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Parents of PFLAG share advice to families with gay children

Posted by Kristi Palma  May 15, 2013 10:01 AM

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Photo courtesy of PFLAG

From left: Chad and Anne Gifford with son Rufus Gifford, who is being honored at "Step Up! Make it Better NOW."

About 700 people are expected to attend a fund-raiser for Greater Boston's PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) called "Step Up! Make it Better NOW." It takes place under the Party in the Park tent in the Kelleher Rose Garden in Boston's Back Bay Fens on Thursday, May 16, at 6 p.m. The organization hopes to hire more people with the money raised.

"People often think we have a staff of 30," said Pam Garramone, executive director of PFLAG. "We have two staff members and a lot of volunteers."

More staffers will mean more community education, bullying training in schools, and support for families, things that have made a difference in so many gay kids' lives, Garramone said.

The event co-chairs, Joan Parker and Holly Safford, said they are passionate about raising money for PFLAG because they know what it's like to need that support. They each have two sons who both came out to them.

We spoke with Parker and Safford by phone about how they found out their children were gay, their reaction to the news, and their advice for other parents who find themselves on a similar path.

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Joan Parker, of Cambridge, is a social activist, former educator, and wife of the late author Robert B. Parker (who wrote "Spenser for Hire"), also of Cambridge. Parker's sons are David, 54, a dancer/choreographer in New York, and Daniel, 49, an actor in Oregon. (Photo: Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe)

How they came out to her: Daniel was 20 and away at college when he told her in a coffee shop. Parker's response? She said, "I think it's just dandy." David's story was more complicated, she said, because he almost married a woman. She suspected he was gay, so three weeks before the wedding, Parker said to her son, "David Parker, if you go through with this wedding, you will have made the biggest mistake of your life." The wedding was canceled. And how did his famous father react? Parker said, "He spoke to Bob and Bob said, 'Are you happy?' and David said 'Yes, I am,' and he said, 'That's all that counts and I love you.'"

Parker's advice to parents:

It's your kid. You love your kids. And anything else that's not loving is so hurtful. It is beyond me. I'm very intolerant, so I'm working desperately to dispel all those reasons why parents feel that they can't accept their kids who are gay

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Holly Safford, of Duxbury, is the founder and president of The Catered Affair. Safford's gay sons are Andrew, 45, the vice president of sales for The Catered Affair, and Jason, 42, a financial analyst in California. Her son Andrew is married and has three adopted sons, who are "delightful, sweet, happy, and such important little fellows in our family fabric," said Safford. (Photo: Bill Brett)

How they came out to her: Safford suspected he was gay so she was not surprised when Andrew came out at 25. He told her during a family vacation in Nantucket and her response was, "It's OK. I couldn't love you one bit more than I do." But her son Jason shocked her when he came out at 32 while they were walking on Madison Avenue in New York where he was living at the time. "I had no idea whatsoever," said Safford. "I had not considered that it would happen twice in the same family and that it would happen to Jason." How did she respond? "Of course, I was loving and supportive and am to this day," said Safford. "But it's really really hard to hear, especially twice. It certainly doesn't ever make a parent happy, we know that. You want the world to embrace your child and accept your child for everything they are. And when you are outside of the mainstream, you know people will just dismiss your child."

Safford's advice to parents:

You just have to listen to what your kids are saying and support them and allow them to grow and thrive and allow them to be happy with whom they want to be happy.

Chad and Anne Gifford's son Rufus Gifford, 38, will be honored at Thursday's event as one of the country's most influential LGBT leaders. He was the national finance director of the Obama for America Campaign and the informal LGBT ambassador for President Obama's re-election campaign. The family is from Manchester and Chad Gifford is chairman emeritus for Bank of America.

"Having parents share their stories is incredibly important," said Garramone. "It just sets a model for other parents to talk proudly of their children and we need that because there's still a stigma."

Gifford said she will never forget flipping her son's notebook open to write him a note at his college apartment 20 years ago. She looked down and saw, "I wish the world knew what it was like to be gay" scrawled in her son's handwriting. "I was just really shocked. I was sad, shocked, scared for him. A lot of things crossed my mind. I worried about how his dad would react, I worried about HIV/AIDS, would he feel accepted? But I think the first thing that came to mind was, 'Oh my God, here is the son I've been living with for 19 years that I'm very close to and I didn't know.' I felt I failed as a mother."

Gifford's advice to parents:

Number one, to know that it is not a choice. When your child comes out to you, talk and listen and learn and keep talking. One of the key things is family acceptance. The suicide rate and the destructive behavior amongst kids who do not have family acceptance is enormous. It's enormously important for families to know that when they are going through this process.

Garramone hopes this fundraiser will mean the organization can increase its 200 bullying trainings per school year.

"We can help more kids by being in more schools," said Garramone.

Schools that have a gay/straight alliance and proper support for gay children have significantly reduced "risk-taking behaviors" in gay kids, she said. These behaviors include attempted suicide, substance abuse, and skipping school.

PFLAG has nine support groups in Greater Boston, including three groups that meet six times a month to talk about transgender kids -- a population of parents that is significant in our area, said Garramone.

"We have the largest group of parents of transgender children, probably, in the country -- more than 200 families have contacted us for support for having a transgender child," she said.

For tickets to the "Step Up! Make a difference NOW," visit www.gbpflag.org/stepup.

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Welcome to Parent Buzz, where you can read about and discuss the hot parenting issues of the day, find family-friendly events in Boston and beyond, and get parenting tidbits and tips.

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Kristi Palma, Boston.com Moms producer, is the mom of a first grader and a preschooler. She is a writer who enjoys cooking her grandmother's Italian recipes (when her son isn't launching paper airplanes into them). Follow her on Twitter @kristipalma.
Jennifer Clark Estes is a teacher, writer, blogger, and the mother of four young children. In her free time, she blogs at A Mom's World, plays with the kids (or chauffeurs them around), and is desperately seeking a quiet spot so she can read a book. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferCEstes.
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