BY ANDY HUMM | The news from North Flushing, Queens is that the dedication of a street corner there in memory of the founders of the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in 1972 — Jeanne and Jules Manford and their son, Morty — was not controversial in the least.
Thirty-fifth Avenue at 171st Street, amidst tidy suburban homes and across the street from the elementary school where Jeanne taught and up the block from the old Manford home, will forever more be “Jeanne, Jules, Morty Manford PFLAG Way,” following an emotional ceremony in bright sunshine on the morning of April 26.
The renaming was driven by Councilman Daniel Dromm, a veteran Queens gay activist who made Jeanne the grand marshal of the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade in 1993, not long after Morty — who, as Gay Activists Alliance president, aided his parents in starting the New York chapter of PFLAG — died of AIDS. Mrs. Manford accepted that honor on the condition that Dromm help her found a Queens chapter of PFLAG, which he did.
The Queens corner designated this past weekend is in the Council district represented by Paul Vallone, who shepherded the name change through his community board last October, while a candidate for City Council, passing it 30-to-1. While Vallone is one of the only members of the Council to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan that excludes Irish gay groups — a policy he told Gay City News he thinks should and will change — he said at the ceremony, “I live right down the block and pass this house when I go to the park with my three children. The Manfords were an amazing family. I told my children, ‘Do you know who lived here?’ I explained PFLAG. Today, children can understand and be happy for everyone. The Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: that’s all of us. Anyone who can’t understand that — that’s their loss.
Dromm said, “This would not have happened without Paul’s support.”
The new Queens borough president, Melinda Katz, said, “I am a member of PFLAG.” She talked about the accepting, artistic family she grew up in (her dad led a symphony orchestra).
“Now that I have two children, when they fall in love it is supported by family and that’s that.” she said.
Behind the speakers was a blow-up of the photo of Morty marching in the 1972 LGBT Pride March with his mother carrying a sign that read “Parents of Gays Unite in Support of Our Children,” a message that brought tremendous cheers from parade watchers, a response the Manfords at first thought was for the world famous Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author of best-selling baby books who was marching near them. Countless gay and lesbian people came up to Jeanne in tears during that parade to thank her, many having been rejected by their own families.
“It’s a different time from 1972,” said local State Assemblyman Ed Braunstein, who spoke of the “privilege” he had voting for the marriage equality bill in 2011.
“There is not one other day that had such an impact on me” in the Assembly, he said. “There was such positive energy in the room and it spread around the country.”
Dromm said that he met Morty at the GAA Firehouse headquarters in Soho back in 1971 when he was just coming out while a student at Marist College. He said of PFLAG, “Homosexuality was still on the index of mental disorders when Jeanne did this. That was incredible.” He noted that many young gay people crashed at their house: “Jeanne was their mother and Jules was their father.”
John Duane, a former Queens Assembly member, and the brother of out gay former State Senator Tom Duane, confirmed that.
“Our parents were not at all supportive” of Tom’s sexual orientation at first, he said, “and we both ran away a number of times to the Manfords. We had dinner here all the time. We felt welcome and loved. That support we got led us to being activists. It gave my brother Tom — gay and HIV-positive — the strength to become the most courageous political leader of our time.”
John Liu, the former city comptroller, was not part of the planned program but came by with his young son, Joey.
“This is a special moment in our neighborhood — an historic moment right here on this block,” he said. “I’m just here with my son to enjoy this moment.”
Dale Bernstein of PFLAG National said, “I’m in awe of Jeanne Manford. We’ve grown to 350 chapters and 200,000 members in the US and we’re in all 50 states.”
Judy Sennesh of PFLAG NYC called Jeanne “my personal hero,” comparing her “to the righteous Gentiles who hid people in the Holocaust. They would tell you they did nothing special.”
Sennesh took the opportunity to express her “outrage” at the New York State Senate’s failure to vote on the long-stalled Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA).
“As the mother of a transgender son, it is time for Governor Cuomo to get on the stick,” she said. “Bring GENDA to the floor! We don’t care whether it is an election year.”
Suzanne Swan, Morty’s sister, said, “This house was a wonderful place to grow up. There was plenty of love to spread around. We welcomed in those who were rejected. My parents were ordinary people — a school teacher and a dentist. They loved their gay son.”
She also spoke of her mother being on the phone “for hours” helping parents who had trouble coping with the news that a son or daughter was gay. As for her father, Jules, she said, “He hated to see people in pain.”
Audrey Mammato, Jeane’s surviving sister, made it to the ceremony in a wheelchair as did Audrey Gallagher, Dromm’s mother and a PFLAG Queens stalwart.
“Jeanne was a fantastic woman,” Gallagher said. “Sometimes you could barely hear her speak but she accomplished so much. Now PFLAG is worldwide.”
And Gallagher, like the Manfords, once took in a gay throwaway kid, “Danny’s friend, 15, whose parents wouldn’t let him back in their house. His father was a fireman, John Lenihan, who led the firefighters against the gay rights bill” in the early 1970s.
A day of many emotional stories.
Like Jeanne, Dromm was a longtime public school teacher.
Emphasizing that “the teaching of LGBT history is very important to me,” he said, “I’m tired of the history books being whitewashed” and noted that kids might learn about tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, for whom a Queens stadium is named, but rarely that she is also a lesbian activist.
With this name change, Dromm is bringing some of that history into the streets of a quiet corner of Queens. Now that he is chair of the Council’s Education Committee, he intends to integrate that history into school curricula throughout the city, as well.