The Passing of Jeanne Manford: When the Gay Movement Had a Genius to It

Jeanne_Manford_marching_with_her_famous_sign_in_a_Pride_Parade_in_1972Today (Friday, Jan. 11, 2012) I opened up the Times and saw David Dunlap’s obituary for Jeanne Manford, who died at the age of 92, was the founder of P-flag, the first organization of straight allies of gays and lesbians, but, most importantly, was Morty Manford’s mother. I remember Morty so well. Who couldn’t? It was hard to forget him. The piece in the Times, which was really glowing and wonderful—Jeanne was a miraculous presence in those early days of what is now called the LGBT Movement—didn’t mention that Morty was at one point president of the Gay Activists Alliance, one of the two original radical political organizations founded in New York directly after the Stonewall Rebellion, in June of 1969. The first was the Gay Liberation Front, of which I was a member, and from it, a few months later, sprung G.A.A., the less radical, more mainstreamed organization of the two.

I ran into Morty a lot, talked with him, socialized with him, danced near him at the outrageous Saturday night dances at the G.A.A. Firehouse on Wooster Street, but always encountered him slightly from a distance. Unlike others in the Gay Activists Alliance I felt closer to, like Arthur Bell, Arthur Evans, Marc Ruben, Pete Fisher, or Bruce Voeller (all of whom now dead), Morty always seemed more set off by himself. He was tall, thin, clean shaven (unusual for those days of mustachioed guys), and quiet. Arthur Bell whose more lively presence you could always feel next to you and who was always one to coin a term, called him “Refrigerated Morty.” But the truth was Morty had the density and quiet of someone bearing stone-cut courage. He had come out while still living in his Queens-Jewish family home at the age of about 16. In 1968, pre-Stonewall, he had joined a handful of other young gay activists to form Gay People at Columbia University, an event that made the front page of the New York Times. He was smart and younger than I was by several years, which would have made him barely bar-age by the time of Stonewall. But he’d already internalized the most important notion of what liberation is: if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.

But if you do, others will join you.

Sometimes you may have to grab them, or shame them—but they will.

I’m sure this came from Morty’s own branch of fairly secularized, very New York brand of Judaism which retains the core of a very important spiritual/political message: authenticity and truth is everything, and you must fight for it. I had met lots of Jews in New York when I, as a Southerner, first came to the city, and they all felt the same way. It had given birth to the New York Jewish liberal tradition, something now being too often lost, but at that point, many of their kids found their way in to the Gay Liberation Front and then into G.A.A.

 

 

 

I remember Morty talking at rallies and meetings, and remember meeting his parents many times. They always seemed like complete ciphers to me and most of my friends in the movement: no one else could imagine their parents doing what Morty’s parents did: march with him, be out there openly with him. His mother was a dynamic school teacher from Queens; his father a tall, quiet dentist who reminded me of the actor Ralph Bellamy. After Morty was beaten up, in 1972, by Michael Maye, the president of the New York City Uniformed Firefighters Association (who was roughly twice Morty’s size and age), outside a Hilton Hotel ballroom when G.A.A. pulled a “zap” to bring attention to the lack of press coverage on gay issues, Jeanne wrote a letter to the New York Post, then a liberal “family” newspaper, talking about what had happened to her gay son. She made no bones that she had one. Maye was later brought to trial and, in a then-commonplace show of bigotry, acquitted by a judge of any wrong doing. But the publicity from the case again brought to light violence against gays, as well as the fact that Morty had a family standing behind him. You’d see Jeanne, her husband Jules, and Morty together openly at gay demonstrations and events. Soon enough, too many other people in the same boat, of having a gay or lesbian child, or children, joined them—and Jeanne became the founder of P-flag, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which became the first large “straight ally” organization in the world.

Before I had heard about Jeanne’s death, I hadn’t thought about Morty in a long time. Like a lot of the G.A.A. guys, he liked to wear leather, and I remember him in jeans, a dark G.A.A T-shirt, and a leather jacket while we demonstrated for gay rights, or against the Viet Nam War. Back in this explosive “Liberation” period of the gay and lesbian movement, there were what I called “fissionable” moments happening all the time. The reality of what we were, going from something no one could talk about, that violent-prone goons like Michael Maye would try to kill if they could, was now right there on the streets, in meetings, in newspapers, with real faces and people attached.

And their parents.

I felt at that point that our movement had a “genius” to it—and it was unafraid to look at the truth and create something important from it. At a demonstration I asked Arthur Bell, “Do you think our movement has a genius to it?” And he said, “Look around you. What do you think? Of course!”

Morty died on May 14, 1992, at his home in Queens, of complications from AIDS. (His father Jules had died 10 years earlier; Morty’s only brother, Charles, died in 1966—what an awful lot of deaths for Jeanne to take.) I remember hearing about Morty’s death and taking it hard—that this young, beautiful guy who’d become a lawyer, had died. I’m sure that I still miss his quiet presence, but now it has joined Jeanne’s.

 

By Perry Brass

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Perry Brass’s latest book is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, set in 1963, the year of J.F.K.’s assassination, in Savannah, GA, the city where he was born. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction. You can learn more about him at www.perrybrass.com, or on Facebook.

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