The Manfords’ door on 171st Street in Queens was always open, especially if you were a young gay man whose own family had closed the door on you.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
The rambling three-story house between 35th and 33rd Avenues doesn’t look like a cradle of the gay-rights movement. But it became just that in 1972, when Dr. Jules Manford and his wife, Jeanne, publicly supported their 21-year-old son Morty, a member of the Gay Activists Alliance who had been badly beaten for his political advocacy. They also offered themselves as informal counselors to gay children and their parents. Their initiative led to the creation of a group called Parents of Gays, which grew over time into the national organization Pflag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
Mrs. Manford’s death on Jan. 8 was a reminder that some deep roots of the gay-rights struggle are not just found in Greenwich Village or the Castro in San Francisco. Instead, they can be found in places like Flushing, Queens, on a block that might be described as tranquil if it weren’t for the youngsters of Public School 32 squealing while they play outdoors.
“It was a very Ozzie-and-Harriet-type house,” recalled Allen Roskoff, a friend of Dr. Manford. “It was a great feeling of warmth for people involved with the gay-rights movement to be in a house with parents who embraced them.”
“It was like having chicken soup,” he said.
Ethan Geto, another friend, reached for a different homey analogy. “Jeanne,” he said, “was like the den mother for a lot of gay young people who were thrown out of their homes, who were rejected by their parents, who were having terrible anguish over what to do or who were eager to come out but terrified of the consequences.”
That sense was undiminished two decades later, as an advocate named Daniel Dromm discovered when he paid a call on Mrs. Manford to ask her to be grand marshal of the lesbian and gay pride parade in Queens. “When I walked into that house, I felt immediately secure, comfortable and safe,” said Mr. Dromm, who is now a City Council member.
Dr. Manford, a dentist, moved his young family to 171st Street in the late 1950s from a crowded apartment off Kissena Boulevard. Suzanne Manford — now Suzanne Swan — was about 10 at the time. She remembered happily that she finally had her very own bedroom, which she proceeded to paint purple. Morty, her younger brother, colonized an attic space as his den, while Charles, her older brother, turned a corner of the basement into an ad hoc aviary in which he raised parakeets.
After Dr. Manford had a heart attack at 39, the couple decided that Mrs. Manford should resume her college education so she could earn an income. Just in case. She graduated from Queens College in 1964 and began teaching fifth and sixth grades at P.S. 32. Charles died unexpectedly two years later, at 22. Ms. Swan gave birth to a daughter, Avril, in 1968.
In April 1972, Morty Manford was among the demonstrators at the Inner Circle dinner at the New York Hilton, where journalists and politicians gathered. It seemed an ideal event at which to protest news coverage of the gay-rights movement. But when the protest turned into a melee, Mr. Manford was assaulted by Michael J. Maye, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, according to a number of eyewitnesses. (Mr. Maye was later acquitted of harassment charges.)
This was Jeanne Manford’s moment.
“She had lost one child,” Ms. Swan said. “She had no intention of losing another.”
Mrs. Manford wrote a letter to The New York Post, then a liberal newspaper. She criticized the police for allowing the attacks at the Inner Circle. Even more important was her simple declaration: “I am proud of my son.” The letter, published April 29, 1972, placed the Manfords under a national spotlight. It is among Mrs. Manford’s papers at the New York Public Library.
A Fair Chance
I would like to commend The Post for its coverage last week of the tragic incident that took place at the Inner Circle dinner, when hoodlums who work for our city were allowed to beat up the young men of the Gay Activists Alliance and walk away while our police stood by watching. It might be that these “men” have themselves some deep rooted sexual problems or they would not have become so enraged as to commit violence in beatings.
I am proud of my son, Morty Manford, and the hard work he has been doing in urging homosexuals to accept their feelings and not let the bigots and sick people take advantage of them in the ways they have done in the past and are continuing to do.
I hope that your honest and forthright coverage of the incident has made many of the gays who have been fearful gain courage to come out and join the bandwagon. They are working for a fair chance at employment and dignity and to become a vocal and respected minority. It is a fight for recognition such as all minority groups must wage and needs support from outsiders as well as participants in the movements.
Twenty years later, in 1992, Mr. Manford died of AIDS, at 41. Mrs. Manford had set up a hospital bed in the living room at 171st Street to care for him at home. Watching her uncle die affected Avril Swan so deeply that she became a doctor herself. Mrs. Manford moved from Flushing to Rochester, Minn., when Dr. Swan was studying at the Mayo Clinic, and then to Daly City, Calif., to be near Ms. Swan. That is where she died.
The friendly face appearing at the door on 171st Street last Friday belonged to Nancy Timal, the current owner. She recalled Mrs. Manford as a “very lovely lady” whose spirit lingers. “The house,” Ms. Timal assured her visitor, “is still full of life and love.”