2018-09-20 / Front Page

PFLAG Brings Hope to Local LGBTQ Allies

By P. Udoma

It is 1980, and five of us on the “steering committee” for the Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York (GLYNY) sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Metropolitan Community Church, in Manhattan’s West Village. We’re waiting for a room to open up for our weekly meeting. Little by little we are joined by other teens.

Many of our members live on the streets or, having been kicked out of their homes for being gay or trans, turn tricks for room and board. We are big sisters and brothers to them at the ripe old ages of 18-20, being sounding boards, helping them find jobs and safe places to stay, even buying food for them on group treks to the grocery store.

Back then, non-heterosexuals could claim a handful of terms to describe themselves. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer. Those who chose to surgically alter their sex were “Transsexual.”

Now, there are many new terms to describe people who don’t fall along strict (read: traditional) gender lines or who choose not to be limited by terms that don’t describe them.

So much has changed since then, at least in the terms we use, and in legislation, even in the level of acceptance people feel within their circle of family and friends. And yet so little has changed, at least in people’s need for human connection and understanding. Which is the reason for PFLAG.

The nonprofit, whose original name was an acronym for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is the U.S.’s first and largest national organization that unites families and allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (nonbinary in gender). It was founded by Jeanne Manford in New York City, in 1972.

We used to march alongside them in gay pride demonstrations around the country each June, not yet knowing that they existed to make the world better for us. Now, they are a more than 400-chapter network that provides confidential peer support, education and advocacy in nearly all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

On Sept. 27, from 7-8:30 p.m., at Channing Church, there will be an open house to introduce the community to Newport’s new satellite chapter of PFLAG Greater Providence, an initiative spearheaded by Doreen LePage, an area educator.

LePage joined PFLAG five years ago when her daughter, Gillian, came out, wanting to learn how she could be a strong supporter and ally for her, “and also to learn how to come out myself – and to myself – as a parent, in terms of discussing the issue with family and friends.”

In April, LePage attended a workshop with the founder and president emeritus of PFLAG Greater Providence, Myra Shays, and explained her desire to found a satellite group in Newport. “With her encouragement, I was off to the races,” LePage says, noting that she wanted to open a satellite in the Newport area because many locals felt that Providence was "too far" to travel.

A past president of PFLAG Greater Providence, now the PFLAG Northeast regional director, Sandra Richard, agreed. “This is Rhode Island, you know,” she said with a quick laugh.

Richard’s husband, Ron, joined the conversation with his wife, as the newly elected president of PFLAG Greater Providence. He accepted the role because, he says, “We benefited greatly from [PFLAG] when our transgendered daughter came out at the end of 2009…. Our meetings are able to help people who have questions about the journey that they or some of their loved ones are about to take.

Sandra noted that PFLAG is nondenominational, only meeting in houses of worship as they offer spaces at minimal fees, and that PFLAG provides meetings “for people to go to who may not have support in their families – even parents, with their extended families – in understanding how to accept and support an LGBTQ loved one … We know what people are going through because some of us have gone through the same thing.”

One such person is Mary Benson, of Saunderstown, a member of Channing Church who plans to attend to the PFLAG open house and become active in the satellite group.

Her daughter, Anne, started a PFLAG chapter in Norwalk, Connecticut when her daughter Hailey transitioned to become who he is now, Benson’s 10-year-old grandson, Hayes.

Benson recently gave a talk at Channing Church about Hayes, in which she explained his growing recognition that he was born into the wrong body (he knew this by the time he was 2) and how she and her family sought help and answers to their questions, especially as doctors told them that it was probably just a phase that Hailey would outgrow.

“One contact led to another and all of a sudden it was like the floodgates opened and there were professionals and lay people alike ready to help Hayes’ parents and validate what they were feeling,” Benson said.

Benson recalls, “Shortly after Hayes transitioned, I was at another of my grandchildren’s ballet recitals, and I [thought], ‘Oh, my God, why can’t that be Hayes'! And then [I said to myself], ‘Wait a minute. That never was Hayes. Hayes was never that kid.’ Maybe in my mind he was that kid. But Hayes was never that kid.”

Benson wants to contribute to others in the same way that people contributed to her.

Korey Morris, a vet tech who volunteers with the Potter League and lives in Middletown, has not been involved with PFLAG, but the open house and prospect of a satellite chapter piqued his interest because, “When I [came out as a gay man in 1995] … we didn’t have anything like that.”

He sees the need for PFLAG on the island because, “nobody should feel like they’re alone.”

Morris intends to bring Newport’s satellite chapter of PFLAG and Potter League together for events and other activities. “At the Potter League they’re accepting, too, of everybody, so this would be a great team to [put] together.”

“I don’t know that grandparents necessarily get that much support,” says Benson. “Just to let somebody know, ‘Hey, it’s okay. You’re not alone. And there’s a whole lot of people in this situation’,” she said.

“The best thing I ever did was to be right up front about it. ‘Listen, this is what it is. I’ve got to tell you about my grandchild.’”

For more information about the open house, contact LePage at led1pflagnewport@gmail.com.

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