How are parents supposed to react when their children announce they're gay? Some ask themselves where they went wrong. Others end their relationships with their children altogether.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) aims to provide a supportive atmosphere for people seeking answers to the many questions and feelings that arise in discovering children, siblings or friends are gay.
After a childhood friend died of AIDS, Marti Kwiatkowski learned some things that made her angry. While cleaning the dead man's apartment, his sister found boxes of unopened letters he had written their parents; the post office returned them, according to Kwiatkowski.
"Parents are just as frightened as their children," she says. "Something inside me rose up. I was angry, upset and didn't know where to go with (my) grief."
She joined PFLAG and is now the local chapter's president.
PFLAG recently released a 10-minute video, Starting the Journey, in which parents tell stories of their children coming out and how PFLAG became a haven as they adjusted to the mix of emotions that followed.
"We want to put a human face to the gay issue," Kwiatkowski says. "When you come, you are supported."
A typical PFLAG Cincinnati meeting consists of 35-40 people. The PFLAG mission statement is read, some participants introduce themselves and then they break into small groups.
"We emphasize support first," Kwiatkowski says. "Everything is kept confidential."
In the video, as at local PFLAG meetings, no African Americans are to be found.
"We have no African-American members in our chapter," Kwiatkowski says. "They stay briefly, then walk out."
She attributes the lack of black participation to religious influences.
"Ministers are not gay-supportive," she says. "Being gay is an abomination. When you walk into a meeting, we have all ages — not all colors."
Kwiatkowski hopes to change that. What will it take? Women, she says.
"I want every mother in the African-American community to meet the white mothers — face-to-face communication," she says. "Women rule. You have no idea of our strength."
Parental concerns about safety are evident at a PFLAG meeting. Some refer to Matthew Shepard, a 21-year old University of Wyoming student beaten to death for being gay. Others mention Gregory Beauchamp, killed in Cincinnati in 2002 allegedly because he was gay (see Your Negro Tour Guide, issue of Jan. 8-14, 2003).
Cincinnati City Councilman David Crowley appears in the new PFLAG video. He is the father of two straight children and two gay children.
"I have the best of both worlds," he says.
The producers of Starting the Journey asked Crowley, a 10-year member of PFLAG, to help.
"I was glad to do it," he says. "I am a parent of gay children. We have a personal, meaningful relationship."
Crowley talks about his son's partner, Anthony, an African-American man who died of AIDS 15 years ago. He cries as he describes the man's strained relationship with his parents.
Crowley says his son took care of Anthony — a "delightful young man" — until his final days. Anthony's parents never acknowledged him, Crowley says.
"When do you need your parents most?" he says. "What a shame they didn't get to know their son. Some parents unfortunately never accept it."
Crowley says children need support from their parents when they discuss their sexuality.
"It's certainly nothing to be ashamed of," he says. "I am not opposed to saying publicly that I support my children."
Crowley says it wasn't easy when his daughter and son told him they're gay. But the family ties were never cut.
"It would be a big hole in their lives and in mine," he says. "I would hate to lose the opportunity to communicate with them. Sexual orientation is a small part of their lives."
For parents learning their children are gay, Crowley says listening and patience are important.
"Try to get yourself to sit down and talk to your child," he says. "Listen to them. Give yourself freedom to accept whatever they have to say. Find ways to tell your child you love them. Tell your children you need time to accept this, to adjust. That's not a bad thing. After the tears, hope to realize that your child is still asking their parents for support."
Crowley says his son "had the flair for doing things different than most his age," but his daughter surprised him by coming out. Children must allow their parents time and space to deal with the information, he says.
"Expect it will be a difficult time to get through," he says. "Although they may react negatively and cry, don't assume they don't love you. Most parents are hearing a message they don't want to hear. Many believe it's a phase."
With support, the process doesn't have to be an ordeal, according to Kwiatkowski.
"It has been a joyous journey," she says. "I have been educated and supported."
PFLAG holds its 12th annual scholarship banquet Saturday. To date, the organization has awarded $59,000 to gay and lesbian people for outstanding work in the classroom and in the community.
"We are building the leadership in the youth for a better world," Kwiatkowski says.
PFLAG Cincinnati meets at 7:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church. For more information, call 513-755-6150 or visit www.geocities.com/pflagcinci.