Illustration by Lucy Jones; Photos courtesy of Joan Biren and Paulette Goodman

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

In the 1980s, when residents of the Washington, D.C., area called a hotline set up for parents of lesbian and gay people, it was often Paulette Goodman’s home phone that rang. “I heard such awful stories,” she told me, mentioning one gay man who called after being released from the hospital—he’d tried to kill himself. At the time, the response that many parents had to learning that their child was gay was, in Goodman’s words, “Throw them out.”

Many parents called in because they were struggling to come to terms with their child’s sexuality. From a puffy armchair in a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland, Goodman—now 85 years old—relayed a version of what she’d say to a typical caller: “Your child is whatever your child is. It’s no different than before you found out—now you know a little more about that person.” It was a message she doubts these parents would have gotten anywhere else at the time.

Goodman is such a parent herself—one of her children came out in the early ’80s. (She doesn’t like to publicly share details, out of respect for her child’s privacy.) Many parents had this experience in that era, but few of them turned to advocacy and allyship, as Goodman did.

When asked why her path diverged from those of many others in her position, she pointed matter-of-factly to her upbringing. Goodman was born in 1933 in Paris, and some of her childhood overlapped with the Nazi occupation of France. She remembers having to conceal her Jewish identity when going to the movies or a swimming pool, which were deemed off-limits for Jews. Sometimes, there were roundups; Goodman lost several relatives in the Holocaust. “We had to be very guarded,” she told me.

“When I found out about my gay child,” she went on, “I realized it was the same situation. You’re guarded about who you are, because you don’t know who’s going to be supportive.” As a kid in France and later as an adult in the U.S., Goodman said she hadn’t been attuned to how society treated people who weren’t straight. But after she learned of her child’s sexuality, she soon saw the parallels. “I didn’t want my child to go through what I went through,” she said. “Being in the closet is stifling.”

This is how, in her late 40s, Goodman became an activist. She started working with the organization now known as PFLAG, a national LGBTQ advocacy group. (The organization has gone by several names over the years, but its latest is derived from the no-longer-used acronym for “parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays.”) PFLAG was formed in the 1970s after another mother, Jeanne Manford, stood up for her gay son, first writing a letter to the New York Post castigating the police for not protecting gay protesters (her son among them), and later marching with him in a demonstration. “I didn’t think anything of it, but I guess it was the first time a mother ever sat down and very publicly said, ‘Yes, I have a homosexual son,’” she explained in an account published in the book Making Gay History.

Goodman helped form the D.C.-area chapter of PFLAG in 1983, and was its first president. In addition to tending the hotline, she convened discussion groups where parents could meet others like them and get the chance to talk with gay people about their lives.

She started getting more and more involved with the organization, leading workshops at national conferences and overseeing multiple chapters on the East Coast. At one convention, those involved with PFLAG sought to appoint a new national president and, taking note of Goodman’s successes, tapped her for the job. With some reluctance, she accepted.

She held that position from 1988 to 1992, and one highlight of her tenure was eliciting one of the first gay-friendly statements from the White House. After seeing Barbara Bush on TV, Goodman thought she’d try reaching out to the first lady. “It was during the AIDS crisis,” she said. “She wore very simple clothes, and she just appealed to me as a reasonable person. I thought, This lady I could write to, as one mother to another.” The letter she received in response—it read, in part, “I firmly believe that we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country”—made national news.

Goodman kept up her affiliation with PFLAG after her time running it, and the organization currently has more than 400 local chapters in the U.S. The support it provides now is a continuation of the work Goodman began nearly 40 years ago, according to Liz Owen, PFLAG’s director of communications. “That’s the work that PFLAG’ers are doing in their local communities: peer-to-peer, one-on-one, supporting parents on that journey,” she told me.

Reflecting on her advocacy work, Goodman thinks she was able to change minds in part because of what she looked like. “I’m not threatening,” she explained. “I’m a mother. I look like everybody else—maybe a little more plump, at this stage.” While some advocacy surely calls for confrontation, Goodman found that her calmness worked to her advantage. “If you speak to people and you explain and you don’t lose your temper, then you may be able to reach them,” she said. “But if you get angry, you lose them right away.”

Even in retirement, Goodman remains an advocate. With a friend and fellow PFLAG parent, she founded a PFLAG group at her retirement community. “I thought I had retired when I moved here,” she said. “I really didn’t bargain on being so busy.”

Goodman has found that in older age, people aren’t necessarily more open-minded about their family members. Plenty are, but plenty aren’t. She has brought the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., to perform at her retirement community multiple times. The singers are received well—the shows fill the auditorium—but Goodman also noted that some of the flyers for the shows have been torn down, apparently out of contempt. On the whole, though, Goodman is pleased with her latest advocacy efforts. “We’ve done a lot of work in opening people’s minds,” she said.

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