Celebrating a Greater Boston PFLAG Pioneer
We recently interviewed Ann so we could offer her insights, wisdom, and experience to everyone as a reminder of her amazing work. Also, we wanted to share this as a tribute to what makes this organization and the people who make it up something very special.
Here are the questions and answers to Ann’s interview.
When did you start? Where?
My first meeting was in June 1985 and it was in the same place we still meet today. The First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. We met in the basement back then. Now we are in a smaller room upstairs.
What inspired you to start?
My brother is gay and he had been out 10 years before that meeting in ‘85. I knew about PFLAG because my mom in New York had gone after my brother had come out. Siblings, though have different feelings and issues, so I didn’t feel a need for support when he first came out.
I went to PFLAG because at the time I was working for the state agency that oversaw foster care and there was a very public case about two young boys being yanked out of a foster home where they had been thriving. They were removed from the house because someone heard the foster parents were gay. The whole agency went a bit crazy and rewrote the entire foster care policy to virtually disallow gay people from becoming foster parents.
This made me furious. It was such an injustice to the foster parents and to the children! People had stereotypes of gay men as being pedophiles, which of course was totally ludicrous and insulting. I knew my brother as a good man and that the generalization that gay men couldn’t be foster parents wasn’t right. PFLAG felt like a place I could go to talk about how this upset me, where people would understand why I felt the way I did.
What do you remember from your first meeting?
There were about a dozen people. We did basic introductions like we still do now. We went around the circle and said what brought us there. When it got to me… I just burst into tears because it was the first time I had been able to talk about it. It was very emotional for me. That’s what I remember…. that and feeling a lot better by the end of the meeting.
After that, I kept going to the monthly meetings. I didn’t feel like I needed support in the way that most people do, like parents coming and needing support. It was different. It was a place I could vent, hear other people’s stories, and as time went on, I saw the power of PFLAG and eventually felt that I had something to give back. I also felt I had a lot to learn about gay people coming out and what that was like for their families. It was a way for me to keep learning about what things might have been like for my brother. There were a lot of gay people at these meetings trying to figure out how to come out to their parents or what to do after they had come out if their parents were struggling with it.
What do you remember from your earlier years?
The meetings were about a dozen people at first, and then boomed into regularly having 40 or more people at meetings for quite a while. We had to split up into as many as 4 smaller groups at times. It saw a huge growth and then gradually shrunk back to smaller meetings. In the earlier days, it was parents of adults who were coming, because people were coming out after having been in the closet for a long time, into their 20’s and 30’s. Parents were often sobbing, seriously struggling with understanding and accepting. Now it is more parents of younger children with more parents of transgender folks. The state, the country, and individuals have evolved over time in a positive direction, and that is reflected in our group.
PFLAG itself has evolved, even in its name. It was originally Parents of Gays, then Parents of Lesbians and Gays, and on through discussions around including families, and friends, and of course bisexuals and transgender people, in the mission.
How has your role changed over time?
I had been there for about a year and then the chapter leader at the time left. Funny enough, my first meeting was also the first meeting of the people I would go on to facilitate the group with, George and Alice Clattenburg. By 1986 the three of us were co-leading, until they left to lead the Concord chapter, and I continued as the sole chapter leader in Arlington.
Also, as an advocate, at first we lobbied for a basic equal rights bill, then a student rights bill, then marriage, and now more for trans rights. That has been another evolution toward increasing acceptance and equal rights.
What made you keep going and want to be a leader?
Being a chapter leader has always been a very rewarding thing. I just continued to learn. It was also seeing the relief on a parents face or in their whole body from the beginning of their first meeting and as they left. Just providing that safe place for them.
PFLAG provided a bridge for LGB people and straight parents and other allies. For parents to hear that it was scary for LGB people to come out and for LGB people to hear what it was like for their parents when they told them they were gay. It just helped people realize they weren’t alone in their struggle. It also reminded LGB people that their parents were on a journey and why it may be hard for them. For parents hearing from LGB people it taught them just how hard, scary, and difficult coming out can be.
Eventually were more chapters. Eventually chapter leaders started meeting as a steering committee to coordinate and support one another. That led to us starting a board, getting non-profit status, and developing by-laws. I was president of the board for several years. We launched the safe schools project, which was funded by the state Department of Education at the time. All of these developments grew from the support groups and the leadership that grew from participants. As did the speakers for the speakers bureau and people became advocates for LGBT rights over the years.
We are going to miss you! What makes now feel like a good time to step aside for Charlotte?
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and PFLAG has gone through changes and continues to go through changes. It feels like it is time to hand it over, time to step away and let it continue with new people. I have an awesome co-facilitator in Charlotte and I know I am leaving the chapter in good hands!
What do you want other support group members and leaders to know?
Listen and acknowledge attendees’ pain. People come to these groups struggling. So, listening and supporting people where they are is really important. These are things I know that chapter leaders are already doing.
What do you want to tell people who are suffering as an LGBTQ person, parent, friend or family member?
What I found myself telling many parents was that I could see that they love their child very much. That the fact that they came to PFLAG says a lot. The fact that you came here is very brave. It may take time and you will get there. I’d tell them many have felt the same way at first, so they know they aren’t alone.
What is a big highlight and memory for you?
I was inside the State House when the second vote on marriage equality happened, ending a move for a constitutional amendment barring equal marriage. So many of us had worked so hard and we were all standing there when we realized we’d won. It was breathtaking, jubilation, utter joy. One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed.
I also used to do a lot of speaking engagement for safe schools and those were amazing. Talking to high school students and see them process a new way of thinking was very rewarding.
What else do you want us to add?
[Laughs] Well, I wish I was more articulate and could speak better to how much this all meant to me and give great advice for people.
PFLAG has been a great experience and I’ve met so many wonderful people on the way.
I feel very grateful for having known so many people and to see so much change happen over the years.
That said, we need to be vigilant and active in the years ahead. I may be leaving PFLAG, but I’m not leaving my role as an ally and advocate.