Friday, March 8, 2013

Adele Starr, PFLAG Los Angeles, And The PFLAG National Legacy of Love...

Courtesy of PFLAG LA
Just as it would be impossible to tell the story of PFLAG without telling the story of Jeanne Manford, it would be impossible to tell the story of PFLAG without telling the story of Adele Starr. So we chose today, March 8th--the date of the first successful PFLAG LA meeting--to share it.

Adele and her husband, Larry, founded PFLAG LA, and Adele subsequently became the first President of PFLAG National. There is no question that she and Jeanne Manford were a formidable team. Much like Jeanne, Adele was a mama lion, willing to do whatever it took not just to protect her own cubs, but all of the others who came her way.  Adele, by all accounts from those who knew her, was a true force to be reckoned with.

Today we are proud to share with you, courtesy of PFLAG LA, Adele's story.  We hope you are inspired, enlightened, and reinvigorated by what you read.

Small things can have great consequences.  In 1968, a white square of paper on a dining room table in Brentwood changed the lives of a mother and father, spurring them to start a parents' support organization that has had unprecedented impact in Los Angeles and the nation.

The paper said, "I've left home because I am a homosexual."  It was signed by Philip Starr, the son of Adele and Larry Starr, who became both the founders of PFLAG Los Angeles and inexhaustible workers to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their parents, families, and friends.  

Larry and Adele were frantic.  They tried to track Philip down at the homes of his friends.  After a series of dead ends, they went to the police station to file a missing person's report.  Late in her life, Adele would say she could still hear the sound of the officer tearing up a half-finished report.  Philip was 18 years old and considered an adult.  With no word from their son, they placed a personal ad in the Los Angeles Times:  "Philip, we love you.  Call or come home."  Against all odds, one of Philip's friends saw the ad and told him about it.  The family was reunited.

But that happy ending was only the beginning of the story.  The Starrs asked Philip to see a therapist.  Adele would later shake her head and say ruefully, "What did we know!"  After several months, Philip had had enough.  "I'm not going to change," he said.  "You will have to."  Remembering the moment his mother would say, "And so we did."

As willing as they were to educate themselves about the reality of gay and lesbian lives, change came slowly.  There were few places to go for reliable information.  Philip finally introduced Adele to a friend's stepmother who also had a lesbian daughter.  Conversations with her helped.

Eventually, the Starrs heard about the Gay Community Service Center on Wilshire Boulevard, the first incarnation of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.  At the center there were "rap" groups, open to anyone who wanted to talk.  Adele and Larry participated and met a few other parents who had also found their way to this gay oasis.  They had a lot in common.  All of them adored their children and spoke glowingly of their accomplishments.  "It was then," Adele said, "that we realized our children were quite normal, even though they were different in this one way."

Courtesy of PFLAG LA
The parents continued meeting, and talked about starting a support group.  In 1974 Jeanne Manford, who had held the first support meeting for parents of gay children in New York in 1973, came to Los Angeles with her husband Jules to visit the Starrs.  She talked about the New York group and urged Adele and Larry to start one in Los Angeles.  

Encouraged, Adele moved forward with the plan.  She wrote a public service announcement, posted a notice on the bulletin board of the Gay Community Service Center, and on the evening of April 4, 1975 waited for parents to arrived.  No one showed up.  Parents were too afraid to be seen in a building that had the word "gay" on the front door.

Adele, however, was not easily deterred.  She tried again on March 8, 1976, this time holding the meeting in her own home.  More than 30 people showed up.  Some circled the block cautiously several times before they parked and came in, but they came and they stayed.  PFLAG Los Angeles was born.

Courtesy of PFLAG LA
Early documents show that right from the start, the all-volunteer founding group had the same mission and vision that PFLAG members have today:  to promote the health and well-being of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered persons and their families through support, education, and advocacy.   A meeting agenda from 1976 lists as its goals "to form a mutual support group, to bring parents and children together, to educate the community, to fight ignorance and prejudice, to support positive legislation and oppose negative legislation."

Their strategies are still used: regular support meetings, telephone helplines, public speakers, and a library.  As is the case today, the support meetings were the foundation of the fledgling PFLAG Los Angeles.  Adele's description of the meetings would sound very familiar to mothers and fathers attending one today: “Parents. . . are all bottled up, they have no one to talk to.  It’s the rap group where they start expressing their feelings, and seeing other parents are doing very well.  It’s an evolution that they have to go through . . . . They come here at the beginning with all those questions and feelings.  And by the time they go home, they are different people. . . . After about the third or fourth month, they’re helping other people who were just like them three months earlier.  We’ve seen that happen all the time.  That’s the miracle of it.”

Right from the very beginning PFLAG Los Angeles was not just a parents' organization.  LGBT people participated in meetings, answering the questions that parents couldn't ask their own children and getting the support and love that their own parents may have been unable to give.  Siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins were all welcome, too.

The mutual love affair between PFLAG Los Angeles and the LGBT community was demonstrated in 1977 when PFLAG Los Angeles received the Grand Marshall's award in the Gay Pride Parade.  It was given to the chapter in part because of their efforts opposing the Anita Bryant campaign in Dade County Florida to deny LGBT civil rights.  Adele describes the excitement of that day:  "As a result (of the vote in Dade county) many of us parents—conservative, old, tired—marched in not one but two pride parades FOR THE FIRST TIME IN OUR LIVES.  Thanks to the many who made it such a success, and a special thanks for giving me the honor of accepting the grand marshal’s award for our parents.  I said, ‘This is only the beginning of our fight to save our children from bigotry.’”

The activism of those early chapter members is inspiring.  As a part of their educational work, they spoke on behalf of their children whenever and wherever they were invited.  One of Adele's mentors gave her advice she followed for the rest of her life:  "We must not be afraid to go where we are uncomfortable.  That has been my motto ever since." 

Courtesy of PFLAG LA
Among the places she went was on the Good Morning America television show.  The National Gay Task Force had launched what they called A Week of Dialog with American Families.  Adele, Larry, and Philip came out on national television, modeling family love and promoting the support groups that had begun to spring up throughout the country.

Galvanized by the success of the Anita Bryant campaign, the core group of about thirty parents and LGBT persons recognized that political action on the local, state, and national level was essential.  In 1978, they had a big fight right in their own backyard.

Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, won a place on the ballot that year.  Passage of the proposition would have banned gays, lesbians, and anyone who supported them from teaching in California Public Schools.  

In response, this small group of people wrote the first PFLAG publications, called "About Our Children," which answered the fear-mongering rhetoric aimed at LGBT persons and their families.  They printed 175,000 copies and delivered 150,000 to voters throughout the state, helping to defeat the measure.  The "No on 6" organization did not want to fund the effort of such a small group, so Adele went out and raised funds to do it herself.

In 1979, the fight was even closer to home.  The Los Angeles City Council was considering the Los Angeles Gay Rights Ordinance.  Passage would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment.  Wading through crowds of people opposing the ordinance (some arriving in busloads from churches), Adele, the Reverend Troy Perry (founder of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Community Church) and other speakers advocated passage.  The ordinance passed by a courageous vote of 13 to 2, making Los Angeles only the 44th local government in the country to have such protections.  Feelings against this action ran so high that letters to the City Council were 50 to 1 in opposition.

In March of 1979, the growing gay rights movement held the famous March on Washington to mark the ten year anniversary of the Stonewall riots that had begun the struggle.  PFLAG Los Angeles sent 11 people to the event.  Adele Starr was one of only two parents invited to speak.  She gave a rousing message to the crowd:  "We parents of gays help one another and our family members to understand, to learn and to be free from fear. Together we parents and our children challenge the attitudes that destroy,  attitudes that have caused violence, bloodshed, suicide. . .  We are silent no longer!!! We parents of gays speak out!!!

Two more exciting events occurred during that visit to Washington.  LGBT groups went to offices throughout Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation supporting an employment non-discrimination act.  PFLAG Los Angeles members were among them.  With her usual foresight and energy, Adele had written letters to a number of key senators and congressmen.  She received many replies to her letter and visit.  Among them were carefully worded letters from Republicans like Senator Charles Percy and Senator Harrison A. Williams, Chairman of the Labor and Human Resources committee promising, "serious consideration."  The star of her collection was a thoughtful, personal two page letter from Senator Edward Kennedy dated December 26, 1979  in which he writes: “When a qualified individual is denied employment because of his or her race, or sex, or sexual preference, then we must all be concerned. . . . So too must we be concerned when an individual is denied permission to come into this country because of a statute based on outmoded medical and psychiatric views of homosexuality."

In addition to PFLAG Los Angeles and PFLAG New York City, 23 other parent-support organizations from all over the country attended the March.  They used the opportunity to have the first formal meeting about establishing a national organization.  Ideas of this sort had been informally pursued in the mid-70s, with some notable discussions going on in Jeanne Manford's home.  In Washington, parents met in a church to discuss how a national organization could work.  Getting all these autonomous groups to coalesce was a challenge.  The meeting almost derailed over what to call this incipient federation.  Some parents objected to calling it Parents of Lesbians and Gays, which was the name many chapters had chosen.  "My daughter's not out," explained one woman.  "If I attend the meeting I'll expose her."  She recommended adding the word "Friends," and the problem was solved.

All the participants went home with a lot to think about--especially how such widespread, but locally small groups could be welded into an effective unit.  They exchanged correspondence, but didn't get together until 1981 at Adele and Larry's Brentwood home.  Jeanne Manford and representatives from 20 other groups filled the living room and flowed out onto the patio working out the structure of the new collaboration.  

Adele Starr
Photo courtesy of PFLAG LA
By the end of the weekend, they had written by-laws, drafted articles of incorporation, created a five-member board, and elected Adele Starr as PFLAG National's first president, with Larry Starr as its chief financial officer.

The Starrs filed all the required documents in December 1981, and PFLAG was recognized as a non-profit corporation in January 1982, with the IRS recognition of its non-profit status following shortly.

What benefit did this new, national organization bring to the far-flung groups?  Banded together, local chapters of 20 or 30 members became a group large enough to appear on the political radar.  Their voices could now be heard.  It's no coincidence that in 1981 Adele was invited to attend the White House Conference on Families, where she made sure participants knew families all over the country valued their gay members.  The work of support, education, and advocacy that began with the earliest PFLAG chapters would now be pursued on a larger stage.

Courtesy of PFLAG LA
Meanwhile, PFLAG LA continues to thrive, providing support, education, and advocacy to one of the most diverse cities in the country. 

We are so proud of this chapter and its ties to the founding of our national organization!


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