“Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children,” read Jeanne’s hand written sign as she walked with her son Morty in June, 1972 in the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day parade in Greenwich Village in New York City.
At that time, it took great courage to join in a gay pride parade, as one faced ridicule, possible job loss, possible assault and possible jail time for supporting what was viewed as sexual perversion.
Gay people were commonly discriminated against and often described with disgust as “fags,” “perverts,” “queers,” “Lesbos” and in far cruder words. In this atmosphere, few straight people chose to be publicly associated with gays, even if they were their children.
As an elementary school teacher in Queens, Jeanne could easily have lost her job for supporting gays. But she was not fired and she would teach school for nearly 30 years.
During that 1972 gay pride parade, spectators cheered, and as they did Jeanne assumed it was for Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician and author who was marching right behind her.
But then as spectators and marchers crowded around her and began thanking her and hugging her, many with tears in their eyes, she knew something special was happening.
The spectators and marchers deeply appreciated Jeanne having the courage to take a public stand supporting her son and by extension, supporting them as lesbian and gay people. Many of them had been unable to muster the courage to tell their families they were homosexual, for fear their families would reject them.
The basis for this gay pride parade was in response to a horrific incident about two months earlier.
Outside a well-known annual New York City dinner for powerful politicians and the media that covered them, the Inner Circle dinner, Morty was among those in the Gay Activist Alliance who were demonstrating at the event held at the New York Hilton.
A brawl ensued and witnesses confirmed that Morty was punched and kicked by Michael Maye, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. Mr. Maye was subsequently acquitted of a single count of harassment.
But what most infuriated Jeanne was that despite the heavy security that surrounded that dinner, as Morty and many of the others were beaten, the police stood-by and did nothing to stop it.
Jeanne wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post, expressing her outrage, a letter that was published on April 29th, 1972.
The response was immediate and electric as it triggered everything from extreme condemnation of Jeanne, her son Morty and of homosexuality to understanding and support as she humanized the situation for a large group of readers.
But Jeanne did much more. After her march in that 1972 gay pride parade, phone calls and letters came from many gay and lesbian people and their families, seeking a voice, seeking help.
As a result, in 1973 with her husband Jules, a dentist and with a handful of other people, they began Parents of Gays, a support group at the Metropolitan Community Church in Manhattan.
At first, few people had the courage to attend. So few that Jules informally and for free conducted dental exams for those who wanted it. But by taking such a bold stand at a time when there were so few supporters of gays, Parents of Gays soon received widespread media coverage and their little organization began to grow.
Today, it is known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG and in the U.S. it has 350 chapters and over 200,000 members and supporters. http://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=194&srcid=-2.
Jeanne’s courageous actions had begun a movement that would help to change the perspective of gay and lesbian people in the U.S. and similar organizations now exist around the world.
But on January 8th, 2013 at the age of 92, Jeanne passed away of natural causes at the Daly City home (San Francisco Bay Area) she shared with her daughter Suzanne Swan and her family. Her survivors include a granddaughter, and three great-granddaughters.
Jeanne was not survived by Jules who passed away in 1982, or their son Charles who passed away in 1966 nor Morty, who was later employed by the New York attorney general’s office, for he died of AIDS in 1992. But that Morty was employed by the attorney general’s office shows how much perspectives toward homosexuality had changed since the 1970’s.
Jeanne is survived by millions of gay and lesbian people, including their families and friends, as her actions played a key role in protecting them and in uplifting their lives.
In a 2009 speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization, President Obama told Jeanne’s story and he praised her, as he spoke of the courageous action she took:
“That’s the story of America, of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change, of hope stronger than hate, of love more powerful than any insult or injury, of Americans fighting to build for themselves and their families a nation in which no-one is a second class citizen, in which no-one is denied their basic rights …”
Dear Reader, rest assured when the cause is great enough, people of conscience and courage always arise and Jeanne is one of many wonderful examples, whether as in her case it was for gay rights or it has been for abolishing slavery, establishing women’s rights and civil rights, peace activism or for other compelling causes.