Jeanne Manford (nee Sobelson) was born in 1920 in Flushing Queens. Jeanne had three children, including son Morty, a gay activist.
In April 1972, Jeanne and her husband received word that Morty was in the hospital after being beaten and stomped as he was being led out of a political dinner where he had been handing out flyers.
Jeanne spoke out in support of her son, writing letters identifying herself as the mother of a gay activist. Jeanne stepped into activism herself with a letter to the Editor of the New York Post in April, 1972 in which she wrote:
“I have a homosexual son and I love him.”
What seems so commonplace for us now, and so natural, a mother’s public declaration of love for her child, was, in 1972, a radical act.
Manford gave radio and television interviews in support of her son and in June of that year, marched in what was the precursor to the Pride parade in NYC. With her she carried a homemade sign which read: “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children”
Jeanne was so overwhelmed with requests to help other families advocate for their gay and lesbian family members, that she co-founded what today is known as PFLAG, a national organization linking families and friends and allies of the LGBTQ community.
“ By the mid-1990s a PFLAG family was responsible for the Department of Education’s ruling that Title 9 also protected gay and lesbian students from harassment based on sexual orientation.”
“PFLAG put the Religious Right on the defensive, when Pat Robertson threatened to sue any station that carried the Project Open Mind advertisements. The resulting media coverage drew national attention to PFLAG’s message linking hate speech with hate crimes and LGBTQ teen suicide. ”
Jeanne died in January, 2013 at the age of 92.
In February 2013, it was announced that President Barack Obama was to honor Manford posthumously with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal for her work in co-founding PFLAG and ongoing years of LGBT advocacy. Jeanne was one of 18 Americans selected to received the honor, the second highest civilian award in the US, from over 6,000 nominations.
Of Jeanne, President Obama said:
“This was back in 1972. 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.” He said “that simple act” provided the impetus for a national organization “that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country.”
A public declaration of love by a mother to her son which started a movement.
Jeanne Manford. Badass mother. Because mothers? We get the job done.
(And if you come after our kids, we will TAKE.YOU.DOWN.)
In a musty, dusty corner of my brain, there resides a card catalog full of bold names and deeds. Those names and deeds are cross-reference with my own subjectivity and experiences. When I need to, I do a mental flip through until I get what I’m looking for.
When I hear a word like activist, my brain hums along. A loose definition forms, gossamer and ghostly, until it eventually takes shape and I am left with something concrete. A name, an example.
Activist: Rosa Parks. Dolores Huerta, Ida Wells, Cecile Richards, Audre Lorde, Tarana Burke. Flip, flip, flip. More names.
Nowhere in that catalog, not even at the very back, not even in the margins, does my own name appear.
So what makes an activist? Is there a set of criteria which must be met, a level of activist activity, akin to one of those strongman hammer do-dads at the town carnival, which must be reached before one can wear the label?
I’m sure I’m not alone in envisioning activism with a capital “A” and an exclamation point. An all-encompassing noun involving sweeping gestures and noble sacrifice. The word conjures ideas of single-minded crusades, 100% dedication, and bold acts.
How many times can you screw in a lightbulb emblazoned with the word ACTIVISM before you think of yourself as an activist?
The day after the US 2016 election I set up an ongoing monthly donation to Planned Parenthood, an organization of great importance to me. If anyone asked me what I wanted for Christmas I pointed them to the Center for Reproductive Rights. I ramped up my funding for political candidates whose ideas and ideals I could get behind.
Still, I didn’t consider myself an activist.
I marched in 2017 during the Women’s March, but also in 1992 in Washington, DC for reproductive rights. In the late 1980s I marched along the streets of NYC in black, high-top Adidas during Take Back the Night. I marched against the Gulf War, with young men I knew, men just tripping into adulthood, whose eyes reflected their fear that a war none of us wanted would reach out its greedy fingers and mark them irrevocably.
Still, I didn’t call myself an activist.
I write and publish essays about feminism. I regularly bore the pants off many men…and women… highlighting gender bias. I endure countless eye rolls as I patiently work my way through the nuances of the wage gap. I introduce new-fangled terms like the Motherhood Penalty. I use my social media platforms to speak out against harmful policies. And I have raged, oh, how I’ve raged, both privately and publicly, each time we take two steps back in this tango of equality.
Yet still, I don’t use the word activist to describe myself.
Perhaps, however, my definition is too narrow. Perhaps…just perhaps…I should be embracing my personal acts of activism. Activism with a lower-case “a” rather than a capital. With a quiet sentence ender rather than an exclamation point.
The everyday activism.
And perhaps…just perhaps…if we all did that, instead of assuming that what we do is too little, too late, or too insignificant, there would be enough excitement to warrant that exclamation point after all.
There are times when you face the mountain and the mountain seems un-scaleable. What is one person, one act, one small thing going to do? When one lone person takes their canvas tote to the supermarket, is it really going to help the Earth? Is it going to make a difference to climate change?
It’s difficult to fit you and your small, canvas tote into the bigger picture.
Is my ten dollars a month going to make a difference to Planned Parenthood? My fifty dollars a year is, after all, merely a drip in the coffers of the ACLU. My body, one of thousands, will not be missed if I don’t march. My voice, one among thousands, will not subtract from the din.
But if we’re all kicking the can down the road to others because we think we can’t make a difference, if we’re putting out a small spark because we’re not comfortable carrying a torch, does that torch, regardless of who is carrying it, ever stand a chance at staying lit?
Imagine if a young Ruby Bridges, walking to school under the protection of federal marshals to desegregate a Louisiana classroom felt one lone girl wasn’t enough. Imagine if Shannon Watts thought one mother crusading to change the way we look at gun laws thought one mother wasn’t enough. Imagine if Dolores Huerta had assumed that one woman alone could not make a dent in the fight for farm workers.
What would we be left with?
There are hundreds of ways to help force change in the places we believe need change. We can donate money or fundraise to help others do so. We can give our time, our talents. We can add our bodies. We can show up. We can call out.
At the end of the day, I am but one voice, a whisper in a sea of noise. But if I add my voice, my whisper to the lone whispers of others, if we all do that, it becomes a scream too loud to ignore. And so I continue. Not because I expect to change the world all by myself, but because if there are a hundred other “me”s out there, a thousand, half a million, think of the possibilities.
We are all activists, intentional or not, when we stand up for change we believe in. When you carry the tote bag, when you call out sexism, when you join a march, when you donate to a cause. They are acts of everyday activism.
The exclamation point doesn’t need to be there. The capital “A” doesn’t need to be there. A thousand small, everyday acts become bold when they are taken together.
Find the cause or causes you are passionate about, find the things you want to change. And fight for them. Fight for them a little, fight for them a lot. Fight for them in ways large and small, but don’t ever think those acts, however everyday they seem, aren’t making a difference.
You have a voice. And if you use your voice for change? Well then my friend, you are an activist.
And don’t let anyone, least of all yourself, tell you differently.
Here we are, the ass-end of another year. I sat down yesterday to write about Salome and her veils.
Then I re-read 2016’s year-end post. Apparently I had the same idea last year.
Always ahead of myself, it would seem. And forever forgetting it.
I expected I would endeth the year in much the same way as I beganeth, but….I didn’t.
Oh, I am still angry, that much is true, but I am not blinded by my rage. I can see around my anger now, see through it. I’ve spent the last twelve months honing it and sharpening it. It is an asset I carry around with me, at all times. A talisman, an amulet I wear around my neck. A sharpened stick a la BtVS to slay demons, both within and without.
It seems strange to look backward at this year and think, how lucky we are to be alive right now, but it’s the truth. I feel more alive than I have for a long time. Sure, much of that prickly pins and needles feeling stems from sheer terror and jaw-dropping incredulity, and it is also true that in my oh-so cushioned life as a migrant I do not fear for my day-to-day existence. The shit-storm clouds gathering over the United States affect my sensibilities and my ideals, but they do not affect my day-to-day life. My whiteness, my bank account, my education levels and my opportunities protect me from the worst of it. For that I am both grateful, humbled, and very, very aware.
Geographically, I’m hobbled from putting my body in the line of fire. Congressionally I vote in one of the bluest states in the country. So I’ve spent the last year turning inward rather than outward, listening and reading, essays on race, on gender. I’ve spent the last year sitting in the messy, pants staining muck of my own discomfort, challenging myself to rise above it. Failing…and succeeding.
I am a better person for it.
So how lucky I am to be alive at a time when black American activists, writers and artists, leaders and voices are finally garnering the recognition they’ve always been due. How lucky I am to be alive at a time when all of that is there for the taking. My table runneth over with choice.
For women, 2017 was a year of validation. All the churning, gut-tingling knowledge which was systematically denied and suppressed and second-guessed finally blew the world apart in a hashtag. I won’t lie. The taste of public vindication is sweet. If 2016 was the year Salome’s last veil dropped, 2017 was the year women burned that fucker like so many bras.
As painful as it is to see stories spill out like steam rising from sewer grates, it is glorious as well. I rode out the back nine of 2017 on a wave of sisterhood unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Will this time be different? I hope so. We have almost reached critical mass, the moment when enough women are in leadership roles to affect real, lasting change. We are at the damn barricades. We just need to topple them.
How lucky I feel to be alive in a world which is finally acknowledging women, our experiences, valuing our contributions not just as a substitute for men, but for ourselves. A world where we are being looked to and asked to lead.
In 2017 I mourned the loss of a Clinton presidency. I may have been sorely disappointed, it’s true. But I will never know. What I do know is that a Trump presidency has issued in a political, social, and economic awareness unprecedented in my recollection. The safeguards many Americans assumed would protect them are failing–in some instances, rather spectacularly. For many Americans (raising hand), 2017 was the year we stopped taking democracy for granted. Stopped assuming it was something which we, as heirs to democracy with a capital “D” were entitled to. The reality of course is that the United States of America, just like any other country, must work to retain the ideals and principles it was based on.
As an American living abroad, I get a good glimpse into how those outside the US view America. If I could sum it up in one phrase it would be this: “fun, but arrogant as hell”.
May 2018 be the year more Americans check their global arrogance at the door.
There were lowlights: a seemingly evergreen sadness at the never-ending news cycle of violence and death. Mass shootings in the United States, trucks wielded as weapons, suicide bombings that barely register in the headlines because they’re across the world. There were personal lowlights as well. Standing in my kitchen sobbing as I struggled to reconcile the vulnerability I felt with the fear of revealing it, the sheer cliff-face ahead of me raising two young boys, heirs to the very patriarchy I thought I’d be dismantling. Failure to secure a publisher for my novel, All the Spaces In Between.
There were highlights, like reading 1001 nights to an audience of writers at my first writing conference. It’s been a long time since I did something with only myself in mind, which benefitted only me. It was powerful, uplifting, and tremendously rewarding. Having strangers ask for a hug because your words affected them is a powerful and humbling experience.
There was Wonder Woman and the Women’s March. There were the moments my sons described me as a feminist writer to their own friends and teachers. There was a trip to Washington DC, in which I literally stood and touched the stone edifice of so many buildings and felt their solidity ground me.
And of course, there was Hamilton, the soundtrack of the second half of my year. How lucky we are to be alive right now, indeed.
So here I am, looking ahead at my pile of new notebooks, of schedulers and calendars. At organizers and color-coded things. I know most of them will still be sitting there come December 2018, filled with the ragged edges of torn out shopping lists and scribbled notes about bills to pay. But the possibility they contain excites me nevertheless. I will persist.
I’m about a third of the way through novel #2, young adult speculative fiction. I hope in 2018 I’m three thirds of the way through it.
I am solid, finally grasping on to that quivering mass of rage-woman. I can actually grab a handful now. Actually much more than a handful, but again, I need to save something to write about next year, don’t I?
I know who I am. In fact, I’ve never been more sure of who I am.
I just read an op-ed about pink pussy-eared hats. You see, after the election, a few knitters suggested a show of solidarity for those marching in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. It is a little yarn nod to the now famous line about a different kind of pussy.
The author’s opinion was they were silly.
Before that op-ed was a spate of articles opining the pointlessness of wearing a safety-pin. In the last few weeks, more news articles highlighting the rift among the four million strong Pantsuit Nation.
What the fuck?
Some of us are trying to form a freaking coalition here, people. A super coalition of women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ, Environmentalists, Dog Lovers, Vegans, Vaccinators…anyone who feels their voice is drowned out by the voices currently in power. Why would news writers and bloggers, some with huge audiences, think it’s a good idea to get all uppity and start shaming people who are trying to get involved, in ways small and large?
I’m not talking about the people who are going to shout “Snowflake!” regardless. That’s a given. I’m talking about people who claim to be progressive.
Shut up already. If people want to wear a safety-pin, it’s not, as some posit, simply because they desire visible proof they aren’t a racist. Could it just possibly be because a lot of people feel hopeless and scared and this is a small way to do something? If there are those who are offended, wouldn’t it be more helpful if they could point folks in a direction where help is needed rather than shaming or mocking them?
Golly, we’re always telling folks to get involved and yet when they do, we shame them by telling them it’s the wrong way or not enough. On what moral high ground are we shouting from here? Because the view must be pretty damn good.
Knitting thousands of pink hats is not, by itself, going to stop the incoming administration from running roughshod over women’s rights. But it is certainly not going to do any harm. What good comes of adopting a holier-than-thou attitude about it?
This is why we never get anywhere, folks. We’re too busy arguing and shaming one another to actually do anything. Who the hell cares if a thousand women attending a march in DC, many of them marching for the first time in their lives, want to show a sisterly solidarity by wearing a pink hat?
There are articles theorizing that marching does no good. That protests do no good. Calling, letter writing, Meryl Streep. None of it is any good. Or it should be better.
What’s the alternative? Curl up in the fetal position and hope that the world doesn’t implode in the next four years? Not everyone is going to run for office. Not everyone is going to disrupt town halls, start a grass-roots movement.
Activism is not always chaining yourself to a railing or getting arrested. Sometimes activism is as simple as acknowledging something is wrong. Or reading. Or checking facts. Not everyone has the time, the freedom from economics, or even the courage to throw themselves in front of a moving administration in the name of protest. Yes, we need those people, we need them desperately. But we also need everyday people who are wiling to show that they are there to make a stand about something they strongly believe in. Whether that stand is a safety-pin or a pink hat or boarding a bus and traveling down to Washington DC to march with a hundred thousand others who feel similarly. Whether it’s writing a letter to their Congresswoman or making a phone call, boycotting a brand, or yes, even sharing something on Facebook.
Why would anyone want to throw a wrench into that by acting too cool for it all? Why would you want to sabotage those baby steps into something that could blossom into activism? Who knows if the girl who put a safety-pin on her backpack, knowing that she’s going to get teased mercilessly at school for being a snowflake, isn’t going to grow up to be a Senator? Who knows if the women who started the knitting project won’t take their next project global and donate the proceeds to women in need?
Back the fuck off, people. Perhaps then instead of shaming someone for trying to do something good we should collectively encourage them to take the next step on a journey of doing good.
If we want to encourage people to take part, the last thing anyone should be doing is making them feel silly, shaming them, or telling them those small acts of micro-activism don’t matter. Of course they matter.
In a world in which some days we are struggling to find something good, why would we shit on it when we come across it?
We could all do better. White women need to listen to women of color because we are failing them, miserably. Feminists need to listen to civil rights activists, need to listen to Native American activists, and so on and so on. But we are never going to get anywhere if we don’t start somewhere. And it’s certainly not up to me to tell any other person where that starting point should or must be.