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Hancock guides SC PFLAG through 25 years of Pride, love and compassion
Mother and community ally started first chapter of PFLAG in the entire Southeast

by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff

Harriet Hancock has been a pillar of acceptance and encouragement to many LGBT people and their families and friends.
COLUMBIA — In 1982 Harriet Hancock made a decision. She contacted Amy Ashworth in New York City to find out more about an organization she’d heard about that offered support and resources to the friends and family of LGBT people. Her son had told her he was gay and she knew immediately he had not chosen to have the feelings he was experiencing. “I was very supportive and accepting from the beginning. I was worried about homophobes. I learned about his friends’ family situations.” Hancock wanted to reach out to others who were not able to be as understanding as she.

She had no community infrastructure to build upon. She simply had to dive in feet first and start having the first Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) meetings in the entire Southeast. Although it may come as a surprise, Columbia had an organized PFLAG chapter before Atlanta. The now defunct The State Record wrote an article about the fledgling group in order to encourage attendance, and with near to no resistance whatsoever the group started having one-on-one and group meetings in various locations and over the phone.

“I was scared someone was going to burn a cross in my front yard.” Fortunately, the friendly phone calls have always vastly outnumbered the threatening ones. Hancock described fondly the memory of the first meeting. “It started at 3 p.m. in my living room and was supposed to last only one hour, but people were still there at 7 o’clock.” Obviously she’d found a need that required attention.

When her son came out as a gay man and Hancock witnessed the abuse and bigotry he experienced, she knew she could not remain silent. She also knew that others must have the same desire as she to understand better how to cope with the transition of accepting an LGBT member of the family. “I grew up during Segregation and I never believed in the notion of ‘separate but equal.’ I was kicked off the bus for giving my seat to a black woman and I was disliked for not tolerating that injustice. I just can’t be silent about it and when it hit my child it struck my heart”

“More people were in the closet then. There was less support and I realized that without education there could be no advocacy.”

It was a long-term effort, but over the course of time, with the work of many people bringing change at various levels of cultural influence, attitudes began shifting. As a direct result of her work, people in the area are more accepting of their LGBT loved ones. Indirectly however, Hancock has seen that attitudes in general have shifted some, so that even people who may not feel themselves connected to gays or lesbians are more likely to be ambivalent, rather than hateful.

Hancock is an activist outside of her work with PFLAG. She feels that parents of LGBT people can have a powerful presence when lobbying for equality. It is easier to dismiss someone for talking about their own demands or experiences, but “it really lets people think about it when a mother talks about her child.” More than anything else Hancock feels that visibility is the single most important obstacle for the community. “I know people risk a lot, their jobs, homes and families, but I wish everyone could come out.”

When it first started, the group had about seven regularly attending members. Membership peaked around 25 people at one point, but attendance is back down towards seven people. It is also a fluid group — people find the answers and support they need, they come to terms with their feelings and they phase out of the group. Rather than feeling discouragement or disappointment for the lower numbers, Hancock is rather satisfied when she says, “The need is less now. People are more open, their hearts are more open.”

Her advocacy is working. Perhaps one day PFLAG will be obsolete. It is a bittersweet thought that sometime soon the group may have completed its task and can become one of the historic icons of the cooperation between allies that eventually led beyond tolerance and acceptance and ventured into a loving embrace.

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