For parents learning that their teenager is gay, there is no rulebook. Emotions and reactions can run the gamut from immediate acceptance to complete denial. When Cheryl Jones’ son Travis told her at age 13 that he thought he was bisexual, she took it in stride. “You’re young,” she told him. “Let’s not put a label on it at this point.” But Jones immediately set to work learning everything she could about what it means to be gay and bisexual.
Despite being brought up in an ultra-conservative Southern Baptist household, Jones had been taught at an early age to accept everyone for who they are. “I can’t think of any group that my parents rejected,” she says. “So I think that I was able to deal with my own child coming to me and saying, ‘I’m diverse in this way’ because of that background.”
A year later, when Travis told his mom he was gay, she was ready and was able to fully support him. Since then, she’s become increasingly involved in an organization that pro- motes support and understanding of the LGBT community by their loved ones.
Founded in 1972, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has grown during the last three decades to include more than 200,000 members and supporters, and 500 affiliates nationwide, including the Austin chapter. Jones is now the president of PFLAG Austin and is working to grow the group’s membership and its reach in Central Texas.
“We’ve done so much, but there is still much more that we can do, and must do,” Jones asserts. “We want people to know that we’re not just about support, but we’re also about advocating for the LGBT community.”
Every month, members of PFLAG Austin begin their regular meeting with a recitation of the group’s mission statement espousing support, advocacy and education. The first hour of the meeting is set aside for education. Outside speakers are sometimes invited to give a presentation or one of the members will lead a discussion. The second hour of the meeting is essentially a support group, allowing members and visitors to tell their own stories and offer one another encouragement and feedback.
The vast majority of PFLAG members are parents. Often, it’s the mother who comes first, perhaps with a friend for support.
“They’re looking for information first on how to accept the situation, and then how to continue to parent their child and get their spouse to do the same,” Jones says. “We do have members that are whole families.”
Other members include spouses or friends of LGBT individuals. Jones says there is also growing participation from straight people, many of them college-aged, who do not necessarily have close ties to LGBT people but have gotten involved with PFLAG because they believe in the group’s work.
The Austin chapter of PFLAG launched in 1995 and, through the years, hundreds have participated in the group, though there are currently only about 25 active members. Jones says often people join to gain the support they need in coping with a loved one coming out, but she adds that there is an ongoing opportunity to advocate for the rights of LGBT individuals. PFLAG works hand in hand with groups like Equality Texas to lobby state and federal law-makers for progressive legislation, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
PFLAG Austin also has a speakers’ bureau that provides presentations on the group and its efforts to anyone who requests it. Jones, for instance, recently participated in a panel discussion on diversity presented to employees at IBM.
Most of PFLAG’s local budget comes from membership dues and small donations. This year, one of the Austin group’s main goals is to create a fundraiser that might be turned in to an annual event for the organization. Other chapters have written books compiling members’ experiences or fielded other projects that require funds that PFLAG Austin simply doesn’t have.
“I think there are people who would want to support this organization but there hasn’t been a venue to do that,” Jones says.
Another of the group’s goals for 2008 is to become more educated on all segments of the LGBT community, specifically transgender individuals. That’s particularly important to Jones. Several years after her son came out as gay, his journey toward understanding his sexuality has continued and Travis is now in the process of becoming Melanie.
Jones continues to be as supportive as ever, saying, “Although [Melanie] is strides ahead of me, we are working together to understand what this means for her, and for me as her mother.”