April 12, 2010 at 9:41 am EDT | by Erwin de Leon
Focus on our families

On Saturday, the Metro D.C. chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays held its 13th annual gala at a hotel downtown. The theme was “A Family Celebration” and one of the speakers said that the conservative group Focus on the Family was having its own event at the hotel.

If that were the case, it would have been interesting to juxtapose both gatherings and see what each organization celebrates.

Focus on the Family upholds a narrower definition of family — a married man and woman plus their children. It not only excludes LGBT families, but pretty much a majority of American families since the “traditional family” only accounts for fewer than a quarter of all households. The fact of the matter is that there is now a diversity of family structures in the country, yet the fabric of society has pretty much remained intact.

PFLAG, on the other hand, celebrates a broader view of families. It promotes the equality and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, their families and friends. It does so by providing support to cope with a society that diminishes the worth of queer folk; by educating an ill-informed public; and by advocating for an end to discrimination and for equal rights. In 21 years, the Metro D.C. chapter has touched many lives, even saving some.

Personal stories were shared at the gala. Bill Briggs, the local PFLAG chapter’s executive director, told the audience about the call he received while preparing his speech that afternoon. A 70-year-old grandmother asked what she can do to support her teenage granddaughter who had just come out.

A representative from an accounting firm that was being honored for its workplace diversity efforts recounted how she had become a staunch straight ally. Thanks to her collaboration with PFLAG, she realized how her own words and actions toward LGBT people are mirrored by her small daughters. She was delighted when one of the little girls came home and declared that she was going to marry her friend Genevieve. The woman knew that she was doing right by her children and was making a difference in the world.

A father of two gay men shared how he came to ask himself how he could possibly stand idly by as his boys are denied basic rights. He recalled an uncle of his who was an “eternal bachelor,” a World War II vet, and an avid antiques collector. His uncle was a proud and independent man who had to move in with his sister at the end of his life because he had no family of his own. The speaker decided that his gay sons would have a better life. He has made it his mission to fight for equality.

More stories were shared by the banquet guests amongst themselves. A woman at my table volunteered how her mother had expressed outrage at Jesse Helm’s callous treatment of lesbians and gays. She knew then that coming out to her God-fearing Southern mom would turn out okay and it did. A gentleman shared how he never had the chance to come out to his parents even though they had known and loved his partner.

Although most of us have formed our own extended families with other LGBT people and straight friends who wholeheartedly accept us, we have to admit that nothing equals the articulated acceptance, support and love from our biological families, no matter how dysfunctional they may be. It makes a difference to hear, “We love you and are proud of you.” As we raise our own families, having our parents and siblings in our lives makes a difference. We feel whole again, we feel as if we have come full circle.

Moreover, there are no stronger advocates than family members who speak on our behalf. Think of Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, who was killed for being gay. Thanks in part to their tireless efforts, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was finally signed into law last year. Think of Brian Burke, the U.S. National Ice Hockey Team’s general manager who took up LGBT advocacy after his gay son died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

There are smaller but no less significant actions, like a man with a gay father who challenges other patrons at a bar for using homophobic slurs. Or the brother who defends his lesbian sister from bullies. Or the aunt who takes in her gay nephew after he’s kicked out from his home by his dad for coming out.

Sadly, not all of us have our families in our lives, but with times changing and with groups like PFLAG working on our behalf, perhaps things will get better for many of us and our families.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.

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