Courage & Love: Jeanne Manford

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Story Summary:

Jeanne Sobelson Manford was an American schoolteacher and activist. She co-founded the support group organization, PFLAG, for which she was awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal.



Born on December 4th, 1920, Jeanne Sobelson Manford demonstrated the power that one individual could wield. A constant feature in New York City for much of her life, Jeanne was born in Flushing, Queens near Mt. Hebron Cemetery. Jeanne married Jules Manford and had three children: Charles, Morty and Suzanne. As Queens as they come, Jeanne received her bachelor’s degree from Queens College and became a math teacher at P.S. 032 in 1964. 

Tragedy struck amidst Jeanne’s academic and professional successes, as Charles committed suicide in 1966. Realizing he was gay in a heteronormative, homophobic world, Charles struggled with this realization. Lacking the kind of community support, love, and care that should be afforded to any person, Charles took his own life. Morty, the Manfords’ second son, was also a young gay boy struggling with mental health issues.

When Morty’s therapist outed his sexual orientation to his parents, Jeanne embraced her son for who he was. Jeanne was known for declaring, “I am not going to lose another son because this society is so prejudiced against gay people. I want my son to thrive.” Jeanne took the courageous step to translate her individual love for her son into support for collective action when Morty was subjected a homophobic hate crime.

Morty, emboldened by his mother’s unconditional support and love, sought to change society to reflect her mother’s outlook. As a member of the Gay Activists Alliance, Morty took part in a protest at the fiftieth annual Inner Circle dinner — a gathering of New York-based journalists and media figures that featured satirizations of state and city politics —  on April 15th, 1972. The Gay Activists came to protest homophobic skits that were slated to take place at the Inner Circle, yet the action turned violent as the dinner guests began attacking the protestors.

Morty was one of the protestors physically assaulted for his civil disobedience. While being dragged away by police, Michael J. Maye, the leader of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, grabbed him and repeatedly attacked him. Hearing this news from the hospital, Jeanne took action in the aftermath of the Inner Circle event. Suzanne recalled her mother’s rage, “She'd already lost one, and the fact that she could have lost another. She was seething.”

On April 29th, The New York Post published a condemnation of police inaction towards the homophobic abuse and proudly declared: “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” She did not stop there. She spent the next weeks giving interviews across multiple cities, alongside Jules or Morty, to express support for her gay son. 

A few months later, Jeanne joined Morty at the annual New York City Pride March with a sign reading, “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.” Other attendees at the march celebrated Jeanne. For other attendees, Jeanne represented the possibility of breaking down the fears that many LGBT+ people then had about coming out to their parents. Jeanne showed that families could provide love and support regardless of one’s sexual orientation. In other words, Jeanne’s presence was effective allyship in that it reinforced the pride that LGBT+ people felt in their sexual and gender identities. LGBT+ should be prideful, and they know that because their parents can and should love them.

Jeanne recognized the outpouring of joy towards her allyship and embrace of her son and decided to translate her individual activism in support of her son towards organizing fellow parents of gay children. Jeanne and Jules formed what would eventually become Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) out of a meeting of 20 like-minded, encouraging parents in what is now the Church of the Village in Manhattan. Decades onward, Jeanne never relented in her gay rights activism and served as the “grand marshal” of the 1991 New York City Gay Pride March and the first-ever Queens Pride March in 1993. 

Because of Jeanne’s love for her son, Morty succeeded both academically and professionally. A founder of Gay People at Columbia University, one of the first LGBT+ student groups in the United States, Morty earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1975. Subsequently, Morty graduated from Cardozo Law School in 1981 and went on to work for the Legal Aid Society and, starting in 1986, the Attorney General of New York. Considering the tragedy of his older brother’s passing and his own mental health issues, it is clear that the love showered upon him by his mother is what inspired him to be such an outstanding social activist, student, lawyer, and public servant.

Jeanne herself continued her public service, teaching at P.S. 032 until 1990 — a total of 26 years. Shortly after her retirement and her times serving as the grand marshal at the pride parades, tragedy struck the Manfords yet again as AIDS took Morty’s life at the early age of 41 in 1992. A decade earlier, Jules passed away. Wanting to spend time with her remaining family, Jeanne joined Suzanne in Minnesota and then California. 

Jeanne passed away in her home in Daly City, California on January 8th, 2013 at the age of 92. She is buried at Mt. Hebron Cemetery, survived by her daughter Suzanne and Suzanne’s family. Her legacy was to humanize and show the intimate, personal features of the social movement for gay rights in equality. Rather than simply being an ‘other’ in society, Jeanne showed that gay people were worthy of love and respect and were like any other person. Much like how Jewish values emphasized finding community and equality in difference, Jeanne used her individual love for her son to transform solidarity towards the LGBT+ community in the United States.


~Blog Written by Rene Yaroshevsky

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