4 min

Raising the PFLAG

Do parents of gay people still need support groups?

(Clockwise from back left) Tanner Fehr, Colin McKenna, Karin Lind, Ryan Cormier, Linda Robertson, Aideen McKenna, Tana Hendricks and Kelly Bigelow Casey

When Susan Harman joined the Vancouver chapter of PFLAG nine years ago, after her 18-year-old son came out, up to 15 people attended support meetings every two weeks. Eventually, Harman became president and invited speakers to give lectures to the group.

“Over six years, I think we had someone from every gay organization in Vancouver,” she says.

But in recent years, PFLAG’s Vancouver chapter has stagnated. So few people were attending monthly meetings that organizers were reluctant to invite guest speakers.

Several years ago, the organization abandoned monthly meetings altogether, in part because of low attendance, in part because they thought it would be better to offer support individually. More than a decade ago, the group gave up its charitable status, though it’s still part of the registered national charity PFLAG Canada.

After years of inertia, however, the core group of volunteers is trying to revitalize the organization. The chapter held an orientation meeting in September after potential volunteers contacted the group following the Pride parade. On Oct 17 the group will revive its monthly support meetings, and it may even become a registered charity again.

The revival comes four decades after the idea for PFLAG was conceived. In 1972, Jeanne Manford marched with her son, Morty, in what would eventually become New York’s Pride parade. Other participants begged Manford to talk to their parents, and the first formal meeting was held the following year as Parents of Gays.

The Canadian organization’s roots go back to the late 1970s in Toronto. The idea for Vancouver’s chapter was planted in 1990 when parents Gertude and Stan Stevens wanted to speak to other parents about their daughter being a lesbian.

But the greater exposure and acceptance of the last few decades, coupled with the availability of information online for parents concerned about a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, may have reduced demand for the support group, some PFLAG members say.

Jayme Harper, president of the national organization, PFLAG Canada, says hits to the national group’s website have been rising. But several organizers of PFLAG’s Vancouver chapter wonder if, in an age of acceptance, PFLAG may have become an anachronism.

“We’ve had times when our attendance has really fallen, when we wondered that parents now are okay with it, that PFLAG doesn’t need to exist in Vancouver,” Harman says.

But volunteers say they still hear of children getting kicked out of their homes after coming out. And they recognize that minorities in the gay community, such as Asians and Iranians, still need supportive parents.

Parents still need support, Harper says. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

PFLAG is especially needed outside the more liberal cities and even in pockets of liberal cities such as Vancouver, he says.

While the organization’s activities decelerated in the last few years, the group continued to offer support via cellphone. Still, Harman wasn’t satisfied. “We began to be quite unhappy with the way things were going,” she says. “I felt we weren’t really meeting people’s needs.”

So organizers decided to try to rebuild and reach out to communities they believe still need support.

“We really want to grow again and need volunteers,” says Karin Lind, who remains part of the group’s five-person core, along with Harman; Colin McKenna and his mother, Aideen; and Tanner Fehr.

The chapter’s home page now welcomes new volunteers. “We are a small and mighty bunch, but we need new people to help keep PFLAG Vancouver alive and well. WHEN YOU NO LONGER NEED PFLAG, PFLAG NEEDS YOU!”

Nine people attended a recent planning meeting, including former chapter president Ryan Cormier, who first sought support from PFLAG in 1997, when he feared coming out to his parents. He found relief among the accepting parents of PFLAG.

“It was amazing to meet people of that age that were so loving and supportive and just basically telling me that I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t perverted. I wasn’t any of those things that I had been hearing most of my life directed at gay people.”

After a six-year hiatus, Cormier has returned to volunteer.

“I just felt right now in my life that I needed to get my ass up off the couch and start getting involved again with my community,” he says. “And the best group, I felt, was PFLAG.”

“I have a bit of a fear that it might be shrinking,” he says. “But yet there’s so many different areas that I think PFLAG could really expand and grow in.”

Organizers acknowledge the group has faced difficulties connecting with Asians. “A lot of the groups that do need help don’t proactively seek out help,” Colin says. “So, for example, some of the Asian communities, those parents aren’t necessarily calling us saying, ‘My kid’s gay and I don’t know what to do.’ Within that culture a lot of times they’ll just pretend it’s not there and want it to go away . . . We want to make sure we’re there to support them.”

The organization has posted some information on its website in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. But the group has yet to find Asian parents to volunteer to help Asian youth, some of whom have requested a parent who could tell another parent, in Mandarin, that it’s okay for a child to be gay.

Aideen McKenna says volunteers have asked gay and lesbian Asians with accepting parents to try to get their parents to volunteer.

“They laugh, and they say, ‘Not my parents,’” she says.

“We would love to have at least one Asian parent in our group,” Aideen says, “but there hasn’t been any progress.”

Harman, who volunteers as an ESL teacher, has created a workshop to try to introduce parents to gay issues.

“That’s a great way to reach out to the mostly Asian community,” says Harman, who plans to revive the workshops. “Most times, I’ve found people have not heard these things in the open before.”

She says the workshop also has helped PFLAG reach the Iranian community. After one workshop, an Iranian woman approached Harman. “She said, ‘All my life I believed one thing about this and now, after hearing you, I believe something different,’” Harman recalls.

The group has successfully reached one community: parents of transgender people. Aideen, who has handled the telephone calls for support for the last two years, says she’s been receiving more and more calls from parents of transgender children.

Colin says PFLAG has been receiving similar calls across the country from parents trying to understand their trans children.

“When I joined in 2000, it was barely part of the conversation,” he notes.

Aideen says long-time volunteers have told her the chapter has “always gone through this kind of ebb and flow: very busy and then stagnant, very busy and then stagnant.”

With plans to revive its meetings and redirect its outreach, the group may be entering another busy phase.

The chapter, says Harman, is in a “building stage — a rebuilding stage.”