When Jeanne Manford marched with her son Morty in a gay pride parade in 1972 holding a sign that read “Parents of Gays Unite for Our Children,” it wasn't common for openly gay men and women to enjoy the support of their parents.
“You didn't see it that often,” said Rich Wandel, the past president of the Gay Activists Alliance, speaking after a ceremony Saturday to rename the block of the old Manford home after the family. “What people were saying here today is true, we were all cheering Jeanne during that parade.”
The Manfords moved to a three-story home on 171st Street just off of 35th Avenue in the late 1950s. Jules Manford was a dentist, while Jeanne taught at P.S. 32 at the end of the block. Mrs. Manford first became active after Morty, then 21, was badly beaten during a protest outside a dinner of the Inner Circle, a group of journalists who cover City Hall.
Mrs. Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post criticizing the police for doing nothing to stop the attack. The letter, and it's declaration “I am proud of my son,” quickly gained national attention.
Shortly after marching in the 1972 parade, the Manford parents formed a group called Parents of Gays, which eventually became the national organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gay, or PFLAG.
And their modest home in Flushing – which a New York Times article last year called the “cradle of the gay rights movement - quickly became a safe haven for young gay men and women who didn't find the same support from their parents that Morty enjoyed.
“Jeanne was to many people what they didn't have - a mother,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm, who along with Councilman Paul Vallone, whose district includes the Manford home, pushed for renaming the street “Jeanne, Jules, Morty Manford PFLAG way.”
“This is not only an LGBT story, this story is about a family's love,” added Dromm, also a gay man whose own mother attended the ceremony last week. “Today maybe we don't think it's too big, but it's still huge in some parts of this country.”
Two people who found solace and comfort in the Manford home were John Duane and his brother Tom, who grew up a few blocks from the Manfords. The Duane parents were not as accepting of Tom's sexual orientation as Morty's family, and the siblings would often head to the home on 171st Street when things got too heated in their own house.
“We were always welcomed here,” said John Duane.
John would go on to serve in the state Assembly, while Tom is currently serving in the State Senate, representing parts of Manhattan as the first openly gay and HIV-positive member of that legislative body.
“I believe that the power he got from the Manford family allowed him to be politically active,” Duane said of his brother.
Somewhat fittingly, it was another parade that would bring PFLAG to Queens. In 1992, Dromm, then a school teacher and organizer of the Queens Pride Parade, approached Mrs. Manford about marching in the annual Jackson Heights procession. She agreed, but on one condition: that Dromm help found a Queens chapter of PFLAG.
Shortly after the parade, the first meetings of the Queens chapter were held at The Church on the Hill just a few blocks from the Manford family home. Several representatives of PFLAG attended the renaming ceremony on Saturday.
“I'm in awe of Jeanne Manford,” said Dale Bernstein, board member of PFLAG National, which today boasts 350 chapters and over 200,000 members. “We do it today because it feels right, but when Jeanne did it, it was so courageous.”
Drew Tagliabue, executive director of PFLAG NYC, noted that Jeanne's vision for the organization was more than a support group for parents struggling with their child's sexual identity, but also one focused on activism.
“It was going to be more than just counseling teary-eyed parents,” said Tagliabue, before noting the group still has its fair share of parents who still need a shoulder and a box of tissues. “But we focus on moving them quickly from that stage to getting involved.”
Dr. Manford died in 1982. Morty died ten years later at the age of 41 due to complications from AIDS. Another brother, Charles, had died unexpectedly at the age of 22 in 1966. And Mrs. Manford passed away in January of 2013.
The Manford's third child, daughter Suzanne Swan, traveled from San Francisco with her husband, Rich, for the ceremony. She said the phone in the Flushing home rang for hours at at time, and on the other end were either young gay men and women looking for comfort or parents of gay children looking for support.
“They would be pleased to see how well they succeeded,” Swan said of her parents.
She also referenced the large gay community in the city that she now calls home. “I bet you a large portion of the people who are there, are there because at some point their own parents kicked them out of the house.”