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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.


I never put much stock in Norman Vincent Peale's best-selling self-help book, "The Power of Positive Thinking."

Every time I did try to follow his advice --- essentially a matter of believing in yourself and that your goals in life can happen --- the exact opposite would occur. I believed I could make money; I lost my job. I believed I could lose weight; John Goodman's agent asked me to consider being his stand-in. I believed my hair would stop thinning; the next day I had to unclog the drain after my morning shower.

But when my wife Joy and I, along with a good friend --- who, for job-related reasons, asks for confidentiality --- met to organize a chapter of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Sandusky, Ohio, in the fall of 1999, we forced ourselves to believe that it could be done and would serve a good purpose for gay and gay-supportive people in northern Ohio.

In October 2000, the Sandusky/Firelands PFLAG chapter celebrated its first birthday and its official affiliation with the national PFLAG organization. To celebrated, we contacted The Sandusky Register, the local daily newspaper, and asked if we could meet with a reporter to announce that we had accomplished some of our first goals --- to stay alive as an organization, grow in membership and affiliate nationally.

It took a lot of thinking, talking and patience to reach that point. Our first goal was simply to find out who the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) members of the community were as well as who would be supportive family members and friends. We arranged for a meeting place with the financial and moral support of the Erie County, Ohio fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association and then mostly spread the message through word of mouth. Nearly 20 people showed up for our first meeting on Oct. 17, 1999. That figure remained stable throughout the first year, with some new faces appearing at every meeting.

We sent information about our meetings to the Gay People's Chronicle, the primary source of GLBT news in the northern Ohio area, and also to The Sandusky Register and a couple of other area newspapers. Of the non-gay-oriented publications, only The Register took an interest in our activities from the beginning --- actually more interest than our PFLAG membership was ready for at first.

The Register, through its managing editor, Todd Franko, sent messages to us that the paper would be more than wiling to do a feature on PFLAG, preferably sooner rather than later. The temptation to accept the offer immediately was great, but we forced ourselves to beg off, wanting the group to stabilize and be comfortable with each other before going public. We talked about who would be willing to put themselves on the front lines as contact people for the group and let their telephone numbers be bused. For the most part, that job fell on our co-founding friend's and our family's shoulders.

But then this fall, we noticed a change in the dynamics of the group, all for the good. The membership, now very comfortable with each other, seemed to gain energy from the accomplishment of making it through that first year and just holding it all together. Other parents of gay children --- coming from distant counties and in varying stages of accepting their children's sexual orientation --- became more confident about how far "out" they were willing to step. Increasingly, new gay and lesbian people joined the group --- some single people and some couples --- making the meetings more diverse, stimulating and fun in the process.

We started bringing up the subject of accepting The Sandusky Register's offer to do a story. Who would be willing to do it? Joy and I were willing but knew that other members had more at stake --- some of our "loved ones," the individual GLBT members, held jobs that could be at risk if their sexual orientation was publicized. Some of the parents were simply not ready to go public or did not want to put their children at risk.

And what was the risk? Of course, we feared homophobic backlash, the most extreme form would be actual physical violence against ourselves and our homes. We didn't believe that such violence could occur in our quiet Ohio communities, but then neither did the people of Laramie, Wyo., Sylacauga, Ala., and Jasper, Texas, where murderous hate crimes were committed against individuals because of sexual orientation or race.

More likely would be annoying phone calls from bigots too cowardly to confront us directly or a church-organized campaign of letters denouncing PFLAG's members for choosing to stand by their GLBT loved ones. The last scenario occurred in Sandusky during August 2000, when The Register published a positive article about them large number of gay and lesbian employees who work at the city's best-known tourist attraction, Cedar Point Amusement Park. Conservative Christians and others with financial connections to Cedar Point bombarded The Register with letters of protest about the coverage. At least one man directly confronted the newspaper's editorial board with the question, "How many sodomites, faggots and perverts do you have working on your staff?"

As a newspaperman, I knew that such hostile confrontation tends to make journalists either cave in or dig in their heels. We hoped The Register would fall in with the latter group.

When Joy and I contacted The Register early this year and asked if the invitation to do a story was still good, the immediate reply was yes. We expressed our concern about not wanting the article to be sensationalistic and for it to allow us to introduce PFLAG to the community in a positive way. The assignment editors we spoke with reassured us that the article would be fair. We agreed and set up a time for the reporter, Colt Foutz, and the photographer, Jason Werling, to meet at our home.

Joy and I were not sure what to expect of the interview. For one thing, we didn't know who else from PFLAG would be there. Our co-founding friend wanted to come but could only participate if she was not photographed and not identified. For some of the other parents, who had long-standing roots in their home towns, it was a very hard decision.

In the end, though, there were seven of us. Two sets of parents, our lesbian co-founder, a gay man and another woman who simply falls into the category of "friend." Colt and Jason, the young representatives of The Register, were very polite, respectful of the privacy concerns involved and seemed to be knowledgeable of the subject of the interview.

At some point that evening, all of us --- PFLAGgers and the reporters --- realized that we were doing something very important. This wasn't a typical newspaper story, about politics or crime or money or cute little kids selling lemonade to fight cancer. It was about people reaching out to others with arms of love. It was about setting a quiet example to a small part of the world that acceptance and tolerance is the path to peaceful co-existence. I listened to my wife, the group's president, speak with gentle and well-articulated passion. My heart soared as it always does when our friends Liz and Ron spoke of their love for their gay son Aaron and their hopes and concerns for him, which are no different from those they have for their other children. I was proud of the courage shown by the gay and lesbian representatives, whom we jokingly pseudonamed "Will" and "Ellen," as they spoke confidently about their own lives and on behalf of millions of other gay and lesbian people. There was strength in the quiet presence of Mary, our treasurer, who sees gay outreach and acceptance as part of her calling as a Christian.

A tense period of waiting followed until the article was published, nearly a week later. Liz and Ron received a follow-up call from Colt and we realized that their story was going to be an important part of the article. On Wednesday, Jan. 31, I got up at 6 a.m., drove down to the nearest service station and checked for The Sandusky Register. On the front page, above the fold, there was my picture, holding a large photograph of our gay son, Rick. The article did indeed talk about Liz and Ron's wonderful family and accurately discussed the purposes and goals of PFLAG. Nothing was sensationalized. Nothing was embarrassing. And the headline was, "Love, Not Judgment."

The icing on the cake came when, the following Sunday, The Register ran an editorial commending the presence of PFLAG in the Sandusky community and wishing its members well.

To date, there have been no hate messages on our telephone answering machine or on the e-mail site we set up to field such messages, sanduskyfirelandspflag@hotmail.com. We have received a few inquiries from gay and gay-supportive individuals, all of which involved someone struggling with acceptance of a gay loved one or seeking connection to others like themselves who care and want to be part of a positive movement.

It took a year of preparation for Sandusky/Firelands PFLAG's official "outing." It was time well-spent.

Published February 21st


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