President Obama awarded the nation’s second-highest civilian honor on Friday to the recently deceased founder of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays.
During a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Obama offered the Presidential Citizens Medal posthumously to PFLAG founder Jeanne Manford, who died last month at age 92. Accepting the award on Manford’s behalf was her daughter, Suzanne Manford Swan.
Prior to presenting the award, Obama recounted the story of how Manford founded PFLAG out of love for her gay son, Morty Manford, who came home beaten after participating in a gay rights march.
“This was back in 1972,” Obama said. “There was a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol toward gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them. But instead, she wrote to the local newspaper and took to the streets with a simple message: No matter who her son was — no matter who he loved — she loved him, and wouldn’t put up with this kind of nonsense.”
Obama added with “that simple act,” Manford helped give rise to a national organization “that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country.”
Speaking generally about the 13 awardees of the medal this year, Obama said the work these individuals have done is important because a sense of citizenship binds a country as diverse as the United States.
“In America, we have the benefit of living in this big and diverse nation,” Obama said. “We’re home to 315 million people who come from every background, who worship every faith, who hold every single point of view. But what binds us together, what unites us is a single sacred word: ‘citizen.'”
Following the ceremony, Swan, a San Francisco resident, told the Washington Blade during the ceremony she was thinking about future generations who won’t know prejudice against LGBT people thanks to the work of her mother.
“My granddaughter will grow up knowing nothing but love and respect because people are different,” Swan said. “It won’t matter if they’re left-handed, whether they’re homosexual, whether they’re any color. My mother believed that homosexuality was put in the same category. She liked people, and she thought that everybody deserved their civil rights.”
Asked by another reporter how Manford would have felt upon hearing Obama’s inaugural speech and his references to the Stonewall demonstrations and equal rights for gay people, Swan said her mother “would have been thrilled” and noted the progress that PFLAG has seen over the decades.
“The early meetings may have had two people, may have had 20 people,” Swan added. “If they had any, they were happy because they were helping somebody, and that has gotten to be this big. So many people, everyplace I go, people know PFLAG.”
Swan told reporters Manford was informed before she died that she may receive the medal, but didn’t live long enough to come to the White House for the ceremony.
“My mother learned of his award — that it was possibly going to happen, but didn’t know — soon before she died,” Swan said. “She smiled. She couldn’t even talk, but she knew what it meant, and it was very important to her.”
It’s not the first time President Obama has awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal to an LGBT activist. In October 2011, Obama presented the award to lesbian activist Janice Langbehn, a lesbian who was unable to visit her partner Lisa Pond as she died in a Florida hospital and whose activism led Obama to issue a memorandum requiring hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds to grant visitation rights to same-sex partners.
Jody Huckaby, PFLAG National’s executive director, called the awarding of the Citizens Medal “an extraordinary and unprecedented honor” for not only Manford but “her family, and PFLAG members and supporters everywhere.”
“The message is powerful: the voices of parents, family members, friends and straight allies, united with the voice of LGBT people, is critical to the advancement of acceptance and equality,” Huckaby said.