Both as a daughter and a parent, the new executive director of PFLAG, Dr. Jaime Grant, understands the organization's mission of uniting families, allies, and people who are LGBTQ.
"I'm a queer mom of a queer kid and my Irish family exiled me," she said in an interview. This led to an accelerating drug addiction. Grant, who was named head of PFLAG last September, is now 28 years sober and solo parenting her son, 19, who identifies as bisexual, and co-parenting her daughter, 10. "I can see the difference in a person's life between family acceptance and family rejection," she said. "I just know what it means."
Her qualifications are professional as well as personal, however. She has also been policy institute director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, founding executive director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, and founder and director of the Global Trans Research and Advocacy Project. She holds a Ph.D in women's studies from the Union Institute, and her academic research and other writings have appeared in numerous publications.
Despite her background in academia and policy, she said, "This particular political moment made me realize it was time to get back into a more active role."
She takes the reins at a key time. PFLAG is gearing up to celebrate its 45th anniversary this year. Founded by Jeanne Manford, a straight, cisgender mother, to support her gay son, PFLAG now has 400 chapters in every state except North Dakota and 200,000 supporters in communities of all sizes. "It's the LGBTQ group that has dug in locally," Grant said. PFLAG "really is a bunch of villages."
Leading such an organization presents multiple challenges. "We have every kind of parent on earth coming in to those [local PFLAG] meetings," she said. "How are we going to make sure we're centering the needs of people who need us the most? Are we meeting people where they are?"
Part of the answer is in their chapter-based structure. Chaptersand meetings within chapterscan focus on addressing local concerns. "The thing that's in the way is the thing you're going to work on," she saidfor example, one chapter is working on compiling queer-inclusive mental health resources. PFLAG has also had "an enormous impact in schools" addressing "whatever is not working for local families."
And because "people are looking for culturally congruent spaces," there are chapters and meetings, for example, especially for Asian-Pacific Islander families and Spanish-speaking families, among others.
Within these structures, it is the personal connections that count. "We live and die by the stories every daytwo people in a room trying to support each other," she said.
She feels the model has proven itself. During its first 45 years, PFLAG has helped define "what is meant by gold-standard parenting around having LGBTQ kids. That is a huge change," Grant said. "It is now commonplace for parents to accept their LGBTQ kids. That is some bad-ass work, PFLAG."
At the same time, the organization has an impact beyond its local chapters. "We do a good job mobilizing the community around big issues," she said. "We're here nationally to amplify and build on all that local labor."
In the current political climate, that's no easy task. The challenge for the entire LGBTQ movement, she said, is "to be true to our values and ourselves." Still, Grant sees some hopeful signs. "Various voices of leadership have been growing and accumulating," she asserted. And she noted, "There are some big breakthroughs happening because we're surviving this regime," such as the #metoo movement that is raising awareness of sexual assault. "It's a moment for us to think about how power is operating in our organizations and how to listen to survivors."
Listening to everyday PFLAG stories, too, such as those from parents standing up for their transgender children, she said, makes her think that "We're at another flashpoint around parental organizing," like when Manford founded PFLAG.
At the same time, she cautioned, "We've done ourselves a little bit of harm 'poster-childing' our families. This makes it hard when we do have problems. It's harder to get help if we're in 'everything's perfect' mode for the cameras or the legislators."
And the LGBTQ community's eagerness to show that LGBTQ parents don't "make" their kids LGBTQ has meant that those LGBTQ parents who do have LGBTQ kids are "sometimes accused of ruining it for all of us." She has personal evidence here. Her own son "wanted to wear spangles to school until age 12," she related. The school principals as well as some queer people accused her of pushing a "lesbian agenda" on him.
Her experience feeds into her ambitions for PFLAG. "I would love to have a more specific space for LGBTQ parents of LGBTQ kids within our chapters, making sure the welcome mat is there," she said.
Even now, though, she said there are a lot of LGBTQ adults in PFLAG chapters. Some, like her, are parents of LGBTQ kids; some are grown children of former PFLAG parents; others are "just there to help." Those who wish to become involved should visit PFLAG.org to find a local chapter, she advised.
Despite the challenges ahead, Grant remains positive about PFLAG's ability to continue making a difference in people's lives. "Every day is another great story," she attested.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( Mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.