Family  /  Profile

How One Mother’s Love for Her Gay Son Started a Revolution

In the sixties and seventies, fighting for the rights of queer people was considered radical activism. To Jeanne Manford, it was just part of being a parent.

To the best of her knowledge, Jeanne Manford had never known anyone who was gay. Born and raised in one of the more conservative quarters of New York City (not by accident was Flushing the fictional home of Archie Bunker), she had lived almost all her adult life there as well, and spent most of the nineteen-fifties at home raising her children. She knew how to cook; she knew how to knit; she knew how to make a house guest feel at home. She was soft-spoken, with an accent that aspired upward, toward the patrician—half Queen’s English, half Queens. Her clothes were fashionable without being flashy; her hair was always done just so. “I considered myself such a traditional person,” she once said of her life before Morty was outed, “that I didn’t even cross the street against the light.”

There was no mystery about what that kind of traditional, law-abiding woman was supposed to think about gay people in 1968. At the time, homosexual acts were criminal in forty-nine states, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time, including life sentences. Same-sex attraction was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association and routinely mocked and condemned by everyone from elementary-school kids to elected officials. Those who lost their jobs, homes, or children owing to their sexual orientation had no legal recourse. Political organizing was virtually impossible—one early gay-rights group that attempted to officially incorporate in New York was told that its mere existence would violate state sodomy laws—and positive cultural representation was all but nonexistent; there were no openly gay or lesbian politicians, pundits, religious leaders, actors, athletes, or musicians in the mainstream. Newspapers used the words “homosexual” and “pervert” interchangeably, and the handful of gay people who appeared on television to discuss their “life style” almost always had their faces hidden in shadows or otherwise obscured. In 1974, when “The Pat Collins Show” aired a segment on parents of gay children, the host introduced it by saying, “Even if he committed murder, I guess you’d say, ‘Well, he’s still my child, no matter what.’ But suppose your child came to you and said, ‘Mother, Dad, I am homosexual.’ What would you do then?”