By Stephanie Salter
Only a few hours before I met with Jeremy Turner and a handful of folks who are forming the Terre Haute chapter of PFLAG, I listened in amazement to a local college student brag in public about beating up a couple of gay guys in a bar.
It is 2009 in the United States of America, and a young man on his way to a college degree still believes it is funny — and commendable — to use his fists like hammers on the faces of homosexuals.
Talk about work to do. PFLAG Terre Haute can’t get rolling soon enough.
PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Based in Washington, D.C., with about 500 chapters across the country, the organization was founded in 1972 by a New York mother whose son had been beaten during a gay rights rally.
According to Steve Ralls, the director of communications for PFLAG, several factors have led to a recent increase in membership and the founding of new chapters in places such as Terre Haute:
The Academy Award-winning film, “Milk,” about slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk; a Lifetime Television film, “Prayers for Bobby,” starring Sigourney Weaver as a real-life mother whose 20-year-old son committed suicide when his family and church tried to “cure” him of his homosexuality; and the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a court ruling that had allowed same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies.
The combination, Ralls said, has led to a stepped up “mobilizing of straight allies.”
“If we learned anything from the unfortunate experience in California, it was that we need to be able to rally our straight allies in our communities,” he said.
As one of those straight allies, I have long believed in the power of PFLAG. That is because the organization is based on personal relationships — familial, collegial, among friends. It is always the personal level at which the most effective consciousness raising occurs.
Despite the loud hue and cry against homosexuality from the religious right, the reality is that few families in the United States are without a gay or lesbian member — or two. As more gay people come out of their societal closets, many homophobic men and women are forced to make a choice:
Deny their love for the child, sibling, niece or grandson they have always known, or drop the blanket condemnations and dehumanization that it takes to keep feeding the fear and hatred of gays.
Some people make a terrible choice, but, so often, love is too big.
“A lot of the hurt you get is from your own flesh and blood,” said Turner, a Sullivan County native and a travel agent. “It’s not intentional — they’re as afraid as we are. They have nowhere to turn for support or accurate information. That’s why education is so important.”
Turner said he saw much of himself and his family in “Prayers for Bobby.”
Out as a gay man for more than a decade, he still does not have an easy time of it with his parents. They are deeply religious and receive a steady stream of preaching about the sin and evil of homosexuality. Although Turner has been in a committed relationship for seven years with Brondall Huntsinger, a construction worker, his partner is not invited to family get-togethers or accepted as Turner’s “other half.”
In contrast, Huntsinger’s parents, who live in the Muncie area, experienced their breakthrough several years ago when Huntsinger was nearly killed by a drunk driver. They realized, gay or straight, their son was precious to them. Turner is welcome in their home as part of a bonded pair.
Family bonds seem to be growing stronger for the Turners. On Jan. 20, Jeremy and his mother watched the Lifetime broadcast of “Prayers for Bobby” together at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation here in Terre Haute. His mom was visibly moved, he said, and mother and son have since been able to talk about things they previously could not.
“When I saw that change in my mother, I thought, ‘This is important,’” Turner said. “I’ve been out for 11 or 12 years, but I was not necessarily that active. What was I doing?”
That is when he contacted PFLAG national and asked what he needed to do to start a chapter in Terre Haute.
Unitarian member Doddie Stone proposed to her church’s board that the UU’s sponsor the chapter. Unitarians being “a welcoming congregation,” the board gave its assent. The first organizational meeting of PFLAG Terre Haute will be March 19 (see information box) at the church.
One of the chapter’s founding members is David Howard, who taught in Indiana State University’s College of Nursing, Health and Human Services, and thoroughly qualifies as one of those “straight allies.”
Raised in Salt Lake City, Howard was in graduate school at Brigham Young University when his father confided he was gay. Although his mother knew, Howard was asked to keep his father’s secret from his three younger siblings and the family’s friends for several years, until his dad could retire from his BYU job with pension intact. The situation caused tremendous strain on Howard’s own marriage.
A frequent face at the Unitarian church, Howard also is a volunteer and supporter of the Community Theatre of Terre Haute — which just happens to be presenting “The Laramie Project” as its next play (see same box).
A series of monologues, “The Laramie Project” is based on the gruesome, fatal beating in 1998 of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was assaulted by two young men who left him hanging on a fence to bleed to death.
Moises Kaufman’s even-handed exploration of the crime and its impact on the city of Laramie reveals far more about American society than just our divisions over and attitudes toward homosexuality.
Turner and the other PFLAG Terre Haute people nonetheless welcome the timing of “The Laramie Project” and its central subject matter as an opportunity for education, discussion and enlightenment.
“The people who came before me gave me what I have,” Turner said of the freedom to live and work openly as a gay person. “I can’t let those that come after me down. I feel like, now, it’s almost my duty. You look at the city of Terre Haute — there are a lot of families going through what mine is. We all just need some place to be able to relate to each other.”
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.