Making a successful PFLAG chapter
April 17, 2016 4:31 PM   Subscribe

My small New England town has recently adopted transgender-inclusive policies in our school system (allowing students to be called by their preferred name by teachers and staff and to use the bathroom/shower areas of their appropriate gender). The community has been largely supportive, but there has been predictable opposition and fearmongering. I'm in the process of starting a PFLAG chapter, and while I'm excited about it, I need help.

I have enough adult interest to start a Board of Directors. I've been President of a local non-profit before, so I'm ok on that part. My rising freshman daughter sent a group text about this, and just based on the response of her peer group alone, it's clear that this will serve a need. Although I'm a bisexual woman who attends Pride, I'm married to a man, and my generation was not afforded the openness and honesty of my daughter's generation. These kids (Kid Ruki's peers) are exploring 201 level gender and sexuality issues, and while I speak the language, I'm not sure how to best advocate for them. (Why me, if I'm struggling with this? Because I'm the one who stepped up.) So, what can I do to run a successful PFLAG chapter? How can I be the best ally and advocate I can be?
posted by Ruki to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The best thing about PFLAG, back when I was much younger, was supportive parents who knew one another. So maybe reaching out to as many of the parents as you can, because it's really the knowledge that the older generation is behind the kids that was really powerful stuff back in the day, and I'd expect now, as well.
posted by xingcat at 5:01 PM on April 17, 2016

What kind of support is offered by the National PFLAG? I would suggest taking advantage of all the tools and training they have available.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:23 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

PFLAG was invaluable for being able to maintain a relationship with my parents (I'm trans and gay). They only knew about it because I knew about it. Make sure all your kid's friends know about the local chapter so they can refer their parents somewhere when they come out. Have a website with some sort of anonymized contact form, and a voicemail box. Even these days, a lot of parents are completely lost and ashamed and at the beginning don't want the neighbors to know about their LGBTQIA kid. Have some really, really really basic resources, especially for transgender issues. Maybe a lending library?

I don't see your role as advocating for the kids directly. I see it as supporting the parents (and other family members) in their journey towards acceptance. I know sooooo many LGBTQIA people without families, so that will be the absolute best thing you can do for these kids.

And... thank you :) :) :)
posted by AFABulous at 5:24 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, "predictable opposition and fear-mongering" is almost certainly coming from some religious group, so if you can, find some supportive clergy to counteract that. Especially if you're not religious yourself and don't know how to respond to people who come from that perspective. The local PFLAG meeting is held in a Lutheran church.
posted by AFABulous at 5:27 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

National PFLAG will definitely help, but also consider GLAD and GLSEN.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:28 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hooray, I'm so glad you're starting a PFLAG chapter! I'm a teacher who sponsors the gay-straight alliance/LGBTQ+ group at my high school in a small town. I asked this question a little over a year ago and can say that we're doing great! In fact, we've had literally no bad experiences in terms of support and acceptance by the school community and administration on the whole. We've had some challenges, just like any group does when getting started, but we've had great experiences and are set up for continued success. I can share more specific information with you privately if you'd like to communicate via MeMail.

We read a lot of online resources but ultimately created it through student interest and need. I can relate to where you're coming from as I'm in my early-30s and also identity as bisexual/pansexual. However, I can say that things are really different now than they were when I was a teen. This is a good thing for the most part but meant I really let the teens set the pace and tone.

My town also has a recently revived PFLAG chapter: I've been to a few meetings and am grateful it's there but feel it's not quite the place for me. I can explain why if you'd like later on. Fortunately, we have some other great queer resources in the community. Are you aiming for PFLAG to be a resource for queer adults, queer teens and/or the friends and families of queer people?

A few thoughts:

- Most teens of all orientations and identities are accepting of diverse sexual orientations: some straight teens are extremely supportive and some are barely tolerant but being openly homophobic is much less tolerated than when we were younger.

- Many teens have spoken about their parents not being supportive: the parents are technically fine with adults being LGBTQ+ but seem to think their children will "grow out of it," etc. That's been hard to deal with.

- The concept of being transgendered is still new to a lot of people, and there's much less acceptance on the whole. Fortunately, this is getting better but there's a lot of misinformation and still danger for many trans*folk.

- You may have some people coming to you in crisis but PFLAG is not there as a crisis organization. We shared information about crisis hotlines and had guest speakers from local non-profits and even the police talk to students about how they can be supported or support others in crisis. I'd make sure those resources are available but be careful with boundaries.

- PFLAG is generally a support group for family members and friends. It might be good to have a separate group/organization/meetup for queer adults and another for queer teens and their peer allies.

- It's important that LGBTQ+ people feel safe to be themselves without judgement, of course. However, it's also a space where parents who are struggling to accept their children should be able to be honest and say ignorant things that those kids should not have to hear. So the other parents, etc. can both relate with a kindness while also firmly explaining why they're wrong.

- Please be careful how you divide up groups: you can offer suggestions but it's tricky. At a PFLAG meeting at age 25, I was put into the "under 30" group with middle and high schoolers. That made me feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome. You may have 13 year olds who are out and confident in who they are whereas you have 43 year olds who are very much closeted and needing support for that. Basically, it's OK to just see where things go and meet people's needs.

- If you create a website (I recommend it or at least have a FB page or the like), please include first and last names of at least some adult leaders. It feels sketchy if there are only first names; of course, with teens you need anonymity but you need veritableness as an organization so people feel safe to come.

- In the school group, we do not have a policy of "what we say here stays here" although we do respect individual's wishes to stay private. It's pretty clear and goes well. However, I believe PFLAG generally has a default of being confidential unless individuals choose otherwise when out and about.

- You definitely want straight allies on board but need to make sure it's ultimately by "queer people for queer people." (You count, of course.) This isn't quite true of PFLAG because it's really for the friends and family members but the mission of the group needs to be remembered at all times. (This was one frustration I had with the local group.)

- FWIW, I sometimes experience culture shock at queer events in my small town. I grew up in a big city in a middle-class academic, international family and was part of queer life and organizations in college. I identity strongly with my chosen-home and am proud of it but sometimes feel very different from other PFLAG attendees due to class differences, etc. It's great that people of different backgrounds are coming together but there are sometimes other bridges that must be built unrelated to sexuality and gender!

- Reach out to other community organizations but also be careful with what you ask people. Some will jump at the chance and others will hold back, and that should be respected. When I first started teaching and had students ask me to sponsor a group, my administration was not at all supportive. This was a major ethical dilemma for me and there was nothing worse than feeling pressure by the local PFLAG to start a student group when I was worried about losing my job while also hating myself for not being more vocal. Technically, these inclusive rules are now in place but it's not necessarily a safer space yet. You want to make it that way and sometimes it means going on the offensive. However, please try to start with honey and also realize that there are always secret pressures and politics in all organizations as well as stated policies. For example, families are always welcome to attend our meetings but I cannot give out names of students or details of what we discuss for privacy reasons if someone just calls up to ask. I'm not sure what environment you'll find at the school but sometimes there are clear paths, other times there are detours, and occasionally there are road blocks you just can't pass.

- You are good enough as the person you are right now are to start this group. I understand your hesitation because I, too, at times felt not qualified/in touch/young/etc. enough to take on a leadership role. However, with time and openness I felt more comfortable and qualified for the role as the adult sponsor. Frankly, the bigger challenges were explaining to students what agendas are and how to run meetings more than nomenclature and more.

Thanks again for doing this, and please get in touch if you'd like to discuss more privately. Best of luck to you!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hi Ruki! I haven't been on MeFi in years but when I saw this question pop up, I had to reply. To fully out myself: I'm the Director of Communications for PFLAG National. Thrilled to hear that you are planning to found a new chapter. Given how much progress we've made recently, people are sometimes surprised to find out that we've had more than 40 new chapters start in the last year. Laws change...people take much more time.

First and foremost, our job at National is to resource and support our network of more than 400 chapters. We are here for you and (as you can see from the hour that I'm posting this) we are here pretty much 24/7. We are a small staff--14 people--but the chapters and our members are the priority.

We are your go-to for success, first and foremost. Trainings, publications, materials, communications support, we do all of that and more. Speaking with other chapter leaders is also a great way to learn good practices, as is our online training academy, which is free for members and leaders.

As you likely know, we changed our name in 2014: PFLAG was an acronym for "Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays," but we dropped it as an acronym and now it's just our name. As the nation's largest and oldest organization for families, friends, and allies of people who are LGBTQ, many didn't know that we are there for the B, the T and the Q. We were, in fact, the first national organization to become trans-inclusive, back in the 90s, and with so many families of kids who are transgender, gender creative, and gender expansive coming through our doors, that was crucial information to have out in the world. Additionally, while we are known for being there for families, friends. and allies, many are surprised to learn that roughly 60% of our members are LGBTQ adults.

I'd be interested to hear from the poster above who didn't have a great experience with their local PFLAG, because hearing about those experiences makes us better at what we do. A perfect example of this: we have more parents coming to us now with kids who have come out as gay or bi at younger ages. Some of these parents walk through our doors already supportive so don't need support for themselves but rather need support in how to support their kids. It was new work for many of our chapters, as was supporting parents with young kids who had come out as gay. We heard from a parent who had a not-so-great experience and that communication helped us help our chapters learn and grow and be prepared to support more and different people. The landscape is constantly changing and we are ever evolving to continue to fulfill our mission of providing support to all who need it, education and advocacy.

We do indeed have an anonymity policy in our support groups, which is crucial particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. We are also working incredibly hard to keep diversity and inclusion across all intersectionalities a priority. We are a work in progress, but it is absolutely in progress :).

Some of our work is done in collaboration with other organizations. A poster above said we are not a crisis organization, and that is true and important to know in order to best serve your chapter. We collaborate frequently with The Trevor Project, for example, and other organizations that do that incredibly important work. We do a lot of safe schools work in partnership with GLSEN. We are members of hundreds of coalitions at the local, state and federal levels where we advocate for better legislation (and against dangerous laws like the current spate of anti-LGBTQ bills and RFRAs).

And we also have our Straight for Equality program that is specifically geared toward welcoming allies who are supportive but don't necessarily have an LGBTQ family member or friend to support.

Clearly I can go on and on...but I'll shut up now :D. Please do stay in contact with PFLAG National as you go through the on-boarding process. We're here to support you as you support your community.

Finally, I'll say this: thank you in advance for all you've done and all you are about to do; our organization was founded by a 52 year old mom who took the simple step of publicly supporting her gay son at a time (1972) when that was unheard of. People like you are following on her path every day, and in the years I've been with this organization, I've watched you all change the world. I'm honored to be a small part of your process.
posted by OhPuhLeez at 11:53 PM on April 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

Unfortunately, I'm unable to move forward with this because there's already a chapter in a nearby town. But you've given me a lot of great information to help my community. It's difficult to explain the RI concept of distance to outsiders. Half an hour away is too far, even if that's totally reasonable for anyone else.
posted by Ruki at 10:22 PM on April 24, 2016

I'm sorry to hear this!! I mean, the more the merrier, right? I'm very frustrated to hear that they're not working harder to help you serve your community needs best. And I hear you on the distances.

How about starting an independent youth LGBTQ+ group like a gay-straight alliance under the umbrella of GLSEN? Or could your daughter and her friends ask the principal if they could start a student group that you could sponsor or at least help with? If you're more interested in attracting adults, how about starting a monthly meet-up group at a local cafe to discuss LGBTQ+ issues and activism?

If all else fails, what about attending some of that nearby chapter's meetings and talking to the board about operating as a satellite, alternating meeting locations, etc.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:10 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just to follow up, Teen Ruki has decided to build her Girl Scouts Gold Award around LGBTQ rights. She'll be reaching out to GLSEN for assistance. She's just starting high school, so she's still in the brainstorming phase, but she'll be moving ahead with this one way or another.
posted by Ruki at 9:49 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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