For years, whenever people called the hotline for PFLAG – Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – they often were greeted by the distinct voice of a little old lady.
Ann Wood, now 90 years old, didn’t want to miss a call, so she kept the phone by her bedside at night. She couldn’t bear the thought of someone suffering in anguish alone. If anyone was in distress, she wanted to be on the line for support.
Among the thousands of people who called the hotline during the ’80s and ’90s were parents in crisis. “I think my son is gay,” they would tell Wood through tears, or “I think my daughter likes women.”
Wood’s husband, Charlie – now 89 and a retired Episcopal priest and U.S. Navy officer – also helped answer the phone. Together, the couple would calm people down, allay their fears, provide empathy and a listening ear in a moment of despair and confusion.
Through their work with PFLAG, they also helped fathers and mothers acknowledge one of the most important lessons of parenting: Unconditional love.
“We tell them that their kid is alright and that they’ve just learned something new about him or her,” said Ann Wood, describing some of the conversations she’s had over the years with moms and dads who struggled with their children’s sexual orientation. “She or he is the same person you brought up. … This person is still your child.”
PFLAG – a national support, education and advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people as well as their families and friends – was established 36 years ago by the mother of a gay man. Outraged by the fact that law enforcement did nothing when her son had been beaten at a protest, Jeanne Manford decided to march with her son, Mortie, in New York’s Gay Pride Parade. During the event, she carried a sign that said, “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children.”
In the early ’80s, parents and others in Spokane also started gathering to talk about the rights and protection of their own children and other gay and lesbian youths. They wanted to provide support to this vulnerable community – especially during a period when many experienced hatred and discrimination in Spokane. They also wanted to make themselves available to other parents and family members of lesbians and gays – many of whom found themselves in grief, anger and denial.
Ann and Charlie Wood – who had spent years working on behalf of civil rights for people of color and other minorities – were among those early gay rights activists in Spokane.
“All my life, I’ve been saying to people, ‘I love you just the way you are,’ ” said Ann Wood.
So when Pamela, the eldest of their four daughters, first told them in a letter that she was in love with a woman in 1969, neither Charlie nor Ann were fazed by the news. The words “gay” and “lesbian” weren’t really part of their vocabulary back then, but when Pamela came out, Ann Wood’s immediate reaction was, “Oh! Of course! I should’ve known.”
When PFLAG got started in Spokane in 1984 – a time when homophobia raged and most people couldn’t even acknowledge the fact that gays and lesbians were part of the community – the Woods knew that joining the local gay rights movement was part of their calling.
“We wanted to help gay people,” explained Charlie Wood. “We wanted them to know, ‘You are OK.’ We felt all the hiding and the secrecy was so sad.”
“It was a frightening time,” added Ann Wood. “There were so many parents who couldn’t accept their children and who were so ashamed. People were scared to death to talk about being gay.”
Nowadays, members of the GLBTQ – Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning – community have the Odyssey Youth Center, OutSpokane, the Inland Northwest Business Alliance and other resources to turn to for help. But back in the ’80s and early ’90s, they had only PFLAG.
Advocates such as the Woods had their work cut out for them. Despite the death threats and hostility, the couple joined the first gay pride march in Spokane in 1992. They visited churches, organizations such as the League of Women Voters and other groups to help educate others about the devastating consequences of homophobia and to bring gay and lesbian issues to the forefront. They also traveled all over the country to take part in national PFLAG conferences. In 1992, Charlie Wood traveled to Washington D.C. to testify to a House appropriations committee about the effects of the military’s ban on gays and lesbians who openly serve their country. In 2002, they were the first official grand marshals of the annual Pride parade in June.
“They were fearless,” said Helen Bonser, a therapist with Diversity Counseling Services and one of the early members of PFLAG Spokane. “They were so full of courage, humor and love. … As members of the local (PFLAG) chapter, their hearts were always open and ready to meet the new members along with their parents and family.”
Ann and Charlie Wood also volunteered to answer the 24-hour PFLAG hotline. On many occasions, the phone would ring in the middle of the night and Ann would rouse from her sleep and take the call.
“Their actions literally saved lives,” said John A. Olsen, a local volunteer and activist, PFLAG organizer and father of a lesbian.
People sometimes talked for hours when they called the PFLAG hotline. Ann would ask them to tell her about their children, then she would just listen. Often, depending on their needs, she helped with referrals.
Some of the young people who called were too afraid to tell their moms and dads, Ann Wood recalled. “My parents will kill me,” they would say to her.
“Tell your grandmother,” Ann sometimes suggested.
Many parents experience pain and sorrow when they learn that their child is gay, said Bonser, a licensed mental health counselor and also the mother of a lesbian. Like others who experience loss, they go through denial, anger and other stages of grief. “They lose the perception of the child they thought they had,” she explained.
Some families who belong to churches that believe being gay is a sin suffer even greater remorse, she said. Some feel guilt and shame. Others are consumed by righteous anger.
As a retired Episcopal priest, Charlie Wood often wore his clerical collar when attending PFLAG gatherings. He wanted others to know that churches and people of faith also can be supportive of gay and lesbian issues. “God loves everyone,” he would often tell them.
“Parents have to come out, too,” said Bonser. “They have to tell the truth about their children. … The things that help the most are support, education and activism. When parents have had support and they get education and are OK, it’s good when they can become active in helping change people’s thinking so that we can keep our gay children safe.”
With the growing number of resources for the GLBTQ community in the region, the need for PFLAG has waned in recent years. The local organization is currently in hiatus, but longtime members, including the Woods, remain dedicated to promoting gay and lesbian issues.
As grandparents and great-grandparents, the Woods sometimes talk to people about a topic not often included in the baby and parenting books: sexual orientation.
“You might have a gay child,” said Ann Wood. So she reminds parents to try and avoid gender stereotypes because this could adversely affect gay and lesbian youth when they discover their sexual orientation.
“We don’t do any favors by dressing girls in pink and boys in blue,” said Bonser. “Let boys play with dolls and girls play with trucks and wear fire engine hats. Don’t put them into roles where they get stuck feeling as though they have to be super masculine or super feminine.”
It might also be helpful for parents and others to become more aware of our “heterosexist” society, which assumes that everyone isn’t gay, Bonser said.
And if your child happens to tell you one day that he’s gay or that she’s a lesbian, don’t forget about love, stressed Ann Wood.
“Whenever I talked to parents, I always asked them, ‘Do you love your child?’ ” she said. “I reminded them that their child is the same person. I also tell them that what counts the most is love.”