– Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays –– has been named one of 13 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian honor.
When Manford died last month at the age of 92, Jody Huckaby, PFLAG’s national executive director, said, “Jeanne Manford proved the power of a single person to transform the world. She paved the way for us to speak out for what is right, uniting the unique parent, family, and ally voice with the voice of LGBT people everywhere.”
President Barack Obama will honor the Medal winners at a White House ceremony on February 15. The recipients were announced on February 8.
Manford is only the second Citizens Medal recipient honored for her work on LGBT causes. A 2011 Medal went to Janice K. Langbehn, a lesbian who sued a Miami hospital after she and her three young children were denied the right to visit her partner of 18 years, Lisa Marie Pond, as she lay dying after suffering a brain aneurysm while on vacation there in 2007. Despite having been told that they were in “an anti-gay city and state” by a hospital official, Langbehn’s suit was dismissed.
As Andy Humm reported in his remembrance of Manford in Gay City News, Jeanne and her husband Jules lost their first son, Charles, to suicide in 1966, and his parents understood that resulted from his difficulties in accepting that he was gay. When their 15-year-old son Morty complained of depression, the Manfords worked with him to find a therapist who would help him embrace his homosexuality.
After Morty got involved with the gay student group at Columbia University in 1968, participated in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, and became a leader in the Gay Activist Alliance, his parents began providing a second home of sorts for many of his fellow activists –– some who had faced rejection in their own homes.
When Morty was kicked and stomped during a GAA zap aimed at the Inner Circle annual press dinner that attracts the city’s political establishment, Jeanne went public, writing a letter to the New York Post castigating the police for standing by and not doing anything about it.
Manford told author Eric Marcus, “I’m very shy, by the way. But I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over Morty.”
Morty’s attacker, Michael Maye, head of the firefighter’s union, was acquitted of criminal charges.
In late 1972, the Manfords, Dick and Amy Ashworth, their gay son Tucker, and Bob and Elaine Benov met at the Metropolitan Community Church, then housed in the West Village, to begin discussions about a group for parents wishing to support their daughters and sons. Within several months, Parents of Gays, which later became PFLAG, was launched. Today, the group is an international organization with hundreds of local chapters.
At the time of her death, Daniel Dromm, an out gay City Council member from Jackson Heights, Queens, said, “Her activism over the last 40 years and the founding of PFLAG have changed the way that parents and their LGBT children relate.”
Morty Manford died of AIDS in 1992, a decade after his father Jules passed away. Jeanne is survived by her daughter Suzanne Swan, one granddaughter, and three great granddaughters.
Manford’s fellow 2012 Medal recipients include former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, the six women who died defending young children in the December Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, two military veterans, and activists and professionals working on issues of children’s health, poverty, Native American youth, veterans’ and women’s disabilities, and immigration.
In 2001, the Presidential Citizens Medal went to two people engaged in the fight against AIDS –– Dr. David N. Ho, who played a key role in the development of protease inhibitor treatments, and Elizabeth Taylor, the founding chair of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
The highest civilian honor in the nation is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay rights pioneer and city supervisor murdered in his City Hall office in 1978, was recognized with that honor in 2009 by Obama.
In prior years, other LGBT figures, with varying degrees of openness about their sexual orientation –– including Jasper Johns, Lincoln Kirstein, Aaron Copland, and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan –– were similarly honored.
Over the past year, many in the LGBT community have waged a campaign to have Frank Kameny, a Washington, DC, gay activist who first challenged federal government employment discrimination after being fired from his job as an astronomer in 1957, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.