by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
There were giants in the earth in those days.
I’m not talking about Biblical days. There were people in the early 70s who championed gay rights at a time when almost everyone else in this country wanted all queers to simply drop dead. The last thing in the world they expected was that we would ever have a shot at gaining basic human rights.
Not Jeanne Manford, a Queens resident and mother who taught in the New York public schools. After her son Morty was beaten by the head of the firefighters union at a gay protest at the Hilton Hotel, she formed a group called Parents of Gays. It’s now known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and is the leading organization of families who support their queer children and relatives.
Manford died this past week (January 8) at her daughter’s home here in California. She was 92.
How well I remember the day I first met that amazing woman. June 1975. I was an organizer of Philly’s Gay Pride March. She was invited to speak at the rally at Independence Mall following our annual march through the downtown area of the city. Parents of Gays was about two years old at the time. She was its leading spokesperson.
I knew Jeanne’s son, Morty, who was heavily involved in Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in the Big Apple. New York is an hour’s drive from Philly, so many of us from the city of brotherly and sisterly love regularly drove up there to participate in events.
Meeting Jeanne was particularly poignant for me because I had a strained relationships with my own parents. While my mother accepted who I was, my father absolutely could not deal with having a queer son, especially one who did drag and refused to keep quiet about who he was. I think that was Papa’s biggest problem with me. I was an activist. And, much to his dismay, I quickly became a well-known one.
The day I met Jeanne Manford, I was president of GAA/Philadelphia.
We found a little time to talk. She didn’t seemed phased at all by the way I looked. I was sporting a sizable wopfro, as we called it, the Italian version of the popular African American hairstyle. In the high humidity of Philly’s 90 degree-plus summers, my hair naturally frizzed.
I was also wearing a combination of men’s and women’s clothes. We called it radical drag or genderfuck. I was cofounder of a group called Radicalqueens that questioned gender roles and the assignment of clothing and behavior to one sex or the other. RQ believed that gender was a social construct and people were free to dress and act anyway they choose.
It was strange talking to someone’s mother about my experience of being queer. I had never done that before. While my own mother asked me a lot of questions and had even met my boyfriend, the conversation with Jeanne was different. I never expected a parent to be so militantly pro-gay. My Mama was accepting, but not ready to march down the street or go on TV to declare with her son, “Gay is good!”
Morty died in the early 90s of AIDS. Jeanne never tired of her fight for what she knew was right. It’s what giants do.